Wednesday, May 09, 2012

the price of free, the key to open

Open Medicine, a peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal is celebrating five years of open-access publication. They have published an editorial in their most recent online issue analysing their experience of the past five years.

Open-access publication is one of the revolutionary new models being touted by the free culture movement in Canada to take the place of privately-owned, subscription-based publication and collectively licensed copyright royalty payment to authors. Open-access style journals like Open Medicine are often cited by free culture boosters as the future of publishing, a way to freely spread knowledge throughout the world.

In an earlier article, Open Medicine noted that open-access articles reach a broader readership and are far more often cited and quoted in the media than subscription controlled publications. That is potentially a very good argument indeed for free distribution models. Authors interested in growing readership and building their brand have always made the connection between audience-size and reputation.

What's missing, unfortunately, is a way to pay for all that fabulous free distribution. Five years into their bold experiment, Open Medicine has published a great deal of important work and sparked innumerable conversations and debates. What they haven't done, sadly, is make publishing any less expensive than it always was.

From their five-year anniversary editorial:

Although our open access publishing platform removes many barriers to the timely dissemination of new research, we have struggled to create a sustainable economic model for publishing the journal. The core editorial group is a volunteer, collaborative, professional team. The journal receives funding from individuals and from various Canadian research libraries who generously support our open access vision. More recently, we have implemented modest publication fees to allow us to sustain the production of high-quality articles by paying for professional copy-editing and article production. At this point, we are considering a variety of economic models aimed at sustaining and expanding the journal, including leveraging developing partnerships with like-minded organizations.
Open Medicine's policies page reveals the modest publication fees are C$1500 for research and review articles and C$600 for commentary and analysis articles. Modest? What is modest about turning what used to be a paying gig (writing) into one that costs the writer $1500 a pop? I call that bold, not modest.

To be clear, privately-owned, subscription-based publishers may not pay writers as much as we'd like, but they DO pay writers. Furthermore, they tend to let writers retain their copyright and collect royalties for commercial uses covered by collective licensing, royalties that can come to thousands of dollars per year. Open access journals tend to publish under Creative Commons licenses, which allow for free re-use and therefore no license royalties.

More people reading important medical research papers? Bravo! Writers paying for their own publication, and surrendering downstream revenue opportunities? Not so much.

It's great to break down barriers and spread knowledge as broadly as possible, but someone has to pay for it, and it shouldn't be the writers. One of the loud free-culture complaints against collective licensing for academic materials is that the poor students will have to pay the fee (currently $26 per year). But who is paying for open-access publishing? Academic researchers and writers are salaried employees of the academy. Universities are official sponsors of open-access journals like Open Medicine. Where do university budgets for sponsorship and salaries come from? Tuition. Who pays tuition (currently well over $5,000 per year on average)? That's right, the poor students.

Open-access may be breaking ground on distribution, but it has a long way to go before it can make any claims about being a sustainable alternative to traditional publishing, or a cheap alternative to collective licensing.

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Sandy Crawley said...

It's good to see Open Medicine acknowledging the flaws that become apparent with sustained efforts to distribute quality information for "free". I truly believe that free culture fanaticism is a passing phase, akin to the free love movement fueled by the initial use of synthetic hallucinogens in the late '60s and early '70s.

David said...

Good points overall, but surely in general research journals do *not* pay their contributors (writers and peer-reviewers). The contributors are usually academics who do it for a mixture of altruistic and careerist motives. I am not an academic, but I have had articles published in several peer-reviewed journals, and I certainly never got paid! Journals do of course have costs of editing, administration, design, etc, which have to be covered somehow.

John said...


In fact, I believe there is a whole spectrum of models in publishing, academic or otherwise, and therefore it's really up to the writers, publishers and readers to negotiate with each other how they want things done.

My wife is a well-respected researcher in her academic field, and she deals with both payment and non-payment, royalty and non-royalty models all the time. Of course, outside the academy - and it's important to note here that the free culture movement is looking for open-access across the board, not just in research publication (see the many criticism of the NYT paywall from free culture commentators).

What I'm getting at with this posting is that in terms of economic sustainability, the open-access model is proving to be very tricky. I can't come up with the ethical term for it right now, but the idea that researchers would pay a journal to publish their findings is kind of icky. To me, that is crossing one of the bedrock foundational walls of publishing, as did Boping Boing when they started slipping corporate ads into their blog copy (as I noted in an earlier posting).

These kinds of approaches, both pay-to-publish and ads-as-editorial-copy are nothing new to publishing, but they have generally been shunned by those with serious intent.

In the future, could you please use a full name and provide a bit of context for your comment. I like to know who I'm talking to here, as free culture warriors regularly try to clog this comment section with nonsense.

John said...

Didn't finish a point there... outside the academy, paying for one's own publication in a magazine is just not done.

jmax said...

It's not, generally speaking, salary/tuition monies that pay journal publication fees. Rather, publication fees come out of the research funding itself; publication fees are a line item in a research budget.

