Harvard Library pushes open access

by Henry Farrell on April 23, 2012

“This”:http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k77982&tabgroupid=icb.tabgroup143448 looks like a bombshell announcement to me (I’m not aware of the internal politics behind the announcement, but I’m presuming that Robert Darnton’s fingerprints are all over it). Discuss.

bq. We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. … The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. … It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. … since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views:

bq. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F). Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F). If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).

Some of this may be hardball bargaining with the two unnamed providers (one of which, I presume, has a name starting with E). But not very much – to state the problem so bluntly, and to encourage faculty to stop publishing in, and resign from the boards of non-open access journals sounds more like pushing for system-change than for a better deal within the current system. This may be the beginning of the end.



J. Otto Pohl 04.23.12 at 6:11 pm

I recently had an article accepted for publication in a journal published by Springer. They give the author the option of making the article open access, but the author or somebody on behalf of the author has to pay a big chunk of cash. It was about the equivalent of two months salary for me. I am guessing that would be around one month salary maybe a little less for many assistant professors in the US. So while the option of open access was there and I would have preferred it. I and the vast majority of people publishing in that particular journal have to forgo the option do to the outrageous expense.


michael e sullivan 04.23.12 at 6:13 pm

I’m very glad that Harvard is doing this, as it’s one of maybe a few dozen institutions who really do have the resources to continue paying the thieves if they choose. And of course, all such institutions have enough prestige that if did so choose, they would drastically slow the process of reclaiming this market for vendors who charge reasonable rates for the value they provide (distribution/hosting/marketing), rather than charging primarily gatekeeping rents for content they have almost nothing to do with providing (the actual scholarship, peer review and editing).


js. 04.23.12 at 6:16 pm

Any thoughts about the other (non-E) provider? Might its name start with an S or a W?

In any case, if this isn’t, or isn’t primarily, a bargaining move, it’s fantastic.


William Timberman 04.23.12 at 6:20 pm

Having worked most of my life in an academic library, and watched our University Librarian succumb to a journal publisher’s SLAPP suit (the university’s lawyers declined to defend him in a suit over an article he’d authored, which attacked journal publishers’ pricing policies) I’m glad to see this finally come to a head.

Machiavelli’s advice about not striking a prince without taking care to kill him seems relevant here, as does Franklin’s about hanging together lest you be hanged separately.


ingrid robeyns 04.23.12 at 6:26 pm

“move prestige to open access (F)” – this is really what tenured faculty, and especially prominent faculty, should do!


JW Mason 04.23.12 at 6:31 pm

This is good news. Universities are an important locus of non-market values in our society but they’ve mostly been on the defensive. It’s great to see some pushing back against the commodification of scholarship.


Substance McGravitas 04.23.12 at 6:32 pm

I wonder about this assertion:

Here’s an interesting wrinkle I’ve encountered in a few places. Many scholars sign work-made-for-hire deals with the universities that employ them. That means that the copyright for the work they produce on the job is vested with their employers — the universities — and not the scholars themselves. Yet these scholars routinely enter into publishing contracts with the big journals in which they assign the copyright — which isn’t theirs to bargain with — to the journals. This means that in a large plurality of cases, the big journals are in violation of the universities’ copyright. Technically, the universities could sue the journals for titanic fortunes. Thanks to the “strict liability” standard in copyright, the fact that the journals believed that they had secured the copyright from the correct party is not an effective defense, though technically the journals could try to recoup from the scholars, who by and large don’t have a net worth approaching one percent of the liability the publishers face.

If institutions have a bomb as big as that to drop I’d be surprised if they hadn’t discovered it previously.


Alex K. 04.23.12 at 7:02 pm

“Universities are an important locus of non-market values in our society but they’ve mostly been on the defensive.”

This has nothing to do with market or non-market values — it has everything to do with not being a total sucker. Publishers use the carrot of reputation to get most of the work done by academics for free — and then charge the libraries they use exorbitant prices.


AcademicLurker 04.23.12 at 7:03 pm

“move prestige to open access (F)” – this is really what tenured faculty, and especially prominent faculty, should do!

In the natural sciences (esp. biosciences) PLOS has been surprisingly successful at doing this.


GW 04.23.12 at 7:10 pm

Substance McGravitas:

I’m skeptical that that bomb would be anything but a dud as all major research Universities have long given tacit consent to the commercial publication of their own work product by subscribing to the journals for decades, giving their content ample review by specialists and librarians, and by allowing their use in hiring, tenure and promotion decisions.


Peter Kurze 04.23.12 at 7:34 pm

That the universities are being robbed to support the interests of their academic populations is certainly bad enough, but worse still, the current system makes the bulk of research permanently and completely inaccessible to the rest of us.


bianca steele 04.23.12 at 8:00 pm

To add to GW@10, universities have long given tacit consent for those commercial publishers to determine access policies, implicitly, by determining costs. At least, in the US that is the case. Is the same true in other countries, or do prices follow the pattern of the [censored for technical reasons] industry?


Medrawt 04.23.12 at 8:02 pm

So as michael e sullivan implies, this is Harvard throwing its weight around for what they (and I) perceive to be the common good, right? I’m not up on the latest rates for subscriptions to these periodicals, but the list of things Harvard “cannot afford” is pretty small.


Eli Rabett 04.23.12 at 8:07 pm

Eli would not be surprised if the next move is Elsevier’s cutting Harvard off. At that point the needed rallying cry is “We are all Harvard”


bianca steele 04.23.12 at 9:15 pm

For some reason this post made me think of how Harvard closed its gates to pedestrian access and AFAIK all non-members of the actual Harvard community who would otherwise have been welcomed onto campus, for the duration of Occupy Harvard’s protest. Of course there’s no real similarity. A number of academics have been protesting the publishers’ copyright policies for a while, for interfering with their legitimate scholarly needs, not to mention Darnton’s advocacy of universal online libraries, and this seems of a piece with those wishes for change in the system.


fish 04.23.12 at 9:16 pm

Any article coming from US gov labs (even in part) cannot be copyrighted by the publisher. The copyright is owned by the gov. Not sure how that plays out in terms of being able to profit from selling the articles.


Bloix 04.23.12 at 9:55 pm

Why no suggestion that Harvard faculty should decline requests to participate in peer review of articles being considered for publication in Elsevier journals?


Keith Edwards 04.23.12 at 11:16 pm

About Fucking Time!

Several universities have been pushing for this move to Open Access for years, but it doesn’t much matter if Podunk U threatens the publishers. They’ll laugh. Maybe now that the movement has the weight of someone like Harvard behind the push, we’ll get some change.


Matt 04.23.12 at 11:44 pm

I am pleased to see another prominent effort toward open access. Some disciplines seem to be further along than others: PLoS is a respected venue for at least some aspects of biological and medical research. The arXiv is doing well with physics and (to a lesser extent) mathematics, even though it is not a full replacement for a journal system. Chemistry seems to be lagging: the open access journals (last I looked) were rare and clogged with dubious and/or low-significance papers. What of engineering, the humanities, and multidisciplinary fields?

The battle for open access going forward is not yet won, but it is worth considering the next front: opening up the huge archives of the past. Even if 21st century researchers eventually publish exclusively in open access journals, most of the past is locked up with copyright. Today I have to pay $30 to read a 5 page article written when my grandmother was an infant*. The marginal cost of production for electronic copies of this paper is visible only under a compound microscope. None of the $30 goes to the original authors/reviewers/editors/typesetters, who are all dead by now and didn’t get royalties even when they were alive. The complete 20th century journal archives of Springer, Elsevier, and Wiley combined could be offered to the public on a 3-figure monthly operating budget if not for gargantuan copyright rents.

*There are cheaper alternatives, illegal and/or more complicated, but they require considerable knowledge and effort to discover and use.


AWS 04.23.12 at 11:50 pm

Harvard is probably nowhere near “untenable” on these subscriptions, unless the publishers are charging based on prestige and not enrollment. But many other schools below R1 in the U.S. are nearing untenable status on subscriptions. And, frankly, the current situation cannot hold. The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, now published by Wiley, is open-access, and has had been highly-regarded in the field for some time.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 12:55 am

This so-called “open access” that Harvard is pushing for will be an absolute disaster for scholars at universities with less outside funding, or for scholars in subjects like mine (mathematics) whose outside grants are small compared to the open access publishing fees. This isn’t Harvard fighting for all of us. It’s Harvard fighting for Harvard.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 12:58 am

Matt, one of us is misunderstanding what is meant by “open access” here. There is no way at all that publishing will be replaced by something like the arxiv, and that’s a good thing – all the suggestions I have seen how to do this while keeping some semblance of peer review increase the already ludicrously high power a few faculty members at a few elite universities have over the job market. So I’m assuming open access means what it means in many sciences: the authors pay for being published. And that is a horrible idea.


js. 04.24.12 at 1:06 am

This so-called “open access” that Harvard is pushing for will be an absolute disaster for scholars at universities with less outside funding, or for scholars in subjects like mine (mathematics) whose outside grants are small compared to the open access publishing fees. This isn’t Harvard fighting for all of us. It’s Harvard fighting for Harvard.

