What's Fair About Confidential Pricing?
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Debating FRPAA

There's been some chatter among my colleagues in the past week about a letter opposing FRPAA that is being circulated among the senior leadership of some of the research institutions in search of signatories.   This is clearly in response to the supporting letters signed by provosts from around the country urging passage of the act.   (The DC Principles coalition is behind the letter -- earlier versions can be found on their website).

The most recent draft that I've seen has seven signatures (including the dean of my own school of medicine), but I'm sure it will have more by the time it is sent to Senator Cornyn and made public.  Some of my colleagues have expressed surprise that senior academic officers would take the side of the publishers in this debate. 

I'm not the least bit surprised.   There's no neat divide between academia on one side and publishing on the other, particularly when you're dealing with the society publishers .   At my institution, for example, at least sixteen individuals in the medical school alone (including the dean and several department chairs) hold senior editorial positions for major scientific periodicals.    Our chair of physiology and biophysics is the current chair president of the American Physiological Society, and we have consistently had people in senior elected positions with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.     We are not particularly unique in this regard.

Here's the deal:  I know many of these people.  I've worked with them.  I've talked about these issues with them.  They are principled, thoughtful people who have dedicated their lives to education and research and making their institutions stronger.   They sincerely believe that FRPAA threatens the health of the societies to which they have devoted a significant portion of their attention and time throughout their careers.  They are not wrong to be concerned.

In just about every issue of Rolling Stone, in the news section, there's a squib about the dire state of the record business.  CD sales continue to plummet.  There's usually a quote from some record company exec expressing hope that this is just a temporary downturn and because so-and-so's record is out next month and is sure to be a big seller, it's going to put a halt to the slide and get things back on track.   I shake my head and think, "Poor guy.  It ain't gonna happen."

Within a page of two of that story, there'll be something about the astonishing amounts of money being raked in for ringtones, or the phenomenal rise in the number of downloads from iTunes or some of the other paid services.  It's not that recorded music isn't making money or that people aren't listening -- but the business has been turned upside down by the changes in technology.

This is what's happening with scholarly publishing.   The terrain is being transformed and that's not going to stop.  Some journals are, indeed, going to fold, and it is disingenuous of open access partisans to argue that FRPAA and related efforts don't represent a serious threat.   The signatories of the DC Principles letter are right to be worried.    But they can't turn back the tide.  Whether FRPAA or something like it passes or not, traditional subscription-based publishing is on the wane, and societies whose economy is based on it are going to have to make radical changes in how they operate in order to survive.

Academic librarians should be worried too.  The societies play an extremely important role in the overall research and education enterprise, and we need them to weather this transition successfully.   I disagree with the signatories of the DC Principles letter in their opposition to FRPAA.  I have urged my Provost to sign the letter supporting it (not likely, but I gave it my best shot).  But in their concern over the well-being of the societies that they lead and participate in, I am firmly on their side and in their camp.  Yes, we need open access; but we need strong, vibrant and effective scholarly societies, playing a critical and key role in managing the scholarly communication enterprise.   



I am with you 100% on this issue Scott. Yes, society publishers are a different breed from the for-profits. Yes they do much good for the advancement of human knowledge. Yes the technology posses a huge threat. And yes, they are right to be worried and they cannot rewind the clock. Most importantly of all, some society publications and some societies will most certainly fail; and that would be a tragedy. But as you say, it is an inevitable consequence of change. There are always winners and losers in times of change. It is not written that all scholarly societies must survive for all time. Those societies that do not adapt will (dare I say it) and should fail.

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