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Rallying Cries vs. Reality: Profits and Publishing Meet Academics and Idealism

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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:
    1. Scientific publishing output is not a commodity or service. The non-substitutability of each paper makes that clear.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. Institutions are not commodities. Deals are negotiated all the time. Even the “Big Deal” is a sales approach subject to negotiation.
    5. 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.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

42 thoughts on “Rallying Cries vs. Reality: Profits and Publishing Meet Academics and Idealism

  1. I left a comment along similar lines on yesterday’s post by Rick, but think it’s relevant here as well:

    If you take the point of view that everything publicly funded must be given back freely to the taxpayer, then where are the editorials demanding that Google return all the profits made from their NSF-funded algorithms (not to mention the millions of dollars that Stanford University has raked in from them)? Where are the angry polemics demanding that all biomedical results from NIH-funded research be given freely to pharmaceutical companies (taxpayers, after all) rather than patented and licensed?

    And why do I have to pay for access to NYC’s subways, buses and bridges when my tax dollars were used to build them?

    Posted by David Crotty | Sep 8, 2011, 7:38 am
  2. Hi Kent,

    After the sometimes acrimonious nature of the Monbiot piece’s comments, I would like to commend you for the sober re-examination of many of the issues raised.

    As you might have guessed, I’m still going to take issue with something you write, and this is on your “access crisis” point. You (rightly, in my view) take issue with those who rely on anecdotal evidence of public access to research providing benefits. However, I think you fail to apply the logic of not using anecdotal evidence in the previous point on “Poor and independent researchers”. You say “Many publishers make their information free to developing nations.”, but part of the open access argument as I understand it is that this is woefully inadequate, when we have within our grasp the means to make ALL research available. Think of the macro-level benefits opening up research to this vast constituency of researchers would provide!

    Viewed in this light, the economics of journal publishing are secondary; what is really important is making this research available to the large swaths of researchers in the Global South who would otherwise be unable to access it.

    Anyway, another day, another pro-OA commenter on Scholarly Kitchen!

    Neil, City Open Access.

    Posted by cityopenaccess | Sep 8, 2011, 8:02 am
    • Why the “Global South”? Australia? Brazil? I’ve been to both, and they’re doing fine. Argentina? Recovered from their fiscal crisis. India? Surprisingly robust access, but with local solutions, not imposed solutions. Africa? Again, growing access and many problems publishers can’t solve. Can you clarify what you mean by the “Global South”?

      And economics are always primary. Most problems are economic at a root level.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 8, 2011, 9:20 am
    • Neil,
      Bill Walters and I recently published a review of the studies dealing with access. We include a section on access to developing nations and a section on access to the lay public. The article is freely-accessible:

      Davis PM and Walters WH. 2011. The Impact of Free Access to the Scientific Literature: A Review of Recent Research. Journal of the Medical Library Association 99: http://dx.doi.org/10.3163/1536-5050.99.3.008

      Posted by Phil Davis | Sep 8, 2011, 10:24 am
    • I’m with you on the importance of ensuring worldwide access to scholarly exchange of ideas, but who pays for researchers in developing nations to publish their own ideas, and who pays for the digital infrastructure? I guess one answer is that the former is funded through the author-pays fees of the developed world or subsidised by the publishers as a marketing exercise, and the latter is taken care of by the rapid expansion of mobile technologies around the globe (assuming the publishers have enabled their content platforms for Android devices and the like).

      Posted by Duncan Enright | Sep 8, 2011, 10:57 am
      • I think that, when it comes to the ‘Global South’ (however inadequate that term might be in the strict geographical sense), the hardware and infrastructure problems are the real problems, not the availability of information. Access to the internet is not common everywhere, let alone broadband and high speed wireless access. I agree with Duncan Enright that mobile access (like with banking and, to an increasing extent, education) will be providing solutions here.

        Posted by RR | Sep 9, 2011, 4:13 am
  3. You did get a lot of ranty responses to your previous article on this topic, didn’t you? I hope the comments this time are a bit more pertinent.

    Taking the profit/value argument – one way that publishers, libraries etc could collaborate on this one is to make clear the “cost per article download”. Library consortia that purchase on behalf of thousands of users (academics) would find this useful I imagine, and publishers who charged fairly could publicise this cost and hence all those people who think they are being ripped off can judge for themselves.

