Funding a transition to OA

As I mentioned in my last post, a group of American universities has signed an agreement to finance open access journals. The previous post alluded to my criticisms of the compact and I’ll flesh them out here.

It’s a big step forward and Harvard has already followed up on its commitment. I hope to see the other universities do likewise in short order, and to see other schools sign on as well.

Stevan Harnad is right that, without also ensuring OA to their research output by adopting a “green” OA policy, funding “gold” OA journals is well-intentioned but ineffectual. Harvard’s fund lines up perfectly (and hopefully the policies will spread to the rest of Harvard’s schools soon); of the others, only MIT currently has a self-archiving mandate. While more support for OA publishing is needed and valuable, universities could do more in the short term by adopting OA mandates.

My main gripe with the compact itself is that it only covers funding for publication charges, to the exclusion of other financing models. I don’t have a problem with publication charges when done right and have even suggested more experimentation with submission fees. (Interestingly, the new Harvard fund explicitly includes submission fees as eligible.) But fewer than one-third of OA journals currently use publication charges: 70%+ rely on other revenue sources (or have no budget at all).

Stuart Shieber, the architect of the OA compact, knows this — he’s the one who did that calculation — but he’s convinced it’s a fluke. In the PLoS Biology article where he introduced the compact concept, Shieber wrote, “processing fees are the only revenue source that inherently scales directly with the publishing services provided by a journal”. In other words: Some weirdos here and there might get their money from somewhere else, but the only way to take OA publishing big time is with processing fees. But I’m not convinced that that’s the case.

First of all, academic publishing has traditionally been a constellation of weirdos and edge cases. Academic publishers include giant publishing conglomerates and boutique commercial publishers, massive scholarly societies and much more esoteric ones, government agencies and think tanks, universities and some guy publishing out of his department office. Some turn a profit, some break even, some lose money, and some have no budget at all. Some are subsidized by members or university departments, and some subsidize the organization’s other activities. It’s a motley bunch and, now that information is divorced from its paper container, I think predictions that any one revenue model will dominate are perilous at best.

Never mind the fact that even many OA publishers who charge processing fees also draw revenue from other streams: reprints, institutional and individual memberships, print subscriptions, philanthropic or public underwriting, subsidy by the host organization, in-kind support, and so on. Even the practitioners of processing fees see fit to diversify their revenue base.

The compact acknowledges this, but doesn’t do anything about it:

Many, indeed most, open-access journals do not charge processing fees. Such journals are no less deserving of support, and universities are urged to support them as well (as many already do), through direct subvention, support for personnel, equipment, and other facilities. However, the compact was not seen as the right method for institutionalizing this support.

So kudos to the compact’s designers and signatories for committing to put some much-needed money into “gold” OA. The quicker we can flip journals — or build new quality journals and let any dinosaurs that refuse to evolve eventually die off — the better; cash is a very good incentive for publishers to make that happen. But I don’t see why the compact couldn’t have been a commitment to fund OA journals in general rather than to fund publication charges at OA journals.

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