While you're right to point out that the open access journal movement is struggling to find a truly sustainable model, I think we should give credit where it's due. Research journals don't make money for authors; they never have. Rather, the history of journal publishing, especially in the STM sector, is of big corporate publishers exploiting scholarly communications. OA is a broad movement to get beyond that.

Whether the author pays for the individual journal, or the journal itself gets research funding to cover publication costs, or the libraries pay, or the costs are shared -- these are the ideas that are being worked out currently. The advantage of a author-pays model is that one can more closely track the actual costs of publication. But it may evolve that the scholarly community moves to a different system as it learns what works.

John Maxwell
Simon Fraser University

John said...

Mr. Maxwell,

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate hearing from folks working directly with scholarly writing.

I think a full examination of the economics of publishing might be very instructive for those embarking on OA as a way os avoiding the exploitation of big corporate publishers. Even where journals are owned by large media conglomerates, I can't imagine the profit lines for individual titles are anything but exceedingly narrow, considering the very limited paid market for such writing.

Elsevier is the one large firm that seems to get everyone in STM upset, but I've had a look at their annual reports as well, and I'm not seeing anything that looks like capitalism gone wild. In fact, I see a pretty responsible global citizen in terms of contributions to the tax base and e-book information sharing to public archives.

The economics of research funding, on the other hand, are quite mysterious to me. I am a huge supporter of public research funding, but how does one separate that from cost to the student except artificially? As I say in my posting, someone has to pay the real costs. One way or another, in the end, it will be the customer who pays. No?

jmax said...

Right... so who is the customer? Is it the library? Is the individual scholar (grad students are the only people who *actually* read journal articles)? Or do we frame it as a broader public good?

The big STM publishers imposed enormous subscription costs on libraries -- way, way beyond the publication costs -- because they could: because a research library can't afford to NOT have the literature on hand. That's the situation that OA is responding to. So it's not surprising that libraries themselves are a big part of the OA movement: how do we broadly get scholarly communications into the library without paying through the nose for it?

As I said, the point of the system has never been about paying writers; the point is to get the research findings produced and distributed in sane and sustainable ways. The original enthusiasm of OA was that it seemed like you could cut out the middleman and do everything for cheap; turns out it's not quite that cheap. Quel surprise.

But the question remains, how do you fund this as a whole system, because the value of scholarly communication is as a whole system, well beyond the sum of its parts. A given journal article is only ever read by a handful of people, so market economics break down immediately. Elsevier and their peers made it work by massive aggregation. But perhaps there's a better way to make the whole thing work.

John said...

If grad students are the only readers, what is the point of broad, open distribution?

I'd like to see an in-depth price/cost analysis of subscription rates that takes in the real economics of journal publication. It's not just about production costs, I would imagine. I'm sure it is a "what the market will bear" calculation based on the need to recoup losses from elsewhere in the business. Harvard's high-prices for Lancet subscriptions might just be subsidising a sliding scale to get other journals into poorer schools. Seems likely.

Why reinvent the wheel. If there are problems with Elsevier's pricing, why not address that directly?

Again, thanks for the comments. I don't mean to sound cynical. I need to see things in real numbers and large pictures.

jmax said...

If grad students are the only readers, what is the point of broad, open distribution?

Seriously, John? Science? Humanities? Medicine? Technology? Scholarship?

Do we live in a society? Or just a market? How is it that the literary establishment in Canada, born out of a liberal culture, nowadays so quickly turn to free-market economics whenever anybody questions writers getting paid? Is there no such thing as a public good?

Forgive me if I've read you the wrong way here, John -- I've certainly encountered this sort of logic lately. At some point, broad, open distribution of ideas and information is a good, in and of itself, not a commodity. If writers need to pay the rent too, then let's come up with a way of paying them -- universities have served as such a mechanism for centuries. But not by making research into an economic commodity please.

jmax said...

Some background on the "serials pricing crisis":

John said...

Mr. Maxwell,

I would say indeed that you have read me the wrong way. I'm not questioning whether or not these research subjects are a public good; I'm responding to the logical disconnect between our drive to make everything available for free all the time, the economics of publishing and the realities of actual readership. If a journal article costs a bit and the actual readers of it can afford to pay, is it any less of a public good?

I also don't really understand why it is such a sin to apply questions of economics to a discussion around workers being paid for their work. The product of that work may be a public good, but we still need to worry about the workers, don't we?

Education is a public good, but I have yet to see anyone casually suggest that folks in the academy work for free to serve that good. It's rather unfair to accuse writers of seeing society only as a market when all they are asking for is a living wage.

John said...

Thanks for the links. I've downloaded the papers (for free!) and will read them.

I'm continuing to wonder about your last response. You say " If writers need to pay the rent too, then let's come up with a way of paying them."

There's really no "if" about it, is there? How is it possible that a sub-section of our society - writers - could have evolved outside the economy? Writers do pay rent, and mortgages, and childcare, and cable bills and taxes.

We already do have a way of paying them - through copyright royalties. If folks find that system so outdated and egregious, they should offer a viable alternative that does not start with "if writers need to pay rent."

jmax said...

