Publication Date

March 7, 2007

In a statement released on February 28, 2007, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) outlined its position on the problematic—and often contentious—issue of providing open access to scholarly information, and declared that what was needed at this juncture was careful experimentation and development and not any risky plunging straight into “pure open access.”

Arising mainly out of the high costs associated with scientific, technical, and medical (STM) journals’ articles, the open access movement has been gathering momentum and support over the past few years. Various models of access have emerged, ranging from fully free-to-user model to more modulated arrangements that seek to coexist with, or build upon, market-driven, fee-based systems. The question of providing free access to scholarship is not without problems, and has evoked much attention from various groups and provoked considerable debate. The Budapest Open Access Initiative which arose from a 2001 conference sponsored by the Open Society Institute, and Our Cultural Commonwealth, the 2006 report of the American Council of Learned Societies’ Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and the Social Sciences are among the notable recent attempts to grapple with the challenges of freely disseminating scholarship in the age of the internet. But some have criticized these efforts as being too visionary or as not being realistic enough (see, for example, Robert Townsend’s critique of the ACLS report).

In its February 28 statement, the AAUP points out that “the conversation should expand to address the different creation and distribution needs of scholarly literature in all fields and formats, including monographs, and to consider a variety of models for providing open access—all of which entail risks and benefits to the entire system of scholarly communications that are not yet fully understood.”

Because the production and dissemination of knowledge carries costs—irrespective of the mechanism of transmission—the AAUP statement stresses that calls for changing the system of scholarly communications “need to take careful account of the costs of doing so, not just for individual presses, but for their parent universities, and for the scholarly societies also contribute in major ways to the current system.”

According to the AAUP, “being embedded in the culture of higher education that values experimentation and advances in knowledge, presses have been open to new ways of facilitating scholarly communications,” and many AAUP members “have begun experimenting with varieties of open access that seek to balance the mission of scholarly exchange with its costs.” The statement concludes by stating, “The AAUP and its member presses welcome the opportunity to collaborate with university administrators, librarians, and faculty in designing new publishing models, mindful that it is important to protect what is most valuable about the existing system, which has served the scholarly community and the general public so well for over a century, while undertaking reforms to make the system work better for everyone in the future.”

Commenting on the AAUP’s statement, Arnita A. Jones, the executive director of the AHA—itself a major not-for-profit scholarly publisher—declared, “The statement from the American Association of University Presses is a welcome addition to the conversation on the costs and benefits of providing open access to scholarly publications in the humanities. The AHA is a member of AAUP and participates regularly in discussion with them and other scholarly societies on the difficulties of negotiating new financial models designed largely to address problem in science, technology, engineering, and medicine.”

Commenting on the AAUP statement for “AHA Today,” Abby Smith, a cultural heritage resources consultant who had served as the director of programs at the Council for Library and Information Resources and as an adviser to the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and the Social Sciences, writes:

The AAUP is surely right that high-quality scholarship does not come cheap. The main focus of the debates around so-called open access is rebalancing the cost allocation among the actors in scholarly communication—scholars, publishers, and librarians. But to the extent that it focuses exclusively on cost allocations, it misses what’s really going on—what scholarly communication is becoming, and what is at stake. Of course, the costs of our business are significant. We are greatly disadvantaged by the fact that we don’t yet know what the costs—especially of digital scholarship, publishing, and archiving—actually are. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that to many academic users, information can appear to be “free” because the cost (to libraries) of acquiring and preserving, as well as the cost of production (to publishers) invisible. Moreover, authors do not make money, though they surely receive many benefits, as publication in peer-reviewed literature is “the coin of the realm” (see “The Influence of Academic Values on Scholarly Publication and Practices” by Diane Harley et al.)

In both the print and the digital worlds, it is rare that scholars pay the cost of producing and distributing their own scholarship, just as they seldom pay transaction costs to gain access to journals or monographs. Publishers usually serve as proxies for the scholars in their role of scholar-as-author. In the same vein, libraries play the role of proxy for scholar-as-researcher or user. Same person, different roles—and different interests, which are now clashing. Scholars make critical contributions in largely nonmonetary ways; their proxies—publishing houses and libraries—shell out hundreds of millions each year to print, distribute, collect, preserve, and serve the fruit of scholarly labor. Cutting costs by getting rid of the proxies—the “disintermediation” of publishers and libraries through easy creation and distribution directly to the Web, a system of open access first modeled by high-energy physicists through—still begs the question in most disciplines of who pays for such critical functions as quality review, editing, and preserving.

Part of the problem in determining appropriate allocation of costs is the fundamental difficulty of knowing precisely what the costs are. We have no idea how much it will cost to build and sustain the necessary digital infrastructure for research and publication. More than that, how deep the transformation of scholarship will be when we realize more fully the potential of digital technologies, will present deeper challenges for us. For in truth, we do not want just open access to content. We want open content. We want to be able to download material, to unbundle and disaggregate it, to recombine it, to comment on it, to include it in our blogs, to tag, to repurpose, to curate and to put it into our own digital library.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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