Friday, October 28, 2011

Open Access Doubts

Science embraces the concept of weakly held strong ideas. This was illustrated recently by the excited reaction of the High-Energy Physics (HEP) community to a recent experiment. ("Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam", arXiv:1109.4897v1) If confirmed, it puts into doubt the speed of light as an absolute limit. The relevant paper is available through arXiv, which started as a HEP preprint repository and blazed a trail for Open Access. In light of the origins of the Open Access Movement, let us again be inspired by the HEP community and its willingness to follow experiments, wherever they may lead. Assessing the ongoing Open Access experiment, where are our doubts? I have three.

Is Affordable Better than Free?

All else being equal, open is better than closed. But… all else is not equal. A robust and user-friendly network of open scholarly systems seems farther away than ever because of inexpertly formatted content and bad, incomplete, and non-public (!) metadata. While there is always room for improvement, pay-walled journals provide professionally formatted and organized content with excellent metadata and robust services. The problem is cost. Unfortunately, we did nothing to reduce cost. We only negotiated prices.

What if we could significantly reduce cost by implementing pay walls differently? The root of the problem is site licenses. For details, see “What if Libraries were the Problem?”, “Libraries: Paper Tigers in a Digital World”, “The Fourth Branch Library”, and “The Publisher’s Dilemma”. Site licenses are market-distorting products that preserve paper-era business processes of publishers, aggregators, and libraries.

Universities can cut the Gordian knot right now by replacing site licenses with direct subsidies to researchers. After a few months of chaos, consumer-oriented services with all kinds of pricing models would emerge. Researchers, empowered to make individual price-value judgments, would become consumers in a suddenly competitive market for content and information services. The inception of a vibrant marketplace is impossible as long as universities mindlessly renew site licenses.

What are the Goals of Institutional Repositories?

Open Access advocates have articulated at least five goals for institutional repositories: (1) release hidden information, (2) rein in journal prices, (3) archive an institution’s scholarly record, (4) enable fast research communication, and (5) provide free access to author-formatted articles.

Institutional repositories are ideal vehicles for releasing hidden information that, until recently, had no suitable distribution platform (1). For example, archives must protect original pieces, but they can distribute the digitized content.

The four remaining goals, all related to scholarly journals, are more problematic. Institutional repositories fall short as a mechanism to rein in journal prices (2), because they are not a credible alternative for the current archival scholarly record. Without (2), goals (3), (4), and (5) are irrelevant. If we pay for journals anyway, we can achieve (3) by maintaining a database of links to the formal literature. Secure in the knowledge that their journals are not in jeopardy, publishers would be happy to provide (4) and (5).

A scenario consistent with this analysis is unfolding right now. The HEP community launched a rescue mission for HEP journals, which lost much of their role to arXiv. The SCOAP3 initiative pools funds currently spent on site-licensing HEP journals. This strikes me as a heavy-handed approach to protect existing revenue streams of established journals. On the other hand, SCOAP3 protects the quality of the HEP archival scholarly record and converts HEP journals to the open-access model.

Are Open-Access Journals a Form of Vanity Publishing?

If a journal’s scholarly discipline loses influence or if its editorial board lowers its standards, the journal’s standing diminishes and various quality assessments fall. In these circumstances, a pay-walled journal loses subscribers and, eventually, fails. An open-access journal, on the other hand, survives as long as it attracts a sufficient number of paying authors (perhaps by lowering standards even further). Financial viability of a pay wall is a crude measure of quality, but it is nonnegotiable and cannot be rationalized away: the journal fails, its editorial board disappears, its scholarly discipline loses some of its stature, and its authors must publish elsewhere.

We should not overstate this particular advantage of the pay wall. Publishers have kept marginal pay-walled journals alive through bundling and consortium incentives, effectively using strong journals to shore up weak ones. Open-access journals may not be perfect, but we happily ignore some flaws in return for free access to the scholarly record. For now, open-access journals are managed by innovators out to prove a point. Can successive generations maintain quality despite a built-in incentive to the contrary?