    At the end of the day, you make the point, as does Stephen Curry in his response to Mr G. M., that the whole system is run by scientists – they form the boards of most journals, they decide where to publish, and they are the peer-reviewers. Long before the internet, in about 1600 and something, scientists decided that journals would be a useful way to communicate their ideas. The internet has wrought massive changes, obviously, but if scientists now want a different way to communicate, it is up to them to decide what that should be. It’s easy to criticise publishers who aim to stay in business (some are easier to criticise than others) but what alternative do scientists want? They have plenty of open access alternatives now, as well as preprint servers that between them cover every discipline. Rather than criticising (wrongly or not) publishers, what is a better system that serves science better?

    Incidentally, it is erroneous to suppose, as many do, that the internet makes it cheaper for publishers. Publishing on the web takes a massive number of resources to do things like have lots of desired functionality, keep platforms and other resources updated when technologies go obsolete, and many other things. It just isn’t as cheap as those outside think it is – many of whom confound “ease of viewing” with “ease of production” where the two are very different – print is a doddle in comparison, and once you’ve signed off a print page, it stays signed off.

    Posted by Maxine | Sep 8, 2011, 9:01 am
    • I want to underscore your last paragraph, and elaborate. Publishing online shifts costs from variable costs (printing another issue) to fixed costs (having software engineers on staff). Because the variable costs are diminishing, and the fixed costs are less tangible, there’s an illusion that online publishing is cheaper. I think it’s likely that we may find just the opposite, at least until standardization across the entire ecosystem occurs (as it did for print in the 20th century, with rural mail delivery, web offset, and so forth).

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 8, 2011, 9:24 am
    • I wanted to second a point made in this response. As a product development manager at one of the big three STM houses mentioned at the beginning of this article, I can confirm that designing and maintaining online systems that can accommodate an ever growing (and accelerating!) collection of published material – while simultaneously maintaining or improving article discoverability – is very expensive indeed.

      Posted by Nathan Brothers | Sep 8, 2011, 9:58 am
    • And to “third” that last paragraph, let’s not forget the increasing demand to publish supplementary content and data that was never part of the deal with print at all. . . .

      Posted by @Bill Kasdorf | Sep 8, 2011, 11:47 am
    • To add an analogy to this part of the discussion, Pixar’s rendering times for their movies haven’t dropped at all in the 100X increase in computing power their systems have benefitted from since Toy Story. Why? They constantly do more with the available resources. And so do scholarly publishers or platform suppliers. I’m not sure the fixed costs will ever fall, because the (so far) constant 18 month doubling of compute power and storage will allow more and more sophisticated things to be done with the information. We also regularly return to the digital assets themselves and rework them to enhance the information, so,ething that is impossible with print products.

      Posted by David Smith | Sep 8, 2011, 2:50 pm
      • I think this “online cost” argument ties into the “what exactly do scientists want in preference” question, too. Very very few academic institutions or funders keep repositories of the work and data that they fund or that is created by their employees. The reality is therefore that publishers publish part of it (as peer-reviewed “papers”) and a few repositories in a few fields store properly annotated and curated data. But these are few and far between. Why? Because they cost a lot! (How many old data repositories have failed because of lack of funding is a terrible scandal as the data are lost forever). As Bill points out above, journals are dumped with more and more “supplemental” data, often huge (so readers get timed out if they try to download it), often in strange formats – to what extent is data repository the job of the journal (expensive in itself) or the
        funder/employer institution?

        These are some questions that George Monbiot and many scientists don’t think about or ignore in their haste to castigate publishers. I am not saying that publishers are perfect, but there is a lot more to it than a simplistic, ranty attack accusing them all of being “evil”. What exactly do scientists want, and where should the (limited) resources for pubilishing, sharing and archiving their work be focused? However it happens, it is most definitely not free.

        Posted by Maxine | Sep 9, 2011, 3:44 am
      • Yeah, but there is a real *qualitative difference* between the animation in “Toy Story” and “Up” — a difference that is not seen between the PDFs of last week’s Nature and those from a dozen years ago. I do empathize with the need to cover the (decidedly non-trivial) costs involved in maintaining an online archive, but frankly if you’re *not* managing it in such a way where it “scales up” (the per-unit costs of storing and serving documents go down as the number of documents increases), then you’re just doing it wrong.

        Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 9, 2011, 11:22 am
        • I’m not really writing about PDFs, but the added functionality in the full-text versions – annotations, ontologies, citation info, bidirectional linking, etc etc.

          Posted by Maxine | Sep 9, 2011, 3:22 pm
  4. Yes, commercial academic journal publishing is not a monopoly, but it would not be so far-fetched to call it, in the STM areas at least, an oligopoly. One consequence of the “Big Deal” is to increase the difficulty for smaller publishers to keep their library subscriptions going; librarians frequently complain that the Big Deal forces them to accept some lower-quality journals from the big commercial publishers at the sacrifice of higher-quality journals from smaller publishers. Is that good for academe? It is certainly good for the big publishers, who have found a way through the Big Deal to crush their competition in a very oligopolistic fashion.

