An agent of Elsevier publishing recently sent takedown notices to a lot of universities regarding copies of Elsevier journal articles republished by academics on the university web sites. This provoked affected outrage among certain open access (OA) advocates: Mike Taylor proclaimed that Elsevier was stepping up its “War on Access”. Andrea Peterson, blogging for the Washington Post, reported that Elsevier is “stopping academics from sharing their research”. Ross Mounce struck fear into the hearts of everyone (well – everyone who’d naughtily posted copies of Elsevier journal articles on the web, anyway) by annunciating that “No-one is safe from these legal threats”.
Now, if you read the example takedown notice posted on Ross’s own blog, you’ll see that although it does mention some laws, it doesn’t actually make any legal threat (although, naturally, it doesn’t rule them out either). It simply (and rather politely, IMHO) asks university admins to remove copies of journal articles posted on their uni web site. It expressly acknowledges that such postings may have been made in error and even offers a “cost-free agreement” for people who specifically want to post such articles. Doesn’t seem to be much reason for anyone to be fearful unless they’re intent on flouting Elsevier’s copyright.
That is where OA comes in. Let me say straight away that I’m all for OA. Sharing of knowledge and information is not just conducive to good science, but really the essence of what science is, I would say. Of course, I’d also say that real knowledge can only ever be personal and that science is ultimately a negotiation over whose accounts of their knowledge we take on trust and whose we don’t. But that’s a different story. My problem is with what is signified by the affectations of outrage that the Elsevier takedown notices have set off. The business model of ‘Legacy Publishers’ like Elsevier was established many decades ago. It predates web publishing, widespread use of personal computers and even the availability of cheap and easy photocopying. When the journal publishing business model was first established, its editorial offices, printing presses and distribution networks were all widely seen as essential to the dissemination of knowledge. Over the last thirty years or so, however, all those things have come to appear cumbersome and restrictive compared to the alternatives that information technology and the internet make possible.
Be that as it may, the legacy publishing model survives and prospers. The reason is that academic journals are commercial brands. Some are seen by academics as far more desirable places to get their work published than others and it is in the prestige of these journals that their special value to the academic community lies. These prestige journals are where commercial publishers make their money by charging big subscription rates. As far as I can see, it is only these rates that the OA advocates who attack publishers are referring to when they accuse the publishers of “stopping academics from sharing their research”. The journals are published, after all. Anyone can see them, provided they pay the subscription or get someone else to pay it on their behalf. It’s just that if you ignore copyright, then you can circumvent the publisher’s fee and if you maintain that the publisher’s fees or their attempts to assert copyright are immoral, then you can claim the moral high ground for your own flouting of copyright.
Are journal subscription fees too high? Are publishers’ profits “obscene”, as some say? Commercial publishers are essentially like any other for-profit business. They exist to maximise revenues and minimise costs. The costs bit they have easy. Academics aren’t usually paid anything for manuscripts that get published and reviewers aren’t usually paid either. But that’s not so much because publishers are cheapskates as because academics want to be above suspicion of simply writing or reviewing for money. Can’t have it both ways.
As for revenues, any for-profit business will set prices at the level that maximises revenue. There’s no point trying to sell either higher or lower than this optimum price. At higher prices, the loss of sales wipes out the increased per-sale revenue. Lower prices may attract more sales, but not enough to compensate for the reduced revenue per sale. The optimum price isn’t set by the seller but by the market, which is to say it reflects the range of values that all potential consumers of the product place on it. Basically, if publishers are able to sell their prestige journals at sky-high subscription rates, it’s because the consumers (that is, academics in the main) place a high value on being able to see it. That remains true even if they’re looking at stuff they wrote themselves and which they provided for free. Publishers’ “obscene” profits are simply a function of academics equally “obscene” desire for prestige journals.
Of course, you can argue that the optimum price is that which generates maximum benefit to the publisher which is not the same thing as maximum benefit to society at large. Maximum benefit to society, the OA advocates might argue is where everyone with any interest in a published article gets to see it. In that scheme of things, of course, ‘optimum’ price gets pushed right down to zero. Hence, I suppose, the ‘moral’ case for posting PDFs on web sites.
Thing is, while the end users of such copies may pay nothing, there are costs in making them available and someone has to bear them. Working out how to distribute those costs in a non-profit business model is probably the proper business of OA. The question is whether prestige publishing venues capable of challenging the paywalled prestige journals can be built that way. So far, their success has been insufficient to knock the paywalled journals off their pedestals, but at least the knowledge publishing market now supports competing business models. If OA advocates can produce OA alternatives to paywall that are more attractive than the paywalled prestige journals, then the paywall publisher ‘problem’ will pretty much take care of itself. If they can’t, then badmouthing the publishers is just an appeal to spite. And pretending there’s some moral high ground in doing so is just bad taste.