This post, originally published on December 7, 2007, on the Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, (IJPE) is just as relevant today. I am re-publishing today because of technical difficulties for some with access to IJPE and as support for an open peer review post in progress.
Open access has the potential to overcome the divide between the mainstream and the periphery, which is particularly important in the developing world.
One model for economic support for open access which has not received as much attention in open access debates is a national open access journal subsidy program. Outside of a very few countries, scholarly publishing has never been profitable, and subsidies have always been the norm. There are a few exceptions, such as the U.s. and the U.K.; even here, when the work given away by authors, peer reviewers, research funders, and the indirect subsidies through library subscriptions are factored in, it is likely that scholarly publishing is basically indirectly
Where journals are directly subsidized, switching to open access just makes sense, as the cost is lower without toll barries (no licensing, authentication, or subscription tracking, for example), and the impact is much greater.
Subsidized journals is a model that works very well for authors of developing countries, who may not have funding to pay article processing fees. A national program can ensure that local journals have the infrastructure and technology they need to succeed and be visible internationally.
Local control of academic publishing has other benefits as well. One example is that a local journal would appear to be much more likely to consider an article on a topic of high priority locally as relevant, than would an international journal. In a scholarly publishing industry heavily dominated by a few international players, medical researchers in developing countries may be more likely to focus on illnesses that impact peoples in northern countries, rather than illnesses such as malaria which have a greater impact at a lower level. A well-supported local scholarly publishing system can address this imbalance.
Librarians are very familiar with the difficulty of locating information of local importance. In Canada, our library patrons are often wanting information of relevance to Canada; when our tools are almost entirely international in nature, it is very difficult to find the local. This is true not only in Canada, but everywhere else as well.
While many aspects of scholarly knowledge are universal in nature, there is much of the local that is important, too.
For example, in humanities, I sometimes wonder whether the need to publish in international journals leads our literary scholars to study the works of authors considered important on an international level, when without this pressure they might be more inclined to study the works of local authors. Could a shift in focus from the international to the local increase the breadth and depth of our understanding of literature – and, at the same time, support local cultures everywhere? Could this result in a happy flourishing of literature and culture around the world?
Scielo is an excellent example of what can be accomplished through a nationally subsidized open access program. While the Scielo portal encompasses the scholarly work of many latin countries, Brazil alone, in 2005, brought 160 fully open access journals to the world at a very modest cost of only $1 million dollars.
Canada is experimenting with subsidized open access journals, through the Aid to Open Access Journals program.
In my opinion, it is not only governments that should be thinking about fully subsidizing open access journals. This makes sense for libraries, too. After all, we are already subsidizing scholarly publishing, through subscriptions. After a little careful reworking of economics, we could transform the system to directly support the journals.
Many libraries are already providing support to facilitate a transition to open access for journals their faculty publish, for example by hosting and supporting journal publishing software.
A useful next step would be to examine the monies spent on journals, and consider whether libraries or library consortia are already paying enough, or more than enough, to fund a fully open access journal. Given that many journals are currently sold in bundles, often international in scope, this will be complex at first; we will need to ask questions that publishers / vendors will not have immediate answers for.
However, we will have to begin asking such questions at any rate. With many journals providing open choice options, libraries will have to begin examining how much is paid for through open choice, and ensure that subscription fees are reduced accordingly, simply to avoid double-dipping; it is, one might argue, a needed element just for due diligence.
If we must focus on such issues in the transition to open access, why not be proactive and determine whether and how libraries can contribute to a fully subsidized, fully open access scholarly publishing system?
Jean-Claude Guédon, in Open Access and the divide between “mainstream” and “peripheral” science, in Ferreira, Sueli Mara S.P. and Targino, Maria das Graças, Eds. Como gerir e qualificar revistas científicas (forthcoming in 2007, in Portuguese). The eloquent and profound Guédon is one of the world’s earliest open access leaders, and still among the most active around the world; one of the reasons why we have such strong Canadian Leadership in the Open Access Movement.
This post is part of the Transitioning to Open Access Series.