My recent response to the Monbiot rant in the Guardian revealed a set of attitudes and beliefs in a segment of the unhappy lot who care about scholarly publishing. This post is an attempt to articulate a different point of view on the same issues often used as rallying cries by advocates of open access, free access, or similar changes to scholarly publishing. Like any ecosystem, radical change in one area can have major effects elsewhere. These effects can take unexpected or untoward directions if the system is poorly understood.
The following are some of the major objections, complaints, or concerns expressed by people who feel that something is fundamentally wrong with scholarly publishing, with what I think is an interpretation a little closer to reality than what we usually hear. Many of these were extracted from or inspired by the looooong comment thread on that post:
- Publisher profits are gained at the expense of academics — The profits Elsevier, Wolters-Kluwer, Springer, and other for-profit publishers generate are the result of broad information resource programs, including books, monographs, journals, educational materials, services, meetings, and so forth. Imputing them from the overall level to any particular product line may or may not be accurate, but that’s beside the point. Suffice to say that in aggregate, these are very profitable companies. But before their profits are stated, academics, scientific non-profit organizations, and others share in the results. In the case of books, authors receive royalties, often handsome royalties, as part of their deals with these publishers. Journals are published for the most part under contract, and the non-profit organizations contracting with these for-profit publishers receive significant funding from them, money they use to support research, education, and humanitarian activities. The prices paid by institutions and individuals are shared ultimately if they’re paid to a for-profit publisher — shared with non-profit organizations, authors of books and monographs, and, in most cases, shareholders, some of whom are academics or academic institutions (either directly or through pooled investment vehicles). And because these corporations also pay taxes, they are taxpayers, a point to contemplate later.
- Publishers have monopoly control over scholarly publishing — A monopoly exists when some entity has exclusive control over a market for a particular commodity or service. This claim is fraught for a number of reasons based on that common definition:
- Scientific publishing output is not a commodity or service. The non-substitutability of each paper makes that clear.
- Authors are not a commodity or service. In fact, journals that become distrusted, disliked, or disreputable can be easily killed by word-of-mouth or author (in)action. No papers = no journal. Authors have a lot of potential power in the academic economy, but choose to wield that power for their own benefit — by publishing in places that will advance their careers the most expeditiously.
- Organizations are not commodities. The contracts to publish journals are negotiated one by one, and have to be renewed. Contracts often change houses. Large for-profit publishers gained the scale they have because academics at many not-for-profit organizations chose to move their publishing operations to these places precisely because doing so provided them with the best returns, which they could then use to run their organizations and fulfill their missions.
- Institutions are not commodities. Deals are negotiated all the time. Even the “Big Deal” is a sales approach subject to negotiation.
- There are hundreds of publishers in the market. There is no monopoly entity. Period.
- The Big Deal is exploitative — Maybe, maybe not. From a purchasing perspective, the major complaint is that a lot of smaller, lesser-used journals can be bundled into these deals. Through those lenses, the Big Deal can feel contrived. Yet, for the not-for-profit organizations supported by these small journals, the Big Deal is something approaching salvation — finally, they’re selling enough journals to afford some of the more interesting and useful activities they’ve always dreamed about. Could these journals exist in the publishing ecosystem alone? Probably not. They need to join a pack to survive. At some level, the Big Deal shelters smaller, more vulnerable journals and allows their parent organizations revenues far beyond what they could have generated alone. Without the Big Deal, some smaller journals might fold. And where’s the access in that?
- Academics need to “take back” scholarly publishing — This one is particularly interesting. I’ve worked in scholarly publishing for 25 years, and for at least 20 of those, I’ve ultimately answered to a board consisting mostly of academics. All the editors I’ve worked with have been professors with major academic positions at major academic institutions. For-profit publishers have people with science and academic backgrounds sprinkled throughout their leadership teams, and consistently collaborate with academic leaders at the non-profits they work with. Nearly every author and peer-reviewer is an academic (there are some specialist topics that require review from the private sector). The audience is academic. Many scholarly publishers come from major academic institutions (more than 130 of these exist — Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, MIT Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, University of California Press, Princeton University Press, Columbia University Press). Nobody ever took scholarly publishing away from academics.
