03 December 2008

What Open Source Can Learn From Open Access

Peter Suber's indispensable SPARC Open Access Newsletter, whose latest issue has just appeared, contains some interesting thoughts of relevance to the open source world.

For example, here are Suber's thoughts on the important NIH open access policy, which, though amazingly mild in OA terms, is being fiercely resisted by publishers:

The NIH policy covers so much literature in biomedicine (80,000 peer reviewed articles per year), and the compliance rate is climbing so quickly, that its opponents have little time left before even they will have to accommodate it. Its success is moving up the dinosaur moment when TA publishers must adapt or refuse to publish NIH-funded research. Most have already adapted, of course, a fact that tends to be lost in the protests of the publishing lobby. But the clock is ticking for those who hate the idea of adapting. This matters. While publishers have the money to lobby against government OA policies forever, the question is becoming moot as the policy's friends grow in number and power and as its opponents revise their own policies to live with it.

The lesson here is that it's very hard to argue against something that is manifestly successful. This makes projects like Firefox critical showcases for free software, to say nothing of GNU/Linux.

Even before the crisis, library budgets were growing more slowly than inflation and much more slowly than journal prices. Now they will slow further or shrink. Libraries will cancel larger percentages of their serials subscriptions than they have in decades. That will reduce access to the TA literature, which will strengthen the case for OA among researchers, librarians, and administrators.

At the same time, it will reduce revenues for TA publishers and strengthen the case for OA on their side as well. It may not cause many TA journals to convert to OA, in 2009, but it will add pressure. The more library budgets are constrained, the more it looks like a losing game to compete for shrinking library dollars, especially to society journals excluded from the nearly impervious big deals. If TA publishers found OA journal business models unattractive a few years ago, one reason was that subscription models still looked better. But the balance of attraction has to change as the odds of survival under a subscription model decline, roughly the way clean and renewable sources of energy become more attractive as oil becomes more expensive. Moreover, a few years ago OA publishers were too new to be profitable, and today at least three are reporting profits, including BMC (even before the Springer acquisition), which is based in expensive London. When contemplating their options in the face of declining subscriptions, publishers can no longer dismiss the OA alternative as untested or insufficient.

Replace "libraries" by "companies", and "publishers" by "software companies", and the parallels with the world of enterprise open source are clear. Again, the lesson is that once there are established successes in the world of open source companies, the hypothetical problems raised begin to look pointlessly theoretical.

Overall, then, the message is that in the world of openness, it gets better as things get better. Heartening stuff.

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