Open Access and Open Source

This morning, I read that the main Swedish research funding agency has decided to enforce open access to research results of projects it funds. This is a big deal for Swedish researchers relying on these funds: The status of a researcher is determined by the prestige of the journals in which they publish (and how much they publish). Many of these journals are not open access but rather require hefty fees to give you access. Hence, researchers might not be getting some of the expected reputation for their work.

Such a requirement is likely to come down the pipe in many other countries as well. Its impact on the academic publishing industry is not to be underestimated, it is nothing short of Schumpeterian. Economics is aligning itself against the publishers of high-priced journals. As open access journals as well as professional organizations like the ACM show, it is possible to have a publishing process at a much cheaper price tag than those of the likes of Elsevier and Springer.

I believe the high-price publishers know this already but can’t seem to cope with the necessary organizational change. For many years now, whenever I disagreed with the terms under which an article of mine was to be published, I signed the copyright transfer agreement with “Mickey Mouse” or “Bill Gates” to express this disagreement. The publishers went ahead nevertheless. And it makes sense. Their value is in compilations and easy access. They are a distributor of materials, not a publisher of any particular article.

For an open source researcher, it is obvious where all of this is headed. Springer and Elsevier are like the old closed source companies, high on fat profit margins, unwilling to let got and compete with much leaner open source uhm open access competitors. This is understandable: It is very hard to scale back as it usually implies lay-offs. So while these companies should have some of our sympathies, competition will march on, economics will play out, and the publishers will have to adapt or die.

The new business model is that of a distributor or portal, like the ACM Digital Library or Google Scholar. It helps me find relevant literature or a particular article, whereever it may be located on the web. Which is not to say these services are there already. They are, at best, at the beginning and need to improve drastically. I think my request for a Google Scholar API is now in its third year and remains unanswered. I hear I should try Mendeley, but I don’t like the closed nature of the service.

In any case, things are improving. Open access, like open source, open innovation, open space, and wikis is an example of open collaboration, moving us forward.

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