The Finch Fiasco, the RCUK Ruckus and the Publisher Lobby

Sally Morris (Morris Associates) wrote on GOAL:

“Stevan overlooks the difference between ‘publishing’ an article in a repository and in a journal.   As long as researchers prefer the latter (and there are lots of reasons why they seem to, in addition to peer review) then there will be a demand for journals in which to publish: selection and collecting together of articles of particular relevance to a given audience, and of a certain range of quality;  ‘findability’;  kudos of the journal’s title (and impact factor);  copy-editing;  linking;  quality of presentation;  etc etc…
“And peer review is in any case not a contextless operation.  The selection of articles for publication in journal X is a relative matter;  not just ‘is the research soundly conducted and honestly reported?’ but ‘is it of sufficient relevance, interest and value to our readers in particular?'”

I completely agree with Sally about peer review: It is a decision by qualified specialists about whether a paper meets a journal’s established standards for quality as well as subject matter, as certified by the journal’s title and track-record, and, if not, how to revise it, if possible. (And I explicitly say so in the longer commentaries of which I only posted an excerpt on GOAL.)

But that, of course, does not change a thing about the fact that peer review is merely a service, which can be unbundled from the many other products and services with which it is currently co-bundled. It certainly does not imply that in order for referees or editors to make a decision about journal subject matter, there has to exist a set of articles co-bundled in a monthly or quarterly collection, being sold together as a co-bundled product, online or on-paper!

As to the rest of the co-bundled products and services Sally mentions: If she’s right, then journals have nothing to fear from Green OA mandates, since those only apply to the author’s peer-reviewed, revised, accepted final draft. That’s what’s self-archived in the author’s institutional repository. If all those other products and services are indeed so indispensable, then reaching 100% Green OA globally will not make journal subscriptions unsustainable, because the need, and hence the market, for all those other essential co-bundled products and services Sally mentioned will still be there.

The only difference will be that all users — not just subscribers — will have access to all peer-reviewed, revised, accepted final drafts online. (That’s Green OA, and once we are there, I can stop wasting my time and energy trying to get us there, as I have been doing for nearly 20 years now!) 

But then can I ask Sally, please, to call off her fellow publishers who have been relentlessly (and successfully) lobbying BIS (and anyone else that will listen) not to mandate Green OA, and have been imposing embargoes on Green OA, on the (rather incoherent) argument that (1) Green OA is inadequate for researchers’ needs and has already proved to be a failure and (2) that if Green OA succeeded it would destroy publishing, peer review, and research quality?

Otherwise this (incoherent) argument becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we have the Finch Fiasco and RCUK Ruckus to show for it.

Stevan Harnad