Researching the Choice to Publish Open Access

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Learn more about Open Access in this excerpt from Open access, social norms and publication choice by Matteo Migheli and Giovanni B. Ramello from the European Journal of Law and Economics. Find out more about the Open Access options available to our authors, including our OA funding options. The full article can be read via the SharedIt link.

This new model of scholarly communication has stirred high expectations, to the point that some regard OA as a blank cheque for solving any problem concerning the circulation of scientific research. Certain authors have made highly ambitious claims, saying that OA “has become a flashpoint. It ignites revolution in intellectual life and in the legal support system for that life, copyright […] Open Access confronts, subverts and creatively destroys the status quo [of scholarly publishing]” (Harper 2009, p. 283).

While it is difficult not to share this enthusiasm for a new way of making scientific ideas widely and freely available to all researchers, certain aspects make the picture more ambiguous.

A first critical observation concerns the economic viability of OA journals. The traditional enclosure-based business model was in fact intended, among other things, to solve an appropriability problem by providing enough money (though admittedly sometimes more than what was needed) to finance the journal itself. The OA model discards this exclusionary power in favour of accessibility, but this raises the question of how a journal can meet the costs of maintaining itself (Cavaleri et al. 2009). A variety of solutions have been proposed. One possibility is a two-sided market where advertisers pay for readers, much like in free-to-air television or radio, where content in a sense serves as bait to attract prospective purchasers of the advertised goods.8 Another possibility is patronage, in which a third party bears the cost of running the journal. This method has been adopted by certain institutions even for funding some traditional journals. The underlying rationale is similar to that of advertising, since the returns are ultimately measured in terms of the patron’s prestige (Guthrie et al. 2008).

Another widely adopted financial arrangement is to shift the cost burden from readers to authors. This is called the ‘author pays’ model, and reinstates a two-sided market. Although author pays has been adopted by well-known journals such as PLoS, it raises concerns about quality degradation because the journal can in practice be captured by the authors, who become its main financers (McCabe and Snyder 2005; Feess and Scheufen 2011).

The issue of quality leads us to the other doubt surrounding OA, which is whether users will recognise these journals as valid alternatives to traditional publishing outlets. Of course, this is not a problem specific to OA publications, since virtually any newly launched journal will share it. However, it is more important for OA because its potential for disruptive innovation can be hindered by a lack of acceptance within the scientific community. This in turn will affect the trajectory of the sector and the accessibility of scientific knowledge.

History has shown that the way society receives and interprets innovations depends greatly on users and the milieu in which they are embedded. Demand does matter, and outcomes can be path-dependent and constrained by pre-existing inertias, which may stand in the way of an optimal choice (Arthur 1989).

Drawing from the literature on economics of innovation, we can say that innovation uptake depends greatly on the ‘absorptive capacity’ of the actors involved. In this case, this means the ability of scholars and research institutions to recognise the value of major technological breakthroughs such as OA publishing, and seize the opportunities they offer (Cohen and Levinthal 1990). Whereas innovative entry for business firms depends on the organisation’s ability to understand and apply new knowledge, in scholarly communication the institutional framework plays a major role in determining the sector’s trajectory (Malerba 2002). In particular, the persistence and stickiness of social norms governing researchers’ behaviour with respect to publication choice can decisively affect the uptake of new technological opportunities, and the dynamics of scholarly communication.

Thus, in scholarly publishing, the pre-existing channels and social norms constraining researchers’ choices create inertias that cause individuals to follow a different path from the socially optimal one. This is a result of rational decisions under uncertainty, taken by researchers whose short-term private benefit may diverge from the long-term social welfare, if the latter requires wide accessibility and low cost of access.

The above dilemma resembles the puzzle of divergence between private and public interests, which is generally resolved by designing some mechanism to bring them back into alignment. In the present case, this would require directing scholars’ attention, both as readers and as authors, to OA publications. Whether this can succeed depends greatly on their perception of the expected payoffs, which in turn is largely shaped by the community in which they are embedded. Hence, breaking this feedback loop probably requires an exogenous intervention able to counteract and overcome the force of pre-existing social norms.

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