Sunday, August 26, 2007

Into the Great Wide Open

My mother has spent the past 25 years working in the field of association management. What's that, you might ask? Well, if you're a scientist you probably belong to one or more associations such as the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). And it isn't just science; most professional fields have such organizations. There's even the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), to which the people (such as my mom) who run the other associations belong. Associations, regardless of their topic, tend to fulfill the same functions, one of which is publishing journals. And that leads me into the topic of this posting.

My mother recently sent me a hardcopy of an article from ASAE's "Associations Now" magazine. It's entitled "Into the Great Wide Open" and it consists of an interview of Patrick Brown, one of the co-founders of PLOS. It is really significant that a publication of the ASAE would run such an article, because traditionally, the enemies of open access have not just been commercial publishers like Springer and Elsevier, but also many non-profit associations with publishing divisions. So I was expecting a hostile attack on open access, but actually it's quite a fair interview. In fact, they even printed the following exchange:

One thing that you've mentioned several times and I think is a big concern for the society publishers—especially societies that use income from their journal to subsidize other aspects of what they do for their members—is financial sustainability. What can you tell association publishers to show them that this transition can be sustainable?

There's a bunch of issues there. Number one, a lot of societies that make that claim—I would encourage people to look at their Form 990s. I get great enjoyment out of reading the Form 990s of scientific societies that talk about how important it is to preserve the income from their journals to do all these wonderful things they do, when, very often, the wonderful things they do, taken in aggregate, don't add up to the cost of their chief executive officer.

But let's just take that at face value—that their only motivation is to do good for the world and for science and for their community. One of the questions is, how important are those things that you're trying to fund with profits in your journal, compared to the good that you do for your mission through publishing itself and making access as freely available as possible?

The whole interview is interesting reading. And don't miss the informative sidebar containing a glossary of various Open Access terms. I have to admit I have a hard time remembering what the Berlin Declaration, etc. are, and I imagine most people who aren't professionally involved in the Open Access movement do too.

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