Thanks to Peter Suber's Open Access News for alerting me to the symposium on The Future of Scholarly Communication, which is being run, online, by Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy.
The starting point for the Symposium is a report from a non-profit organization called Ithaka on University Publishing In A Digital Age - not a great deal of attention is paid to open access in the report and when it is mentioned we have the usual, false equation of open access with author charging;
The academic community seems to be looking to open access models as a solution to these challenges. But while open access may well be a sustainable solution in STM disciplines, where federal and private research grants can conceivably be extended to support publication fees, one model will not serve as a panacea.
Why is it that the notion of collaborative, subsidised, open-access publishing continues to escape the attention of bodies like this when there are now so many examples of its effectiveness? It is all the more curious in a report aimed at considering the future of university publishing, when that future could include collaboration across institutions to promote subsidised, genuinely 'open' journals.
In spite of all their work it seems that, in the end, the report's authors are too timid to explore the logical consequences of the technological revolution that has hit scholarly communication: they, like the publishing industry generally, are mired in the present patterns of communication, but those patterns are changing irrevocably and numerous alternative new patterns may evolve as habits change. One possibility lies in an analogy with the music industry, which has similarly been hit by technological change: the unit of interest is now the 'track', not the CD or the 'album', and iTunes and other providers offer a delivery service for tracks. One future model of scholarly communication could see collaborative peer reviewing in disciplines leading to archived papers that are delivered as tracks are today - the individual (who is always going to be more interested in the paper than in the journal as a whole) downloads papers of interest, and universities provide the finance for the open archive rather than subscriptions to the now-defunct journals.
In small, niche areas this could happen quite quickly: for example, if a free, open access journal already exists, which is operating a standard peer-review process, it already has the characteristics of an open archive of papers and no-one ever downloads the entire journal issue. The papers are found, predominantly, by the search engines and the individual paper is downloaded or read - further collaboration among interested universities could see the expansion of the journal until it covers virtually the entire output of the niche area.
Or perhaps it will be all down to authors announcing their papers on their Weblogs and making them available without peer review and letting the scholarly community make up its collective mind about the quality, accuracy, etc. Again, the parallel with the music industry is there: bands are ignoring the record companies and putting their music straight on the Web.
Whatever happens, and, given the First Law of Forecasting, we can be sure that the future will be nothing like what the Ithaka report suggests, and nothing like what I have suggested :-)