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Magazines > Information Today > May 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 5 — May 2004

DEPARTMENT
LETTER TO THE EDITOR


Accelerating the Transition to the Optimal and Inevitable

In the Internet age, open access (OA) has indeed become optimal and inevitable. It remains only to make it actual! In an article [Information Today, April 2004] that is largely on target, Richard Poynder notes that there are two ways to provide OA: 1) publishing articles in OA journals and 2) publishing them in conventional journals but self-archiving them publicly on the Web as well. The UK Select Committee has so far ignored number 2, even though it is providing and can provide far more immediate OA.

But then Poynder adds:

[I]f governments truly want to help, they need to also ensure that scholarly communication does not break down in the process of transition.... Self-archiving ... is the fastest growing form of open access ... with or without publisher approval. At the same time ... the library community is voting with its feet by aggressively cutting journal subscriptions.... The danger is that these growing acts of civil protest could, in the short term, exacerbate the crisis. For if research institutions and universities cancel more and more journal subscriptions and open- access publishing cannot immediately fill the gap, those in need of research may find themselves having to sift through a hodgepodge of (frequently unrefereed) self-archived material....

This is, unfortunately, a non sequitur! There is no civil protest and no prospect of a breakdown! Self-archiving one's own articles is perfectly legal, has been growing since at least 1991, and already has the official "green light" from close to 60 percent of publishers, all eager to demonstrate that although they may not wish to lower their prices, nor to take the risk of converting to OA publishing, they have no wish to be seen as blocking what is optimal and inevitable for research and researchers. But the optimal and inevitable is OA, not necessarily lower journal prices or OA publishing!

Although it was the library community and its journal budget crisis that first brought the research-access problem to the research community's attention, the journal-pricing problem and the research-access problem are not the same problem. Libraries cannot cancel journals unless their users no longer need access to them. Open-access publishing grows journal by journal. But OA self-archiving grows anarchically, article by article. So it is not at all clear whether and when libraries can cancel any particular journal, yet the research community's access problem keeps shrinking as OA grows.

Nor is there a hodgepodge to worry about. OA means open access to the article; that is what authors self-archive. They may also self-archive the unrefereed pre-print, and later revisions, and other things too, but the measure of the amount of OA there is at any given point is the percentage of the annual 2.5 million articles (published in the world's 24,000 peer-reviewed journals) that are openly accessible on the Web: currently 5 percent through being published in OA journals and about 20 percent through being self-archived, much of it accessible through the "google" of the OA literature, OAIster.

One can speculate about hypothetical transition scenarios, and I and others have, but there is nothing either speculative or hypothetical about what is needed now, which is a systematic policy on the part of universities and research institutions worldwide to provide OA for all their journal article output. A JISC survey (Swan & Brown 2004) "asked authors to say how they would feel if their employer or funding body required them to deposit copies of their published articles in one or more ... repositories. The vast majority ... said they would do so willingly."

That is what the UK Select Committee should be worrying about building up (not about a counterfactual breakdown), if we are all to reach the optimal and inevitable while we are still compos mentis and able to benefit from it!

—Stevan Harnad
University of Southampton

Richard Poynder responds:

I thank Stevan for his comments. My understanding is that Stevan believes OA could be adequately achieved if researchers self-archived their published papers and publishers downsized to a peer-review role only. I doubt this is a likely scenario.

Firstly, today's commercial journal publishers will surely exit the market if their profits fall dramatically, which the above scenario implies. Presumably, they would be replaced by new OA publishers, but in a disjointed fashion. Secondly, given the significant budgetary pressures that librarians face, they will meanwhile continue to cancel journal subscriptions.

Self-archiving, therefore, will likely prove a temporary phenomenon, as we undergo a transition from conventional to OA publishing. During the transition, it will become more difficult for researchers to find the papers they need, since increasingly they will find themselves behind a subscription firewall. The papers may also be "out there somewhere" on the Web, but finding them could be challenging. Valuable as services like OAIster are, they cannot (yet) match products like ScienceDirect—particularly given the varied nature of the content. OAIster today covers just 277 institutions and publishes a warning about duplicate items and dead links.

The challenge, therefore, will lie in managing the transition, which is why the Select Committee would do well to discuss self-archiving.

With regard to the legality of researchers self-archiving papers where copyright has been assigned to the publisher and permission to self-archive unforthcoming from that publisher, Stevan is probably referring to the "pre-print/corrigenda" strategy. I doubt any publisher would sue, but I am not aware that this has been tested in the courts.

I think many researchers do view self-archiving as a form of civil protest. Based on public statements from libraries like Harvard, Cornell, and Stanford, many librarians clearly see journal subscription cancellation in that light.

Indeed, librarians will be puzzled by Stevan's assertion that they cannot cancel journals unless their users no longer need access. They may also resist his claim that the journal-pricing problem is separate from the research-access problem. I fear that the greatest casualty of the scholarly publishing crisis will be the traditional goodwill between librarians and academics.

 


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