Monday, July 30, 2012

Amherst to Annapolis

I want to compliment Bryn Geffert for a very lucid and provocative presentation to the Annapolis Group on scholarly publishing. I'd heard about this from my Dean, and when I started watching it I kind of expected the same old story of rising and unsustainable journals prices. He definitely covers that ground, but then takes it a step further and analyzes ways in which the other parts of the publishing ecosystem, particularly scholarly monographs, have suffered because of the cost pressures in the serials area.

One of his suggestions revolves around collaborating between libraries to establish standards about which publications are overpriced and working together to boycott them. I think this makes a lot of sense but I wonder if cooperating in this way would be legally problematic at all. In any case, using libraries' economic power as buyers to say no when the price is too high is what we need to do.

The boldest part of the talk proposes that libraries use their acquisitions budgets, and even some of their staff lines in the case of Amherst, to fund open access publishing ventures. It's a simple equation really: take money from libraries that is going to pay publishers for books that are often of poor quality and use it to support high quality publishing ventures whose products are open to the world. 

If we extrapolate this proposal into a grand vision of a new scholarly communication ecosystem (and I'm not sure Geffert intends this), universities and colleges would subsidize a wide variety of high quality presses that would all produce open access work. The money would y come from library acquisitions budgets.  I think this is a good approach that will work in some cases, but it won't be the entire new reality  It's sort of like pointing to wind or solar power as the energy of the future. They are an important, increasing in relevance and have many advantages, but they will be part of a larger mixture in the future. In scholarly communication, I think we will have lots of publishing models coexisting for awhile.

At a well-endowed school like Amherst, it's easy to see a library budget as a relatively fixed resource to be deployed in various ways. Given the widespread cost pressures on colleges and universities, a press funded through what used to be library acquisitions budget might be financially sustainable if it ties in strongly to the mission of its parent institution. But 10 years down the road when the next economic crisis hits, will it?

I'm more optimistic about a bigger shift in thinking that may take place if scholars and institutions begin to see the review and dissemination of research as part of the research costs.  Not sure how we'll get there but legislation that mandates open access to federally funded research is a good step.

For a contrast to his talk, have a look at this piece in Scholarly Kitchen, which reviews the Robert Levine book Free Ride.  While I am sympathetic with the notion that the current system could better compensate creatives, the demonizing of Creative Commons and open access journals is ridiculous.