Friday, August 20, 2010
those pesky bills
Last month, the University of Ottawa Press announced that it was making 36 of its backlist titles available for free as Open Access licensed downloads.
The news release announcing the launch describes it as "part of the University of Ottawa’s open access program, which includes a commitment to make research easier to consult through its institutional repository, to provide funds to researchers aiming to publish their work in open access journals, and to award grants for research on the open access movement."
As a former student at the University of Ottawa (1984-86, go Gee Gees!, Tabaret tabernac), I'm proud of UOP for their dedication to the backlist authors who will undoubtedly benefit from a wider audience after this move. I am also pleased to note that UOP worked very hard to clear the rights with those authors before launching this online venture.
That said, I'm not just a former student; I'm also an independent professional author with ongoing interests in protection for creators under copyright, new business models for established and emerging publishers and the economic survival of independent professional content creation. My admiration for UOP extends, then, to cover the realism and pragmatism with which they have approached this project.
Open Access advocate Russell McOrmond has today published an interesting essay on what he calls Peer Production in the post secondary educational context. I have many disagreements with Russell, beginning with who is doing all the whining in the copyright debate, but I have no problem following him on his theoretical journey to the land of an all-Open Access educational curriculum. No problem, that is, as long as we recognize that it is theoretical.
Earlier this week, consumer advocate Michael Geist (coincidentally, a professor at the University of Ottawa) bristled publicly at my suggestion that prematurely adopting a policy of Open Access-only curriculum, even on a class by class basis, was shockingly arbitrary and irresponsible. Dr. Geist went to great pains to prove it is indeed possible to teach classes (at law school) without any collectively licensed materials.
And I'm glad it's possible. But possible and practical are two different things. The freeness of Open Access is possible because the authors of the works being freely accessed are compensated in ways other than traditional pay-per-use or royalty structures. Often their research grants are expected to also cover the traditional compensation a writer might expect for writing.
The Wikipedia link on Open Access above also tells us that many of the traditional costs of publishing work (the selection, editing, proofing, etc.) are covered with fees paid by the authors themselves toward the publication of the work. Presumably, the fee the author pays to be published in OA is somehow made up for through the up front compensation she has already received prior to writing.
As complicated as all that sounds, one thing should be clear... Open Access does not involve the sudden cessation of money changing hands. Providing research and published writing for free is an expensive venture. Since professor salaries are negotiated in part on the amount and value of research and publishing done by the professor, we can expect any large-scale adoption of Open Access or peer production to include a transfer of traditional royalty, advance and licensing costs into the salary line of university budgets. Where the revenue will come from for that increase is a bit of a mystery, but students hoping for cheaper education in a world of Open Access might not want to get their hopes up.
Why not? Because even in Open Access, there is no free lunch.
Commenting to Quill & Quire on the occasion of the University of Ottawa Press Open Access experiment, Rebecca Ross (UOP's e-book coordinator) dropped an inevitable caveat:
However, the press has no plans to make its most popular academic textbooks available for free. “If a book is still really popular for courses, it’s not going to go Open Access at this stage,” Ross says. “We’re not yet an Open Access press.... We still have to pay the bills and make revenue from what we’re publishing.”
I hear you, UOP. I hear you.