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The Economics of Open Access

Librarians have supported the open access movement for a variety of reasons, some of them more rational than others.  The emotional motivators come from the frustration of feeling economically powerless in the face of ever escalating subscription and licensing prices and the feeling that "the publishers" are mercenary bastards who have a dual mission of gouging library budgets and attempting to prevent people from ever getting to scientific content.

I understand the frustration, and even share much of it, but it seems to me irrelevant in making decisions about what needs to be done to provide more equitable access to the results of scientific research.

At the annual meeting of the MLA Southern Chapter in Augusta last weekend, Eli Neiburger and Michael Porter spoke as if the OA movement represented an assault on the dominance of the big bad commercial publishers.  Eli & Michael come from a public library background and can perhaps be forgiven their naivete about the world of STM publishers and academic libraries, but many of my academic library colleagues seem to share that view.  But all of the evidence is that the big publishers have simply adapted OA publishing models and are as strong and dominant as ever.  Certainly the state of library budgets hasn't improved any in the last decade.

The good thing is that there is more and more content freely available from a wider variety of publishers all the time.  This is a very good thing (the rational reason to promote OA), but it has nothing to do with challenging the dominance of the commercial publishers and their ability to set the terms.

He's not a librarian, but George Monbiot's overwrought piece in the Guardian awhile back does represent the passionate views of the small coterie of OA advocates who seem to drive the discussion.  In Monbiot's telling, the publishers are "parasitic overlords" and we must "liberate the research."  Stirring words.  Silly man.

Monbiot quotes from a 2005 report from an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG who says, "We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process."  I guess if an anonymous analyst for a German bank says it, then it must be true!

What I find so interesting about this viewpoint, however, is that it seems so contradictory to how OA publishers are viewed by the library community.  As David Crotty reports in an excellent post in the Scholarly Kitchen, PLoS achieved a 20% margin in 2010, and if the trends continue, could conceiveably surpass Elsevier's margin for 2011.  Springer claims "double-digit" profits from BioMed Central.  What are those librarians who've been gnashing their teeth for years over the predatory, irresponsible, evil pricing policies of the commercial publishers to make of this?

If publishers add no value, as the anonymous Deutsche Bank analyst proclaims, isn't PLoS just as immoral as Elsevier?  Shouldn't we be just as outraged?

I'm just looking for some intellectual rigor and consistency.  So let me posit this:

  • If you believe that publishers add no value, then you can't support PLoS any more than you support Elsevier.
  • If you believe that commercial publishers are the bane, then you should be as opposed to BioMed Central as you are to Elsevier.
  • If you believe that "excess profits" (somewhat of an odd concept, since profits are excessive only when they're not your own) are the problem, then you need to recognize that OA is not the solution and be as wary of the successful gold & hybrid publishers as you are of the others.
  • If you believe that the most important thing is more and more access, then you should applaud the experiments of the commercial publishers every bit as much as you applaud the others.
  • If you are Steven Harnad, then everything I've said here is irrelevant and you have to point out that the only thing we should be talking about is author self-archiving.

My point is that these issues are complex and intertwined.  I believe that it's a good thing that we are groping our way toward a scholarly communication system in which an ever increasing amount of quality scholarly literature is freely available.  But it remains expensive, and the commercial publishers have contributed as much as the non-commercial folks.

To read Monbiot and his ilk when feeling oppressed and frustrated is tremendously satisfying.  It's just not the least bit helpful.