Whoa. I didn’t think author fees were part of the proposed model. Isn’t it supposed to be genuine open access? I’m pretty certain that there’re (at least) a few good philosophy journals that work this way (Philosophers’ Imprint off the top my head, but I know it’s not the only one.)


js. 04.24.12 at 1:12 am

all the suggestions I have seen how to do this while keeping some semblance of peer review increase the already ludicrously high power a few faculty members at a few elite universities have over the job market.

Ok, not getting this. (My last post got cross-posted with your last post.) Peer review, at least of the sort I’m acquainted with is already for free, as in the “peers” reviewing the papers do it for free. And the reviewers are very often not high powered faculty members (I mean I’ve peer-reviewed papers, and no one would would describe me as high-powered etc.). I imagine you have something specific in mind, but I’m not seeing the connection.


Witt 04.24.12 at 1:30 am

To a total outsider, this sounds like very good news.

(And amen to Peter Kurze at 11. I have depended on the kindness of Internet friends for the occasional article over the years, but my daily nonprofit work is often really hampered by lack of access.)


JW Mason 04.24.12 at 1:44 am

I’m assuming open access means what it means in many sciences: the authors pay for being published.

If that is what’s being proposed, then I retract my enthusiasm. But is it?


John Quiggin 04.24.12 at 2:07 am

I think the panic about author fees is a bit overstated. In economics at least there’s a sharp divide between the journals put out by societies (almost all reasonably priced, even when the publication is managed by a commercial publisher) and those owned by commercial publishers particularly Elsevier.

Some of the society journals have submission fees or page charges. But (with only one exception i can think of) they are very modest and routinely remitted for authors who can’t get an employer to pay them.


john b 04.24.12 at 2:10 am

I think Christian is conflating the tangential point that Otto raises in #1 (that currently, you may bribe the mainstream journal publishers to make your paper publicly available if you can afford to do so) with the actual issue of open access. Open access journals, like the JCMC mentioned upthread, do not charge for submissions.


John Quiggin 04.24.12 at 2:11 am

As regards archive access, JSTOR isn’t perfect but it offers a huge archive to public libraries at a very modest cost (the maximum is $5000 + $3000/yr for a library serving a population of 1 million or more).



christian_h 04.24.12 at 2:12 am

Ok I retract – this was my baseless assumption, possibly only based on my mistrust of anything Harvard. It’s entirely possible I misread and they meant open access including free publishing.

js. (24.), I only have seen what’s being discussed in math. Here is how I see it: if we move away completely from a publishing model that needs… well… publisher (which does not have to be Elsevier, Wiley or Springer, but still will have non-trivial overhead costs that cannot be magicked away) to something like the arxiv, then there will be no traditional editing process (editing involves a lot of administrative work by a number of people and expecting them to do this for free would be outrageous). This means, there’s nobody who can assign a suitable peer reviewer.

So we are left with two options:

1. No peer review. Everything’s posted (if from someone at a reputable scientific institution, say – the arxiv model) and the readers will figure out what’s good, what’s correct, what’s total bs. I find this problematic on its face, but one can argue that in practice I’m not waiting for new papers to be published but simply follow the preprint servers anyway – fair enough. The real problem appears when we relate all this to the hiring process, see below.

2. We replace current anonymous peer review by some kind of crowd-sourcing process, say similar to mathoverflow or dailykos. This would not be anonymous. I guarantee that as a result the opinion of Prof. X from Harvard about a paper would count much more than that of Prof. Y from UIC – even if Prof. Y is an expert on the topic. Meaning, Prof. X’s comments would be rated higher than Prof. Y’s.

Either way, currently the journals articles appear in have influence on the academic hiring process – wildly imperfect, but crucially based on the articles themselves, not merely on the opinion of elite academics about the author. Either no peer review, or the crowd sourcing process described above would, on the other hand, magnify the already too large influence on academic hiring enjoyed by the reputation of reviewers – currently in the form of letters of recommendation and graduating department. I could tell you any number of examples of candidates hired over what I (and not only me) consider better qualified ones simply due to the fact that the eventual hire graduated from elite school X and had letters from professors A,B and C at elite school X (and maybe elite school Y in the same town). I would be extremely loath to embrace any change that makes this problem worse. I don’t want to replace commodified science with feudalism.


David Roberts 04.24.12 at 2:14 am

Not all open access is author-pays. It can be in sciences where cash is splashed around like there’s no tomorrow, but there is always the ‘green’ option – author archiving of article on public servers as arXiv does, in parallel with publishing in a journal of any ilk. Elsevier recently changed their policy to allow final prepublication manuscripts on the arXiv, which everyone who can post there should take advantage of.

Unfortunately the adjectives green and gold are poorly chosen. It makes ‘gold OA’ seem like ‘gold standard’, which it isn’t. The top journal in my specialty is entirely free, online, and authors keep copyright. It was founded after some editors left a large commercial publisher’s journal, and has pretty much replaced the old journal in the eyes of my field.

And don’t forget, PLoS will waive their fee if you need them to, no questions asked.


Matt 04.24.12 at 2:17 am

christian_h, I think that arXiv offers the most important benefits to the public of open access without totally upsetting the publisher apple cart. It doesn’t replace the gatekeeping role (you can and many do share nonsense there), but once you see an interesting article in a peer reviewed journal you can find the almost-identical equivalent on arXiv with minimal effort. Publishers don’t go out of business, peer review doesn’t go away, authors don’t pay any more, but people who don’t have an institution or the ability to pay $30 per article still get to read what professionals are writing.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 2:24 am

John Q: yes fine but their price is also modest – open access isn’t the point. And I’m not sure how modest they are, but for people based in poor countries with no or marginal granting agencies, even $1000 can be a huge amount of money. Many colleagues of mine in Latin America, for example, would be hard pressed to publish under such a system.

john b.: I think what’s tangential are true open access journals. Fee-based open access, on the other hand, is extremely common in the sciences.

I’d also say that in mathematics, for example, if we closed down the Elsevier journals tomorrow (by refusing to review for them for example as has been suggested) what this means is that many young scientists in several areas (algebra, in particular) would, quite frankly, be screwed. It would not be a problem for Tim Gowers or for me, but for my postdocs it would be a huge headache. The AMS (the largest professional math society publishing) cannot, under any circumstances, replace the journals in question in the short or even medium term.

I am all for pressuring publishers who have insane profit margins. But some kind of web-based anarchist fantasy without publishing at all is just that – a fantasy. And one that will only serve to entrench elites in academia. So I do find myself wondering why bastion of elitism and richest educational institution in the world Harvard would suddenly promote such things.


john b 04.24.12 at 2:25 am

Christian: I think you’re still missing the point. Open access is, demonstrably, compatible with peer review in journals. Read Peter Suber‘s sourced and linked summary of how actually existing open access journals work.


john b 04.24.12 at 2:29 am

Sorry, we overlapped, but my comment #33 stands. Peer-reviewed open access isn’t a fantasy at all, it’s something which already exists across multiple journals in multiple fields. In general, publishing is either fee-free (70% of cases, according to Stuart Shieber in 2009), or paid by sponsors and/or waived in the event of hardship, which would include your Latin American colleagues.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 2:37 am

Again, I may be missing the point but I think I don’t see that there is any. The problem (well one problem) with academic publishing is prices. These prices can be lowered three ways: more free labour; more efficient publishing processes; or lower publisher profits. Neither is in any crucial way correlated with the model of publishing (open access vs. subscription). It’s a complete distraction from the real issue. (Why would a library, on average, care if it has to pay inflated fees to Elsevier to get their institutional members the right to publish as opposed to paying inflated subscription rates?) It just so happens to be a distraction that would profit institutions like Harvard.

To be clear, J. Otto Pohl’s experience is NOT an exception. And he clearly did not count as “hardship” for Springer. So what’s the point here?


christian_h 04.24.12 at 2:41 am

Also: I never said open access publishing as such is incompatible with peer review. But publishing without any revenue source is. I am simply baffled why anyone would think the problem is where that revenue comes from in the end, as opposed to the amount of revenue diverted to private profits (and of course the sheer amount of publishing going on in the first place compared to the shrinking budgets in the sciences).


john b 04.24.12 at 2:52 am

Christian: in #36, you’re still conflating buying the right from a closed-access publisher to allow the public to see your piece, as J Otto Pohl describes, with the model that’s used by open-access journals.

