Open access: One way to NOT benefit libraries

I was sad to see this post at The Parachute, echoed by Peter Suber’s agreement. Specifically, I was sad to see this section:

Virtually all subscriptions, in all areas of research, are currently sustained via library budgets – money streams that are separate from research funds, but nonetheless available in ‘the system’.

The central idea of ‘author-side’ payment in order to secure open access for the formally published research literature (and as a side benefit, transparency of the proportionality between the amount of research done and the cost of the literature) is to use the same money now used for subscriptions (reader-side payment) in a different way. Not extra money; the same money. Once that insight has broken through, we can start overcoming the practical (bureaucratic?) difficulties.

It’s useful to note that in his new position Jan Velterop is pushing an expensive example of author-side-payment OA, presumably to assure that Springer continues to be as $profitable$ as under current subscription methods.

The problem here is that all other aspects of library budgets are being undermined by the rising costs of subscriptions–and those costs are such that even the wealthiest university libraries can no longer subscribe to everything they’d like to.

OA journals could relieve some of that pressure, maybe even free up some money for monographs, digital preservation, etc. But not if the university administration redirects all of the subscription money to keep overpriced publishers as profitable as they are now. In that scenario, commercial (and high-priced society) publishers win, libraries lose. At least if you think of university libraries as anything more than scholarly-article-transfer agencies.

I’m reminded once again of why I’m an independent in the OA field. My primary interest is in seeing vibrant, healthy libraries carrying out the range of short and long term missions that make them important, and the hope that OA could help in two ways: by making more scholarly resources available, and by reducing the extent to which library budgets are held ransom to the big commercial journal publishers and indirectly subsidizing other activities of professional societies.

But if OA advocates generally agree that it’s a great idea to snatch library subscription money to pay for author-side charges (and allow commercial publishers to set those charges based on their own models), well, so much for the second possibility.

4 Responses to “Open access: One way to NOT benefit libraries”

  1. Dave Tyckoson Says:


    I am in no way an expert on Open Access, but it seems to me that the use of language by publishers in this debate mirrors the use of language by the “family” groups that you mention in another post. Take the following sentence from the article that you quoted:

    “The clearest way to think about the funding of the formal research literature, as the Wellcome Trust for instance does, is to see publishing as an integral part of doing research and therefore the cost of publishing as an integral part of the cost of research and thus entirely logically payable out of research grants.”

    Publishers talk about the “cost” of scholarly publishing, when what they really mean is the “profit” from scholarly publishing. If we use the technology available on any university campus or research institute where scholarly research is being conducted, we (and by we I mean librarians, information professionals, and scholar-authors) could design a scholarly information distribution system that is virtually cost free. Of course, we would not turn large profits (or any profit), but I must have missed the part where they explained why profit is supposed to be the objective of scholarly publishing.

    I don’t think it will happen, but I would love to see the end of scholarly journals in our career lifetime. If not in our career lifetime, I do believe that it will happen in the career lifetime of our younger colleagues.

  2. walt Says:

    Well, yes (as I’ve said before, although perhaps not recently): There’s a persistent conflation of “cost” with “price” (cost + overhead + profit, or, for societies, cost + overhead + subsidies for other activities–and maybe also profit because they’ve turned the publishing over to commercial houses), and there’s been surprisingly little willingness to challenge that conflation–even in the case of publishers whose profit margins are quite high.

    I’m not sure “virtually cost free” is quite right. Even with everything done digitally, there are still some costs associated with manuscript distribution, making sure referees respond, copyediting, and checking markup (if not doing markup)–and with some form of publicity for “published” articles. Those costs should be quite low, and some universities and libraries will (and in some cases already do) absorb them as part of their commitment to scholarship, but they’re real costs. I just can’t imagine they’re even remotely in the range of $3,000 per manuscript!

    As a humanist of sorts, I’d hate to see the end of scholarly journals in toto–I’d even hate to see the end of all print-form scholarly journals. I would surely like to see low-cost-of-production OA journals (whether overlays on repositories or in other forms, and whether or not they have print equivalents with non-refereed extra services at a reasonable price) supplant some large percentage of today’s overpriced ejournals. And maybe some fields will be served better by pure article-by-article dissemination, but I don’t think that’s universally true.

    But I’m veering from a comment reply to a mini-essay…

  3. Peter Suber Says:

    Hi Walt. I’m on the road, so I have to be brief. I agreed with Jan’s statement because the money now devoted to subscriptions is more than enough to pay for the OA alternative, and the economic problem is more about redirecting that money than finding new money. I certainly didn’t endorse the proposition that library budgets should pay publishers windfall profits. I’ve often said that OA journals that charge author-side fees (still a minority of OA journals, BTW) should keep the fees reasonably tied to the actual costs of an efficient operation.

    Jan once made the point in a different way. OA journal publishers can not only cover their costs but make a modest profit; but these profits will be in line with actual added value and will not approach the very high profits that some publishers make today. As a statement of how things could be, I agree with this too. I have no opinion on how well it describes the current situation at Springer.


  4. walt Says:

    Peter, I guess that wasn’t the way I read Velterop’s statement. It doesn’t say “some of the same money,” it says “the same money.” And there’s certainly no transparent indication that Springer wants to make a modest return over costs, as opposed to a substantial profit on what’s sometimes been called a pretty lavish overhead (at least for some of the big international houses). And Springer’s OA fee certainly doesn’t suggest that it’s aiming for the actual cost of an efficient operation with modest profits…

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