follow-up on open access

January 6, 2011

I doubt I have to preach the virtues of open access publishing to any reader of this blog, but let’s consider the example of re.press and all the good they’ve done.

There have now been somewhere around 4,000-5,000 total downloads of a free PDF of The Speculative Turn.

For me it’s no great trouble to spend $25 plus shipping for a printed copy of that book. For many students, however, $25 means several meals that they won’t be able to eat. Why shouldn’t they be able to read the book?

And furthermore, keep in mind that at pretty much any other press, the printed copy wouldn’t just be $25. It would probably be around $45 at that length, and even more likely it would have come out first in hardcover only for $110 or so, and remained hardcover only for several years. I’ve never stolen a book in my life, but when things like this happen it’s hard to be too shocked by stories of grad student shoplifters.

I can also share my re.press experience with Prince of Networks.

First off, I had a simultaneous offer for the book from a non-open access press in the USA. But re.press said May 2009 (they missed by one month) and the non-open access press said December 2010 (they probably would have missed by more than one month, great though they are).

In other words, Prince of Networks has now had 18 months to soak into the public consciousness and have an impact, whereas without re.press the book would sort of just be coming out right about now. Maybe. Or maybe it would have been pushed back by production delays to September 2011.

At the time, my thought about re.press was this: “The open access PDF will severely cut into sales, but I’d rather have lower sales and wider free distribution.”

But while I have no statistical proof of this, my sense is that the free PDF’s have increased sales of Prince of Networks. It gives people a chance to browse the book and decide that it’s worth their money.

In any case, the idea of Springer charing $3,000 for open access rights for one article is an outrage. I understand why and how they do this… University libraries may pay $30,000 apiece to Springer for access to the whole Springer database, and libraries would stop paying that $30,000 (or maybe it’s even more) if a number of the choicest articles in the collection were already open access.

But it’s still a symptom, and a ridiculous one. In olden times you could make a case that someone had to run a business to buy the paper and print and distribute the journals. But we’re all using computers now, and Ennis and his friends can put together a Speculations that frankly looks better than many of the Springer journals anyway.

Another point some people have started to make to an increasing degree… Why do journals still have “issues” at all? That’s an artifact of the paper & binding system. On the web it should be easy simply to post articles as they are accepted, giving each article a number in the journal’s history rather than having numbered issues. It would eliminate the tedious wait for things to appear in print.

I’m sure there are possibilities I’m not even thinking of. But by the time my younger readers retire, the publishing landscape will be unimaginably different. And this ought to change the way people write, too, though typically people tend to “fight the last war,” plodding along in genres fit more for the old media than the new ones.

For example, has anyone actually written anything yet specifically with the iPad and the Kindle in mind? I think lots of dreary, long-winded academic prose works better on paper than it will on the computer screen, and people will need to figure out how to adapt to that change.

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