You miss my point again, John. It is not the research itself that is a public good. It's access to it that's the public good. Individual articles aren't sellable in the market; the interest in any one of them is too small. So you have to fund them as a mass aggregation: ALL of the research, because it is only over a very long time that we come to realize what the important pieces were.

One cannot consider it in terms of the individual article, the individual written work; it has to be taken as a whole system. And so you get the classic "market failure" problem that with other broad social goods like health care and education.

Historically, the university system took care of the production side of the research business, by employing salaried faculty with an incentive to publish. The university system, however, couldn't handle distribution, especially in the age of print.

So the distribution business got taken up by corporations, especially in the post-WWII period, in which the amount of research literature increased enormously. But the business model wasn't individual research articles; it was subscriptions to entire journals. And, with time, it became large aggregations of journals rather than individual titles. Because that's what research libraries wanted/needed.

So the corporate publishers were in the business of taking University-produced research and selling it back to the Universities, with large (arguably exploitative) profit margins.

It's not about the individual article, nor the individual writer. It's about access to the whole system of scholarly output. The whole thing depends upon reasonably efficient access to the entire corpus of scholraship.

So now the pendulum has swung the other way, and in the interest of open access, we're having authors pay for the individual article publication. But I don't think this will last, as it has all kinds of flaws (you've already noted some of them). But as a transition step, it allows people to figure out how much things actually cost, and to make reasoned arguments for more elegant, streamlined, (dare I say, centralized) funding.

There's a temptation to take the logic of trade publishing, which has been largely governed by the free market (even in Canada), and apply it to scholarly communication, but it's not the same thing; it doesn't have the same goals, nor the same mechanisms.

jmax said...

Re: writers getting paid:

We were talking about scholarly journal publishing. The authors are getting paid already. Problem solved.

If you want to take this part of the discussion back to trade publishing, then we're on different ground entirely. It doesn't help to mix these up.

But, or the sake of argument: I criticized the flight to free-market economics earlier. I don't think the free market offers writers much hope, simply because the supply (of written work) is going through the roof currently, while the demand from readers isn't. That doesn't bode well.

So we need to re-think our assumptions about "economics" in light of this, I think. People in the literary community in Canada used to talk about things like a Guaranteed Annual Income. Of course, in the current economic climate, that sort of thing gets you laughed out of the room. But really, is that any crazier than clinging to an industrial-era copyright regime in the age of YouTube?

John said...

Hmmmm, I'm not sure how your version of "problem solved" differs from my original concerns about who is actually paying the costs of publication. First you're telling me that research funding is separate from academic salaries, and now it seems they are related in some way?

I also wonder if subscription payment and broad access are really mutually exclusive propositions. I pay a NYT online subscription and can share their content as freely as I like. I kind of like the idea of the universities themselves paying a subscription/distribution fee so that there is no publication fee.

You keep inserting some irony around your use of "centralized" as though you think I hate the word. Please don't make assumptions about my politics. My concern is a fair, sustainable system that works for everyone in the writing and publishing ecology. If we're going to joke about centralization and socialism we should remember that systems implemented through forced labour rarely stand the test of time.

If we as a society do evolve away from a copyright royalty system, we should not do so in a way that damages those now fully invested in that system. I'm not convinced at all that this evolution is really happening, of course, but I'm willing to be wrong about that.

jmax said...

To clarify (I'm home with a head cold today, so forgive me): academics are paid a salary, and they write articles with no remuneration. The article-fee system that several OA projects use is over and above any of that, but my understanding is that this is mostly subsidized through research grants, not a scholar's own salary (there are undoubtedly exceptions).

I too like the idea of the universities/libraries paying for the system as a whole. And if they do that, there's no reason why it can't be freely accessible to the rest of the planet as well... once it's paid for, it's paid for.

My apologies for pussyfooting around the political language. I am indeed wary of putting forth the idea of centralized funding, especially when knee-jerk free market rhetoric abounds. Writing and trade publishing have existed in a productive tension between government funding and the market for decades in Canada. It's a shame that now, when the free market seems most precarious, we have a political climate that is so colonized by one kind of economic language that it is hard to imaging any other possibilities.

Douglas Carnall said...

Your post is interesting, coming as it does from the position of someone accustomed to the conventions of published works written for hire (~most journalism) or for royalties (~most books). As your commenters have already made clear, neither set of conventions are really directly applicable to scholarly communication (~most journals).
But I agree with you that there is something distasteful about high article processing charges ("authors pays gold OA" in the jargon).
Whilst these can be justified as result dissemination costs for big ticket grant-funded projects (typically ~1% of the total grant), this model does not lend itself well to all academic fields, notably the humanities and social sciences.
Other models exist however. The number of institutional and subject repositories continues to grow ("green OA") in the jargon, and these (modest) costs are typically met through existing library budgets. The grandfather of scientific OA publishing is the, whose costs are to be met from contributions from the top 200 institutions using it.
Learned societies have a continuing role to play, and again, models which cost much less than the Public Library of Science One "flagship" products.