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Electronic publishing models and the public good

I do not believe that publishers have made much of a dent in the battle for the hearts and minds of scholars1-those academics who care at all about how publishing is done seem preponderantly and passionately on the side of Open Access.

Many academic authors see themselves as fighting the good fight, a war of liberation of information, a battle for academic freedom against an evil empire that treats the free flow of ideas as commercial property, as a juicy asset from which to suck out money. The empire in their eyes is a powerful lobby, in league with the entertainment industry, intent on bending the law to their undemocratic purposes, gaining tighter and tighter monopolistic control over every possible titbit of information and every conceivable use thereof, as they squeeze for more and more profit. Freedom, argue academics, is being damaged in the process.

Lest this sounds like hyperbole, Hal Abelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has categorically stated that "The increasing tendency to treat knowledge as "intellectual property" is inconsistent with traditional academic values"2.

On the other hand, publishers have, I believe, made considerable headway with librarians. Ann Okerson, associate university librarian at Yale University has pointed out that licensing negotiations have been instrumental in opening up real dialogue over substantive issues.3

This partial meeting of the minds with librarians stems from the fact that:

  • They have shared similar anxieties about being disintermediated along with publishers.
  • Librarians are intensively cost-aware - their working lives are seriously intertwined with budgets and the budgeting process, and very few would hold that publishing is costless.
  • Librarians appreciate publications; few are of the opinion that publishers do not add value to what authors create
  • More recently, librarians have been implementing their own Internet-based technology applications to serve their clients' digital resources and to provide an integrated view of all their holdings, both online and on their shelves. They therefore know first-hand that this new publishing process costs money, and requires technologically skilled people on the library staff.

Librarians may be angry about the level of prices of certain subscriptions but much less so over the principle of charging4. Although major disagreements remain between publishers and librarians over inter-library loan, distance learning and what constitutes fair use in the digital environment, a great deal of progress has been made. Librarians have opened dialogue and taken it forward in at least two major areas of concern: licensing and usage statistics.

The business models outlined in Table 1 are greatly simplified, but serve as illustrative concepts of various approaches. In reality, publishing strategies include a great deal more variety and complexity, with the Open Access model, for example, having many different potential funding mechanisms. The models are in the order of their historical growth of publishing in science, technology and medicine; the assigned 'strengths' and 'weaknesses' relate to how they potentially pertain to serving the public good.

Table 1. Three electronic publishing models

The not-for-profit society model has particular strengths. It brings together a real community of shared, discipline-specific interests. I do not think that the academy can lay claim to any such coherency. Learned societies share common values with the research community. The latter, in fact, governs the society and defines its mission. Professional staff execute the policies fixed by the society's scientists, providing goods and services in an economically-sustainable way.

Professional staff therefore have a predominant interest in the society's financial health, whereas the volunteer governance is more concerned with the activities directly serving its membership. This divergence of interest can cause tension, but rarely outright antagonism. It leads, I believe, to a healthy set of checks and balances, and generally keeps pricing levels sufficiently low to be consistent with widespread dissemination of results. The values of the non-profit society make it sympathetic to Open Access as an ideal; only for pragmatic reasons does it recognize the need to charge as a necessary evil.

The strengths of non-profit societies are also their weaknesses. The academic values of the society, leads it to pursue the so-called 'cost-plus' approach to pricing, which focuses on recovering production costs, and a fixed rate of profit. This pricing strategy tends to keep the margins low, making it very difficult for a society to make large investments in new technology, or to quickly expand its publishing programmes. The dual aspects of volunteer governance and staff management also tends to slow decision-making, and reduce the organization's agility. Moreover, societies carry out a broad range of activities, and therefore lack a single-minded focus on publishing.

The commercial model represents a capitalist approach to publishing, and has major strengths compared with the non-profit model. Its structure allows for more efficient action, I believe, while commercial publishers' focus on profits demands that they are constantly seeking and exploiting market opportunities for growth. Its pricing policies are based on the value of the product, rather than cost-recovery. These strengths allowed commercial publishers to meet the explosion in the growth of publications, and the research community's publishing needs during the Cold War, when the government poured money into scientific, technological and medical research. Scholarly societies, in contrast, were ill-equipped to handle this growth.

The commercial model's weakness might be thought of in terms of its alienation from the consuming community; the capitalist business model is independent of its own customer values. Or so it appears. But there is something strange here: few academics speak out in favour of the commercial model of publishing, but it is this community which sustains the commercial model and drives its continued growth. The editors-in-chiefs, the editorial boards, the reviewers and the authors all come from the very community that loudly voices its opposition to commercial publishers. There must be a very large silent majority. The silence is puzzling. Perhaps it is due to the 'chilling effect' of being politically-correct on campus.

I consider the quality of the product as a weakness of the capitalist model not because quality is poor but because it is a secondary derivative that depends on a well functioning market. Quality of product and service are not the commercial publishers' primary mission, but the means for them to compete with others to achieve profits. Likewise, user satisfaction is a means to increase demand, but not an end in itself. When the market functions well, these processes result in competition and outstanding quality. But markets can be imperfect when competition dies out, for example, because of a commercial publisher enjoying too much success, and a monopoly position. Markets, as they relate to quality, can also be distorted in a situation where the consumer is not the buyer. The further removed the paying agent is from the actual consumer, the greater the possible distortion.

