Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Open Access - Who Pays?

The thorny issue of ‘open access’ was raised again in an article today in the Guardian. This is not an issue that is going away, nor is it going to be resolved quickly.

Today researched give their research papers to publishers who get them peer reviewed, edited, marketed, published and distributed through their branded journals. The practice seems very laudable in that the publisher acts as the arbitrator of quality, ensuring their value and the appropriate indexing, referencing, citations etc are correct and that the paper is brought to the attention of the academic community.

However the European Research Council has argued that the high price of scientific journals was "impeding scientific progress" and last year the European commission published an independent report stating that the price of scientific journals has risen 200%-300% beyond inflation between 1975 and 1995. The market, the study said, was worth up to $11bn (£5.6bn) a year.

So on one hand, we have commercial parties who are trying to assist researchers and institutions publish and access a rich body of work, and on the other hand, we have researchers trying to publish and institutions trying to access a rich body of work. The key therefore lies in the value that the publisher brings to the table and whether that equates to the value perceived by the creator and the reader.

Yesterday paper dictated the workflow of submission, peer review, editorial, production and distribution. Today digital communications potentially turns much of this on its head. Yesterday journals were often ‘twigged’ to maximize the specialization and some would suggest their price. Today online search and discovery and referencing should change this. Yesterday publication and subscritions were scheduled to align with issues within academic years. Today articles should be managed in real time and not bound by issues which become increasingly irrelevant.

There is no easy answer to the digital relationships that needs to exist between publishers, creators and channels. This problem is not unique to journals but also has implications across the total social publishing environment. Perhaps there is logic in looking back to a time before publisher’s became the dominant player? What is clear is that the answer will not be found in the recent printed journal model and there is a need for all parties to recognize and respect the value each brings to the table in the digital world.