Monday, December 16, 2013

Beall's Rant

Jeffrey Beall of Beall's list of predatory scholarly publishers recently made some strident arguments against Open Access (OA) in the journal tripleC (ironically, an OA journal). Beall's comments are part of a non-refereed section dedicated to a discussion on OA.

Michael Eisen takes down Beall's opinion piece paragraph by paragraph. Stevan Harnad responds to the highlights/lowlights. Roy Tennant has a short piece on Beall in The Digital Shift.

Beall's takes a distinctly political approach in his attack on OA:
“The OA movement is an anti-corporatist movement that wants to deny the freedom of the press to companies it disagrees with.”
“It is an anti-corporatist, oppressive and negative movement, [...]”
“[...] a neo-colonial attempt to cast scholarly communication policy according to the aspirations of a cliquish minority of European collectivists.”
“[...] mandates set and enforced by an onerous cadre of Soros-funded European autocrats.”
This is the rhetorical style of American extremist right-wing politics that casts every problem as a false choice between freedom and – take your pick – communism or totalitarianism or colonialism or slavery or... European collectivists like George Soros (who became a billionaire by being a free-market capitalist).

For those of us more comfortable with technocratic arguments, politics is not particularly welcome. Yet, we cannot avoid the fact that the OA movement is trying to reform a large socio-economic system. It would be naïve to think that that can be done without political ideology playing a role. But is it really too much to ask to avoid the lowest level of political debate, politics by name-calling?

The system of subscription journals has an internal free-market logic to it that no proposed or existing OA system has been able to replace. In a perfect world, the subscription system uses an economic market to assess the quality of editorial boards and the level of interest in a particular field. Economic viability acts as a referee of sorts, a market-based minimum standard. Some editorial boards deserve the axe for doing poor work. Some fields of study deserve to go out of business for lack of interest. New editorial boards and new fields of study deserve an opportunity to compete. Most of us prefer that these decisions are made by the collective and distributed wisdom of free-market mechanisms.

Unfortunately, the current scholarly-communication marketplace is far from a free market. Journals hardly compete directly with one another. Site licenses perpetuate a paper-era business model that forces universities to buy all content for 100% of the campus community, even those journals that are relevant only to a sliver of the community. Site licenses limit competition between journals, because end users never get to make the price/value trade-offs critical to a functional free market. The Big Deal exacerbates the problem. Far from providing a service, as Beall contends, the Big Deal gives big publishers a platform to launch new journals without competition. Consortial deals are not discounts; they introduce peer networks to make it more difficult to cancel existing subscriptions. [What if Libraries were the Problem?] [Libraries: Paper Tigers in a Digital World]

If Beall believes in the free market, he should support competition from new methods of dissemination, alternative assessment techniques, and new journal business models. Instead, he seems to be motivated more by a desire to hold onto his disrupted job description:
“Now the realm of scholarly communication is being removed from libraries, and a crisis has settled in. Money flows from authors to publishers rather than from libraries to publishers. We've disintermediated libraries and now find that scholarly system isn't working very well.”
In fact, it is the site-license model that reduced the academic library to the easy-to-disintermediate dead-end role of subscription manager. [Where the Puck won't Be] Most librarians are apprehensive about the changes taking place, but they also realize that they must re-interpret traditional library values in light of new technology to ensure long-term survival of their institution.

Thus far, scholarly publishing has been the only type of publishing not disrupted by the Internet. In his seminal work on disruption [The Innovator's Dilemma], Clayton Christensen characterizes the defenders of the status quo in disrupted industries. Like Beall, they are blinded by traditional quality measures, dismiss and/or denigrate innovations, and retreat into a defense of the status quo.

Students, researchers, and the general public deserve a high-quality scholarly-communication system that satisfies basic minimum technological requirements of the 21st century. [Peter Murray-Rust, Why does scholarly publishing give me so much technical grief?] In the last 20 years of the modern Internet, we have witnessed innovation after innovation. Yet, scholarly publishing is still tied to the paper-imitating PDF format and to paper-era business models.

Open Access may not be the only answer [Open Access Doubts], but it may very well be the opportunity that this crisis has to offer. [Annealing the Library] In American political terms, Green Open Access is a public option. It provides free access to author-formatted versions of papers. Thereby, it serves the general public and the scholarly poor. It also serves researchers by providing a platform for experimentation without having to go through onerous access negotiations (for text mining, for example). It also serves as an additional disruptive trigger for free-market reform of the scholarly market. Gold Open Access in all its forms (from PLOS to PEERJ) is a set of business models that deserve a chance to compete on price and quality.

The choice is not between one free-market option and a plot of European collectivists. The real choice is whether to protect a functionally inadequate system or whether to foster an environment of innovation.