Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Open Access Politics

The Open Access (OA) movement is gaining some high-level political traction.

The White House Open Access memorandum enacts a national Green OA mandate: Most US funding agencies are directed to set up OA repositories for the research they fund. This Green OA strategy contrasts with the Gold OA strategy proposed by the Finch report in the UK. The latter all but guarantees that established publishers will retain their revenue stream if they switch their business model from site licenses to Author Page Charges (APCs).

The White House memorandum is likely to have the greatest impact. As its consequences ripple through the system, the number and size of Green OA repositories is likely to grow substantially over the next few years. Large-scale validation of altmetrics and the development of new business models may lead to the emergence of new forms of scholarly communication. Green OA archivangelist Stevan Harnad hypothesizes a ten-step scenario of changes.

There are also reasons for concern. As this new phase of the OA movement unfolds on the national political stage, all sides will use their influence and try to re-shape the initial policies to further their respective agendas. The outcome of this political game is far from certain. Worse, the outcome may not be settled for years, as these kind of policies are easily reversed without significant voter backlash.

At its core, OA is about an industry changing because of (not-so-)new technology and its accompanying shift in attitudes and values. In such cases, we expect established players to resist innovation by (ab)using politics and litigation. The entertainment industry lobbied and litigated against VCRs, DVRs, every Internet service ever launched, and now even antennas. In the dysfunctional scholarly-communication market, on the other hand, it is the innovators who resort to politics.

To understand why, suppose university libraries were funded by user-paid memberships and/or service fees. In this scenario, libraries and publishers encountered the same paper-to-digital transition costs. When library prices sky rocketed, students and faculty created underground exchanges of scholarly information. They cancelled their library memberships and/or stopped using their services. The publishers' revenue streams collapsed. Only the most successful journals survived, and even they suffered. Publishing a paper became increasingly difficult because of a lack of journals. This created an opening for experiments in scholarly publishing. This bottoms-up free-market transition would have been chaotic, painful, and forgotten by now.

We do not need to convert our libraries and research institutions into free-market enterprises. We do not need to abandon the fundamental principles on which these institutions are built. On the contrary, we must return to those principles and apply them in a new technological reality. Rebuilding the foundations of institutions is hard under the best of circumstances. When users are shielded from the external incentives/hardships of the free market, it is near impossible to disrupt, and continuity remains an option far beyond reason.

Green OA is an indirect approach to achieve fundamental change. It asks scholars to accept a little inconvenience for the sake of the larger principle. It asks them to deposit their papers into OA repositories and provide free access to publicly-funded research. It is hoped that this will gradually change the journal ecosystem and build pressure to innovate. It took dedicated developers, activists, advocates, and academic leaders over twenty years to promote this modest goal and create a movement that, finally, seems to have achieved critical mass. A growing number of universities have enacted OA mandates. These pioneers led the way, but only a government mandate can achieve the scale required to change the market. Enter politics.

Scholars, the creators and consumers of this market, should be able to dictate their terms. Yet, they are beholden to the establishment journals (and their publishers), which are the fountain of academic prestige. The SCOAP3 initiative for High Energy Physics journals shows how scholars are willing to go to unprecedented lengths to protect their journals.

Market-dominating scholarly publishers are paralyzed. They cannot abandon their only source of significant revenue (site licenses) on a hunch that another business model may work out better in the long term. In the mean time, they promote an impossible-to-defend hybrid Gold OA scheme, and they miss an opportunity to create value from author/reader networks (an opportunity recognized by upstart innovators). This business paralysis translates into a lobbying effort to protect the status quo for as long as feasible.

Academic libraries, which enthusiastically supported and developed Green OA, now enter this political arena in a weak position. The White House memorandum all but ignores them. Before complacency sets in, there is precious little time to argue a compelling case for independent institutional or individual repositories preserved in a long-term archive. After all, government-run repositories may disappear at any time for a variety of reasons.

The Gold OA approach of the Finch report is conceptually simpler. Neither scholars nor publishers are inconvenienced, let alone disrupted. It underwrites the survival of favored journals as Gold OA entities. It preempts real innovation. Without a mechanism in place to limit APCs, it's good to be a scholarly publisher in the UK. For now.

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