    I do agree, however, that placing all the blame on commercial publishers is misguided. The fact is that in the wake of WW II commercial publishers were quick to see the gold mine opening up for STM journal publishing and moved swiftly to take advantage of it. Universities had, in their presses, the publishing infrastructure in place to make the same move, but for various reasons did not (surprisingly, perhaps, since the first publications of the oldest continuously operating university press, Johns Hopkins, were journals in mathematics and chemistry). Indeed, universities have never capitalized their presses sufficiently enough to make them really innovative, thereby ceding the advances in the industry to more entrepreneurial and quickly adaptive commercial publishers.

    What does remain as a real possibility, however, is that commercial publishers may eventually abandon this sector if they cannot sustain the profit margins to which they have become accustomed. And if this “tipping point” occurs at some point, universities will willy-nilly be compelled to get into the business they have so long outsourced to the commercial world. Much will depend, I think, on how successful commercial STM journal publishers are in making gold OA work out for them to sustain their profit margins.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Sep 8, 2011, 10:15 am
  5. While the arguments we’ve seen recently could have been penned in 1999, the rationale for open access does appear to have changed over the last decade. Gone are declarative claims that OA publishing is cheaper or would save libraries money. And while the OA “citation advantage” is still making its rounds by some, I think it is roundly discounted by academics and publishers.

    We appear to be the point where the argument has been reduced to morality and this is something that cannot be rectified by the two opposing parties for each side selects its language, its assumptions, and its value propositions.

    Unfortunately, this makes it impossible for consensus to happen. We may be stuck in 1999.

    Posted by Phil Davis | Sep 8, 2011, 10:16 am
    • Citation please! While I’m sure that conventional publishers and *some* academics are quick to dismiss the notion of a citation advantage for OA work, I think it is still an open question. If it *has* been thoroughly discredited, I would like to know where…

      Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 9, 2011, 11:28 am
      • Ed, please see:

        Davis PM. 2011. Open access, readership, citations: a randomized controlled trial of scientific journal publishing. The FASEB Journal 25: 2129-34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1096/fj.11-183988

        The article is freely-available to all readers.

        Posted by Phil Davis | Sep 9, 2011, 11:43 am
        • Phil, I’ll do a more detailed read when I get a chance, but it seems like you searched for an effect and *didn’t* see one where other authors (notably Eysenbach) *did*. Granted that it is difficult to definitively prove a negative, but the question still looks open to me. Many kudos though for actually bringing some data into a discussion that (as you noted above) sometimes seems to be too mired in rhetoric.

          BTW — is this FASEB article only available because it’s online-before-print, or did you do something to make it (gasp) Open Access?

          Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 9, 2011, 12:25 pm
  6. Hi Kent,
    I disagree with most of your analysis – which is why I recently joined together with a group of other academics to found a start-up OA academic publisher (openbookpublishers.com)!

    But rather than addressing each point one by one, let me just make the following observations:
    a. huge swathes of the academic community are shouting in frustration at the practices of existing academic publishers, and digital technology is given them the opportunity to do things differently and for themselves.
    b. traditional publishers are arguing, as you are, that the existing system works just fine and cannot/should not be replaced.

    Industries that ignore and/or ostracise their market don’t survive too long – so I suspect there is only one long-run winner in this battle. Either existing publishers will need to reform and innovate fast to deliver what their customers are wanting, or they will be sidelined. Presently, through PLoS and other emerging OA initiatives such as our own, I see much more fundamental innovation occuring outside rather than within the traditional publishers.

    Posted by Rupert Gatti | Sep 8, 2011, 10:28 am
    • I don’t think you absorbed the major point here — things have changed a lot in a decade, OA is pretty mainstream, and change will continue. Also, scholarly publishers have been very good about adopting disruptive business and technology ideas. And if your “huge swathes” are so upset, why are submission rates climbing across the board?

      Rhetoric is not reality.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 8, 2011, 2:54 pm
      • Submission rates are climbing because submitters have been well-insulated from these questions — they aren’t the ones who have to cobble together the funds to pay for the increase in next year’s subscription rates.

