I was in Frankfurt in 2006, having been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the STM association. It was a heady experience. I don't remember what I talked about (I hope it was useful) but I certainly learned a lot. I came away with the understanding that the commercial publishers were already knee-deep into the reinvention of scholarly publishing and they were eager to partner with librarians in that great adventure. But they weren't going to wait for the librarians to show up.
Sadly, the librarians never did. It was still the early days of Open Access publishing. But Mabe was at great pains to point out that STM was officially agnostic on the subject. I met Hindawi, who had recently joined. I had a long conversation with Velterop, full as always with his enthusiasm for what might be achieved with some goodwill and creativity and daring. Even Erik Engstrom, then CEO of Elsevier, told me in conversation that he was not at all opposed to Open Access. He just needed to figure out how to make it work as a business.
But in the years that followed, the librarians didn't show up. Led by ARL/SPARC they manned the barricades, determined to make this a holy war between good and evil. Fueled by anger over the affordability problem, stoked with rhetoric that characterized Elsevier's profit margins as typical of the entire industry, and willfully oblivious to the economic realities of publishing, the librarians found emotional satisfaction in castigating the evil publishers, writing letters to congress and investing portions of their scant resources in institutional repositories that their faculties have little interest in supporting.
Where are we now, nearly ten years later? The commercial publishers have turned OA into the business model they were beginning to envision back in Frankfurt. Springer claims to be the largest source of OA articles in the world. Elsevier launches a new OA journal practically every week. Every major STM publisher has a PLoS One clone. The OA partisans conspicuously have nothing to say about PLoS's revenues. It's become a huge publisher by adopting the strategies and utilizing the talents of some of the best in the publishing industry. It's now running a surplus that bests that of most of the commercial small fry and the OA partisans can't figure out if PLoS is still one of the good guys.
The partisans retrench into the incoherence of green OA. Since they can't stomach making payments of any kind to the commercial publishers (Harnad's painful pun of "Fool's Gold") they fly the flag for green, continuing to manage a splendid feat of cognitive dissonance by ignoring the fact that green is entirely dependent on the existence of a vibrant, healthy, subscription-based publishing infrastructure -- the very system they want to eradicate.
The partisans lob their attacks on liblicense-l. The latest comes after Robert Glushko posts a message asking if we can't all recognize that despite our differences we are all still in this together. "I'm hopeful that we can work to find common areas of interest, and that we can all work together to promote those areas. At our best, we do so much good."
The critics are quick to disparage such foolish idealism. Prosser says, "Gosh, I wish this was true. I wish that we were all just one big happy family striving to promote scholarship. But I don’t think we are. We all have different priorities and drivers and sometimes those drivers and priorities clash." Guédon quickly chimes in: "Hear, hear, David! The notion that publishers/libraries/scholarly are close relatives is completely fanciful." Later, in his long post, he seems to temper this somewhat, "Let us concentrate our fire on the few, multinational, baddies and the rogue scientific associations, and let us see how we can repatriate publishing capacity within academe." So not all publishers are evil -- it is the multinational baddies that we must go to war with. I'm sure this is comforting to the struggling commercial and society publishers trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
At UKSG 2013 I gave the closing plenary, arguing that publishers and librarians share the same overarching commitment to advancing scholarship through the distribution of new knowledge. It's our view of the role of the market that puts us at odds. Librarians see market forces as the impediment to distributing knowledge. Commercial publishers see market forces as the mechanism for distributing knowledge. This fundamental disconnect will continue to make our business relationships more difficult than they need be. And librarians are at a particular disadvantage because of our unwillingness to learn to deal realistically with the economics of publishing.
But surely there can be more to the relationship than that. The publishers themselves are fiercely competitive with each other, but still managed to get together to create CrossRef, which has done more to facilitate efficient movement through the scholarly literature than anything that librarians have put together.
I still believe that the best way forward is for librarians, publishers of all stripes, researchers, academics and members of the public to engage and argue and work together to build a scholarly ecosystem that works for the public good. Something that I believe we all want. The people who work in those companies that the partisans castigate as "the baddies" (and worse) are, by and large, good people who are committed to doing a good job and advancing scholarship. They also want their organizations to be successful. A sentiment that I believe is shared by every librarian I know.
There are some positive signs. While I'm still not seeing as much positive energy from the library community as I would like, the Library Publishing Coalition is doing very good work. I'm still optimistic that SHARE can achieve some useful things, particularly as it works more closely with CHORUS. The deal that CHORUS just signed with ORCID is very positive and should give librarians something to get behind.
Most promising of all perhaps, is the energy I saw at the Society for Scholarly Publishing meeting in Arlington in May. SSP, more than any other association, has made a major commitment to bringing publishers and librarians together. They have just elected a librarian as president. Rick Anderson generates a lot of skepticism among librarians but he is librarian through and through.
The way forward will continue to be difficult. But if librarians are going to influence that future they're going to have to show up and find ways to work with the people in publishing. Writing them off with the kind of demeaning and insulting rhetoric that characterizes so much of what the partisans write doesn't advance anything but the would-be revolutionaries' sense of self-satisfaction. A dose of humility and a willingness to listen would serve the cause much better.