When implicitly ruling out the possibility that open-access could work, you’re massively overestimating both the inefficiency of, and the profits made by publishers involved in, the closed-access journal process – and hence vastly exaggerating the amount of working-for-free that is required to make up for the process. In practice, (small) grants from funding organisations tend cover the (small) editorial expenses.

One key piece of evidence you might want to consider here before assuming that open access can only profit major institutions is the actual existence of more than 7,000 open-access peer-reviewed journals (solely those listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals).


Barry Freed 04.24.12 at 3:01 am

Elsevier’s profit margin for 2010 was 36%.


EKR 04.24.12 at 3:04 am

I think it depends what you mean by publishing. In Computer Science (or at least the security and cryptography subfield), nearly all important publishing is at conferences, not journals. Said conferences sometimes have paper “proceedings” (which are just printed copies of the papers) but quite often have online “proceedings”. In either case, it’s quite common for the authors to produce PDF of the papers directly, with no editorial work done other than what the authors do themselves or is done incidentally in the review process (more on this in a second). The conferences charge admission, of course, but essentially none of this money finds its way into any stage of the publication process, though perhaps a small amount goes to proceedings. Rather, it’s used to run the conference itself [hire the rooms, projectors, refreshments, etc.]

The submission and review process is run by the program chairs themselves using heavily automated tools (e.g., http://www.read.seas.harvard.edu/~kohler/hotcrp/). The review is all done on a volunteer basis, as is the program chairing. If there is an in-person program committee meeting, it’s generally held at an institution associated with one of the chairs. Otherwise, there may be a teleconference or perhaps the entire PC meeting will be held via email discussion. In any case, much of the paper discussion is done using e-mail or via the tools. Given the above, what parts of this process involve infusions of actual money:

– The servers with the conference software must be hosted, but the cost here is nominal. On the order of hundreds of dollars at most.
– A server must be found to host the accepted papers. Again, this is very inexpensive.
– If you are having a teleconference, you may need to pay for that, though things like Google Hangouts are bringing the cost down sharply. When I have chaired, I have gotten conference bridges donated.
– If there is an in-person meeting, the venue is generally donated by some institution but there may be refreshments or a PC dinner or something.

Overall, these expenses might run to a few thousand dollars for a big conference. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to float this with only minimal funding.

I’ve of course left aside the time of the reviewers themselves, but they’re not compensated, so as far as I can tell, it’s considered professional service/development, and if you can afford to do research you can certainly afford the time to do some reviewing. So, it’s less that you can’t do publishing without funding than that you can’t do research at all without some form of money.


SqueakyRat 04.24.12 at 3:18 am

Hundreds of tiny literary magazines survive on a shoestring — and they publish on paper.


Doctor Science 04.24.12 at 3:20 am

christian_h, and others:

I wrote about this at Obsidian Wings last year, including a compare/contrast for different types of peer-reviewed publications.

Yes, in Science/Tech/Medicine, authors (and their institutions) are normally charged high fees for open-access journals. All the publications I looked at, though, had more or less sweeping policies to wave the fees for authors from certain institutions, countries, or indeed continents. Your colleagues in Latin America would undoubtably be invited to publish without a fee.

Nonetheless, I think the fees charged by PLOS and other open-access science journals are *outrageously* high and have no clear relationship to the services provided. Journals in the humanities are mysteriously able to do without such fees, so my suspicious mind says that the difference is that researchers in STM have grants which can be made to pay.


john b 04.24.12 at 3:25 am

DoctorScience: that contrast between humanities/sciences is very interesting, and as someone who’s studied in the former field it’s not a distinction I’d appreciated. Thanks for the link.

In the absence of evidence that the editing and review process is drastically different between science and humanities, I’d be inclined to agree with your conjecture on why this is the case.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 3:32 am

To repeat my question explicitly: let’s say the amount of revenue generated by mathematics publishing each year is X. This amount could be large, or small – doesn’t matter for the argument. Keeping this revenue constant, how does open access vs. subscription based publishing change the average amount scientific institutions have to pay for publishing? How does it not simply redistribute the costs (for example from the university library to the NSF and NIH etc.)?

If, on the other hand, you want to argue that open access publishing by itself would lead to lower total revenue and therefore costs, what’s your reasoning? Where in the process does the publishing model reduce either overhead costs or profits?


john b 04.24.12 at 3:42 am

As noted above, Elsevier’s net profit margin is 36% – for every dollar spent by academic institutions on publishing, 36% goes to Elsevier’s shareholders. Even if you were to assume absolutely no efficiency gains from moving the process to open-access (despite the efficiency gains noted from doing so in practice), then the process would involve 64% of library costs being redistributed to funding bodies, and 36% not being.


john b 04.24.12 at 3:43 am

For clarity, “for every dollar spent by academic institutions on publishing” should be “for every dollar spent by academic institutions on journal subscriptions” – phrasing above is unnecessarily ambiguous.


john b 04.24.12 at 3:43 am

For clarity, “for every dollar spent by academic institutions on publishing” should be “for every dollar spent by academic institutions on journal subscriptions” – phrasing above is unnecessarily ambiguous.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 3:49 am

Yes, true. So the library would profit, and the funding bodies would get hit. Since the latter have finite budgets (probably shrinking budgets in the future), this will mean less funding for actually doing science. So you have successfully redistributed costs from Harvard – endowment $30 billion, from tax-deductible giving – to tax-funded granting agencies. Most likely this will mean fewer grants – so a larger proportion of all grant money will go to the Harvards of this world since their total grants will surely not decline due to their reputation.

I can see why Harvard would support this, but why should I? I’d rather fight that 36% profit margin, and demand that my state (California) fund higher education properly.


Matt 04.24.12 at 4:36 am

To repeat my question explicitly: let’s say the amount of revenue generated by mathematics publishing each year is X. This amount could be large, or small – doesn’t matter for the argument. Keeping this revenue constant, how does open access vs. subscription based publishing change the average amount scientific institutions have to pay for publishing? How does it not simply redistribute the costs (for example from the university library to the NSF and NIH etc.)?

I don’t think revenue stays constant, but I’ll accept that it does for this argument.

Then, as you say, it does not change the average amount scientific institutions have to pay for publishing. There are enormous benefits outside of scientific institutions, though. What about benefits to small liberal arts colleges and community colleges? Or scientists between jobs who are trying to keep abreast of their field without an institutional library? Or interested laymen who want to dig deeper into a topic than Wikipedia goes? There are hundreds of millions more people with a net connection and possible interests in academic topics than there are people at scientific institutions. That’s not the argument that Harvard is making but I think it is an important one.


Jacob Rus 04.24.12 at 5:30 am

Christian H: The problem I have with your analysis is that your premise is that managing university status is the purpose of academic publishing, and you find fault with changing publishing systems based on the impact such changes might have on hiring, tenure decisions, etc.

But the purpose of science and academia isn’t to provide jobs and status measures for scientists and academics. The purpose is to advance and spread knowledge. Open access to journals has incredible benefits to people all over the world, both inside and outside of academia.

If we aren’t smart enough to come up with some way to both spread papers freely and simultaneously make unbiased hiring decisions, that’s really not my problem, speaking as an outsider. Siloing knowledge and charging impossible prices for access, as the solution, seems like a crying shame.


js. 04.24.12 at 6:01 am


If, on the other hand, you want to argue that open access publishing by itself would lead to lower total revenue and therefore costs, what’s your reasoning?

I’m mostly with you on prima facie doubting Harvard’s motives (though I also want to know more about Henry’s parenthetical reference to Robert Darnton). But re the bit quoted above, one thing that seems to reduce costs is making the journal purely online. No? Maybe there’re other hidden costs that I’m unaware of or haven’t thought about, and even without those you’re going to have some overhead—managing staff, copy editors, server space?, etc. But, presumably, profits could go out of the picture. And if that’s not too pie in the sky, I would, perhaps very naively, think that the costs could be pretty manageable. Again, part of what I’m thinking here is that—as other people have noted—there already are lots and lots of good peer reviewed journals that are open access.


john b 04.24.12 at 6:12 am

I think Matt’s weaker version of the argument holds here, but Jacob’s strong version isn’t really tenable. Yes, public access to scientific journals is a major public good (this probably varies sector-by-sector; my understanding of pure maths is that a new cutting-edge paper will be comprehensible to a relatively small number of people who will hold – or are at least candidates for – maths PhDs from respected universities), but you can’t totally handwave the problem of how to generate them.

