I've just returned from an exhausting, but always exhilarating, few days at the UKSG conference (which the team and I blogged in great detail at the UKSG's LiveSerials blog, if you want to read up on some excellent presentations). Perennial hot topic "what's the value of the journal?" reared its complex head in many sessions, and as usual, one of the arguments for not throwing the journal out with the OA bathwater was the wrapper of authenticity which the journal applies to scholarly content (i.e., sure, many of its other processes can be carried out by other mechanisms, but will academics be willing/keen to engage - either as authors or readers - with non-journal ways of publishing, given their lack of prestige or authority?)

I then returned home to an email alerting me to this article in the Washington Post. The "send this article to a friend" note by which I was alerted to the article included this trail:

Joshua Bell is one of the world's greatest violinists. His instrument of choice is a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. If he played it for spare change, incognito, outside a bustling Metro stop in Washington, would anyone notice?
This caught my eye because it seemed to relate to the value-of-the-journal debate, and reminded me of previous thoughts I've had about analogies we can draw between the online models of music and publishing - imagine:
Gordon Arbuthnott is one of the world's greatest researchers. His publication of choice is multimillion-dollar journal [insert prestigious, highly-subscribed title here]. If he published his research free, without the stamp of a respected journal, in a bustling repository such as iTunes, would anyone notice?
Now, you can argue this is an entirely specious analogy, and I'm sure many archivangelists would do so (should they ever read this blog!) But nonetheless I think we need to pay attention to what happened to Joshua Bell: no-one stopped to listen, although some threw money (totalling $32) into his case as they passed. This is a man who normally makes $1000 an hour for his performance, so we can already see the extent to which the value of what he does was undermined by the method in which he choose to make it publicly "available".

In addition, "When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted." - a motivation perhaps familiar to academics seeking respected journals to publish their work, because of the validation and acceptance it provides for them and their research. As the article goes on to say, "Context matters."

Finally, an expert in the field (Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra) was asked prior to Bell's experiment what he thought would happen. The article notes that he expected a crowd - of maybe 75-100 people - to gather, and for Bell to make "about $150". Yes, yes, yes, it's all conjecture and it's not even our field - but, as I say, it reminds me of the OA debate, where its proponents use projected figures to "prove" that self-archiving won't cannibalise journal subscriptions, or that author-pays is a sustainable business model. What if they, like Slatkin, turn out to be way off the mark?

As Sally Morris noted in her USKG plenary session, we'll have a hell of a job resurrecting the journal model should we kill it off as a result of misguidedly, misinformedly, and incautiously embracing unproven (albeit well-intended) alternatives. Hence I remain on the side of caution. And continue to save my pennies for Joshua Bell tickets, since I don't expect him to be performing for free on my street-corner any time soon.