Sep 23

The advance of Open Access to the scholarly literature is pretty hard to miss at this point. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists more than 7000 titles now, and the percentage of global articles that are OA is now somewhere above 10%. Revenues on OA journals are in the tens of millions of dollars annually (and that’s just combining the numbers we actually know or can extrapolate from BioMed Central and Public Library of Science).

So this progress has been noted in some of the finest of the what’s left of the mainstream press recently. The Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have run articles positive to the emergence of OA. Heavens to Betsy, the Internet transforms content profit models, and the press notices it! Someone notify the newspapers, the music industry, and Blockbuster Video.

There’ve been complaints about these articles from some in traditional publishing. Seeing these complaints doesn’t trigger sympathy in me, given the brutal attacks and false-front lobbying groups pushed on us by the traditionals. Remember that the strategy of equating peer review and the traditional publishing subscription model was created by a PR consultant named Eric Denzenhall (irony alert, toll access Nature article) and not by, yaknow, scientists or scholars. 

And though the outcry over the press daring to cover a significant trend is a spectacle itself, there’s a bigger thing to talk about than the outcry, which is what it tells us about those doing the crying. This debate totally misses the point of the transformative shift to Open Access from something that was political to something which is functional - from religion to strategic infrastructure.

It reminds me of patterns I’ve seen again and again since I got onto the internet for the first time in the late 1980s. Though it’s easy to forget now, the internet used to be something of a religion, that zealots said would change the world, increase democracy, and create entire new industries. The world yawned, or at best, mocked.

The same thing happened with the web. It’s full of cat pages and blink tags, said the content experts. It’s a lousy formatting language, said the formatters. No one will buy things online, said the brick and mortar stores. And there were failures, some spectacular, as new business models that were native to the medium of the network were tried. 

But a funny thing happened in each of these cases. There was a move from religion to trend, and from trend to infrastructure. And those who sat around attacking the religion angle tended to miss the transitions the worst, whereas those who got in early on the infrastructure got the best of the situation: they got to be part of changing the system entirely, and many of them became extremely wealthy. Even companies, big ones, got in on the shift to the network, the web, open source software.

And there’s a reason for that. It’s because the movements began around simple, weak, open, standardized infrastructure. That allowed the world to add complexity where appropriate. To add power when needed. To add enclosure, when needed. And it meant that companies who built that into their business could benefit from the crowd, whereas companies who didn’t had only their own employees to leverage. 

That’s the transition that’s happening now in open access. It was a movement. Then it became a trend (that’s why the press is writing trend pieces, for those paying attention, not because we suddenly got Denzenhall to work for *us*). But it’s already undergoing the shift to infrastructure. Funders are starting to get that paying for permanent access is smarter than paying, over and over, for subscriptions. Universities are starting to get that asserting distribution rights increases impact. And businesses built on open models are popping up, inside big companies like Springer and Nature Publishing Group as well as in small companies like Mendeley.

It’s not about religion on the OA side, or stodginess on the traditional publisher side. It’s about totally missing the transition from movement to trend, and from trend to infrastructure. 

So don’t waste breath fighting with people on the internet. Keep driving train tracks into the ground, relentlessly. Never stop building infrastructure, never stop using existing standards, never stop creating new businesses and projects that recognize open as infrastructure. That’s how we win.

And when the old guard is ready, we should welcome them. There is tremendous knowledge inside the traditional publishing industry that we don’t want to lose. And we don’t win by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What’s wrong with the old model isn’t wrong because of bad people, or people who don’t know things. What’s wrong with the old model is simply that it’s analog, and we live in a digital world.

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    ‎”What’s wrong with the old model is simply that it’s analog, and we live in a digital world.”
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