Even so, I think Christian’s concerns are somewhat overblown. Is it reasonable to assume universities will channel none of the money saved on library costs into research funding? Given that every major Anglophone university I’m aware of is seeking to cut teaching costs and spend more on increasing its research output, the converse seems more plausible.


John Mashey 04.24.12 at 7:14 am

1) In industry, it is common to do value-chain analysis, and in practice, if a stage adds more cost without adding so much value, it tends to get squeezed out, unless it has some monopoly control, which of course, every supplier strives for and rarely gets. For many years, the personal computer chain had two such, Intel and Microsoft, neither of whom liked the fact that the other had one.

In fast-moving businesses, stages in distribution chains can collapse quickly, especially as electronic distribution replaces paper or other physical media.

2) Has anyone done the equivalent analysis of the academic publishing business?
For instance, once upon a time, printing copies and distributing them worldwide was a serious value-add.

Good peer review and editing are value adds.

Organizing collections of documents so they can be searched and guaranteed not to disappear (or change) is a value-add … etc.

3) It is unclear that bundling a bunch of low-ranked journals with a few good ones is really a sustainable practice. I’m curious if people know of costs and structures of such. Bundling of course is common to many industries and is usually good for vendor margins.

4) Of course, poor editorial practices are not value-adds. See Wiley cover-up, for example.


Emma in Sydney 04.24.12 at 9:23 am

I run and edit ( and copy edit and proof ) an open access peer reviewed journal, in the humanities. It is a part of the larger scholarly public history project I work on, and it is done in the spare moments between editing a website approaching its millionth word. It is not even close to a full time job. The Open Journal software installation is managed by a university library. If I had an active editorial board who helped me, we might have put out more than 7 issues in three years, but even that is not bad in history.
Google analytical tell me that our articles have been downloaded by thousands of readers. There is no Australian history journal published conventionally that would have close to that in subs or readers. And we have readers from all over the world, who would never be able to get a conventional journal on Australian History. Open access publishing is the way forward for academic work, and at last, academics have the means of production ready to hand if they would just stop believing that the publishing cartels offer them anything more than what they can do (and already do, often ) for themselves.
It is not hard, people. You have nothing to lose, and a world of readers and contributors to gain.


John Quiggin 04.24.12 at 10:10 am

@33 JSTOR has free access for the poorest countries, and greatly reduced charges for other poor countries.


Also bear in mind that the charge is per library, not per person. The charge per person potentially served (for access to thousands of journals) is well below a dollar.


J. Otto Pohl 04.24.12 at 10:49 am


I work in Africa (U. of Ghana) and I was not given the option of any waiver by Springer for Open Access publication in Human Rights Review. Maybe the sciences are different, but Springer was pretty specific that if your institution did not pay the fees that you would have to pay them yourself for Open Access regardless of location. The fee was $3,000 if I recall correctly.


Chris Bertram 04.24.12 at 10:51 am

Otto: put it online anyway.


J. Otto Pohl 04.24.12 at 10:59 am


Springer put it online without any fees. But, you can only access the online version without paying if your institution subscribes to Springer. University of Ghana does not. I had to have a colleague at a University in the US who does have access download a copy for me so I could have a PDF version of it for myself before it officially comes out in print (paper).


john b 04.24.12 at 12:18 pm

Otto: again, cross-purposes. #42 was talking about open access journals, *not* paying closed-access publishers to provide the public with access to specific pieces.

My advice would be the same as Chris’s – just stick a copy on your website.


Peter Matthews 04.24.12 at 1:20 pm

OK… after all this discussion, what happens if we do all move to new open-access journals?

How are all the new online journals going to build their human support networks?

Many new journals are being started by individuals with access to the internet, and various off-the-shelf publishing systems, but without sufficent wider support.

New journals may be disappearing almost as fast as they are being created.

The strength of any journal lies in having a large pool of academically interconnected readers and contributors and reviewers. That way, the pre-submission processes (getting friends to read drafts, for example) can raise the standard of papers before they reach reviewers, who will respond positively to receiving good papers from the journal, and then continue to offer free reviewing.

Journals sink or swim according to whether or not they can set up positive feedback loops between the readers (who may become contributors, for example), contributors (who may become pre-submission readers and editors for colleagues), and reviewers (who may become contributors).

I have never seen any discussion of journal publishing methods that takes into account all the social interactions needed to produce a successful journal.

I am trying to address the issue at The Research Cooperative – an NPO and open access model for building support networks for any form of academic publishing.

We have over 4000 members now, but our network is still far from being large or active enough to keep up with the rapid increase in new, open-access journals.

Our system is scalable, but we do not yet have critical mass, just like many of the journals I am hoping we can support!


bianca steele 04.24.12 at 1:26 pm

John Quiggin @ 29:

I’ve let my BPL card lapse [1], and I don’t know what they have now as opposed to what they used to have, but the Boston Public Library—surely a big, well-funded public research library if there is one—has apparently, over time, both let its JSTOR subscription lapse and renewed the subscription but dropped to a lower level of access, because of prices. Of course, recently municipalities have had to cut back. The state college is part of the suburban system and residents are supposed to have access, but can they really afford a full subscription, either? For that matter, the suburban library system (from what I can tell, after Gale merged with the other guys) seems to me to have lost a bunch of full-text access that they used to have.

[1] it’s available to anyone who lives in Massachusetts


Henry Cohn 04.24.12 at 1:32 pm

SCOAP3 is a beautiful model for how to support open access journals via a funding consortium, rather than publication charges (see http://scoap3.org/). These fees may be fine for the life sciences, where in many cases you really can’t do cutting-edge research without a lot of research funding, so you might as well devote a little of that funding to paying to distribute your articles. However, I’m very concerned about their consequences in other fields where this just isn’t true. Mathematicians should not have to use a publishing system designed for the needs and practices of another field, unless we decide it’s the right fit for us too. Sponsoring consortia seem to me to offer by far the best route forward. One difficulty is that they take time to set up, so we need to be working on this now rather waiting until we need them immediately, at which point it will be too late.


bianca steele 04.24.12 at 1:41 pm

“anyone who lives in Massachusetts” whose town hasn’t defunded their library system


christian_h 04.24.12 at 1:50 pm

john b: Even so, I think Christian’s concerns are somewhat overblown.

No doubt about it. I didn’t really set out to make grand proclamations about the evils of open-access publishing – it may well be the right way to go regardless of the cost issue if it can be structured correctly – my main point was that touting open access as a solution to the combination of (a) price gouging (b) explosion in publication rates and (c) shrinking university budgets seems like a distraction. It’s not a magic wand making those go away.

Jacob: it will become your problem if you get to read even more of the same over and over again because big boring schools have taken over everything even more than is already sadly the case.

Emma: You publish 7 issues in two years. Elsevier’s Journal of Algebra, one of three rmajor journals specializing in algebra (two of which are published by Elsevier) publishes about 400-450 pages every two weeks. Would you want to be managing editor for that, for free, without any staff help paid for? Would your employer say “sure you are free to use one of the staff we pay for full time for this”?

It should be added that the Journal of Algebra – like every math journal I have dealt with from any publisher – allows authors to post (a) final versions on their personal webpages and (b) almost final versions (in this case even final ones) on the arxiv. All my articles are available for free online this way. (Otto, I would definitely post your paper on your personal webpage.) Which open up access pretty well.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 1:54 pm

P.S.: “Big boring school” not as in “universities and colleges” but as in “academic descendants of a single person”.


Andrew Perrin 04.24.12 at 2:37 pm

@7: I’m sure there’s variation, but at least in the UNC system the policy is that faculty own their own copyrights except in very unusual circumstances (http://www.northcarolina.edu/policy/index.php?tag=500.2, see page 7-8). Works produced by non-faculty staff, on the other hand, are considered works for hire and therefore University copyright.


J. Otto Pohl 04.24.12 at 2:54 pm

Well I guess I have to get a website now so I can post copies of my published articles on it. I hope there is a graduate student here somewhere who can guide me through the process.


SusanC 04.24.12 at 3:06 pm


Springer will usually let authors negotiate a deal whereby the author can put their paper on their own personal website. The author doesn’t pay Springer anything, and readers who download the paper from the author’s web site don’t pay Springer anything either. (Readers who want to download the paper from Springerlink, rather than the author’s website, do need to have a subscription which their institution has payed Springer for). You do need to do this negotiation before signing the copyright transfer (possibly with assistance from the journal editior) – technically speaking, you can’t just put the paper on your own website if you forgot to negotiate this versiuon of the copyright transfer.

