Imagine this: you’re the procurement officer for a construction firm, providing tools to the company’s workers so they can build houses. In consultation with the builders, you seek out and buy tools that are specifically suited to the particular types of work they do.
Now imagine that hammers can only be purchased from a single company. The same is true of screwdrivers, saws, levels, and all other housebuilding tools; each comes from a different supplier, and only from that supplier. You have to buy all your hammers from Acme Hammers, all your screwdrivers from Joe’s Screwdriver Company, etc. — not because those are the best producers or because your firm requires it, but simply because those are the only existing sources for hammers and screwdrivers.
In this imaginary scenario, both the seller and the buyer of the tools face certain challenges. The seller’s problem is figuring out how to set a price. If you’re the only one selling screwdrivers, how do you know what to charge? You can look at the price of other, related construction tools (like hammers) and try to extrapolate from that, but it’s all going to be guesswork. Without direct competitors, you lose valuable market signals — customers who must have screwdrivers and can’t choose between competing sellers will tend to keep buying screwdrivers from you no matter what price you set. In this situation, there would be a strong incentive simply to set an initial price at some more or less arbitrary level above cost, and then keep raising it, since your customers have no cheaper source to turn to and no reasonable alternative to the screwdriver. And therein lies the challenge for the procurement officer — you might get angry when the price of screwdrivers rises, but the screwdriver company isn’t likely to be moved by your anger (why should it be?), and neither are the builders you serve; the builders can’t do their work without screwdrivers, and it’s your job, not theirs, to figure out how to get screwdrivers to them.
The point of this analogy is to try to shed light on the situation that currently exists in the scholarly publishing marketplace, one in which every journal offers unique content that is available from only one source and that (for serious researchers in the discipline) is not substitutable for related content from some other source. It’s a situation that lends itself to “value-based pricing,” a euphemistic phrase that usually means “we’re pretty sure that if we double or quadruple our price, you’ll still pay it” (and in some cases also means “. . . and unless you do we’ll decertify your academic program“). Not all journal publishers openly say that their pricing is “value-based,” but it pretty much always is — because there’s no other way to set prices when your product is truly unique. (Unless you have no interest in maximizing revenues, in which case you can simply set your price at some modest level above costs and leave it there. But very few people, librarians included, are uninterested in maximizing their revenues.)
This analogy isn’t perfect, of course (if it were, it wouldn’t be an analogy). One objection I can anticipate is this one — just as there are, in reality, many different screwdriver manufacturers in the tool marketplace, so there are multiple journal publishers competing against each other in particular segments of the scholarly marketplace, publishing multiple microbiology journals, multiple sociology journals, etc. How can I say that there’s no real competition between them?
The answer to this objection may seem subtle and tricky, but in fact it points up an extremely important and fundamental weirdness about the scholarly marketplace, and it’s one that goes beyond the commonly observed disconnect between buyers and end users — libraries, as procurement agents, pay for journals (some of which cover topics in common), but researchers, as end users, don’t consume journals; they consume articles (each of which covers a unique topic).
No one reads a journal. It can’t be done, because a journal isn’t a document; “journal” is an abstraction, a term we use to describe a stream of documents published under a particular scholarly brand. What we read are the articles published under that brand, and each article is unique. Thus, the fact that two journals focus on the same discipline does not mean, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, that the journals are selling different and competing versions of a single basic product the way, for example, two carmakers or screwdriver manufacturers do. Microbiology Journal X and Microbiology Journal Y both offer articles on microbiology, but an article from Journal X is not interchangeable with one from Journal Y the way a Ford Focus and a Chevy Aveo are. Instead, they are interchangeable the way a hammer is interchangeable with a screwdriver, which is to say not at all; the two articles answer different questions related to the study of microbiology, just as a hammer and a screwdriver solve different problems during the construction of a house.
Of course, this doesn’t only apply to journals. All scholarly products are more or less unique; no two monographs on the same topic will provide exactly the same information. But journals pose a particular problem because they cost so much more and involve an ongoing expenditure that constantly increases. Buying two related-but-different monographs at a one-time cost of $80 each is not that big a deal, when compared with subscribing to two related-but-different journals at a recurring baseline annual cost of $5,000 each and with annual price increases in the range of 5-9%. (More subtly, it’s also true that scientific articles are often genuinely more unique than scholarly monographs: two biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example, will likely provide many of the same facts, and thus may for some purposes be somewhat interchangeable, whereas articles reporting on two different genetic experiments are much less so because the facts on which they report are not the same — even if the experiments were conducted by scientists working in the same area of genetics.)
Some will argue that all this talk of competition and pricing dynamics adds up to a powerful argument for expanding open access (OA). After all, one way of eliminating pricing problems is to eliminate pricing. And that’s not a bad argument, as far as it goes. There are complications, of course (aren’t there always?). First, as we Chefs never tire of pointing out, in the case of Gold OA you don’t actually “eliminate” pricing — you only shift the issue by selling a different product (publishing services rather than access) to a different group of customers (authors rather than readers). Interestingly, though, the Gold OA model doesn’t just shift the locus of payment from one party (the reader or the reader’s agent) to another (the author or the author’s funder); it also moves the pricing issue out of a marketplace in which competition is weird and indirect into one where competition is relatively simple and straightforward. Journals compete for authors in a way that they don’t have to compete for readers, because no individual publisher offers a completely unique service. In a Gold OA scenario, this means that a profusion of publishers will tend to drive down author charges — whereas the steady growth of toll-access journals has clearly not had the same impact on subscription prices.
The Green OA scenario poses another complication — it requires publishers to continue doing the things they’ve always done, but with a reduced ability to derive revenue from doing them. Maybe that’s fine. Maybe we don’t want publishers to make money, or we don’t really need them to do what they’ve always done, in the amounts they’ve traditionally done them. But I tend to think that this is a very complex issue, and that conversations about it ought to be informed by more than just frustration over price. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if a subscription to every science journal cost $15 per year and the price were rising at 5 cents per year, no one would be saying that the system of scholarly communication is broken.
So why do I say that this can’t go on? Because the problem we currently face, and which is made worse by “value-based pricing,” has nothing to do with value. It’s about sustainability. It isn’t that subscribers don’t value what publishers do; it’s not even that we always disagree about how much their services are worth (though sometimes we certainly do). The problem is that no library can afford to buy as many hammers and screwdrivers as its builders need, and the prices of hammers and screwdrivers are going up at ruinous rates. Value and sustainability have nothing to do with each other — and it’s sustainability, not value, that sets limits on what can be done in the marketplace over the long term. What is not possible is for libraries to continue subscribing to journals if the past and current trends in library budget allocation and journal price increase hold.