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  • Open access and gloom and doom in academic publishing
Sep 2012
Sep. 24, 2012 — You may have read about the impending demise of commercial academic publishers. These rumors of their death, it seems, are greatly exaggerated.

In July, the UK government announced that by 2014 “open access” publishing of results would be a condition of public funding of research; currently, of course, much of research is reported behind various paywalls in subscription journals. Proponents of open access viewed this as a victory for science, and indeed for all of society, which could only benefit from unfettered access to the latest scientific findings.

The potential losers: commercial academic publishers, which currently serve as the primary gatekeepers of scientific knowledge.

As reported by the website, analysts recently warned that the move toward open access could drive down the profitability of the journal business of publisher Elsevier by as much as 60%. The article processing charges it would earn for many of its publications “are unlikely to prove anywhere near what the company needs to be revenue neutral,” Berstein Research’s Claudio Aspesi wrote in a research note.

This has sparked a bit of debate within the research community. Not so much because folks are concerned about the fortunes of one company, but rather because of the possible ramifications of a “collapse of the profitability” of Elsevier or any of the other major commercial publishers.

Among the causes of fretting: The quality of scientific literature could drop considerably if the job of filtering and producing it becomes less profitable. This is a valid concern, and one worth keeping an eye on, but it could prove unwarranted.

In a recent post on the website Scholarly Kitchen, Kent Anderson reminded us that open access is not a binary proposition. Rather, it will see varying price points, ownership arrangements, editorial approaches, etc. — and thus varying opportunities to generate profit.

Open Access “is not one thing,” he wrote. “It’s a modified toll gate arrangement,with the toll gate moving from in front of the content to being flipped around so that it’s in front of the publisher’s release point.” Details — not least, what the toll gate charges — will vary. “Toll gates exist in either OA or subscription publishing, however, so why an expert in one toll gate wouldn’t be able to execute another just as expertly isn’t clear.”

In fact, he continued, Elsevier and other commercial academic publishers have quietly been making moves to enter the open access space; they already have the infrastructure, experienceand archives, for example,needed to do so.For these reasons and more, it’s unlikely that open access initiatives will spell the end of commercial publishers anytime soon.

Next: Pay-to-play, and where do we go from here?

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