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A proposal to change publishing economics

The staff at the Max Planck Digital Library released a white paper BAG-OF-MONEY6earlier this year called, “Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access.” While the title may be a mouthful, the paper put forth a simple idea: That the total worldwide amount spent by libraries on subscriptions to scientific journals is enough to pay the article processing fees if all journals operated on an open access (OA) model. In other words, instead of libraries paying for science journal subscriptions, what if every institution instead diverted that money and used it for article processing fees (APC) for gold open access publishing on behalf of its scholars? (A useful comparison might be that instead of purchasing a car and paying the costs associated with ownership, you instead spent the money on taxis, uber, car rental, home delivery charges, etc.)

Under the publishing scenario suggested above, every paper would be freely available. This obviously fits the mission of most scientific research. And because it is becoming clear that publishers serve authors as much as they do readers, it seems fair that authors (or their parent institutions) should bear some of the editorial cost of preparing and disseminating research outputs.

But undoubtedly there would be some undesirable consequences.

Currently, the average fee for publishing a research paper in a peer-reviewed open access journal is somewhere over $1000. The proposed system means that authors in under-funded institutions or in less developed countries might have problems getting their research published. Many OA publishers have created waiver programs for hardship cases but undoubtedly some authors whose work would be otherwise accepted in a subscription-based journal would be left out for lack of the ability to pay.

Second, this proposal addresses digitally published works. We still have paper-only journals which are paid for by subscription and which would presumably cease publication or make a hasty transition to online only if entire subscription budgets were suddenly diverted in this way. The proposal cited above does not seem to address scientific journals which are still published as paper-only.

Third, there would probably be financial winners and losers under this system. For example, an organization with a large number of authors could find APCs outweigh their library’s journals budget. Certain disciplines tend to produce more papers per scholar than others and that might compound inequity in addition to the number of authors who work at an institution. Certainly some institutions have larger subscription budgets (think of large undergraduate schools) compared to the number of papers their scholars publish. Or vice-versa. It wouldn’t take long for some  institutions to do the math and decide purely on a financial basis on whether to participate.

But even if this idea was even remotely likely, I don’t think the subsequent elimination of the need for subscription management, journal issue check-in and binding would put librarians out of work.

If we define one of the library’s goals as providing access to information for both immediate and for future research, this proposal obviously meets the first part. Current researchers would have nearly seamless access to published research. But access for future use is not as certain since archiving and long-term storage of digital materials is not yet settled.

Most libraries today still serve as repositories for paper materials, some of which may be 500 years old or more. And we know how to keep paper usable for centuries. But we are not as certain of the long term usability of digital material. There are some very smart people working on the problems that digital archiving presents, but we haven’t solved enough of them that we can safely say the digital content our institution creates today will be usable in 100 years. And the move to online-only would leave uncertain the future viability of this content.

Despite the potential pitfalls, the proposal is a good thought exercise. Economists are always looking for more efficient allocation of resources. This radical proposal has been addressed by the large open access publisher, Scielo and a subject for discussion at the upcoming 12th Berlin Open Access Conference: Staging the Open Access Transformation of Subscription Journals which will take place in December 2015. Stay tuned.

One Comment

  1. This is a great proposal. It really seems the most fair. The problem is that you want content to be continued to be created and you want institutions of all sizes to be still continue to do this.

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