Getting Beyond “Post and Forget” Open Access

Posted by Joe Esposito on The Scholarly Kitchen, March 17, 2015

Is it immoral for someone to try to sell something that has been made Open Access (OA) through the payment of an article processing charge (APC)? Barbara Fister thinks so. I am not so sure. I follow Fister’s blog and find it to be thoughtful and always well-written, but on this point I do not agree. While I don’t subscribe to the language of morality in any discussion of scholarly communications, I think the commercialization of OA material is in the interest of everybody.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation. We have two publishers, which we will call Publisher A and Publisher B. Publisher A publishes a journal, which is toll-access but has an OA option, making it a hybrid. Some authors have exercised the OA option, paid an APC, and agreed to a Creative Commons license that allows for commercial reuse of the material, with the stipulation that there must continue to be an OA version of the articles. Publisher B, cleverly exploiting this license, repackages the articles and resells them in various ways. N.B. the OA versions continue to be available.

At this point some authors, or at least some people who claim to speak for the authors, complain that it is not in the spirit of OA and APCs for anyone to benefit commercially from the material. This raises the question of what exactly did the authors agree to. A careful examination of the contract reveals that the authors did in fact agree to allow commercial use of the material. Did they really, really know what they were agreeing to? Did they really, really, really know? Well, a contract is a contract, and one’s signature on a contract is what makes it binding. The point is not what you really, really know; the point is what you really, really agreed to.

Here is where my contrarian instincts come to the fore. In my view, everyone should want Publisher B to market the material, not just the greedy shareholders of the company. This is because that which is unsustainable cannot be sustained, and that which is sustainable is sustained, by definition. If the OA version of the material remains available and is well distributed, then no one is going to pay for the toll-access version. That means that whatever dark motives Publisher B may have had, if there is no market for a paywalled version of the articles, Publisher B will cease its practice. The attempt to monetize Publisher A’s OA material by Publisher B will simply disappear, written off as an unsuccessful experiment.

Suppose on the other hand that Publisher B is able to market the articles successfully. And Publisher B does this despite the fact that the OA versions of the material remain available. This means that Publisher B has added to the readership of the articles. Is there anyone who does not want the articles to be read more widely? The authors want this as a matter of course. Publisher B wants this because it makes money. Publisher A is indifferent; it has already made money when it collected the APCs. This is a profitable enterprise. It is sustainable, it will persist.

The fact of the matter is that there are many ways to ensure that articles not be exploited commercially, and one of them paradoxically is the market itself. You don’t need a contract, from CC or anyone else, to get people to stop publishing material if they can’t figure out how to publish it at a profit. But if they can publish it at a profit, it is telling us something very important about the OA versions of the articles, and that is that access means little in the absence of marketing.

I first encountered this issue in one of my first jobs in publishing. A defrocked graduate student, I washed up on the shores of New American Library, which is now part of the Penguin Random House conglomerate. My job was to create paperback editions of public domain classics to be used in college classrooms. I inherited quite a list (Signet Classics), which included such authors as Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Henry James, Jane Austen and many more. We invested some money on the editorial side (creating a modern edition of Shakespeare is no small feat), consisting largely of commissioned introductions by prominent scholars, annotations for obscure terms (what the heck is that “petard” that Hamlet speaks of?), and a bibliography to aid students in doing further research. Although the texts themselves were in the public domain, there was a proprietary wrapper of editorial apparatus that set off our classics line from the many others.

These books sold exceedingly well, better, in fact, than other public domain lines sold at a lower price. I would like to think it was because of all the work I put into the editorial apparatus, but I know it isn’t true. The books sold well because we were also the publisher in paperback of Stephen King, Ken Follett, and Robin Cook. These authors sold books in the many millions, which enabled the company to build a massive distribution infrastructure. A sales rep would go to a drugstore or airport shop and place copies of all the bestsellers in the racks. A few pockets in the racks were reserved for my books: A Portrait of a Lady or Villette right before your eyes, brought to you be the marketing machine created for the author of Carrie and Salem’s Lot. Without Stephen King to pull them along, those public domain books wouldn’t have stood a chance.

It wasn’t enough for those classics to be in the public domain and, hence, very inexpensive; they had to be marketed, too. This is true for digital publications as well. Making something OA does not mean it will be found and read. Making something OA simply means making it OA. The real work is yet to be done.

And that’s what Publisher B could do. The economic incentive to reach new audiences could make that otherwise OA article into something that gets brought to the attention of more and more readers. What incentive does a pure-play OA publisher have to market the materials it publishes? Unfortunately, the real name of this game is not “Open Access” but “Post and Forget.” Well-designed commerce, in other words, leads to enhanced discovery. And when it doesn’t, it enters the archaeological record.

If we can chase the idealists, ideologues, and moralists out of the temple, we may see that the practical act of providing economic incentives may be able to do more for access than any resolution from Budapest, Bayonne, Bethesda, or Berlin. The market works, and when it doesn’t, things quietly go away. So why all the fuss? Let’s give Publisher B a crack at this.