June 8th, 2009
One of the frequent worries I hear expressed about open-access policies such as the ones at Harvard is that they will lead to the death of journals (or of scholarly societies, or of peer review). When we first began addressing Harvard faculty on these issues, I heard this worry expressed so frequently that I wrote up my standard reply to save myself time in answering it. I supply that reply in this entry. There is little original in the argument. It has been made in various forms in various places in writings about open access, most notably and comprehensively by Peter Suber here . But it may be useful to see it in this distilled form.
(By the way, the issue of switching business models brought up at the end is one that I have been increasingly focused on and will turn to in later posts.)
Many of the worries about the Harvard open-access policies rest on a dystopian scenario in which, first, there is systematic uptake of the idea of authors making their papers available through open access because of initiatives like ours, and then journals are unable to function, leading to the end of journals and peer review. The worry is a legitimate one, as journals and peer review play a crucial role in the scholarly enterprise. But the worry is misguided on both empirical and principled grounds.
What would happen to journals if, by magic, the author’s prepublication version of every scholarly article were freely available in an institutional repository? Arguably, nothing. In fact, this is the situation in physics, in which arxiv.org provides essentially total open access to physics articles. Nonetheless, subscription journals have not seen cancellations in physics due to this open access, presumably because readers (or their proxies, the libraries) are willing to pay for the value added by the publishers that they receive. The only effect is that there is universal access to physics scholarship.
But suppose that at some point readers (or libraries) decided that the value publishers added were not sufficient to endorse subscribing at the current prices. The result would be price pressure on journals, arguably a propitious side effect. This price pressure would accrue to journals with the highest price to value ratio, that is, to commercially published journals in general. These are the journals where there is the most room for price reduction. (Consistent with this intuition, a 2006 study by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers concluded that price far outstrips open access availability in libraries’ decisions to cancel journal subscriptions.)
In his study of the economics of electronic journal distribution, Andrew Odlyzko notes “Many publishers argue that costs cannot be reduced much, even with electronic publishing, since most of the cost is the first-copy cost of preparing the manuscripts for publication. This argument is refuted by the widely differing costs among publishers. The great disparity in costs among journals is a sign of an industry that has not had to worry about efficiency. Another sign of lack of effective price competition is the existence of large profits.” For instance, economics journals published by commercial publishers are six times more expensive per page than those of noncommercial publishers. Such price disparities are a clear sign of inefficiency and excess profit-taking.
But suppose further that the price pressure were so strong that readers or libraries were unwilling to pay anything at all for the journals. Would that be the end of journals? No, because even if publishers (again, merely by hypothesis and presumably counterfactually) add no value for the readers (beyond what the readers are already getting in the [again hypothetical] universal open access), the author and the author’s institution gain much value: vetting, copyediting, typesetting, and most importantly, imprimatur of the journal. This is value that authors and their institutions should be and would be willing to pay for. And fortunately, in this scenario in which libraries are unwilling to pay for subscriptions, there is plenty of money available to pay for this value, namely all of the money that otherwise would have gone to the subscriptions. The upshot is that journals will merely switch to a different business model, the open access journal, in which the journal charges the author a one-time charge to cover the costs of publishing the article. (By the way, there are already thousands of open access journals, many published by profitable commercial publishers.)
In this scenario, the cost of journal publishing would be borne not by the libraries on behalf of their readers, but by funding agencies and institutions on behalf of their authors. Already, funding agencies such as Wellcome Trust and Howard Hughes Medical Institute underwrite open access author charges, and in fact mandate open access. Federal granting agencies such as NSF and NIH allow grant funds to be used for open access author charges as well. Not all fields have the sort of grant funding opportunities that could underwrite these charges. For those fields, the university should underwrite charges for publication in open access journals. One of the recommendations of the provost’s committee is that Harvard do just that: underwrite reasonable open access publication charges that are not otherwise covered by research funds, regardless of field. Remember, in this utopian scenario, the funds required for these charges are amply provided by the savings from subscriptions. In any case, this scenario is, at best, many years, perhaps many decades, away, so there is plenty of time for the market to adjust business and funding models so long as the books balance overall.
How can we know that the books will balance? In aggregate, the costs to run the journals are now paid for by university library budgets. In the depicted scenario, these costs would not rise, and would likely even be mitigated by the economies of open access distribution. So in total, the funds will be adequate for the costs.
Another happy fact about this scenario is that the open access funding model has revenues directly tied to costs. For open access distribution, where access has essentially zero marginal cost, all of the costs are first-copy costs. Under the new business model, revenues are first-copy revenues as well. The market basis for the spiraling hyperinflation—prices rising to recoup revenues from cancellations leading to more cancellations—is thus eliminated.
In summary, the worry that open access to articles will lead to journal death is based on an extrapolation that doesn’t take into account all of the moving parts in the publishing milieu, the time course of changes, and the value basis that journals provide. The market will provide for journals because journals add tremendous value. Funds to pay for that value are patently available; they are being paid now. What will change—slowly over time if and as the situation changes—are the market mechanisms that match the costs and value. They will change to a system that doesn’t have the market dysfunctionalities of the present one.
A final word: What is the alternative to this open-access policy or similar steps to improve access? The status quo involves hyperinflation, squeezing library budgets, and further journal cancellation, all of which lead to even more limited access, monograph demand withering, and scholarly societies in trouble. We have been on this spiral for decades. Something needs to be done.