The other two options with Springer are (b) author pays, and readers can download for free from Springerlink; (c) Reader pays for Springerlink subscription.

The first option is the better deal (while we’re waiting for a radical change to the system …); I think everyone who publishes in Springer journals ought to do it.

I share the concern that the price for option (b) seems rather high.


SusanC 04.24.12 at 3:20 pm

P.S. Springer may now be offering the put-it-on-your-own-website option as the default.


michael e sullivan 04.24.12 at 3:50 pm

christian@62: for free? of course not, but for a reasonable fee for service, surely.

As a printer, I am in a position to comment on the actual costs of printing and distributing such a publication.

The marginal cost of a print edition is almost certainly less than the 315 price for non-institutional subscribers. One could produce single print subscriptions on demand for around that price and make a minimal profit. For runs in the 500-1000 range, that could be a very nice piece of business. The marginal cost of an online/email/pdf edition is obviously very low, probably less than a dollar per subscriber.

What would it cost to manage such? I could hire a very competent full time staff member for 50-60,000 a year to manage submissions and peer reviews and copy edit, maybe an additional contract copy editor for $20/hr about 1/2 time. Field expert editing checks could be provided on a contract basis for say $50-100/hr, by junior academics who would presumably be happy to get such wages. Prepress setup to create a nice finished pdf would run maybe $10 a page max including profit for me, presuming most of the math and table typesetting is already finished on the submissions.

This is not my specialty — I suppose it’s possible that I’m missing something, but it does seem to me that most of the value is coming from people who aren’t getting paid by the journal. I’m guessing that what I described above is quite a bit more than I would need.

If I were able to take over that journal, and knew it would be bought in one form or another by >500 institutions, I am quite certain that my company could produce it for a massive profit selling institutional print editions for somewhere around 20% of the Elsevier institutional price, and online access for 1/2 that. If it were bought by a lot more, the online price could go down proportionally.

This is coming from someone who owns a print shop with a completely different specialty. I don’t even make magazines or books in house. I am judging profit based on what I could cover by jobbing out large portions of the print work to small local shops I’m personally familiar with who may not be the cheapest/best options. I am 99% certain that there are companies out there who could do this for less than I could, and let me tell you I would be *delighted* to publish a journal like that for 20% of what Elsevier charges. A few contracts like that, and I would become a very rich man.

I am guessing that if this were a serious possibility and I put real effort into coming up with a tight quote based on the best suppliers I could find, or making capital investments to produce everything in house, I could get that number down into the 5% range, and still make a comfortable profit margin.

If there’s anyone reading this who wants to seriously talk about moving journals away from these rentier gatekeepers, and has a real chance of mobilizing enough academics to start serious competition for any well-known journals — I would be *very* happy to talk details.


Manta1976 04.24.12 at 5:17 pm

To state the obvious, we already manage to get authors, editors, and referees work for free. Most of the editorial job (e.g. formatting) is often already done by the authors themselves: in practice, the journal has to do nothing at all, except cash the dividends: The publishing companies ofter almost no added value.

Moreover, open access IS a viable solution to the cost problems of journal; to give a practical example, Geometry and Topology (one of the top journals in math) will put the final version of the paper on ArXiv: see
If they manage to do it, there is no reason to require all journals to do it, at no additional costs to the authors (and I am quite sure christian knew already about G&T, but it was contradicting everything he said, so he “forgot” to mention it).


Walt 04.24.12 at 5:18 pm

christian_h, I have to say I am surprised and impressed by new-found voice as an articulate defender of the positive role of for-profit corporations in public life. Will this new passion translate to other questions of public policy?


Bloix 04.24.12 at 5:38 pm

#70 – “If there’s anyone reading this who wants to seriously talk about moving journals away from these rentier gatekeepers, and has a real chance of mobilizing enough academics to start serious competition for any well-known journals—I would be very happy to talk details.”

The “anyone” in this sentence should of course be Harvard University, which instead of behaving like an insurgent populace should be using some trivial portion of its $32 billion endowment to advance its ostensible charitable purpose of generating and disseminating knowledge.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 5:41 pm

No idea what you are talking about Walt. You may not be able or willing to read, but I did explicitly attack the profits of the publishing industry several times. Maybe you want to make the utterly ludicrous argument that “open access” cannot be for profit? Or the argument that Harvard must be supported by socialists because they are, after all, a “non-profit” (yeah right) institution? If so, make it. Otherwise I’d ask you to let the straw men go unmolested, they have no part in this.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 5:48 pm

Manta1976: of course G&T is NOT in fact open access – you have to pay subscription and most major math liberaries do. There is a link on its homepage that says “subscriptions”, I’d have thought that would be convincing evidence. I also mentioned already that for all math journals I know, either final or almost final (same diff as content is concerned) versions of (new) papers can be accessed freely online, either on the arxiv or on the authors’ home pages.

But if you ignore all this and live in an alternate universe, then I agree I was being very dishonest indeed.

Also, what Bloix says in 73.


Shelley 04.24.12 at 5:57 pm

Authors should not have to pay magazines.



Cranky Observer 04.24.12 at 5:58 pm

Michael e sullivan @ 3:50 – IMHO one cost being underestimated in this discussion is that of maintaining a reasonably secure web site and long-term archive. Not too hard to do for 3-5 years, but Springer has been at it for 160 years and I don’t think they are the oldest.

Admittedly this is also the sort of thing Harvard’s endowment should do.



Manta1976 04.24.12 at 6:00 pm

christian, “final” and “almost final” version are definitely not “same diff”.

If libraries want to pay money to G&T t because they like them, or because they need some volumes to fill the shelves, they can do it, but to access the actual articles they don’t need to. On the other hand, here is what J Algebra says:
“Policy: Authors retain the right to use the accepted author manuscript for personal use, internal institutional use and for permitted scholarly posting provided that these are not for purposes of commercial use or systematic distribution.” and “Systematic distribution means: Subject repositories that aim to aggregate and openly distribute AAMs authored by researchers in specific subject areas.” But, again, I am sure you knew this already.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 6:41 pm

From the website of the Journal of Algebra:

“At Elsevier, we believe authors should be able to distribute their accepted manuscripts for their personal needs and interests, e.g. posting to their websites or their institution’s repository, or e-mailing to colleagues. Therefore, authors also retain the right to post their own version of their accepted manuscript in the arXiv subject repository.”

I have to be wondering if Manta1976 simply don’t care to check the claims they make, or knowingly disseminate incorrect information.

We’ll see btw how long G&T keeps this up. The Annals of Mathematics have done it in the past and moved away from it because too many subscriptions were cancelled. I could assume Manta1976 already knew this, but I imagine that would be a shaky assumption. In any event, G&T is NOT open access; its revenue comes from subscriptions. They apparently feel that they will keep sufficiently many subscribers to cover their costs even when a subscription is strictly speaking unneccessary, but this does not change the fact that they are subscription-based. And as I mentioned, we’ll see if they are right – if the Harvards of this world start cancelling to protect their billions, I’d have to guess it doesn’t look good.

And: for all intents and purposes the “almost final version” – meaning the final submitted version pre-page proofs is with very few exceptions identical to the final published version. I agree there is one purpose where this not true, namely citations. Otherwise yes, same diff.


Matt 04.24.12 at 6:43 pm

IMHO one cost being underestimated in this discussion is that of maintaining a reasonably secure web site and long-term archive. Not too hard to do for 3-5 years, but Springer has been at it for 160 years and I don’t think they are the oldest.

A big advantage of open access is that you don’t have to pay for all the “guard labor” to keep non-paying users away from the articles. You don’t need to bother with lawyers to threaten or sue copyright violators, access systems to track quotas and ensure that only licensed users are downloading content, analysis systems to look for patterns indicating illegal archive-compiling, or watermarking software to stamp each article downloaded with unique identifiers.

Elsevier claims to have roughly 7 million articles in their archives. If the average article is (say) 10 pages, call it 70 million pages of archives. By way of contrast, the HathiTrust has roughly 3.6 billion pages of archives scanned from libraries and makes the ~1 billion pages of public domain material it holds freely available to everyone with an internet connection. It has an annual operating budget of about $2 million and with this funds software development, professional system administration, content delivery to partners and the public, and redundant geographically distributed storage. It provides access to about 14 times as much archival material as Elsevier with less than 1/1000 as much revenue. The only thing they don’t have is the copy right to share the other 2.6 billion pages with the public.


christian_h 04.24.12 at 6:53 pm

Just to be perfectly clear: I want to see for-profit publishing replaced. Ideally all publishing would be done in such a way that final, published articles are freely available to all, and to publish is, of course, also free. My own opinion is that this will be achieved through either public funding, or consortia funding as described above by Henry Cohn. It will take some time to move to this new model, since replacing thousands of pages of publications per year is not something that can be done in a day.

