Friday, March 2, 2007

E.U. Initiatives to Force Open Access Raise Protests from Publishers

Information World Review recaps the recently signed declaration of major scientific, technical and medical journal publishers regarding pending E.U. legislation pushing to move towards free and open access to scholarly research after a limited time of private publications. The "Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing" has been gaining signatories over the past few weeks from major publishing houses and academic institutions. The ten-point document is a carefully crafted list of statements that attempts to justify the value of current publishing models to the scholarly community and institutions consuming their research. The statements range from the relatively innocuous - "The mission of publishers is to maximise the dissemination of knowledge through economically self-sustaining business models" - to the provocative: "Open deposit of accepted manuscripts risks destabilising subscription revenues and undermining peer review."

In sum the intent of the declaration is to counter the movement towards government-mandated open access to papers deposited in publicly accessible online repositories. There are some compromises in the points designed to whittle away some who may be looking for ways to find some room for compromise - "Raw research data should be made freely available to all researchers" - but in sum the declaration is a statement that says, in effect, that scholarly publishers and the peer review process that supports their publishing processes work just fine and should not be challenged significantly. This is not unexpected, but it is disappointing nevertheless.

Scholarly publishers have recognized rightly that their trade is at a major crossroads given the pending E.U. legislation. Pushing forward with government-mandated open access without clear methods to support peer review processes required to generate that research may indeed pose a hazard to the integrity of academic research. But in truth this will be the case regardless of whether the E.U. open access initiative is passed or not. Existing publishing models for scholarly research may be sustainable indefinitely, but the open access movement has created already an important beachhead in the marketplace that questions not just the profit motive but the exiting peer review process. In essence the publishers are saying, "Let's keep our current inefficiencies because this is the only way that we can guarantee monies to sustain peer reviewing of papers." Yet as the demand for print journals diminishes and as more interactive peer review processes unfold through the open access initiative the necessity of high-priced journals pricing to maintain existing peer review methods is likely to be challenged strongly in the open marketplace.

Scholarly publishers are so tied to their existing revenue models that they fail to see even greater opportunities for profits in the processes that lead up to final publication. Although access to finalized juried publications is important, it's more important overall to researchers wishing to stay on the edge of important scholarly work to be a part of the discussions and modifications that lead up to the finalization of a paper. The peer review process as it exists today exposes new ideas to too narrow an audience for critique and enhancement prior to final publication. Instead of using today's print-based inefficiencies as the basis for journal pricing publishers should consider developing access to pre-publication materials through community-based online publishing as the basis for premium pricing. This will ensure better input from topic-oriented communities and relieve both publishers and governmental agencies from the need to focus on protecting copyright of finalized materials as the basis for scholarly publishing profits.

In an era in which Wikis, weblogs and other social media are demonstrating the ability of community publishing to be monetized effectively content producers of all kinds need to adjust to the idea that controlling copies of content is not as important as managing the communities that generate it and consume it. Copyright still has an important place in publishing but increasingly it will revert to a secondary role as licensing access to private communities whose communications are at least as valuable as finished works of authorship gains center stage. In the marketplace of ideas, people will gravitate towards being in on the key conversations far more than they will the minutes of those conversations. By focusing too intently on the threat to existing monetization models scholarly publishers are likely to be bypassed as other well-funded efforts move past the copyright model and towards more dynamic ways to generate value from scholarly publishing. The Brussels Declaration will to little if anything to change these realities.
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