Suppose that each time you have your bike repaired, the bike shop raises its prices for the other customers, and for you, too – and the other bike shops are not differemt. In such an absurd situation, wouldn’t you rather repair the bike yourself, instead of contributing to further price hikes for everyone?
Publishing is supposed to be a service to the community of scientists – to disseminate our research results. But each time you publish with a certain commercial publisher, you contribute to higher prices for the next article or book, because commercial publication prices are regulated by the prestige of the brand, not by the value of the service.
Dissemination has actually become almost trivially cheap. Large repositories like HAL or Zenodo.org contain hundreds of thousands of articles, and uploading your article there is quick and inexpensive. Commercial venues like Academia.edu and ResearchGate are used even more widely by scholars, because they provide additional services such as telling you who is reading your work.
So why don’t we all just upload our articles to these free sites? Why do we still need publication? Why do our science organizations spend billions of euros on journals and books?
The reason is that our careers hinge not only on our research output, but on the brands that our publications are associated with (journal titles and publisher imprints). This is something a scientist learnd very early, but that is rarely discussed, and that the politicians seem to be completely unaware of. Even scientists often seem to be unaware that the cost of publication comes from the prestige of the brand, not from the dissemination. Commercial publishers exploit our need for their brands to justify their exorbitant prices (and thus their high profits or inefficient processes), and there are no market forces to keep the prices low.
The idea of open access was launched in the 1990s because of the frustration with ever rising subscription prices, and it has gained widespread acceptance by politicians because there seems to be no reason in the digital age to hide results from publicly funded research behind paywalls. Strangely, however, the politicians (and open-access adocates in the universities and science organizations) have not understood that digital dissemination can actually save a large amount of money – probably up to 90% of the current publication costs. Recently the German universities and research libraries have been imploring the government to make the copyright law a bit more science-friendly, but at the same time, they promise the commercial publishers that they will keep spending the same amount of money. Isn’t this depressing?
Increasingly, open-access publication means that publishers charge not the readers (via paywalls and subscriptions), but the authors (via APCs). This isn’t any better as long as the brands are owned by the commercial companies, who will be able charge more for prestigious journals than for less prestigious journals. So if you pay €1500 for publishing a first-rate article this year, you increase the prestige of the journal and you may have to pay €2000 for another article in the same journal next year.
Clearly, the only way to behave responsibly in this situation is to take the brands out of the hands of commercial, profit-oriented organizations.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that universities and science organizations should have technical departments for publication – of course, the technical services could be outsourced to the cheapest contractor, as is routinely done for construction and cleaning jobs, for example. (On the other hand, universities already have technical departments – called “libraries” – which can probably retrain their staff to take over the publication tasks, as they will not be needed for acquisition of journals and books in the future.)
What matters is that scientists should be given the opportunity to start new journal brands or book imprints (such as Language Science Press), and to migrate existing brands, as has been done with the migration of commercially-owned “Lingua” to the new scholar-owned “Glossa” (and a few other journals). Ideally, there would be 20-year “tenure” financing for new journals and book imprints. In this way, our publication needs would be served just as well as our building needs and cleaning needs.
Thus, it is time to drop “open access” as a progressive issue, and to push for scholar-owned brands as the gold standard of science publication.