Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Market Capitalism and Open Access

Is it feasible to create a self-regulating market for Open Access (OA) journals where competition for money is aligned with the quest for scholarly excellence?

Many proponents of the subscription model argue that a competitive market provides the best assurance for quality. This ignores that the relationship between a strong subscription base and scholarly excellence is tenuous at best. What if we created a market that rewards journals when a university makes its most tangible commitment to scholarly excellence?

While role of journals in actual scholarly communication has diminished, their role in academic career advancement remains as strong than ever. [Paul Krugman: The Facebooking of Economics] The scholarly-journal infrastructure streamlines the screening, comparing, and short-listing of candidates. It enables the gathering of quantitative evidence in support of the hiring decision. Without journals, the work load of search committees would skyrocket. If scholarly journals are the headhunters of the academic-job market, let us compensate them as such.

There are many ways to structure such compensation, but we only need one example to clarify the concept. Consider the following scenario:

  • The new hire submitted a bibliography of 100 papers.
  • The search committee selected 10 of those papers to argue the case in favor of the appointment. This subset consists of 6 papers in subscription journals, 3 papers in the OA journal Theoretical Approaches to Theory (TAT), and 1 paper in the OA journal Practical Applications of Practice (PAP).
  • The university's journal budget is 1% of its budget for faculty salaries. (In reality, that percentage would be much lower.)

Divide the new faculty member's share of the journal budget, 1% of his or her salary, into three portions:

  • (6/10) x 1% = 0.6% of salary to subscription journals,
  • (3/10) x 1% = 0.3% of salary to the journal TAT, and
  • (1/10) x 1% = 0.1% of salary to the journal PAP.

The first portion (0.6%) remains in the journal budget to pay for subscriptions. The second (0.3%) and third (0.1%) portion are, respectively, awarded yearly to the OA journals TAT and PAP. The university adjusts the reward formula every time a promotion committee determines a new list of best papers.

To move beyond a voluntary system, universities should give headhunting rewards only to those journals with whom they have a contractual relationship. Some Gold OA journals are already pursuing institutional-membership deals that eliminate or reduce author page charges (APCs). [BioMed Central] [PeerJ][SpringerOpen] Such memberships are a form of discounting for quantity. Instead, we propose a pay-for-performance contract that eliminates APCs in exchange for headhunting rewards. Before signing such a contract, a university would conduct a due-diligence investigation into the journal. It would assess the publisher's reputation, the journal's editorial board, its refereeing, editing, formatting, and archiving standards, its OA licensing practices, and its level of participation in various abstracting-and-indexing and content-mining services. This step would all but eliminate predatory journals.

Every headhunting reward would enhance the prestige (and the bottom line) of a journal. A reward citing a paper would be a significant recognition of that paper. Such citations might be even more valuable than citations in other papers, thereby creating a strong incentive for institutions to participate in the headhunting system. Nonparticipating institutions would miss out on publicly recognizing the work of their faculty, and their faculty would have to pay APCs. There is no Open Access free ride.

Headhunting rewards create little to no extra work for search committees. Academic libraries are more than capable to perform due diligence, to negotiate the contracts, and to administer the rewards. Our scenario assumed a base percentage of 1%. The actual percentage would be negotiated between universities and publishers. With rewards proportional to salaries, there is a built-in adjustment for inflation, for financial differences between institutions and countries, and for differences in the sizes of various scholarly disciplines.

Scholars retain the right to publish in the venue of their choice. The business models of journals are used when distributing rewards, but this occurs well after the search process has concluded. The headhunting rewards gradually reduce the subscription budget in proportion to the number of papers published in OA journals by the university's faculty. A scholar who wishes to support a brand-new journal should not pay APCs, but lobby his or her university to negotiate a performance-based headhunting contract.

The essence of this proposal is the performance-based contract that exchanges APCs for headhunting rewards. All other details are up for discussion. Every university would be free to develop its own specific performance criteria and reward structures. Over time, we would probably want to converge towards a standard contract.

Headhunting contracts create a competitive market for OA journals. In this market, the distributed and collective wisdom of search/promotion committees defines scholarly excellence and provides the monetary rewards to journals. As a side benefit, this free-market system creates a professionally managed open infrastructure for the scholarly archive.