26 March 2010

The Battle for Scholarly Publishing's Soul

Before Peter Suber became Mr Open Access, he was a philosopher by trade. This is evident in the long, thoughtful essays he writes for the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, which help console us for his absence these days from the world of blogging.

Here's the latest of them, entitled "Open access, markets, and missions". It asks some deep questions about what kind of scholarly publishing we should strive for: market oriented or mission oriented? As he observes:

Profit maximizing limits access to knowledge, by limiting it to paying customers. If anyone thinks this is just a side-effect of today's market incentives, then we can put the situation differently: Profit maximizing doesn't always limit access to knowledge, but is always ready to do so if it pays better. This proposition has a darker corollary: Profit maximizing doesn't always favor untruth, but is always ready to do so if it would pay better. It's hard to find another explanation for the fake journals Elsevier made for Merck and the dishonest lobbying campaigns against OA policies. (Remember "Public access equals government censorship"? "If the other side is on the defensive, it doesn't matter if they can discredit your statements"?)

He concludes:

Instead of hypnotically granting the primacy of markets in all sectors, as if there were no exceptions, we should remember that many organizations compromise profits or relinquish revenues in order to foster their missions, and that we all benefit from their dedication. Which institutions and sectors ought to do so, and how should we protect and support them to pursue their missions? Instead of smothering these questions for offending the religion of markets, we should open them for wider discussion. Should scholarly publishing, with all of its mixed incentives and hard choices, migrate closer to market-oriented end of the spectrum or to the mission-oriented end of the spectrum? For me the answer depends on a prior question. Do we want scholarly publishing to serve a certain function in the community?

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