Publishing and the open-access model

There’s a lot of talk in the publishing, academic, and library worlds centering around the open-access model. Since I’ve worked in publishing for just under five years now and am currently pursuing an M.S. in Library and Information Science, it’s an issue I’m intimately familiar with, from multiple angles. On one hand, I see the ever-increasing subscription fees for scholarly journals and slashed library budgets; on the other, I’ve witnessed the effects of cost reduction on the production department of a scholarly publisher. On both sides, there’s constant pressure to reduce costs—whether you think the current landscape is fair or not—particularly in the current economy.

A brief article in the December 2011 issue of College & Research Libraries News by Caroline Sutton (Is free inevitable in scholarly communication?) touches upon these issues—and, in particular, the concept of “zero is inevitable” and how this will affect (and is affecting) the publishing industry:

Because the costs associated with bandwidth, storage, and processing are being reduced by approximately 50% every year, digital products get cheaper every year, and indeed have become so cheap that the marginal cost is so small as to render it near to impossible to measure. Today one bit has a near zero price tag. It is for this reason the default price of a digital product is zero: zero is inevitable.

The open-access model turns the traditional publishing model on its head; instead of consumers paying for access to content, authors pay a publication fee. In the scholarly circle, this money often comes from grants. Sutton’s article continued on to raise a number of interesting points, but I found my thoughts lingering on this concept. There’s already so much pressure on academics (young ones in particular, I expect) to “publish or perish”; a scholar’s career, and tenure in particular, depends on his/her ability to publish new research. Considering also the dwindling number of full-time, tenure-track positions available and the resulting fact that many fresh Ph.D. graduates are forced to take on adjunct-level positions (unless, of course, they choose to go into the private sector), it’s already quite difficult for young academics to launch their careers. What will happen if they’re also expected (read: required) to spend a portion of their limited grant money on publishing their work?

I’m not suggesting that we should throw a pity party for academics. Rather, I’m trying to get to the heart of something that I haven’t seen talked about: if the current “publish or perish” mindset remains unchanged and this model of open-access publishing (in which costs are placed on the shoulders of authors; there could be alternative ways for publishers to generate revenue) becomes the norm, what kind of burden will this place on the author? And what effect will that burden have? It seems to me that for the open-access movement to be as game-changing as it intends—and in the way that I perceive it intends—the current academic culture/landscape must change. I don’t have an answer as to how this could be accomplished, but I think it’s worth considering the unintended effects of this alteration in publishing model.

Update: Since I wrote this entry (but before it published), I’ve stumbled across several relevant pieces across the web, and I’d like to note, for the sake of clarity, that I completely support open-access publishing—I’m just concerned about the implications of one particular open-access model. If you’re interested in reading about a recent, worrisome challenge to the open-access publishing, the Research Works Act, see the New York TimesShreds and Patches, and Annoyed Librarian.

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