        It is the *other* customers that publishers need to worry about — the libraries who are canceling their subscriptions. Individual scholars won’t start to pay attention until they realize that, due to mass cancellations, almost nobody will even have the chance to read what they spent so much time creating…

        Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 9, 2011, 11:34 am
  7. I appreciate the sensitive parsing of these complex issues in this discussion. I’d add the suggestion that academia (as opposed to academics or the professorate) needs to “take back” publishing. University administrations need to invest more significantly in academic presses (or press / library partnerships) to underwrite more of the costs for the dissemination of scholarship. Were not university presses originally established, after all, because much intellectually valuable work wasn’t (and still isn’t)commerically viable for publishers?

    Posted by Amy Benson Brown | Sep 8, 2011, 10:43 am
    • I completely agree with you. They’ve lost track of those things that make university’s special and add incredible value, even if it’s hard to measure.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 8, 2011, 3:40 pm
    • Or, how about another approach – that “Academia” needs to start supporting their library services in line with the vast increase in usage, access, content and fulfillment that libraries have seen (and helped generate) in the digital era. If a university’s dormitories, Chinese Studies programs or tennis courts had seen the same vast increase in utilization over the last 10 years, you can bet the funding and infrastructure to support them would be on the agenda for the increase. Yet libraries, and librarians, seem to be consistently on the losing side of the funding equation. That’s as much of a factor in the entire ‘sustainability’ argument as any price or product aggregation moves on the part of publishers. C.f this with academic departments and grant funding: most administrators would look askance at any STM department that wasn’t increasing its grant base significantly year to year.

      Posted by Brandon Nordin | Sep 8, 2011, 6:21 pm
  8. Interesting stuff. Your argument that funds spent on publishing reduces the money available for research is OK so far as it goes — but to me it puts an onus on the scientific community to find the cheapest (and most effective) route for publication (something I have been thinking out loud about on my own blog, which Maxine referred to above.

    I accept what you and she say about the real costs of online publishing — I don’t pretend that it’s free, though have no clear idea of the actual costs. But breaking free of our dependence on impact factors might open the way to do things more cheaply. Easier said than done, I’ll grant.

    Posted by Stephen Curry (@Stephen_Curry) | Sep 8, 2011, 4:04 pm
    • Maybe you could find out how many software developers, web production and other staff the main publishers now have to employ cf print era, Stephen, that would provide some back-up for whether you or I is correct on this point. I myself was amazed to be told how many developers are now employed by Nature Publishing Group, for example. A lot of this is because readers and scientists demand a great deal of the web services assocated with the article as well as the article itself. This is good in terms of pushing forward innovation, but expensive (for someone – if not the publisher, someone).

      Posted by Maxine | Sep 9, 2011, 3:54 am
      • While it is true that NPG has been at the forefront of experimenting with traditional forms of publication, I do think it is an open question how much of this is because “readers and scientists demand” it. Indeed, I wonder how much of these added functions are even seen by the masses of folks landing at journal sites from Google Scholar or PubMed. Most users still seem to be happy so long as they get to the PDF.

        Again, while the costs of providing such access are very real, this shouldn’t be anything beyond the competency of a reasonably well-trained IT staff.

        Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 9, 2011, 11:45 am
        • Readers and authors very much want added features, such as citation and download statistics, linked explanatory articles (News&Views, Research Highlights), linked supplementary information, linked annotations, linked chemical structures, linked accession numbers, and so on ad infinitum.

          Posted by Maxine | Sep 9, 2011, 3:24 pm
        • That puts publishers in a tough spot–damned if they spend any money to experiment with new models and means of delivery, damned if they just sit around trying to preserve the status quo. It seems there’s no way for them to win.

          Posted by David Crotty | Sep 9, 2011, 5:02 pm
  9. I’d like to make an observation about a potential bias that I’m observing throughout this discussion: Déformation professionnelle.

    Nowhere on this blog or this post is it suggested that this discussion is limited to science, but most of the debate seems framed around it (and journals for that matter). If I’ve got this wrong, please do enlighten me.

    My sense is that some of the important scenarios we should consider when debating normative matters lie in the humanities just as much as science.

    I’d even go as far as echoing Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Eric Schmidt – academic disciplines have become far too specialised for their own good. Access may be a part of this problem – cross-disciplinary activity is discouraged in a digital world of artificial scarcity.

    Posted by Ben Sauer | Sep 8, 2011, 6:14 pm
  10. The serials crisis is about money, and humanities journals are extremely cheap compared to those in STM. That, more than anything else, is why most discussions of OA center around the sciences. Of course, the humanities could still feel the pinch if libraries end up (as some already have) cutting those cheaper subscriptions in order to afford the big deal du jour.

