Two articles popped up recently that I think are related in a subtle way.
Nielsen’s article is surprisingly long, and Gladwell’s article (a review of Chris Anderson‘s forthcoming book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price“) is unusually brief. Both are excellent. (Note that Gladwell’s assertions about YouTube‘s costs may be inflated, based on a recent analysis.)
And both touch on the often overlooked importance of something fixed.
Gladwell nicely dismembers Anderson’s arguments in a section that begins thus:
There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money).
While utopians argue that the elimination of variable costs leads to free goods and services, Gladwell knows (as do we all) that fixed costs — salaries, infrastructure, overhead costs — remain, are sizable, and are growing, whether it’s the people doing the R&D that went into a drug, a microchip, or a Web site, or the ongoing costs of running an enterprise, or the costs involved in making sure what customers paid for endures.
(From time to time when facing proponents in the open access debate, I’ve secretly thought that only professors with tenure could forget this fact and focus totally on variable costs. After all, these professors aren’t fixed costs — they’re tenured so they’re assets! I will burn in hell for these thoughts.)
Nielsen updates Clayton Christensen‘s ideas of “disruptive innovation” and draws out nice lessons from how newspapers are being disrupted by blogs. He has nice passages about how the cost basis of new approaches can diverge dramatically from those of established businesses (yet, doesn’t explore the way costs can be carried by, say, the New York Times print yet support nytimes.com — and when the print dies, the .com will have to assume all those costs, like HR, legal, and so forth, and its cost basis won’t look so rosy). And while bringing Christensen’s framework to scholarly publishing is nothing new, his updated examples are excellent and straightforward, and he offers some pretty interesting ideas around possible new opportunities.
Nielsen briefly touches on the importance of fixed information in his piece, but doesn’t fully explore the implications. I wish he would have.
I was giving a talk in London earlier this week when a perceptive audience member asked if I thought the medical sciences would ever move to a realm of free self-publishing and self-archiving for basic research reports. My answer? No, clearly not. Not only are the studies difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to set up and run, but patients are put at risk in most of them. Why would someone publish a 10-year, multi-center, double-blind, placebo-control trial by posting a PDF on an archive server? Who would guarantee is was complete? Who would establish it as final?
And who wouldn’t want that report curated, supported, migrated, and preserved?
From a patient’s perspective, who is going to take a drug, go under the knife, or accept a diagnosis based on a paper with an unclear lineage?
Transforming information into knowledge incurs expenses in scientific communication. It’s not only the fixed costs of editors, archivists, experts, and infrastructure; not just the costs from the long and often grueling road of turning a hypothesis into a set of meaningful results and reporting these accurately and completely; but also the costs of setting something apart, clearly and unequivocally, for comment, interpretation, citation, and adoption.
It’s the cost of creating, supporting, and migrating through time a work that is fixed. Permanent. Enduring.
And while the formats we use to capture the results of research may evolve, the fixed costs and high value of fixing a finding in the sciences should not be underestimated.