Mark C. Wilson has asked me for a statement of public support of the Fair Open Access principles. I’m posting my answer here, which is “yes, but…”

I wholeheartedly support principles 2-5: authors retain copyright, all articles are published open access with an explicit open access license, submission and publication are not conditional on payment of fees nor on memberships, and any fees paid to publishers are low, transparent, and proportional.

My main concern is with principle 1, requiring ownership of the journal by an editorial board or a democratically controlled scholarly society. In principle this sounds like a good idea. It prevents uncertainty over “what if the editor leaves academia” or “what if the editor decides to take the journal to a closed-access model”? In such cases the previously published papers would still be open-access licensed but there could still be legal or availability-of-backups issues with setting up a mirror of the formerly-open journal. We would want to forestall such moves in any case. And principle 1 also rules out journals run as a private fiefdom by their founder, and the associated abuses (lack of proper peer review, pressure to cite the founder’s own papers, etc) that we’ve seen from such journals.

In practice, though, principle 1 seems likely to prevent the creation of qualifying new open journals. It would disallow journals from being run on an informal basis by a team of volunteer academics (what generally happens now), because such a team is not a legal entity and cannot legally own the journal; instead, if it became disputed, the courts would most likely rule that one particular member of the team owned the journal. So while the principles say “This could be ownership by an editorial board”, my understanding is that claiming ownership of that form would be a lie. You can certainly operate a journal by a democratically elected editorial board without any other form of legal recognition of the board, but that only works until a serious dispute arises and the courts step in. It is not stable and robust. And without that, why is it any better than the individual-ownership model?

Principle 1 would also disallow journals from being owned by a university with which one of its editors is associated, because universities do not in general have “a transparent ownership structure, controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community”. The only remaining possibilities would appear to be to find a scholarly society (meeting the other conditions) willing to sponsor the journal, or to set up a legal entity (a corporation) to run it. Scholarly societies tend to be big and hidebound, with a high barrier to entry, and it would not always be possible to find such a society that has a suitable ownership structure. I don’t think ACM would qualify, for instance, because the community that controls it has much broader participation from industry than from academia. And setting up a corporation likely would incur both setup costs (legal fees and registration) on the order of a few thousand dollars and annual costs (legally-required accounting) on the order of a few hundred dollars; not impossible, but a bit of a gamble if the only source is the personal money of the founders. See for instance the Mark Twain Journal, a print-based non-open journal (for some reason historians are averse to online publication) in which for different reasons the editor put approximately $7000 of his own money into the journal to keep it running — we should not require that of journal founders.

I do think journals that become successful should be encouraged to move towards meeting principle 1. For instance, I think the time is ripe for the freed-from-ACM Symposium on Computational Geometry to incorporate (as has been discussed by its steering committee for a few years now), with an item in the registration-fee-supported annual conference budget to support the incorporation costs, with the ability to carry over money from one year’s conference budget to the next, and for the Journal of Computational Geometry (currently run on an informal basis by a team of volunteers) to transfer its ownership officially to the resulting society. But I think it should be possible to start a journal that does not yet meet principle 1, under the assumption that should it become successful it will move towards meeting that principle. I would not like to see the open access journals I use and support (primarily JoCG, JGAA, and EJC) be blackballed, or un-whitelisted, as insufficiently pure, merely for not yet meeting principle 1.

If what we want from principle 1 is a proper, fair, and non-corrupt editorial system, we should say that more directly. The ownership or steering committee affects that, but indirectly.

Also, I think there should be a principle 6: the journal should follow best practices in making its content readable by viewers, accessible to the disabled, reliable in the event of failures, and available for indexing. (That is, use standard file formats, follow the standards for those formats, set up proper backups or mirrors, provide properly formatted metadata, and inform the search engines that need informing that you and your papers exist.) If we’re going to set standards for what a reputable open access journal should do, these things are important.

With all that as caveat, I support the Fair Open Access principles.

(G+)