    All of this brings up an important question that I’ve never heard a satisfying answer to: If journals in the humanities have so many of the same costs (from running servers to managing peer review) as their peers in the sciences, why *are* they so much cheaper? The cynic might answer that publishers just charge whatever they think the market will bear — there’s a lot more money sloshing around medicine than there is in sociology.

    Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 9, 2011, 12:06 pm
    • Ed,
      Divide the journal price by the number of articles it publishes each year and you’ll get a very different picture of pricing.

      Posted by Phil Davis | Sep 9, 2011, 12:41 pm
    • I think this is response frames one of the true positioning issues both libraries and publishers face in the digital collections world – that in most cases the commentating audience has little appreciation of the breadth depth, and quantity of information in a world class journal’s collection. Many of the budget administrators and political commentators in the journals debate tend to have a mind’s eye vision of a journal: a small, slender volume that publishes a few articles, once a quarter. The fact that many STM journals and their aggregated super-collections are publishing potentially thousands of new peer-reviewed pages per week is latent in the public imagination – as is the growth in the size of the journal from year to year. The fact that these “pages” can now contain anything from manipulable data to video to full blown animations is even further buried.

      Similarly, it will be interesting to see as libraries – or at least their digital collections – move from large public spaces to remotely accessed databases, how the LIS community with be able to maintain their perceived centrality to the campus experience as well as their leverage in the budget allocation battle. Publishers and libraries alike need to come up with a digital analog to the impressive ‘miles of aisles’ of library tours of yore. Looking at what has happened in the corporate market – where many corp libraries have been shuttered and the librarian has been replaced with a contract admin/purchasing agent is not an encouraging trend.

      Posted by Brandon Nordin | Sep 9, 2011, 4:14 pm
      • Brandon —

        But many of us do know better, and we’re *still* flummoxed by some of the arguments from the publishers’ camp. Yes, as Maxine notes above, there have been some useful add-ons to the traditional article that are reasonably widely-used, and the development of these has required a real expenditure of resources. However, experiments like Elsevier’s aside (http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/authored_newsitem.cws_home/companynews05_01403), the *vast* bulk of STM publishing still consists of static PDF page images and has absolutely nothing to do with supplemental data or dynamic objects. And while there are some outliers such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, few current journals come anywhere *near* “…potentially thousands of new peer-reviewed pages per week”.

        At any rate, this discussion of costs is to some extent a red herring — much of the dismay from the Library community comes from a perception of excessive profiteering on the part of (some) publishers. When the STM publishing portion of Elsevier still manages to turn a 23% profit in 2009 (a year that saw yet another round of budget cuts for most libraries), it is perhaps not hard to understand how some might see the interests of libraries and publishers to be (ahem) imperfectly aligned.

        Posted by Ed Sperr | Sep 12, 2011, 9:34 am
  11. Thanks Ed for your clarifying remarks. As someone who has participated in many fields of publishing – and has only recently moved into the journal world – I find there is an ironic paradox in the STM serials market. On one hand, it is one of the few areas in publishing that made a successful and nearly complete jump from paper to electronic publishing – with users, publishers and the channel (libraries) in relative sync. On the other hand, it is inherently conservative, hanging on to paper era forms, formats (two column, highly dense fonts, etc), pricing models and knowledge objects. In reality we have made the jump to digital production and paperless distribution…I am not sure we are truly digital publishers yet.

    This isn’t just a supply side issue either: the STM user/researcher community is equally conservative. At my house, over 75% of our downloads are still in PDF vs a net native format. Talking to any graduate student, you’ll still find most are printing out papers to read and markup. And although digidoc services such as Mendalay have made great gains in the last few years, its rare that a researcher doesn’t have a file drawer acting as an article morgue. Ditto the debate on how/when to paginate ASAPs, etc. We are always in discussions with our editors about curation and publication of born digital data types; however there are both a diversity of opinions, a wide array of standards, and concerns for privacy and competitive advantage that need to be sorted out, before we see his issue move forward programmatically. However, authors, editors and publishers do – and must – keep experimenting.

    (Your comments really skirted the central point of my response, that just looking at basic articles alone, most journals are publishing significantly more content than they did 5-10 years ago.)

    I also understand the library’s angst and anger re budget cuts: what I don’t buy is the increasingly ingrained sense of victomology that pervades the sector, nor the relentless focus on publisher as villain. Surely a more productive long term approach would before both parties to work together to demonstrate the value that increased access, usage and range of library facilitated content sources to the administrators, corporate, government and academic, that control and chop at the library pursestrings?

    Posted by Brandon Nordin | Sep 13, 2011, 11:41 am

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