Open access to journals won't lower prices

John H. Ewing, executive director of the American Mathematical Society, presents an interesting viewpoint in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. He says that open access will not lower prices (and calls the idea 'misdirection'), but rather librarians need to stop paying for expensive journals and select the cheaper, society-owned ones instead to have any impact on prices. Does he have a point, or does he not understand the realities of what we do?

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Yes to both

Does he have a point, or does he misunderstand the problem?

Maybe both--except that I'm a bit inclined to believe that "misunderstand" should be changed to "misdirect," since I think he's engaged in some deliberate sleight of hand himself.

Yes, he has a point: When scholarly societies do their own publishing (rather than outsourcing to the big commercial outfits for fast bucks), and when the pricing on those publications is set based on cost and a fair return, rather than being used to make academic libraries pay for all the other activities of the associations, then those publications aren't major parts of the library STM budget problem. Which isn't the same as the access-to-scholarship problem, but it's the part that interests me most (as expounded at absurd length in Cites & Insights over the years).

But he's engaged in some red-herring work here. Very few Open Access proponents come from the early "Information wants to be free" nuttiness of the early Internet, and you'll find very few responsible proponents who claim there are no costs involved in online dissemination of scholarly literature. That whole chunk of the article is a straw man or deliberate misdirection: Take your pick.

Also the $1,500-per-article citation: That's the PLoS fee; it's much higher than the fee for most BioMed Central journals, and of course infinitely higher than for the otherwise-underwritten journals (sponsored by societies, universities, whatever) that charge neither the writer nor the reader.

Perhaps most importantly, his solution is even more implausible than the near-term "defeat" of commercial journals through OA publishing. The inexpensive society journal equivalents for the most expensive portions of STM publishing just don't exist, certainly not generally and at the same prestige level, and PLoS's earliest efforts (the massive "boycott the bad guys" petition effort) showed the effects of asking researchers not to publish in the top journals: Maybe 1% compliance, maybe not that high.

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