non-profit vs. for-profit open-access journals: what’s the diff?
A guest post by Ezra Zuckerman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder and deputy editor of Sociological Science.
Last week, Rob Walsh posted an interesting question over on Scholastica’s “conversation” blog about whether Sociological Science—a new open-access journal of which I am privileged to be a co-founder—will challenge the status quo in academic publishing, or at least in sociology. It is an interesting question. Certainly, I think it will. To be clear though, this does not mean that SocSci will displace traditional options (which are based on a more “developmental” model, with multiple rounds of reviews and a tendency to err on the side of rejection). Rather, SocSci presents a distinct alternative (with the editorial team committed to rapid turn-around and a tendency to err on the side of publication, but with post-publication debate) to complement the traditional model. I hope that both models will be around to stay and that the presence of distinct alternatives will be healthy for the field.
And yet, while we think that journals with each of these approaches to peer review (as well as variations thereof) are viable, there is another question that is worth asking—i.e., whether all governance forms are viable and desirable, and specifically what is the role of for-profit versus non-profit ownership of journals. This question has recently been made more salient because some for-profit publishers have apparently been starting open-access journals. A notable example is Research and Politics. See here. This particular journal is following a somewhat different strategy than is SocSci (while we are open to some genres that the existing flagship sociology journals are not, our bread and butter will be articles that could also be found in existing flagship journals). The real questions, however are: (a) is a for-profit open-access journal the same as a non-profit? (b) if not, why not?
The answer to (a) is most definitely, “no.” When a journal is owned by a for-profit entity, its main goal is to make a profit. This means that while it may seek to become a great publication outlet, this is a means and not an end. And it will be willing to compromise that means, if it finds some other way (e.g., raising prices, directly or indirectly) to do so. By contrast, SocSci is owned by a set of sociologists whose motivations for making SocSci great have nothing to do with profit. You might say that we are out to burnish our reputations, but in that respect we are no different from any other sociologist when s/he seeks to publish a paper. And so our goals in managing SocSci are aligned with those of our authors and of sociologists generally. Our one and only goal is to put out a great sociology journal. We succeed when sociology succeeds, and vice versa.
Ok, but then why-oh-why might a publisher such as Sage be interested in starting open-access journals? Not only will it lose the revenues it usually makes from charging (libraries) for access, but it seems to be willing to subsidize publication fees (which are higher in open-access journals, to cover costs) for the first couple of years! Why?
Putting on my competitive strategy hat (my main teaching responsibility at MIT), there seem to be two related reasons. The first is what’s known as “product proliferation.” This is a classic entry-thwarting strategy. An analogy is Coke or Pepsi filling the soda aisle with all kinds of variations of soda instead of letting new entrants do it, and thereby gain a foothold in their market. This is a defensive move. The idea is that the incumbent uses its profits (and often its access to distribution, brand, and other assets) to pre-emptively fill up the product space and shut off the oxygen for would-be entrants. In short, while Sage and others would prefer open-access to go away, they figure that second best is to try to prevent competition by doing it themselves and doing it in such a way that it does not cannibalize their existing (profitable!) products. An implication is that you would expect for-profit open-access journals to adopt approaches that do not compete head to head with their existing franchises. And giving away the product is exactly what you would expect if they are trying to undercut the competition and limit entry. It is not sustainable in the long-term; but in the long-term, the threat of entry will have abated and then they can go back to business as usual.
The second possibility is that this is more like a rear-guard action, analogous to traditional newspapers’ attempts to address the threat of the internet. The point here is that they know that the old business model can’t work long-term and so they’re just trying what they can do to stem the tide. So they put the content out there for free and hope they’ll figure out a way to make it work down the road. We know how well this has worked out for the newspapers….
A slight variation on the last possibility is that they think that if they show that the newcomers can’t generate the relevant “content” on their own and that incumbents are in best position to do it. But this is nonsense, as SocSci is showing. With modern communication technologies (and great publishing partners like Scholastica), there is no reason social scientists cannot take matters into their own hands and do what we did.
So… social scientists of the world unite (into small teams like ours)! You have nothing to lose but those forms that sign away your copyright!