Blog Post

Scholarly Open Access: The Debate Rages

Scott Jaschik has a new piece in INSIDE HIGHER ED on "The Split Over Open Access." Here's the url:


Some University Press publishers signed a petition in favor of open access. Others argued that they believe in the principle but their universities hold them accountable to a bottom line as if they are businesses---and you cannot be expected to make a profit AND be expected to give away your only marketable product for free. This is the dilemma, and it is one that is also the subjet of Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson is also the editor of Wired Magazine and the author of The Long Tail. He is concerned (as I have been in many essays, columns, and blogs over the last decade) with the inherent contradictions in the idea that "information wants to be free" when it costs something to produce that information. Who pays the price of consumer's "free" choices? And, in the scholarly world, if we are evaluated on our publications, if our universities insist that our scholarly publishers break even, and yet if we want them to give away their products for free, who profits in the long run and who suffers? These are very important questions.


In addressing the Open Access dilemma at this year's AAUP meeting, Peter Givler,executive director of the AAUP [this is from the INSIDE HIGHER ED piece] "said that whilemembers of the association had the right to express their views, "wetook this position believing that it reflected the views of a strongmajority of our membership."

Givler said he was frustrated that"there's a lot of misunderstanding about the real issues here." He saidthat presses are very much in the business of "dissemination ofknowledge -- the issue is how to pay for it." While there is "a lot ofexperimentation going on," he said it was not clear that models broadlyexist to help university presses in an open access system.

"Thefundamental principle in copyright law is that a publisher is grantedby means of a contract certain exclusive rights in order to generatethe revenue to keep the whole enterprise going," Givler said. "We don'tmake profits."

To those who think university presses should beable to endorse open access now, he said, "look at what's going onright now. Look at the enormous financial pressure universities anduniversity presses are under." Even if the government is paying for theresearch covered by the current requirements, "the publishing processis not paid for by the taxpayers."


Incidentally, in a recent interview in Publisher's Weekly, Chris Anderson makes the very, very startingly claim that "Despite impressive growth rates, e-books currently make up about 1% of book sales. The benefit of watching others blunder their way into the unfolding digital world, however, might just turn out to be a blessing for book publishers, girding them with more experience about a more mature medium."--Publishers Weekly, May 18, 2009, p. 22.



Thanks for pointing out this important news and the reaction from the AAUP. To me, the biggest problem faced by university presses today is not poverty, but obscurity.

Millions of tax dollars pour into university research labs, but the results are hidden away in closed-access journals that only elite libraries can afford and a tiny audience reads. Surely this is one reason why our governments get away with policies so at odds with academic consensus on issues such as climate change and evolution. The fact that some universities are demanding that their presses be "accountable" to turn a profit blithely ignores the huge inflows of cash those universities already draw from their researchers' grants.

That said, as I'm sure you know there are numerous business models for open access journals. Some are new and untested, but others have been around for a while. Rockefeller University Press, for example, has been open access since 2001 and their revenues have increased during that period.

Of course, most of the new models involve new media in some way...which is why it's great to have forums like HASTAC to brainstorm and vet potential solutions.


I'm heading a Digital Futures Taskforce here at Duke and these are the kind of issues we plan to address. Thanks for writing!


I'm more than willing to say that I don't know a whole lot about the publishing industry either within or without university presses. But what I would most want to know is where the costs lie for the university presses.

If we are moving to a model of open access, then it seems to me that the publishing options will increasingly be happening on the web, where the costs are very low (i.e., the distribution costs are negligible, especially once the journal's presence/design has been created. Sure there might be traffic spikes that would affect things, but do we really think that a scholarly journal is going to be the next Boing Boing?

Sure, there are still personnel at the presses/journals. The editors who are in charge of acquisitions, for example. But can their jobs be rethought in light of the technologies of the Internet? Could we crowdsource the review process (even more than it is already?).