I do not agree that authors choosing in to publish in so-called “open access” journals is a strategy towards reaching this goal; whoever believes that does not actually understand what “open access” publishing means. It’s simply a publishing model – it can be for profit, non-profit, volunteer based just like traditional subscription publishing.

If Harvard was really serious about ending monopoly profits in publishing, they would take the lead in creating the necessary replacement publishing structure. Maybe they are – if so I’d like to know – but if they are not calls to adapt individual behaviour are useless and may well have different motives than we might hope.


Walt 04.24.12 at 7:07 pm

christian_h, in #64 you have written the most stirring defense of Elsevier that I have ever read.

After this thread, I think that your socialism is basically a pose. There are many times where we are standing on the sidelines, and unable to have more than a tiny effect on the outcome. It’s easy to call for radical reform when there is no possibility of having any effect on the outcome, or of the reform having any negative outcome for you. But you’re apparently a tenured math professor — you’re not on the sidelines, but in the middle of the game. And suddenly you discover that radical reform might have a bad impact on you, and that conservatism is called for, and that while you deplore the costs of the status quo, you are not prepared to take any action whatsoever. If you are really serious about ending monopoly profits in publishing, you would do more than invent reasons for inaction, which is all you have done here today.


Manta1976 04.24.12 at 7:12 pm

christian, the “incorrect information” you claim I posted was a copy-and-paste from Elsevier’s website.
You can claim as much as your face becomes blue that there is no difference between the “almost final” version and the final version: however, publishing companies and libraries (i.e., the ones that actually put the money) do not agree with you. At all.
And, paradoxically, you seem to agree with this, when you say “We’ll see btw how long G&T keeps this up. The Annals of Mathematics have done it in the past and moved away from it because too many subscriptions were cancelled.”: if posting the final version on arxiv as a policy, and letting the author post some version on arxiv were the same thing, G&T would not have to worry about losing subscriptions.


Henry Cohn 04.24.12 at 7:15 pm

Regarding this whole argument about G&T, they definitely have a paywall keeping non-subscribers from accessing content, although they allow self-archiving by authors. Back issues become open access after five years. Another example is the American Mathematical Society, which also makes all of its content free after five years (and has a paywall before that). With a sufficiently long time window, experience shows that this is compatible with the subscription model for publishing.


Manta1976 04.24.12 at 7:21 pm

Here is the (full?) story from Wikipedia: “The journal was open-access for its first ten years of existence and was available free to individual users, although institutions were required to pay modest subscription fees for both online access and for printed volumes. At present, an online subscription is required to view full-text PDF copies of articles in the most recent three volumes; articles older than that are open-access, at which point copies of the published articles are uploaded to the arXiv. A traditional printed version is also published, at present on an annual basis.”


christian_h 04.24.12 at 7:33 pm

Well Walt, your continuing refusal to actually read what you claim to criticise is concerning. At no point at ALL am I defending Elsevier in comment 64. That’s all in your imagination – it is clearly you who does not believe anyone but a major corporation could do the job. Because all I do in that comment is point out that a major journal will not be published on free volunteer labour alone, it will take a collective effort to actually create the necessary infrastructure.

The fact that you apparently think that “doing something” consists of changing consumer behaviour also suggests that you are a singularly bad judge of who is or isn’t serious about changing things. But hey, if you want to believe that the academic equivalent of driving a Prius (maybe with a peace sticker and a “I break for animals” on the back?) is the way to go, go ahead. Or maybe you had some other kind of action in mind? Like screwing young scientists in temporary jobs by refusing to referee their papers? How very radical of you.


Manta1976 04.24.12 at 7:51 pm

As a young scientist in a temporary position, I am very happy that christian is concerned about my career. Or should I say that I am very happy that christian pretends to be concerned about my careeer in order to defend present publication practices? You be the judge!


christian_h 04.24.12 at 8:00 pm

Don’t trust Harvard to have everyone’s best interests at heart = defending current publication practices. Got it. Also, journals like [insert name of major publisher open access bioscience journal here] are clearly harbingers of a better future and in no way part of “current publication practices”.

Anyway, apologies I somehow managed to create a flame war by giving the impression that I am a big Elsevier/ Springer/ etc. fan – which couldn’t be further from the truth, whatever some here may be imagining.


Alex K. 04.24.12 at 8:02 pm

I reread the Harvard Libraries announcement and they don’t seem to have any coherent philosophy about what the new model should be. It’s just a cry for help with the high prices, perhaps doubling as a negotiation strategy — there is no indication that they push for open access sustained by author fees.

It’s strange though, that libraries do not push more forcefully for their own self-interest: at $5000 per year per journal, assuming Emma’s one full job per journal cost (if the cost is higher, that’s probably because the journal is popular, so you can afford more jobs for that journal) then ten or twenty libraries who subscribe to that journal could actually publish it _themselves_ for the same price, ignoring the cost of print on demand.

Of course, there are orders of magnitude more than twenty library subscriptions per journal, so the fees charged by a library consortium to participating libraries can also be orders of magnitude lower.

All this is not inconsistent with open access — it just requires some coordination among libraries and a well written copyright policy which punishes wannabe free-riding libraries.

Making those consortium open access journals reputable is the real difficulty — but this problem is hard regardless of what new model one envisions.


bianca steele 04.24.12 at 8:03 pm

There is probably a self-explanatory definition out there somewhere, but I confess to not knowing whether a prohibition on “commercial use” of text retrieved via a public open-access portal extends to any use not for education, charity, or curiosity. Does it extend to creating a commercial product using the ideas in the piece? To writing a book for profit?


bianca steele 04.24.12 at 8:08 pm

And not to be too annoying about it, but this is the flip side of strong arguments about “fair use”: if distributing lots of information is fine as long as the purpose is “education,” and the justification of even smaller amounts is based on education rather than any other consideration, it would seem to follow that distribution outside of the academic world can be done only via certain narrowly defined channels (you can go to a store and by the book).


bianca steele 04.24.12 at 8:38 pm

Also FWIW, the people I’ve worked with who had the biggest obsessions around information sharing either had worked for defense contractors or spent a lot of time around people in the the open source movement. (Unless you count the people whose annoying personalities or minority status seemed to have made others abnormally unwilling to share with them.) So my experience isn’t based in issues around academic publishing per se (except to the extent the open source people seemed to share the idea, which I seem to remember reading about someplace, that the millennium will involve everything being owned by and administered from (essentially) the academy).


hellblazer 04.24.12 at 9:13 pm

<pops head round door >

I’ve not had time to digest everything written here, and am not sure I agree with everything christian_h has said, but I am dispirited about the tone if not the substance of some responses to him. And yes, if you want to break out the concern-troll label, knock yourselves out; I nevertheless honestly incline towards his position.

Journal costs should be lower. Journals should be better run from the point of view of access and quality. Whether the OA model proposed by some current evangelists is the way to go *in all disciplines*, I am less sure. A moving paywall as described by Henry Cohn seems both more sustainable and more attainable, at least in my discipline.

(Maths academic, as some CT readers may recall from other threads.)


Barry Freed 04.24.12 at 9:16 pm

It’s already being called the Academic Spring (it’s even got a Wikipedia page). I wonder if the final straw, that which gave Timothy Gowers the impetus to make his blog post and the unexpected enthusiasm with which the boycott proceeded, was Elsevier’s support of the Research Works Act which was introduced just the month before.


hellblazer 04.24.12 at 9:24 pm

The moniker Academic Spring reminds me of the time an editorial in the student newspaper attempted to segue from Pinochet’s possible extradition, and free speech as stamped on by his rule, to free education in the UK. At that point I threw the execrable thing across the room and would gladly have rammed it down the gullet of the author.


peterv 04.24.12 at 9:26 pm

Most academic computer scientists post electronic copies of their published papers on their personal web-sites, despite prohibitions from many commercial publishers. Does anyone know of any legal actions (or threats of legal actions) against such practices by commercial publishers?


Peter Matthews 04.24.12 at 10:11 pm

Alex K. in # 89 goes to the heart of the matter with:
“Making those consortium open access journals reputable is the real difficulty—but this problem is hard regardless of what new model one envisions.”

How can authors, editors and reviewers jump to journals that may or may not have enough support to be still online in 2-5 years or 20-50 years? I work in fields where referencing work from a century ago is common. Two to five years post-publication is the period in which most modern works reach their peak of citation (this varies from field to field).

