The Complexities and Economics of Open Access

Our budgets are shrinking. Libraries are cutting things they once never dreamed of cutting.  The sacred library cows are being sacrificed.  As this is happening there is much vitriol directed at the for profit publishers, the Elseviers, LWWs, and Springers of the publishing world.  After all, they are making a huge profit at the expense of the libraries.  All they care about is money not about the common good of providing access to medical knowledge.

Therefore it was interesting to read T. Scott Plutchak’s post “The Economics of Open Access,” where he states open access publishers are achieving just as high of profit margin as some of the for profits. “PLoS achieved a 20% margin in 2010, and if the trends continue, could conceivably surpass Elsevier’s margin for 2011.  Springer claims “double-digit” profits from BioMed Central.”  So it is OK for PLoS to have that profit margin, but not Elsevier?  Librarians don’t fool yourself, that money comes from somewhere.  Is it really better that the author has to pay $1000-$2000 to publish the article instead of the library paying for the journal?  Well it isn’t in our budget so who cares if it is out somebody else’s budget, right?  But as Scott says, “If publishers add no value, as the anonymous Deutsche Bank analyst proclaims, isn’t PLoS just as immoral as Elsevier?  Shouldn’t we be just as outraged?”

Scott lists several points questioning various issues on the OA debate.

  • If you believe that publishers add no value, then you can’t support PLoS any more than you support Elsevier.
  • If you believe that commercial publishers are the bane, then you should be as opposed to BioMed Central as you are to Elsevier.
  • If you believe that “excess profits” (somewhat of an odd concept, since profits are excessive only when they’re not your own) are the problem, then you need to recognize that OA is not the solution and be as wary of the successful gold & hybrid publishers as you are of the others.
  • If you believe that the most important thing is more and more access, then you should applaud the experiments of the commercial publishers every bit as much as you applaud the others.

We librarians scream and yell about the inequities of the for profit publishers but as Scott points OA is not the panacea that many think it is.  I guess it is OK to make a huge profit if you aren’t a “for profit” company.  I have a news flash, non-profits aren’t exactly trying to break even, they are trying to make as big of a profit as “for profit” companies.  Non-profit is just a tax designation, non-profits still make profits (some more than others). As Forbes says “When we hear ‘nonprofit,’ most of us imagine an organization filled with the ultimate do-gooders: those angelic advocates who are willing to sacrifice their own financial gain to serve a noble cause.”  Yet many of wealthiest non-profit companies make more than many for profit companies and the CEO’s, professors, and winning coaches of these non-profits are called the non-profit millionaires.  Take a look at the compensation of the wealthiest non-profits from Forbes.

I am not saying that the pricing for journals and other library resources aren’t out of whack with that of our budgets, they are.  But to put it into a good (non-profit) vs. evil (for profit) scenario doesn’t solve the problem.  If we believe David Crotty’s post in the Scholarly Kitchen (where Scott got his PLoS 20% profit information), the “good guys” are making just as much profit as the “bad guys.”  They both are for profit.

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