- Current pricing and sales approaches are unsustainable — Perhaps. Other pricing and sales approaches have also been proven unsustainable. For journals, the individual subscription model is largely unsustainable, although there are exceptions. The ad-supported model is largely unsustainable, exceptions noted. The hybrid subscriber/advertising model does better, but it’s still somewhat exceptional. The institutional sales model has sustained itself, but it is under a lot of pressure and may become unsustainable. And, as you’d expect, change is already afoot. Some publishers have embraced open access (OA) as a way to help pay the bills or further hybridize their business models. Others are creating new information service approaches to sell into adjacent markets or through new information systems. There are mergers and acquisitions occurring so that new technologies can create new capabilities and new business options. The path forward is uncertain. Innovation, business savvy, and diversification will win the day, not posturing and demands for no business model. The question isn’t whether business models will morph and change. They will. The question is pace and direction.
- There is an access crisis — There are two general pathways this argument can take. One is, poor researchers and/or independent researchers don’t have access, so it’s a crisis. The second is, laypeople don’t have the access they need to make decisions, so it’s a crisis. Let’s take them one at a time.
- Poor and/or independent researchers — I find this one hard to swallow. The move to online information has vastly — vastly — increased the availability and accessibility of scientific information around the world. Many publishers make their information free to developing nations. Many grant complimentary or discounted access to humanitarian groups. As for independent researchers, I wonder how large this constituency really is, and why they don’t have enough funding, mobility, or connections to get access. Most are near major cities, universities, and libraries. Those are great sources of information and access.
- Public access –– This one gets sticky, and a lot of the most impassioned and heart-wrenching rhetoric comes from it. There are anecdotes of tenacious parents fighting their way to a truth through the research and achieving an outcome all the experts thought impossible. What’s often overlooked in these stories is that the experts likely had access to the same information in addition to having expertise. In fact, the expertise was built upon years of training and access to information. So, if access to information is unreservedly good, how does this happen? Information begets expertise begets ignorance? Maybe there’s more to finding the truth than just access to information. And anecdotes aren’t data. Could it be that these anecdotes are statistically inevitable (stochastic) and nothing more? And is access to something difficult to read, interpret, and understand really access in any meaningful way? Sadly, if you argue that the scientific literature is too jargon-filled, specialized, and esoteric for the general public for accessibility to amount to much meaningful access, you’re accused of saying the general public is stupid. when that’s not the point at all. I wouldn’t defend myself in court, and not because I’m stupid. It’s because I’m not trained in the law. I could misinterpret a key phrase with disastrous effects. I might not understand how a single case ties into larger concepts and trends. The issue is not about intelligence, but domain expertise.
- Taxpayers fund the research, so should receive it at no cost — Taxpayers fund a lot of things. I fund our elementary school, by this logic, yet I can’t go to school there. (Shame. I’d totally rule fifth grade this time.) Some of my taxes fund our state college, but I will still have to pay if my kids go there. Taxes pay for a part of many things, but not for all of most things. In the case of research, taxes pay for the research, but not in most cases for publication, archiving, distribution, branding, editorial review and rejection, and so forth. And if we expect taxes to pay for those things out of research funding, we’re in a zero-sum game, especially in the US with its tax paralysis. Research slows commensurately as the dollars move to support ancillary activities already funded in other ways. A different perspective could easily be to protect the taxpayers’ investment in research by demanding it not be burdened with publication costs.
- Publishers are driving up tuition costs — In this argument, the protagonist usually relies on a percentage rate of increase in serials expenses (usually north of 300%), and then might compare it to a similar increase in tuition and fees (also north of 300%). Where the math breaks is when you realize the bases for the increase are vastly different. For instance, one large but not unusual US university saw its tuition and fees increase by 27% between 2006 and 2011, about the same amount serials prices increased. Yet, because the starting budget for tuition and fees was $550 million, by 2011, that same university was generating $700 million in tuition and fees. To gain equivalency and assert a relationship between tuition/fee increases and serials price increases, journal subscriptions and the like would have had to increase by $150 million at this university over the same time period. Chances are they increased far less — by orders of magnitude. That’s how out of whack these comparisons are, and how purely rhetorical it is to boil these down to percentage comparisons.
This is offered as food for thought. I’m not intending to dwell on these topics next week. I wanted to get this out, done with, and move on. We have a lot more to talk about than these issues — after all, the most surprising aspect of the Monbiot rant for me was the “throwback” aspect. It seems like some of these arguments have not advanced, diminished, or evolved in the 10+ years since BioMed Central first sprang onto the scene, despite open access publishing being in the mainstream and many journals embracing free articles after 6-12 months, along with other approaches to making content available. Things have changed. Things will continue to change.
And, likely as not, the more they change, the more they’ll stay the same.