The Open Access model bills itself as ideal, as serving the public good. It is at home with the expressed values of the academy and it is likely to find significant institutional support. One of its strengths is to reduce or eliminate all costs associated with an access control layer, authentication, charging and billing, digital rights management, and possibly marketing as well. It fosters use by eliminating access barriers. And it eliminates aggravating rights clearances, thereby fostering comfortable and easy re-use. The 'Atkins Report'5 held that research and publication of its results are being drawn closer and closer together both in time and in the process of interacting with the raw data in such a way that Open Access is the only logical conclusion.

As the Open Access model is currently evolving, it is perhaps unfair to dwell on its weaknesses - let us rather call them 'unanswered question marks':

1. The movement is academic-centric and has not addressed the publication of research by corporate labs and other research institutes. In some fields, these account for the majority of the published research.'6

2. As Open Access costs shift away from the user to the producer, scientists find themselves becoming publishers. At some point, will they need to hire professionals to run these new research-publishing systems so they can get back to work? Or is this publishing process indeed coextensive with their research activities?

3. The most frequent question raised is, of course, that of sustainability. And, moreover, how to increase funding levels above mere sustainability to allow for innovation and growth in the publishing programme.

While it is not true that the Open Access model necessarily looks to government funding to sustain publication, it is surely a reasonable thing to do. The Public Library of Science, for example, looks to author payments to underwrite Open Access. Government underwriting raises a concern about governmental control over publication - which is actually not much different from a concern about governmental control over the research itself.

Costs of Open Access

Estimates of the costs of research per article published range from $50,000,'7 to $150,000'8, and $250-300,000.'9 The publication cost per article for a typical journal range from $1,500 to $5,000 according to estimates by various people in the industry.

These figures are startling and raise a few questions:

1. First, are the publishing costs small enough in relation to the research costs to be embedded in them?

2. Second, the publishing costs seem small in comparison to the research costs. Does this mean that publishers are doing a good job, that the present publishing system is quite efficient? What would be the right ratio between them? How can one even determine it?

3. Third, the costs in research dollars spent per article published actually seem very high. Does this mean that researchers are doing a bad job? That their expenses are exorbitant in relation to their productivity? Is the taxpayer being gouged? How does one go about estimating such a thing?

I have no answers, but the questions point up two things worth considering. First, when publishers are taken to task for 'exorbitant pricing,' or even any pricing at all, I think it is fair to ask similar critical questions of the research community, and to raise awareness of the fact that there is actually a lucrative 'business of research.'

Open Access advocates also often argue as a reason not to transfer copyright that they get no financial benefit out of publication. But researchers themselves profit from the system as it is well-known that publication ties directly to reputation and in turn to tenure, salary, grants, course relief, and a degree of power within the academy.

Second, for a traditional publisher, the value of research, the value of publication, and the appropriate costs for each are determined by the market, by the buyer. But how are research dollars evaluated? There is in fact no true 'market' at play here. Instead, there is the notion of the 'public good' and a political process that determines how much to spend and in what areas. It is the taxpayer's money they are spending. Yet once such a 'public good' is institutionalized, it is both very hard to change and very hard to evaluate. That this money suits the vested interests of the research community goes without saying. That it is in fact serving the public good is another question altogether.

The future

One possible route for Open Access to succeed is to opt for a low-end, no-frills publishing process. The lower the costs, the more readily these could perhaps be embedded within existing institutional budgets. Costlier publishing processes that add value may not be highly prized in some cases, and lower-cost electronic publishing systems may suffice and be preferable, if the trade-off is Open Access. Electronic publishing is still too young and experimental for us to predict what value-adding services will be worth having.

The pushback from the market that we see today - the libraries negotiating on pricing, and researchers on copyright and open access - is very healthy and long overdue. Experimentation is creating healthy competition, albeit on a small scale so far, as well as test cases, innovations and counter moves by threatened publishers, which can be seen as creative adaptations or co-optations or both.

Despite the oppositional rhetoric, there are opportunities to learn from the antinomies and tensions in various publishing models. It is interesting that the pushback from librarians has resulted in greater reliance on licensing as opposed to copyright and also in bigger deals with consortia rather than individual institutions. This has in fact driven the cost per user with access rights way down -- a fact which should be quantified and publicized as it is one way to measure serving the public good. The price of the license may go up, but the costs are spread and the numbers served by digital access increase dramatically.

From one perspective, the Open Access movement and these large licensing deals actually seem to be converging. An agent, representing larger and larger communities, sometimes even representing a government on behalf of a country's entire research network, pays the freight for everyone who then has free access. This kind of big deal subscription license is not so far away from some form of institutional underwriting which is the fundamental sustaining concept of the Open Access movement.

