Picture of {{w|Malcolm Gladwell}}. Full set fr...
Image via Wikipedia

Two articles popped up recently that I think are related in a subtle way.

The first is Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker called, “Priced to Sell.”

The second is a blog post by Michael Nielsen entitled, “Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?”

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.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


8 Thoughts on "Gladwell & Nielsen: The Fixed Costs of Fixed Ideas"

Nielsen’s article has some good food for thought, but it’s also flawed in many ways. I get the feeling he’s a little too “in the bubble” to see things objectively. If you write a science blog, read and comment on other science blogs, correspond with science bloggers, you start thinking the whole world is doing the same. But the number of scientists who read any blogs, let alone science blogs is vanishingly small, the number of science bloggers even smaller. The rising influence he points to so far doesn’t exist.
The experiments he praises are nearly all proving to be expensive and unsustainable. JOVE and SciVee both had to move to traditional publishing models after losing money hand over fist. The Nature Network has become an expensive clubhouse for a small number of scientists. Mendeley has no obvious business model and is completely dependent on the traditional science publishing industry for its content. Most academic publishers can’t afford to spend years and millions of dollars on failures like these.

The other big problem is trying to draw parallels between science publishing and newspaper/blog publishing. The motivations for the readers and the writers for both are very different. Scientists write formal papers because those are the currency of the realm, not because it’s fun. I’m not convinced that an informal network of people blogging can play that same role.

And I would also contend that the real competitors for newspapers are other newspapers that are free online. Yes, some functions of newspapers have been taken over by blogs–gossip, niche reporting on particular fields, classified ads. But for real news reporting, how many blogs are doing original quality news reporting? Nearly all are just linkblogs pointing to formal news agencies. The real problem for newspapers is that in attempts to cut costs, they’ve lowered quality, and eliminated everything that differentiates them from one another. They’re entirely replaceable with each other as they all just print the same wire feeds. They’re ubiquitous and free, so online ad rates are too low to support their publication. If they try to charge for access, readers will just switch to the another identical paper that remains free.

I agree. Science publishing is inextricably tied to science research, and most academic researchers are still working in a model where the incentive is to get grants and publish in peer-reviewed venues. So it seems questionable to compare science publishing to newspapers or tech companies. It is generally in the interest of most publicly funded granting agencies to make new research findings freely available to the public. I believe part of research funding should be dedicated to improved new methods of communicating the findings to broader audiences (the direction is already going this way with NSF grant requirements, etc.), so that the research teams in collaboration with science publishers are offering “free” high-quality communications that would compete with or exceed any for-profit, derivative efforts in credibility, audience-focusing, tech-savviness, and production quality.

I agree with Kent and the commenters that publishing scientific research differs from publishing newspapers. The former has a smaller more specialized audience and the latter has broad appeal, which conforms better to an advertising supported model.

However, the larger issue that needs to be recognized is that IT is affecting the economics of publishing in all domains. A blogger who writes about scientific research may not be able to compete with an established STM publisher on the basis of content quality. But, an STM publisher who adopts better, cheaper, faster publishing technology can compete with an established STM publisher who fails to use IT effectively. The more technically savvy publisher can produce at a lower cost and charge less. More important, the technically advanced publisher can focus on higher-value info products that offer analytic tools and other features that the low-tech publisher cannot. If the market is willing to pay for the value-add tools, the tech-savvy publisher can afford to discount the basic info and sell the high-value tools for a premium.

I commented on Nielsen’s blog and also commented on the Gladwell/Anderson debate on Henry Bloget’s blog (www.businessinsider.com) and also lay out my thesis that all digital content is becoming commoditized in my article: “Health Content is Rapidly Losing Its Value” on my blog.

Note, it’s not just content that becomes commoditized once it is digitized, knowledge workers whose expertise becomes codified in electronic decision support systems become commoditized, too. See Tom Lee, MD’s article, which is referenced in my article.

Comments are closed.