Monday, May 15, 2006

The Circle of Politics Draws Tighter on Scholarly Publishers

The Guardian noted recently the progress of U.S. legislation to make publicly funded research available online, a development that's been tracked for some time but one which is beginning to resonate more strongly with scholarly publishers facing mounting pressures in other research-intensive markets such as the U.K. As the Guardian notes if this legislation were to become law there would be a major impact on the margins of scholarly publishers, though it's far from clear which direction they would take to address the issue. The open access model is cited most frequently as a reasonable alternative, but it's not clear that open access will be feasible as a solution for each and every scholarly market. Established circles of academic peer review have a power base that will move extremely slowly towards any changes that would disrupt their comfortable position in the publishing industry.

The slowness of change in the peer review process has been a hedge against rapid changes in scholarly publishing for many years, but with increased pressures from governments sponsoring research that hedge is likely to be trimmed reasonably soon. Governments needing results from research to power their economies in a highly competitive global economy have outgrown antiquated review processes and need new solutions - solutions that they're willing to force on a reluctant publishing industry intent on preserving print-based margins in a Web-centric publishing environment.

Open access is not the answer to each and every publishers' issues in making a graceful transition to an era of online content distribution, but if open access is not the answer then scholarly publishers need to think far more aggressively about how they can make the scholarly review process more efficient to keep up with the expectations of global scientific markets under pressure. People may not be willing to pay for access to the research per se, but they'll probably value very highly content and context driven by peer reviewers and other scholarly contributors built around that research to help them judge for themselves how valuable a piece of research really is. It's time for scholarly publishers to develop aggressively post-print models of premium profitability - before anxious governments force their own solutions on them.
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