The Added Value of Providing Free Access to Paid-Up Content

On Sun, Sep 27, 2009 at 8:07 PM, Elizabeth E. Kirk, Dartmouth College Library, on liblicense-l, wrote:

    ”Stevan, it is, as you say, about content. But it’s not only about the content of Dartmouth‘s research output, or that of our peers. It’s also about the value of the content provided through publishers, and the willingness of readers and institutions to look for that value.”

Elizabeth, I am not quite sure what you have in mind with the “it” that it “is… about.” But if it’s OA (Open Access), then the issue is not the value of the content or the contribution of the publisher or the willingness of readers and institutions to “look for” that value.

The value of peer-reviewed publication is already very explicitly enshrined in the fact that OA’s specific target content is peer-reviewed content. What OA is equally explicitly seeking — now that the advent of the online era has at last made it possible — is free (online) access to that valued content, so it is no longer accessible only to those users whose institutions can afford to subscribe to the journal in which it was published, but to all would-be users, web-wide, in order to maximize research usage, impact and progress.

The cost of the portion of that value that is added by publishers is being paid in full by institutional subscriptions today. Hence what is missing is not a recognition of that value, but open access to that valued content.

That is why it is so urgent and important that each institution should first adopt a pre-emptively to Gold OA funding compacts like COPE before or instead of mandating Green OA self-archiving is not only a waste of a lot of scarce money in exchange for very little OA value: it is also a failure to add OA value to all of the institution’s research output at no extra cost (by mandating Green OA self-archiving).

“We both agree that the peer review process is a critical step in creating the finished work of scholarship, as well as “certifying” the work.”

Yes indeed; but peer review is already being paid for — in full, many times over — for most journals today (including most of the journals users want and need most) through multi-institutional subscription fees, paid by those institutions that can afford to subscribe to any given journal. (There are about 10,000 universities and research institutions in all, worldwide, and 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, publishing about 2.5 million articles per year. No institution can afford to subscribe to more than a small fraction of those journals.)

To repeat: The value of peer review is not at issue. What is at issue is access — access to paid-up, published, peer-reviewed articles.

“Currently, open access journals–as you rightly put it–are a very small subset of the publishing pie.”

And committing to fund that small subset of an institution’s own contribution to the “publishing pie” today, before or instead of committing to mandate OA for the vast supra-set of that institution’s total journal article output, is committing to spend a lot of extra money for little OA while failing to provide a lot of OA for no extra money at all.

“Without a predictable financial stream, there are few avenues of growing an OA sector that can furnish peer review, copy editing, DOIs, and all of the other parts of publishing that have costs involved.”

What is missing and urgently needed today — for research and researchers — is not “predictable financial streams” but online access to every piece of peer-reviewed research for every researcher whose institution cannot afford subscription access to it today. The “peer review, copy editing, DOIs, and all of the other parts of publishing that have costs involved” for those articles are already being paid in full today — by the subscription fees of those institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journals in which they are published.

“Open Access” is about Access, not about “financial streams.” The wide-open “avenue” that urgently needs to be taken today (for the sake of research and researchers today) is the already-constructed, and immediately traversable (green) toll-road to accessing the vast paid-up subscription stream that already exists today, not the uncertain and still-to-be-constructed (golden) road of “growing” a future “OA sector,” by paying still more, over and above the tolls already being paid, for a new “stream” of Gold OA journals.

Institutions first need to provide immediate access to the peer-reviewed content they already produce today (its peer review already paid in full by subscriptions from all the institutions that can afford subscriptions to the journals in which that content already appears, today). Having done that, there’s no harm at all in an institution’s going on to invest its spare cash in growing new Gold OA “sectors.”

But there’s plenty of harm in doing so instead, pre-emptively, instead of providing the Green OA all institutions are already in the position to provide, cost-free, today.

“Trying to grow that kind of OA sector by supporting those costs, and overcoming the misconception that OA means “not peer reviewed” (which many people said about 10-15 years ago about all electronic journals, if you remember) is a honking good reason to join the compact.”

Misconceptions about OA certainly abound. But the fact that OA means OA to peer-reviewed content has been stated explicitly from the very outset by the OA movement (BOAI), loud and clear for all those with ears to hear the honking. Committing to funding Gold OA for a small subset of an institution’s peer-reviewed output instead of first mandating Green OA for the vast supra-set of an institution’s peer-reviewed output is a rather pricey way to drive home the home-truth that OA’s target content is indeed, and always has been, peer-reviewed content…

“That kind of OA sector, which of course can only be built when more institutions join us, is one that may create actual competition in journal publishing over time, by which I mean competition that results in lower prices, more players, and multiple models. It could include, as well, any current publisher who might wish to move to producer-pays from reader-pays.”

“Prices, players, models, competition, payment, sectors”: What has become of access — access today, to today’s peer-reviewed research — in all this Gold Fever and “sector-growth” fervor, which seems to have left the pressing immediate needs of research and researchers by the wayside in favor of speculative future economics?

“We care very much about the stability of and access to our research.”

Then why doesn’t Dartmouth mandate Green OA self-archiving, today?

“We are working on that from a number of fronts and in multiple conversations. The compact is not our answer to everything. But we certainly won’t step back from an opportunity to help create a more vibrant publishing landscape.”

But why is committing to provide a little extra Gold OA for a small part of Dartmouth’s peer-reviewed research output, at extra cost, being acted upon today, whereas committing to provide Green OA to all the rest of Dartmouth’s peer-reviewed research output at no extra cost (by mandating Green OA) is still idling in “conversation” mode? — especially since the cost of the value-added peer review for all the rest is already being paid in full by existing institutional subscriptions?

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum