11 December 2011

The best of times...

How, exactly, publishing is to cope with the tectonic shift which the web has produced in information dissemination is not a new topic; it's been grumbling on for years. It is, however, an ever fresh and ever shifting one.

Steve Wheeler, of Learning with E's, nailed his colours to the mast a couple of months ago by declaring publicly that he would no longer write or review for closed publications: a courageous stance, but not one which addresses the question of how the open access journals which he prefers (a preference, let me be clear, which I firmly share) are to be funded.

Some journals can be run on various combinations of marginal overhead and dispersed good will. They will usually come from within academic institutions or the coöperative intellectual metaspaces between them, though some companies (large and small) are in there as well. Others are subsidised as overhead for some species of commercial payoff – from public relations through to early research access. Then there are those, of course, which run on advertising pure and simple. And there is the public call for donations. One of my regular open access reads, Etudes Photographiques, made the decision earlier this year to fund the economics of research through differential publication calendars (online open access appearing six months after paid for print), which is yet another approach.

Whichever model they adopt (and I operate within most of the above), there is no escaping the difficult balancing act between existence and principle. Nor will there be, when things eventually settle down ... but I really haven't the faintest idea what that day will bring. As Thierry Gervais (author of the Etudes Photographiques editorial linked in the last paragraph) wryly observes, “A historian by training, I am once again reminded that it is easier to analyze the past than to predict the future.” I have an uncomfortable feeling, though, that when we look back on this revolution we may find that now, in the intermission between old and new, was the peak of the trajectory: that, as in so many revolutions, the new world (however different from the old) is not so much better as we hoped in the heady days of bringing it about.

We live in exciting times of change; best to make the most of them.

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