The debate topic was Resolved: The current system of scholarly publishing, whereby publishers receive content for free and then sell it back to libraries at a high price, must fundamentally change.
Jean-Claude Guédon, University of Montreal, took the pro position; Rick Anderson, University of Utah was opposed. The audience voted before and after the debate, and the winner is the person who moves the largest number of votes over to their viewpoint.
Voting: at the beginning of the debate, there were 38 yes votes and 12 no.
Jean-Claude opened the debate and said that:
- The current system of scholarly publishing is transitioning to an all digital context.
- Publishers are said to be indivisible and all alike. This is wrong; there are many types of publishers.
- Content equates to research results, which do not behave like novels.
- What kind of “free” are we talking about? Free as in “free speech” or free as in “free beer”?
- With words like “sell” and “price”, the resolution implies a commodity world.
The logic of content creating has begun to interfere with research. The results cannot be treated as a commodity. Since the 17th century, societies have subsidized their journals. When commercial publishers published journals, they did it for prestige purposes. The commodity nature of knowledge remained marginal until the 20th century. After World War II and following Eugene Garfield’s notion of “core journals”, publishers claimed ownership on a grand scale and launched price increases. It took nearly 300 years after the invention of the periodical to see Pergamon Press (one of the first commercial journal publishers) emerge. Many sites host noncommercial content that is valuable.
Publishing as a commodity has divested the rest of the research process. Competition among journals is organized around the Impact Factor (IF). A high IF appears to mean high quality, but it really means high visibility in certain circles. Where researchers published became more important than what they published, and they became desperate to publish in core journals. There is a strange relationship between librarians and publishers; researchers have been relegated to the side in a strange “mating ritual”.
Lessons from the digital context. Without the digital revolution, many results have become difficult to express. Scholars took the lead in early years of digital content, not publishers. Moving to licensing rather than selling journals illustrates that the commodity nature of journals is a false idea. When the author pays model was invented, the objective was to keep the article as a commodity, but also to improve the scholarly communication system. This spread to portals and now has morphed into mega-journals like PLoS1. No longer mesmerized by print plans, the focus has gone back to the scholarly process.
Proposal: Subsidize the publishing phase of research like the rest of the process.
There are two things wrong with the resolution: its premise is false, and the word “must” is questionable. The process that culminates in a publication is:
1. A scientific hypothesis is proposed.
2. The hypothesis is tested by research, development, and writing; and a document describing it is prepared.
3. Publisher subjects results document to tests, refinements, and reviews, then edits it and prepares it for publication.
4. The refined and enhanced document is presented for sale to buyers including those who financially supported step 2 of this process.
Saying that publishers receive free content ignores step 3. That stage is real and costly; on the average, it costs $3,800 to prepare a manuscript for publication. Even though some of this cost is borne by professors and volunteer editors, there is still a significant cost to the publisher. The purchase price of a journal attempts to recoup this investment. Authors believe that publishers add value; otherwise they would not submit articles to them. The costs of publishing cannot be free.
It is a highly questionable assertion that the system MUST change. That would mean that it cannot continue or that we believe it should not be allowed to continue. We must separate the system from the pricing. What makes the system seem unsustainable is the pricing, not the system itself. If all scholarly journals had an annual price of, say, $15 with a $.15 (10%) increase each year, would the system be sustainable?
When the public has underwritten research, should they have to pay for it at all? The issue is one of right and wrong; it is wrong to restrict access to scholarship. You can change the system so it undermines and does not contribute to the public good. Which does more good: less access to more research or more access to less research?
Libraries could assume the costs of publication. Does the academic community want to take the processes of layout, review, design, and dissemination back from publishers? If a library gets tired of doing this and outsources it, what will stop them from recreating the current system?
Therefore, this resolution is faulty because of its use of the word “must”. There is nothing wrong with the current system, but the pricing trend is causing the most trouble.
Jean-Claude’s Response: The editorial stage adds value, but what kind of value is it? The logic of profit seeking is mixed up with the logic of scholarly exchange. The costs of knowledge degradation can be enormous. We cannot separate the current system from pricing. The system exists only because there are forms of pricing that generate profits. Gold OA, where the authors pay for publishing research results, does not redirect funds from research. Communicating results is part of the infrastructure of society and we must pay for it. We are confusing the quality issues with the “Olympic Games” of the mind.
Rick’s rebuttal: Jean-Claude’s suggested alternate proposal is based on sleight of hand. Money to prepare results will have to come from somewhere. If all money is spent for research, the upside is free access, but the downside is less research and none of the services that publishers provide, which authors and readers seem to value. $100,000 cannot cover $100,000 of research and $2,000 for publishing the results. The cost of publication services must be recovered or they will not be provided. Journals are not competing for readers because many of them cover diverse subject areas, but they are competing for authors because they provide similar services to them.
Jean-Claude: Keep in mind what is at stake: optimizing the process of producing knowledge. Anything to help that is inherently good. Anything putting up barriers is at best regrettable.
Rick: Saying that anything creating barriers is bad is easy to agree to, but the barriers exist regardless of what we do or how we do it. The question is what is the best way to overcome those barriers. If I want to communicate with thousands of people, the barriers are serious and cannot be overcome without a cost. The question is what is the best way to overcome those barriers.
Final votes: yes 25, no 14. The sample size was smaller than at the start, so no winner was declared.
Don Hawkins blogs about conferences for Information Today and Against The Grain. He also maintains the Conference Calendar on the Information Today website and is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, published by Information Today in 2013, and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits, published by Information Today in 2016. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked in the information industry for over 45 years.