It might help if all journals could have history and specification pages that describe (a) the history of each journal, and the individuals and organisations supporting them, and (b) the backup continuity plans for each journal, and (c) the production cost and volunteer components for each journal, in a standardised (i.e. comparable) form.

Then some kind of journal rating system could be established that focuses not on academic content and reputation, but on all the other production values that also important to consider when choosing a place to publish our work.

It would also help if authors and journals could say more about who actually does all the design, illustration, copyediting work. Large parts of the publishing process are invisible to authors and readers alike – in print and online journals alike. This would all help to boost confidence in journals, and those that are unable to explain their cost structure and support base could be treated with the distrust they deserve. It would also give a boost to all the independent editors and translators and illustrators hoping to earn an honest crust by supporting our academic efforts.

This is serious because there may be individual charlattans attempting to use ‘open access’ publishing systems as a con to extract fees from authors, without providing any value in return. We can be conned by new small players as well as by the existing big players.


John Quiggin 04.24.12 at 10:19 pm

@Bianca re public libraries cancelling JSTOR. That’s sad news. Even with the terrible cuts taking place, it’s hard to imagine that $5000 a year is unaffordable for the whole city of Boston to get access to so many journals. Couldn’t they find a donor to support something like that?


John Quiggin 04.24.12 at 10:28 pm

At least in economics the model that seems to work best is that where a journal is published by a society. The one I know best is the Australian Ag & Resource Econ Soc which publishes AJARE. We have a contract with a commercial publisher, so we can use their editorial system and they publish the journal. The original contract we had with them was very one-sided – they owned the journal name for example – but changes in technology meant we had a credible option of walking away and we now have a much more satisfactory deal.

We are moving to online-only publication and distribution (though for the moment we are still printing copies for a handful of elderly members who prefer it that way). Society membership (about $100) covers all the costs.

We get members because it’s bundled with attendance at our annual conference (actually the cost of conference attendance is a *big* problem, and one with which we have struggled in vain), and I think it’s required to submit articles for the journal.


Emma in Sydney 04.24.12 at 10:47 pm

JQ, THAT’s exactly the kind of journal that could move to , say, an Open Journal System installation at a university library, hire someone like me half time or less to run it, provide it free to the public, or maintain your subs scheme for recent issues. The fact that you now have a better deal shows that someone at the commercial publisher has seen the writing on the wall.
The university library where my journal is hosted now runs some 10 or 20 journals , and worldwide, Open Journal System published journals number in the thousands, many of those in the developing world precisely because out here on the periphery publishing has small volumes and crap margins and the big boys aren’t interestd mostly. Open Knowledge Project also makes management software for editing book collections and running conferences.
There are a lot of ex-academics like me, now experienced editors and copy editors who would be happy to run two or three journals with the sort of reviewing and senior board support that journals often have. The costs are not as big as the for-profit publishers would have you believe. They are not doing as much for you as they say.


x.trapnel 04.25.12 at 5:38 am

I think Christian_H is mistaken in thinking that OA is completely distinct from the goal of moving academic publishing away from for-profit monopolists. The connection–and this has already been mentioned here, but I don’t think the point has been made as clearly as would be ideal–is this: a strong norm of open-access puts financial pressure on the publishers, because marginal library subscribers can afford to cancel, knowing their patrons can get the content regardless. Open access thus serves two purposes: it expands access to knowledge for those who can’t afford subscriptions, and it makes publishing less lucrative for the big publishers. Why is less profit for the for-profit publishers a good thing? Because it means they won’t fight so hard to hold onto the journals, and the transition to having them controlled by entities who primarily care about curating and disseminating the knowledge will go smoother.

In addition, as Matt mentioned above, “guard labor” is a significant part of the cost of current digital platforms, and a completely unnecessary cost from an open-access perspective. Open-access journals help make this clear; and showing potential journal-publishers that the costs are lower than they had hitherto assumed is an important stage in any hoped-for transition.


x.trapnel 04.25.12 at 5:39 am

(Emma basically covered everything I said, and more besides, but I wanted to make very explicit the rejoinder to Christian’s claim that these are two separate issues.)


Rana 04.25.12 at 8:01 am

What Peter says at #97 echoes my concerns as well. I’m fine with open access in theory, but in practice? I’ve chased too many defunct citations around the internet in search of lost URLs to be sanguine about the value of open access in the absence of the funding and institutional support needed to maintain reliable permanency.

A journal that allows free access to its articles is useless to me if its links break after a few years, or if the journal itself goes under, leaving no trace of its contents anywhere other than in caches and the downloads of previous users.

There’s something to be said for the ease of self-publishing, but scholarship (at least in my field) requires more stability, and that tends to demand an infrastructure that’s profoundly difficult for all but the most dedicated individuals to sustain over the course of a lifetime and beyond.


Matt 04.25.12 at 9:02 am

Rana, that’s interesting. I see it the other way around. I’ve spent too much time chasing articles from old journals to be sanguine about the value of publisher reputations and commitment. If a journal is licensed for open access and printed on paper, people can scan the paper and share the articles whether or not the publisher is still around. If it’s only available electronically, then it’s even easier; maintaining a complete mirror and serving it has tiny costs, easily borne by interested practitioners or even more easily borne by dedicated preservation efforts like the HathiTrust or Internet Archive.

By way of contrast, if a journal is under traditional copyright there is no “official” way to obtain copies if the publisher disappears or doesn’t want archives of past articles to be available electronically. Example: Chemistry & Industry, published by the Society of Chemical Industry in the UK, has decades of pre-electronic material cited by other journals, patents, and the secondary literature. But the Society today does not sell or otherwise offer archival access to their pre-electronic journals. Google has scanned those journals, but the material cannot be read through Google Books because it is still under copyright and the rights-holder has not granted an exception to make it visible. Since the publisher won’t lift a finger or even let others lift fingers to make archives available, the last method of access is physically traveling to a library that retained paper copies or pleading fair use to get an article photocopy through interlibrary loan — but the fair use exception is fairly narrow and under regular attack by rights holders who want even more control. To put it mildly, I think this is at least as real and vexing a problem as ephemeral open access journals whose URLs break after a few years.


ajay 04.25.12 at 9:32 am

As noted above, Elsevier’s net profit margin is 36% – for every dollar spent by academic institutions on publishing, 36% goes to Elsevier’s shareholders.

Look, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, but if you can’t tell the difference between “operating profit”, “net profit” and “dividend per share” then you really should not be participating in a discussion about the economics of publishing.


Emma in Sydney 04.25.12 at 10:08 am

Back in the olden days when I was a PhD student I tried to get a copy of a hardcopy journal article on a topic unknown in my country’s university libraries. It was impossible too. I ended up using the newfangled internet to email someone in the US to send me a photocopy. Now the whole run is online.

Myself, I think a journal hosted on a university library server is about as permanent as it gets nowadays. Although my journal is also archived through the Pandora project, Australia’s web archive, so there’s that, too. Matt @ 104 is exactly right.


Emma in Sydney 04.25.12 at 10:13 am

Here’s the site that hosts my journal UTS ePress. It’s quite a collection they have there.

Here’s Public Knowledge Project if you want to read further. These are some of the people really getting out there and doing it.


Rana 04.25.12 at 11:15 am

Matt #104, I’m not disputing the value of things being online; heck, I use online resources quite regularly, and feel grateful at how easy most of them are to obtain. However, that’s not the point I was making.

If I cite a specific article or other publication in my work, that citation is useless if it doesn’t go to something solid and permanent and accurate. That’s my concern, not initial accessibility.

I’ve never had trouble tracking down a published book that was cited (sometimes it’s work, yes, but ultimately a copy does exist somewhere for me to find and read) nor an article published in a venue committed to maintaining some form of permanent unique signifier to use as a citation, whether that’s a permanent, unchanging URL or a page range in a published hardcopy journal.

But an article that was posted once, on a webpage that ceased to exist when its author moved on to another institution? If I can’t cite it using a permanent signifier, it’s worthless as a source, because it means that no one else can find it, confirm that it’s the same source I used, and use it to check the accuracy of my handling of it.

In some ways, sites like that are worse than ephemera, because with ephemera you at least have a single copy to look at, in a named archive, and since you got access to it, someone who cares enough can gain access to it too. A site that’s disappeared, and your only remnants of it are lingering (maybe, if you’re lucky) in a cache site somewhere? That’s cruel to your readers, to send them on a wild goose chase trying to figure out what source you were using.

I’ve done it. I’ve done it far more often than I’d like. It is a real problem, and it’s something that requires thought and commitment on the part of the online editor/host to make sure it doesn’t happen. H-Net does a great job of it. Too many other sites do not. If people are serious about open source replacing the existing structure of journals and articles, they need to think about this, what maintaining permanent unchanging URLs over decades or more of time requires, even as people move on, projects lose funding, technology changes, and so on.


