Will FOS do harm?  More harm than good?
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
October 12, 2001
by Peter Suber
In the October 12 _Chronicle of Higher Education_, John Ewing argues against a thoughtless rush into FOS.  His most specific reason for caution is that small independent publishers have the thinnest profit margins and will be the first to fail in competition with FOS.  If they fail, publishing will be dominated even more than now by a narrow band of profitable giants charging high prices.  Richard Kaser made a similar argument in his September 18 contribution to the _Nature_ debate on FOS (see FOSN for 9/21/01).  Arthur Smith points out in our discussion forum that he made a similar argument in 1998.  Here are some thoughts on Ewing's version of the argument.

Priced journals cannot compete with free journals, when the two sets are roughly equal in significance and quality.  If FOS journals gain the readership and recognition to wipe out priced journals from small, independent publishers, then they will a foothold to threaten the journals from the profitable giant publishers as well, even if the giants have a thicker armor of savings to postpone the inevitable.  If the big publishers eventually fail or retreat from the journal market, then it's simply not true that FOS will cause big publishers to dominate the journal market.  The worst-case scenario is not the dominance of giant publishers, but a temporary period in which the giants coexist with free journals.

But in fact, there is no evidence that FOS would hurt small, independent publishers before large ones.  In a market of expensive, inexpensive, and free journals, again assuming comparable significance and quality, there is good reason to believe that libraries will drop the expensive journals first and retain the affordable and free ones as long as possible.  If so, then big publishers will suffer first, not last.

Is it fair to assume that free and priced journals can be equals in significance and quality?  Ewing doesn't argue to the contrary but others have.  The short reply to this objection is that significance and quality depend on the editors and authors, not on the marketing, medium, or imprint.  Not only can free journals have editors and authors comparable to those at the best print journals, they can have the very same editors and authors.  It's true that it takes time for prestige and reputation to catch up with quality, but the lag time is getting shorter as librarians work together to boost inexpensive new journals and as a new generation of academics understands that the medium is not the message.

Ewing doesn't pretend to know the future and I don't either.  If his predictions and mine are both taken with a grain of salt, then it remains the case that his scenario is a risk that we can avoid only with caution.  I accept this.  The only problem lies in his implication that some FOS advocates, or journals, or publishers, or scholars are thoughtlessly rushing fundamental change.  Some calls for FOS may be less cognizant of the obstacles than others, and some FOS projects may fail.  But let's be clear:  no one is rushing the change of the conditions of journal competition.  Rushing deep changes of this kind is impossible.  Richard Kaser, in his version of the argument, worries that we will "trade in" a journal system that works acceptably for one that may not.  Both arguments assume that FOS could replace the current journal system suddenly, or before we adequately understand what is happening.  But this is far-fetched.  FOS is emerging gradually, one journal or archive at a time.  The slow pace of change provides all the time for measurement and reflection that caution requires.  We certainly have time to monitor the effects of FOS as it grows.  Those who worry about harmful consequences can help the cause of scholarly communication by looking to see whether feared forms of harm are materializing.  By all means warn us of risks that others didn't see or heed.  But don't pretend that we can't monitor our own experiment and make mid-course corrections.

Finally, Ewing argues that free online journals lack a good business model.  Volunteer labor and government support may both disappear.  True.  But there are many other business models than these to examine, including author fees, university funds, print sales, and endowments.  It's true that none of these has yet proved itself for free online journals over the long term.  But Ewing's argument assumes that the currently prevailing business plan works.  It doesn't.  Currently, authors of journal articles donate their professional labor and intellectual property to the dissemination system.  In this system, publishers stand between authors and readers, charge for access, and keep the money.  Subscription fees limit readers' access to literature and limit authors' access to readers.  This obstructs both research and education.  It might be acceptable if publishers had to stand between authors and readers in order to disseminate the literature and if they charged reasonable subscription prices.  But neither is true.  The internet makes most functions of traditional journal publishers unnecessary.  To continue to pay for these functions at the expense of reader access and author impact is perverse.  Moreover, in the last decade journal subscription prices have risen faster than inflation, faster even than health care prices.  This causes libraries to cancel important journals every year, which only aggravates the harm to research and education.  It is precisely the failure of the present business model that has stimulated the current, healthy experimentation with other business models.

John H. Ewing, No Free Lunches: We Should Resist the Push to Rush Research Online

Richard Kaser, When allegory replaces rational thought, science had better watch out

Arthur Smith, August 28, 1998 posting to the _AmSci_ forum

Discussion thread on Ewing's article in the September98Forum
(Particularly good on Ewing's argument that FOS journals lack "frills".)

What do you think?  Post your thoughts to the FOS discussion forum.
(Anyone may read; only subscribers may post; subscription is free.)


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