Perhaps the most incisive part of Michael Lewis’ book “Boomerang” is when he observes that Americans have become obsessed with getting something for nothing, spotlighting California as the example of this taken to an extreme, as various propositions over the years have reduced tax revenues while other propositions have increased the obligations of the state to provide services for its citizens. The recent announcement by Governor Jerry Brown that the state’s deficit will be $16 billion instead of the forecasted $9 billion just underscores how ridiculous this imbalanced mindset has become. The fact that this is viewed as a spending problem is even more pathological.
Drive any road in America now, and chances are you will be faced with decay — failing bridge expansion joints, potholes, crumbling shoulders, faded paint, and sporadic lighting. In some cases, streetlights have been taken out of entire towns in an effort to save money. Yet, in aggregate, Americans are spending $25 billion more on new tires, broken axles, and alignment problems than previously, more than any tax increase for proper roads would cost. We are truly paying for our cheapness.
The Federal government is also being penny wise but pound foolish, with two recent examples coming to light — one to cut the collection of census data pertaining to how people work and live, and the other pertaining to cuts to the collection of economic data.
For those who think ignorance is bliss, shutting down data collection on people and the economy is clearly an attempt to restore bliss.
The recent outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) in Washington state is another example of what happens when you’re short-sighted and cheap — a few thousand people get sick, it costs $400 per individual to test for the illness, and the money you saved on vaccinations a few years ago now seems like a small amount compared to the direct costs in medical care, lost tourism, and missed work, not to mention the agony of small children, perhaps the most shameful cost of all. As one physician involved said:
Do you know how much vaccination you can buy for half a million dollars? It’s an outrageous way to spend your health care dollar.
Our town just considered building a new fire station. The current one is more than 120 years old. The cost for the new station at its peak will be $10/month/resident, an amount that will slowly decline over 20 years. Yet our town center hosted protesters wearing sandwich boards against the tax hike. Do they not recall the stories of American homes burned to the ground because of similar skinflint tax attitudes that left these residents too self-reliant to have a fire department? Predictably, the measure failed, and this in a state that has successfully tied taxation with social benefits in a way that not only makes it a great place to live (and live longer), but also to do better economically than most. The cheap bug is increasingly prevalent.
And we turn to scholarly publishing, where the “how low can you go” mindset has become a drumbeat within industry for the past decade. The Elsevier boycott is a complaint about pricing. The recent announcement of PeerJ is just another example of the mindset that publishing can be dramatically cheaper.
It certainly can. Remove the lawyers, marketers, managers, editors, technologists, bibliographers, market researchers, agents, sales people, accountants, copy editors, production staff, HR personnel, aggregators, search engines, administrators, financial staff, governance bodies, database administrators, UI/UX experts, consultants, licenses, archives, paper, ink, post office, health insurance, heat, lights, and salaries, and you can make this all very inexpensive indeed.
But how good is it likely to be?
I don’t like wasteful spending any more than the next person, and have led many initiatives to ratchet down on it over the years. But cost-cutting is a delicate operation in most cases, requiring an appreciation of systems both observable and intrinsic. Where to cut, how to cut, and when to cut are questions to always ask, but not without asking where to grow, how to grow, and when to grow. If you are only asking one type of question, you’re probably not thinking very hard.
A major challenge I see lurking in our midst is the motivation to move inexorably and only to cheaper.
The drive for less expense may have already spawned some consequences — a proliferation of secondary journals, a reduction in stringent quality control at various levels in order to preserve margins in the face of inelastic pricing, experimentation with models that draw money from other parts of the academic or research budgets and thereby potentially affect the amount and longevity of ongoing research grants, or a flood of barely interesting papers that leads to more churn and undertow in the scientific record and slows the journey from bench to bedside.
Cheapness has consequences in the long run. We all end up paying for it somehow. And cheapness has a funny way of being expensive.
I will return to the themes I see as important this year — the observations that much of what we’ve published can’t be replicated; the increasing number of serial retractions; the 20-year trend showing that library budgets have been reduced while university revenues have increased; and the marginalization of science in the world through the relatively lower salaries and less certain career paths PhDs have to contemplate because of academic centers only willing to offer soft-money positions. These are the results of what we’ve sown — cheaper is not better; cheaper is not more reliable; and cheaper is not more sustainable.
You can save yourself poor as a business or an industry.
In our culture at large, we are currently letting a fringe political group undercut major portions of our civilization — education, roads, vaccines, public safety — to save a few bucks in the short-term. These people will vanish like smoke when it’s time to account for the costs their savings incurred, from unproductive workers, to banged up cars, to sick kids, to homes lost.
There is an analog in our professional world — people who come in and demand that things be cheaper, can be cheaper, will be cheaper, and who are willing to lower standards to achieve this. Yet, there are other important questions we should be asking beyond just, “How cheap can scholarly publishing be?” A few examples we might consider:
- How well can a published work reflect the actual findings and experimental techniques?
- Is this really a publishable advance? Do we learn anything?
- How reliable is the report going to be for others to follow?
- Are these robust, interesting, and useful findings?
- Is the report truly as unbiased as possible?
- Was the hypothesis stated prior to enrollment so patients weren’t part of a fishing expedition?
- How good can we be?
Before we accept the blunt and relatively uninformed question of, “How inexpensive can a journal be?” we should contemplate other dimensions of what we do — trust, quality, relevance, importance, reliability, and sustainability.
Everything else is a cheap shot.