Rana 04.25.12 at 11:17 am

“Done it” referring to the goose chasing, not the sending of people on such chases. As I said, if I can’t guarantee a reasonably permanent citation, I don’t — indeed, can’t — use that source.


bianca steele 04.25.12 at 12:53 pm

John Q:
It was probably about ten years ago, and I may have misremembered. I thought there would be JSTOR access, but it wasn’t there, or was only available onsite. Maybe it hadn’t ever been there yet. I did definitely see a notice a few years back about cutting access. Maybe rates have changed. That was a long time ago. It isn’t that long since it seemed really great to be able to e-mail catalog searches to myself or copy them to floppy. And as I said, what’s really annoying to me these days is not having access to back issues of The New Republic and New York Review of Books, neither of which the library buys anymore either.


ajay 04.25.12 at 1:17 pm

If people are serious about open source replacing the existing structure of journals and articles, they need to think about this, what maintaining permanent unchanging URLs over decades or more of time requires, even as people move on, projects lose funding, technology changes, and so on.

Local storage of the documents would seem to solve this problem. If your university subscribes to the Journal of Unspeakable Horror, which is open-source and online, then every six months it gets sent a CD-ROM of the last six months of content that it can archive on its own server space, etc. So even if J. Unsp. Horr. goes out of business, all that means is that you can’t look at its content online. You can still go to the library and have a look at the archived version. There’s going to be a small cost in producing and distributing the CD-ROMs but it’s de minimis.


sanbikinoraion 04.25.12 at 1:39 pm

A CD-ROM? You crack me up.

How about a web service that the universities can query at any time for the entire back catalogue, which they can then store locally?

Sneakernet is so 90’s.


MG 04.25.12 at 2:10 pm

Rana — you must not work with US government data ever, then. Much of it is only available online and the URLs move around all the time due to updates, reorganizations, name changes of divisions/consolidations.

Yet people still publish using these sources in prestigious medical journals. What you do is: note the URL you are using, the date you accessed it and take a screenshot (or copy) on your own computer. In your footnotes, make sure to note the URL and date.


Barry Freed 04.25.12 at 2:12 pm

Well that’s what DOI is supposed to solve.


christian_h 04.25.12 at 2:16 pm

x.trapnel 101.: Fair enough. Are you in the sciences? I still think people who are not fail to appreciate how much “open access” publishing is part of the “current publishing practices” there, and how much it does not interfere with publisher profits at all – because the authors pay a fee for the privilege of getting published.


dbk 04.25.12 at 2:31 pm

bianca steele @110:

I just went onto the BPL website; they list JSTOR as one of the databases to which they maintain a subscription. All that appears to be required for off-site access is a BPL card and a PIN.

JSTOR’s development and operational model were/are different from those of commercial electronic/print publishers like those under discussion here (Elsevier et al). The platform was developed with serious funding by the Mellon Foundation, and was envisioned as a self-supporting ongoing enterprise that would offer a key service to the scholarly world henceforth (electronic back runs of key journals in selected disciplines – originally, ten -, with as permanent a platform as it’s possible to envision). They are flexible about charges/ subscription fees – my husband’s research institute was able to negotiate a modest one-time “installation+start-up fee” plus a reasonable yearly subscription to a select number of journals. In this respect, I think, JSTOR is closer to what some of the commenters above would like to see – reasonably-priced (if not entirely free) access with a pretty solid expectation of permanent access.


ajay 04.25.12 at 2:55 pm

A CD-ROM? You crack me up.
How about a web service that the universities can query at any time for the entire back catalogue, which they can then store locally?
Sneakernet is so 90’s.

Relies on the university being organised enough to remember to run regular queries on every journal they subscribe to, and then organised enough to remember to store the results of that query in a non-volatile form… the infrastructure for “here is a thing, put it somewhere we can find it again” is rather more proven (since Alexandria).


William Timberman 04.25.12 at 3:46 pm

If the power goes off, the world ends is the worst case scenario for digital storage. Slow Fires — is the equivalent scenario for traditional library storage. Relatively few books are published on 300-year paper these days, and I think it’s safe to say that no one knows the true extent of digital vulnerabilities — format obsolescence, physical media decay, bitrot, barbarism, etc.

Redundancy seems to be the key, but that’s a matter of whim, not central planning. Does anyone here see in all of this a unified strategy which protects both access and permanence?


Barry Freed 04.25.12 at 3:50 pm

Redundancy and for digital media, constant migration.


William Timberman 04.25.12 at 4:04 pm

Yeah, but Barry, given the reluctance of governmental and non-governmental agencies to bear the cost of migration, can we really rely on a collective of interested folks outside those agencies to do the work of the Lord? While spending over thirty years in library data maintenance, and having the nightmare experience of going through the stacks, bending down the corners of pages in books and watching them crack and crumble in my hands, staring in dismay at racks of half-inch computer tape reels and stacks of 8 and 5-inch floppy disks in our vaults that were no longer mountable on any available reader, I came to wonder. Should the pressure drop in our innovation engines, what will be left?

In the case of cultural artifacts like architecture, I suppose it can be argued that if we have the Pantheon, we don’t really need the Parthenon, or the Temple of Pergamon. When it comes to what’s in books, though, I’m not so sure that we can be so complacent.


Barry Freed 04.25.12 at 4:17 pm

I know what you mean. We can’t rely on the likes of Brewser Kahle to save our collective asses.


bianca steele 04.25.12 at 4:54 pm

Barry Freed:
“We” have been trying to set up directories that separate physical locations from logical descriptions for a while. So far not much more complicated than phone co. directory service or DNS is working AFAIK. You need constant vigilance to keep “local descriptions” from including IP addresses and drive names and the like, for one thing.


bianca steele 04.25.12 at 5:13 pm

Part of that is admittedly the fact that a lot of people working on this seem more interested in creating the perfect model of a unique name and the perfect model of a name to object mapping than in creating the most useful models of those things. It is not necessary to have the perfect model in order to avoid quick-and-dirty syndrome.


John Mashey 04.25.12 at 7:54 pm

1) Physical storage media, like DVDs, degrade over time. There are numerous older media for which no reader works any more, as we have found at Computer History Museum.

2) Computers are really fairly good at automating tasks like copying files to local storage, or at least somewhere other than the original.

3) See WebCitation, a very useful thing for archiving specific files. It takes a little setup, but once you have a bookmark with the right magic value:
javascript:void(location.href=’http://www.webcitation.org/archive?url=’+escape(location.href)+’&email=MY EMAIL’)

all you do is click on that and it queues a retrieval request, emails you when done.
I use an Outlook rule to send them to their own folder.

This doesn’t work for everything, and unlike Brewster’s Wayback, you have to think to do it, but unlike Wayback, you can capture most files immediately. Final fallback is screenshot. I’ve had to use all of these at one time or another.

4) Storage in the cloud is nice … but there is a famous old cautionary tale, “MS Fnd in a Lbry.”


mclaren 04.26.12 at 2:30 am

Heute Widener, morgen die JSTOR!


Christoph 04.26.12 at 2:49 am

I would like to add to the list the Pensoft journals which are open access journals in the field of zoology, biology, ecology and related fields.



john b 04.26.12 at 2:53 am

Ajay: hmm. The only differences in Reed Elsevier’s accounts between operating profit and net profit are interest and tax. There aren’t any business costs being neglected by using the divisional operating profit figure; Elsevier really honestly does make that much money. If it were spun off as a debt-free independent company, 36% would be its profit-before-tax margin.

And whether the income that Elsevier makes is distributed as dividends or not is completely irrelevant – it belongs to the company’s shareholders in either case. Apple famously never paid a dividend until this year; nonetheless, someone who used that fact to claim that the profit margin on an iPhone didn’t go to benefit Apple’s shareholders would be obviously ridiculous.


Metatone 04.26.12 at 12:07 pm

Have to disagree with Rana – I’ve had plenty of problems with deprecated URLs and removed access from big publishers – (E) and (S) spring to mind – they do not have (at least in my field) the interests of researchers at heart.


Katherine 04.30.12 at 2:01 pm

Paper’s pretty good when it comes to data retrieval. That’s why I work in an archive one day a week – I’d like information on a subject dear to me to be available for many many years to come (hopefully hundreds, if not more). You want something to around for a long time? Print it out, don’t let staples or plastic anywhere near it, invest in some acid-free boxes and paper, and build a strong room.

Other than that, it’s clay tablets I’m afraid.

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