No more can-kicking

Having made it back at last from Scotland despite the ash cloud, and overcome jetlag and (some) to-do list explosion, I finally have leisure to reflect a bit on UKSG 2010.

My dominant takeaway is that nearly everyone in the scholarly-publishing ecosystem—publishers and librarians alike—is finally aware that we can't keep kicking the journal-cost can down the street any longer. Serials expenditures cannot and will not continue at their current level, much less increase.

When I think back to the last talk I gave to an audience of publishers, I see that a lot has changed just in my own demeanor. I was scared to rock the boat in 2006. Now, I can say "Being a roadblock is a poor business model" aloud in front of 700-odd people without being lynched, or even being afraid of being lynched. I think many toll-access journal publishers have secretly admitted to themselves that they're roadblocks, and they know way down deep that matters can't go on so.

I also got a sense that librarians are starting to face facts at last and arm themselves for a fight. I'm not the only one; I was stopped after my talk by a gentleman who said that he's never heard so much angry, determined backtalk coming from librarians as he had at UKSG 2010. See also Meredith Farkas, the Librarian in Black and, as always, liberation bibliographer Barbara Fister. That last piece? I'm notorious (not necessarily in a good way) for being outspoken, but I would have been too timid to write it. I love it, though, and I love that I'm not the only outspoken soul in this space!

All of this is deeply fascinating. What will it lead to? I don't know, but here are some guesses:

  • Additional growth in libraries-as-open-access-publishers, predominantly at research institutions. This will not limit itself to the journal literature; monographs are squarely in the sights as well. University presses unable to compete with this new market entrant will merge with libraries or fold, though their death-throes will probably take years or even decades.
  • Toll-access journal publishing will become a zero-sum game, if it isn't already. Every dollar of additional profit for the Elseviers and Informas of this world will be ripped from the pockets of other journals and journal publishers, including scholarly societies that haven't already signed deals with one devil or another. This is what I mean when I say the can can't be kicked any further down the road.
  • No one seems to agree with me on this, but I grow more confident by the day: small, low-subscriber-base journals at Big Deal publishers are in deep trouble as well. They add overhead but no especial additional profit, so they are obvious cost-cutting targets. Perhaps a journal massacre won't happen right away; EBSCO particularly still seems to be on an acquisitions spree. I do believe it will happen, though—and when it does, some of those journals will re-form as gold-OA, while most of the rest will simply fold, publisher-hopping not being an option.
  • Green open access in the form of mandates will grow the supply of open-access content quite quickly in the next few years. No, not all the eligible material will wind up in repositories. Yes, some publishers and researchers will balk. Yes, there will be faculty backlash at some mandate institutions, perhaps even all of them. No, it won't be enough to repeal most mandates, or to stem the tide of new ones.
  • The second-order effects of so much gratis-OA material becoming available will bear watching. I expect them to be difficult for toll-access apologists to explain away or ignore.

Before someone asks, I don't know what will happen with the Federal Research Public Access Act this time ’round. Federal legislation is always something of a crapshoot. FRPAA's previous history shouldn't count it out, though; going round and round the mulberry bush is just the way federal lawmaking works.

Moreover, the zeitgeist around open government, open (research and government) data, and open science may be working in FRPAA's favor this time around. "Open" has a lot more brainspace than it did last time. The non-failure of the NIH Public Access Policy certainly can't hurt. (I say "non-failure" because it's hard to argue that somewhere around a 65% compliance rate, which is the percentage I've heard bruited about, is a total success. It's certainly a vast improvement over the 3% garnered by the initial voluntary policy, though—and I expect compliance to rise further as the NIH starts to tell grantees "no, really, we're serious: no manuscripts, no money.")

Still, I hesitate to predict legislation. I'll stick to the ground I know better: publishing and libraries.

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