Big Deals, Big Macs and Consortial Licensing

Ann Okerson (as interviewed by Richard Poynder) is committed to licensing. I am not sure whether the commitment is ideological or pragmatic, but it’s clearly a lifelong (“asymptotic”) commitment by now.

I was surprised to see the direction Ann ultimately took because — as I have admitted many times — it was Ann who first opened my eyes to (what eventually came to be called) “Open Access.”

In the mid and late 80’s I was still just in the thrall of the scholarly and scientific potential of the revolutionarily new online medium itself (“Scholarly Skywriting”), eager to get everything to be put online. It was Ann’s work on the serials crisis that made me realize that it was not enough just to get it all online: it also had to be made accessible (online) to all of its potential users, toll-free — not just to those whose institutions could afford the access-tolls (licenses).

And even that much I came to understand, sluggishly, only after I had first realized that what set apart the writings in question was not that they were (as I had first naively dubbed them) “esoteric” (i.e., they had few users) but that they were peer-reviewed research journal articles, written by researchers solely for impact, not for income.

But I don’t think the differences between Ann and me can be set down to ideology vs. pragmatics. I too am far too often busy trying to free the growth of open access from the ideologues (publishing reformers, rights reformers (Ann’s “open use” zealots), peer review reformers, freedom of information reformers) who are slowing the progress of access to peer-reviewed journal articles (from “now” to “better”) by insisting only and immediately on what they believe is the “best.” Like Ann, I, too, am all pragmatics (repository software, analyses of the OA impact advantage, mandates, analyses of mandate effeciveness).

So Ann just seems to have a different sense of what can (hence should) be done, now, to maximize access, and how (as well as how fast). And after her initial, infectious inclination toward toll-free access (which I and others caught from her) she has apparently concluded that what is needed is to modify the terms of the tolls (i.e., licensing).

This is well-illustrated by Ann’s view on SCOAP3: “All it takes is for libraries to agree that what they?ve now paid as subscription fees for those journals will be paid instead to CERN, who will in turn pay to the publishers as subsidy for APCs.”

I must alas disagree with this view, on entirely pragmatic — indeed logical — grounds: the transition from annual institutional subscription fees to annual consortial OA publication fees is an incoherent, unscalable, unsustainable Escherian scheme that contains the seeds of its own dissolution, rather than a pragmatic means of reaching a stable “asymptote”: Worldwide, across all disciplines, there are P institutions, Q journals, and R authors, publishing S articles per year. The only relevant item is the article. The annual consortial licensing model — reminiscent of the Big Deal — is tantamount to a global oligopoly and does not scale (beyond CERN!).

So if SCOAP3 is the pragmatic basis for Ann’s “predict[ion that] we?ll see such journals evolve into something more like ‘full traditional OA’ before too much longer” then one has some practical basis for scepticism — a scepticism Ann shares when it comes to “hybrid Gold” OA journals — unless of course such a transition to Fool’s Gold is both mandated and funded by governments, as the UK and Netherlands governments have lately proposed, under the influence of their publishing lobbies! But the globalization of such profligate folly seems unlikely on the most pragmatic grounds of all: affordability. (The scope for remedying world hunger, disease or injustice that way are marginally better — and McDonalds would no doubt be interested in such a yearly global consortial pre-payment deal for their Big Macs too?)

I also disagree (pragmatically) with Ann’s apparent conflation of the access problem for journal articles with the access problem for books. (It’s the inadequacy of the “esoteric” criterion again. Many book authors — hardly pragmatists — still dream of sales & riches, and fear that free online access would thwart these dreams, driving away the prestigious publishers whose imprimaturs distinguish their work from vanity press.)

Pragmatically speaking, OA to articles has already proved slow enough in coming, and has turned out to require mandates to induce and embolden authors to make their articles OA. But for articles, at least, there is author consensus that OA is desirable, hence there is the motivation to comply with OA mandates from authors’ institutions and funders. Books, still a mixed bag, will have to wait. Meanwhile, no one is stopping those book authors who want to make their books free online from picking publishers who agree?

And there are plenty of pragmatic reasons why the librarian-obsession — perhaps not ideological, but something along the same lines — with the Version-of-Record is misplaced when it comes to access to journal articles: The author’s final, peer-reviewed, accepted draft means the difference between night and day for would-be users whose institutions cannot afford toll-access to the publisher’s proprietary VoR.

And for the time being the toll-access VoR is safe [modulo the general digital-preservation problem, which is not an OA problem], while subscription licenses are being paid by those who can afford them. CHORUS and SHARE have plenty of pragmatic advantages for publishers (and ideological ones for librarians), but they are vastly outweighed by their practical disadvantages for research and researchers — of which the biggest is that they leave access-provision in the hands of publishers (and their licensing conditions).

About the Marie-Antoinette option for the developing world — R4L — the less said, the better. The pragmatics really boil down to time: the access needs of both the developing and the developed world are pressing. Partial and makeshift solutions are better than nothing, now. But it’s been “now” for an awfully long time; and time is not an ideological but a pragmatic matter; so is lost research usage and impact.

Ann says: “Here?s the fondest hope of the pragmatic OA advocate: that we settle on a series of business practices that truly make the greatest possible collection of high-value material accessible to the broadest possible audience at the lowest possible cost ? not just lowest cost to end users, but lowest cost to all of us.”

Here’s a slight variant, by another pragmatic OA advocate: “that we settle on a series of research community policies that truly make the greatest possible collection of peer-reviewed journal articles accessible online free for all users, to the practical benefit of all of us.”

The online medium has made this practically possible. The publishing industry — pragmatists rather than ideologists — will adapt to this new practical reality. Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

Let me close by suggesting that perhaps something Richard Poynder wrote is not quite correct either: He wrote “It was [the] affordability problem that created the accessibility problem that OA was intended to solve.”

No, it was the creation of the online medium that made OA not only practically feasible (and optimal) for research and researchers, but inevitable.

Stevan Harnad