Thursday 10th May 2012 by Peter Furtado
Open access publishing puts the searchlight on finding ways of sustainable collaboration
When the government embraces a grass-roots revolution, ignoring the complaints of a vocal and profitable industry, then it’s clear that revolution has entered the mainstream. This is what is happening with the open-source and open-access revolutions. The implications for the commercial models of non-profits are profound.
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, will advise the British government on how to liberate publicly-funded academic research from the (outrageously high) paywalls around academic journals. This is a major step in ‘open access publishing’. The government already gives more than £5bn of tax-payers’ money for scientific research, so why should we have to pay commercial publishers over the odds to read the outcomes of that work?
Collaboration and commerce
Individual researchers and some funding institutions have been asking this question for a while now. Forward-thinking publishers have meanwhile been exploring sustainable commercial models that will maintain the intellectual benefits of specialist peer review (which they currently fund and manage). The British Medical Research Council has also been working on this with research charities like the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK.
But the initiative by the British minister for higher education to make research findings freely accessible is probably a first for a government anywhere. How it will play out is not clear, but it’s excellent news that the open-access and open-knowledge movements are becoming accepted – despite the furore over Wikileaks in 2011 – as part of our culture and intellectual landscape.
The organisation in the age of open knowledge
In both commercial media and academic research, the media companies (including the publishers) want to act as gatekeepers, to justify their own existence and also to carry out their traditional role to maintaining quality. Yet what they can contribute to quality has changed, and is much smaller than it used to be. And their grip on the intellectual property (IP) is also loosening – and where publicly-funded research is concerned, it is to be released entirely.
What are the implications?
Where does this leave much smaller organisations – commercial or non-profit – that live or die by selling their IP?
Every such organisation must have a unique offering. It has to nurture its IP to create the best knowledge it possibly can, through any and every mechanism at its disposal. Sometimes this will still involve paywalls, but other times it will be through collaboration with stakeholders, including sometimes the audience. And increasingly, the audience is demanding the opportunity to collaborate in some way.
So every organisation has to figure out how to collaborate in a way that enhances the value of the IP rather than diminishing it. Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia continue to show that collaboration can produce IP that is uniquely valuable to its audience. His model works in some circumstances, but not others.
The IP revolution
Each organisation has to find a way to distribute its IP that is economically sustainable, without excluding those stakeholders who have contributed. A new business model may be needed. For a collaborative publisher, that may mean giving the product away and seeking revenue from advertisers or others (tax-payers may well end up subsidising the academic publishers in another way – perhaps through subsidies to libraries to make the content available for free, as is done with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for example). For a professional association it may mean making more product available to a public beyond their own membership.
For Wikipedia, so innovative in its collaborative strategies, uncertain revenue streams in 2011 required Jimmy Wales to appeal for donations from readers. But relying on the generosity of the audience isn’t an option readily available to most non-profits or commercial organisations.
But, as the government has (hopefully) realised, asking to stump up twice, once to support the creation of the IP, and once for access to it, is a business model from the ancien regime. Off with their heads!