Aug 222007

I’ve just finished writing a second draft of an article aimed at giving advice to societies on the choice of the publishing partner, which will (I hope) appear in a future issue of Learned Publishing. The article is essentially a distillation of what I’ve learned over the past few years working with a fair number of societies either renegotiating the publishing contracts or going out to tender for a new deal.

My article is intended to be pretty well neutral on what societies should be looking for in terms of the business model: whether to be moving to open access or to be aiming for the biggest financial return. The advice to societies is to work out in advance exactly what it is you want from a publisher before you start the beauty parade: as in many things in life, if you don’t know what you want, you probably won’t get it.

But it seems this “journal transfer market” is potentially under fire as a result of the decision by the American Anthropological Association to move their journals from the University of California Press to Wiley-Blackwell. There’s a longish article in Inside Higher Education, Publishing & Values, that discusses the issues in an interesting and readable way:

Some object to the move from a university press to a commercial entity and fear a lessening of commitment to important scholarship that may not make money. Others see this as a sign that the anthropology association — which has won praise for the online offerings of its journals — is taking a hard line against the open access movement embraced by many of its members (and the library world). Still others see the move as a sign that scholarly societies are facing tough decisions about their missions — without good mechanisms for involving the academic rank and file in making decisions.

There are two underlying issues discussed in the article. One is the question of whether university presses are staying competitive (or indeed can in principle stay competitive):

At the same time, Wantland [journals manager for the University of Illinois Press and chair of the Scholarly Journals Committee of the Association of American University Presses] said that the anthropology move may force university presses to look at their weaknesses. “Not only are we all saddened, but we have to take a step back and see what it is we are not offering,” she said. In particular, she said in-house staff to work on technology may be an area where many university presses can’t compete with the big commercial operations.

Clifford Lynch of CNI was quoted as saying:

“The innovation side of this is particularly tough,” he said, and much more difficult financially than just going open access and putting basic articles online. “When you start thinking not only about can we go digital in our publishing because it makes it easier to get worldwide access, but because it may allow us to publish different kinds of things, exploring a richer palette of scholarly communication and bringing in primary data and visual materials, that takes capital,” he said. “It takes human capital. It takes financial capital. It takes technical capital. And a lot of these societies don’t have it and don’t have access to it, which is why some of them feel they have to go off to large players,”

The other issue concerns the role of societies and whether they shouldn’t be making the journal content universally available rather than living off rich journal rents to fund their other activities (quoting Lynch again):

“They’ve got missions that often speak very broadly to disseminating and advancing knowledge in their discipline. They’ve got a membership that in some disciplines is increasingly convinced that the way to do that is more openness in publication and more innovation in publication, but these societies have got sort of addicted to these revenue streams from their publication programs over the last few decades, and are trying to figure out if they want to make the transition to a new model and — if so — how do they navigate the transition.”

Of course, the publishers (both commercial and not-for-profit) that are generating these addictive revenue streams argue that their model is the one that has delivered the biggest increase in access to literature ever: their retained capital allowed them to make the technology investments that Lynch speaks of, and the (consortia-based) licensing model has broadened access enormously while simultaneously cutting the average cost per journal article use by an order of magnitude or so.

(In the case of the AAA news, there’s also an important back story that complicates the issue. The AAA leadership last year came out against the proposed US legislation requiring tax-funded researcher to deposit an open access copy of their research papers within 6 months of publication. This brought them into conflict with many individual AAS members, who were “enthusiastic about the legislation and were stunned and angry to find their association coming out against it.”)

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