There are downsides to this model. Without a direct paying consumer, it is harder for market demand to be recognized -- the market becomes the buying agent, not the consumer - and when this happens, the market looks more and more like institutional patronage. This can work, but it does put us back into a similar position we had in print. It re-establishes a shared system of scholarly publishing in which the value of research itself and the value of all this enormous publication activity and expense is taken for granted and cannot really be questioned. The value propositions become harder to test.

The pushback by academics on copyright has also led to some interesting developments. More and more publishers either license works from authors or incorporate author retained rights in their copyright transfers. The overall effect of these accommodations is a loosening of the exclusivity rights in publishing.

This could lead to co-existing systems: cheap, largely automated, institutionally-supported Open Access research report servers, together with costlier, value-adding formal publications, curated and preserved, which are access controlled and supported by paid subscriptions.

On the other hand, as exclusivity diminishes, a space may be opening up in which we see institutional repositories integrated with pre-print and e-print servers. Innovative efforts might flourish to organize, index and make these interoperable, as well as to overlay new kinds of peer review in automated recommender systems, and integrate them with massive data sets that link articles directly into the data. Automated citation analysis and download statistics would complete what could eventually become competitive Open Access digital libraries. Research money already underwrites this large effort in support of Open Access. New players are entering this publishing space and finding institutional support for their activity. Publishers foster it, willingly or unwillingly, with their new attitudes toward copyright.

The question must be asked, where would services like Google or CiteSeer be, if there were only articles posted on author home pages and there were no formal publications? At one point, CiteSeer claimed to be the largest digital library in computing. Many of the articles CiteSeer serves from cache are copyrighted by publishers. Other articles omit the copyright statement, but indicate the journal title, volume, and issue number in which the work appears and are formatted in the journal's standard style. Without these indicia of value provided by a formal publishing process that costs money, how useful would these Open Access republication and redistribution services be? This question bears on the matter of peaceful coexistence and the value proposition of formal scholarly publishing. Are these new services like CiteSeer successful on their own merits? Or are they symbiotic with or even parasitic on the scholarly publishing industry?

What is the Public Good? Let us say it is the progress of knowledge. How does one measure how well a model contributes to the progress of knowledge? One measure might be how widely disseminated the publications are. Another might be how frequently they are used. A third might be the number of high-impact titles and articles published.

These numbers are probably not impossible to obtain. I strongly recommend that all publishers, commercial, non-profit, and Open Access, all make an effort to collect them and post them openly. I think the results would be highly instructive. Personally, I would not be at all surprised if it turned out that the capitalist for-profit model that charges for access has had the most success in serving the public good when put to the test by these objective measures.

Bernard Rous

Deputy Director of Publications and Electronic Publishing Program Director Association of Computing Machinery

Declaration of interest

I must be honest about my own dual agenda. On the one hand, I wish to rise above the partisan conflict to present a reasonably objective view of some alternative electronic publishing models. On the other, I make a living in publishing in a not-for-profit society that charges for access-the larger the 'surplus' we can generate, the greater the financial health and wealth of the organization and thus part of my agenda is to attack those positions that appear to threaten my well-being. The two agendas don't sit well with each other, which is the reason why disclosing our vested interests is so important a first step in examining the issues.

*The ideas expressed in this article are my own; they do not necessarily represent the views of my organization.

  1. Givler, P., 'Distinctions Within PSP Between Commercial Publishers and Nonprofits'; talk given at the meeting of The Association of American Publishers, PSP Division, on 'Smart Content: New Ways to Add Value' (February 3-5, 2003).)

  2. Abelson, H., 'What is Publishing in the Future?: Institutional repositories ', in Proceedings of a symposium on Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and its Implications (Washington, DC, May 19-20, 2003), National Academy of Sciences (2004).

  3. Okerson, A., ' Legal Issues in Production, Dissemination, and Use:' Licensing ,' in Proceedings of a symposium on Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and its Implications (Washington, DC, May 19-20, 2003), National Academy of Sciences (2004).

  4. Wolpert, A., Symposium Wrap Up: Comments by Panel Participants in Proceedings of a symposium on Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and its Implications (Washington, DC, May 19-20, 2003), National Academy of Sciences (2004).

  5. Atkins, D. ' Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure :' Report of the National Science Foundation Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure, January 2003.

  6. Comments by Donald King published in 'Publication Business Models and Revenue:' Discussion of the Issues in Proceedings of a symposium on Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and its Implications (Washington, DC, May 19-20, 2003), National Academy of Sciences (2004).

  7. Ginsparg, P., 'Creating a Global Knowledge Network' Invited contribution for Conference held at UNESCO HQ, Paris, 19-23 Feb 2001, Second Joint ICSU Press - UNESCO Expert Conference on Electronic Publishing in Science, during session Responses from the scientific community, Tue 20 Feb 2001

  8. Brown, P. Chapter 4, - 'Publication Business Models and Revenue:' Discussion of the Issues in Proceedings of a symposium on Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and its Implications (Washington, DC, May 19-20, 2003), National Academy of Sciences (2004).

  9. David Lipman comments in Chapter 7, - 'What Constitutes a Publication in the Digital Environment:' Discussion of Issues in Proceedings of a symposium on Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and its Implications (Washington, DC, May 19-20, 2003), National Academy of Sciences (2004).

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