Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Will the King's Horses be there if the parasite kills the host?

Sally Morris, Editor of Learned Publishing, was a welcome last-minute stand-in for the sadly indisposed Peter Banks, to whom the UKSG community sends its best wishes.

Morris' rhetoric is familiar to those who follow lib-license and other discussion lists, and her lobbying on behalf of publishers during her years as Secretary General of ALPSP has shown her to be a staunch defender of existing scholarly communication models. Today she reiterated for the uninitiated many of the points she has made so vociferously in the past, and cited again the wealth of evidence which ALPSP, amongst others, has gathered to help inform the Open Access debate. We were reminded of surveys demonstrating that librarians will cancel journal subscriptions if reliable alternatives are available (Beckett & Inger 2006), a potential outcome also recognised by funding agencies. Morris restated the reasons why the journal model is worth defending: chiefly, its facilitation of the peer review process (for which, thus far, alternatives such as Nature's admirable open peer review experiment have failed to substitute adequately); the huge contribution made by editing, both for readability but also for accuracy (in 5.5% of cases, editorial changes "materially altered the sense of the article" - Wates & Campbell, 2007) and to support interactivity (e.g. improving references in order that they will link).

Morris went on to debunk, again, the myths that journal publishing is a exclusively a greedy for-profit game, and that journal publication could instead be supported by other publishing programs or society activities. Raym Crow's 2006 data shows that more than half (55%) of journals are non-profit, while Baldwin (2004) demonstrated that the surpluses from journals support a variety of functions - keeping membership and conference fees down; education and bursaries; research funding; (it is also the case in many publishing houses that journal publication tends to support the more low-profit activity of book publication, rather than vice versa). Since 90% of society publishers only have one journal they would be at risk if their subscription revenues are cannibalised by OA, as would niche and low-profit journals.

But given the broader mandate of a UKSG plenary paper, and having covered the background, Morris now developed her position further, and towards some conclusions that perhaps one wouldn't have initially suspected. Whilst publishers do need to continue engaging with others in the scholarly community to ensure the risks and consequences of self-archiving are understood, they should also be proactively experimenting (for example with hybrid open access models) and avoiding regressive insistence on retaining the existing model. Morris also picked up on a concern felt by many - that scholarly communication is changing in many ways, and we need to ensure the open access issue is not clouding our awareness of other potential revolutions. She questioned how else publishers can add value, and suggested that we need to be clear about those functions of the journal important enough to retain - even if the model around those functions should evolve. Ultimately, we should allow for the possibility that publishers and journals may cease to exist - but we should be very clear that this is a desirable and practicable future before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Humpty Dumpty was fine on the way down, cautioned Morris - it was only after he'd hit the ground that it turned out to be impossible to put him together again.

Nevermind the fact that we no longer have King's Horses and King's Men to help us should we turn out to regret a careless destruction of the journal model.

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