The Brussels Declaration: You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

The recent "Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing" by major scholarly publishers, such as Elsevier and Wiley, can be boiled down to: the scholarly publishing system ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it. It provides an interesting contrast to the 2004 "Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science" by not-for-profit publishers, which outlined a variety of strategies for making content freely available.

Sadly, it suggests that the "Brussels Declaration" publishers fail to fully understand that the decades-old serials crisis has deeply alienated several generations of librarians, who are their primary customers. Publishers count on libraries being captive customers because scholarly publishing is monopolistic in nature (e.g., one journal article does not substitute for another article) and, consequently, demand is relatively inelastic, regardless of price. However, it is a rare business that thrives by alienating its customers. As the SPARC initiative and similar efforts illustrate, many librarians want to dramatically change the existing scholarly publishing system.

Driven by endless library serials cuts for journals in their disciplines, a growing belief that scholarly literature needs to be freely available for global scholarship to flourish, and excitement over the new potentials of digital publishing, scholars increasingly want to change the system as well. As has often been noted, the open access movement is not anti-publisher, but it is publisher-neutral, meaning that, as long as certain critical functions (such as peer review) are adequately performed, it does not matter how freely available scholarly works are published.

In my view, publishers add significant value to scholarly journals and other works. Some of these value-added functions are currently difficult to replicate; however, given technological advances in open-source digital publishing software, the number of these functions has been dwindling. A key question is: How long will it be before the most difficult production-oriented functions can be easily replicated, leaving non-technical functions, such as branding and prestige, to be dealt with? Another is: How long will it be before viable new modes of scholarly publishing, supported by open source software, are developed that compete with existing publishing models?

The clock is ticking. The more intransigent publishers are, the stronger the incentive for those who want change to improve open source publishing tools, to fund low-cost or open access publishing alternatives, to seek remedies from governments and other organizations that fund research, and to develop new modes of scholarly publishing.

Dialog, openness to new funding strategies and publishing practices, compromise, and imagination may serve publishers better in the long run than denial, rigidity, and attack. A more flexible outlook may reveal opportunities, not just dangers, in a scholarly publishing system in flux.

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