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Morality and economics mix casually. You can see it in the vocabularies deployed by advocates of certain economic practices. Words like “free” and “fair” are words about morality, not economics. Rhetorical shifts from “estate tax” to “death tax” try to move the moral argument from one of sticking it to the rich (“estate”) to rudely taxing the recently deceased (“death”).

Often, when people seem to be arguing about economics, they’re really arguing about moral values.

The economics of scholarly publishing, like economics everywhere, are intimately tied to moral judgments. Traditional publishing’s user-pays model attempts to make it clear that the editors and publishers are working for the subscribers — the agency theory is that they are on the subscribers’ side.

These days, morality and economics combine potently in a controversial area of STM publishing — open access advocacy, which has been described to me by outsiders as generating “the most emotional and wrenching feelings they’ve ever seen in a business setting.”

Open access proponents often strive to make economic arguments to justify the business model — it costs less, it guts profit-seeking publishing conglomerates, it makes papers affordable to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them, it provides research back to taxpayers — while also arguing that open access is morally superior for some of the same reasons.

These economic arguments are hard to back up with clear cost-savings in many cases. In fact, open access publishing is routinely calculated to be more expensive to participants than traditional subscriber-pays publishing. Many current publishing conglomerates now see these higher per-article fees as the next substitute for faltering subscription fees, and new publishing conglomerates have been created using them.

The economics are clearly attractive to many publishing partisans, so the supposed superiority of the economics may soon be working against the morality of the movement.

By conflating economics and morality, a trap could be opening up beneath open access advocates — namely, with the economic benefits no longer clear, the moral benefits might have to stand alone or even justify pricing models — and that invites the question, Can they do it?

For instance, imagine this argument — which concedes the economic point in order to stand as purely moral:

Open access publishing is more expensive than subscription-based publishing. However, it is morally superior, which completely justifies the added expense. How? Because the extra fees paid at the beginning ensure that the materials are available freely to poor people and the public in perpetuity. So, even though it’s more expensive, open access publishing is morally superior and worthy of support.

The moral dimension is compelling, but with large, traditional publishers now choosing to make robust open access publishing options available, the moral argument could be seen as a Trojan Horse, a way of sneaking in with a revenue machine — after all, if traditional publishers are entering open access publishing in droves, and it’s more expensive, then is the extra expense just padding profits for all involved? Supposed revolutions are looked at more cynically when the overlords join the party.

Prices to authors may drop as competition mounts. After all, many open access initiatives operate as general repositories. These offer very similar services (publication, citation, and so forth), which have quickly become commodities. Traditional publications created tiers and distinct audience slices, and extracted value from the other side — the audience — which allowed for differential pricing. With more competition, pricing for open access may soon begin a race to the bottom, especially as the moral arguments begin to show signs of wear and tear as they’re stretched to cover more entrants’ initiatives.

Is open access’ particular combination of economics and morality bound to falter as it edges toward the mainstream?

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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.


25 Thoughts on "Morality and Economics: Is a Trapdoor Opening Beneath Open Access?"

Great post Kent. The moral dimension could vanish entirely if commercial publishers, driven by the profit motive, define ‘sound’ research even more ambiguously and lower the barrier to publication further. This would create a bottom tier that was simply vanity publishing for those disciplines/labs with big grants/budgets.

Ignoring the opening, the meat of this post appears to be the second sentence of the sixth paragraph:

‘Many current publishing conglomerates now see these higher per-article fees as the next substitute for faltering subscription fees, and new publishing conglomerates have been created using them.’

But is there any evidence that the per-article income for OA is greater than the per-article income for subscriptions? Publishers such as BMC and PLoS appear to be profitable taking smaller per-article fees than Elsevier generates (reported to be around $4k per article six years ago).

I think the problem here lies in the sentence: ‘In fact, open access publishing is routinely calculated to be more expensive to participants than traditional subscriber-pays publishing.’ No it’s not. It has been calculated that some institutions may pay more, but I’ve seen no evidence that overall the system costs will be greater. (And there is evidence, disputed by some publishers, of course, that the system costs will actually be lower.)

And this is all before the full effects, if any, of competition described in the penultimate paragraph start to come it.

Are per-article income comparisons really valid given that the commercial pressure under OA is to publish more articles (more articles = more income) but under a subscription model it is to publish fewer (more articles = more cost)?


It’s not that simple. All journals rely on maintaining a good flow of submission. OA journals know that they can’t publish everything they receive (so maximizing short-term revenue) because if they do they risk authors not submitting papers in the future, so jeopardizing their long-term revenue streams. For any journal to survive it has to be attractive to authors and authors want to publish in high quality journals (if they can).

It’s not simple for subscriptions either. Some publishers (not all) justify price increases in part by increasing more material. There is an incentive for them to publish more, because then they can charge more. There are some very, very large subscription journals out there. They didn’t get big by publishers limiting the amount of content!

(Then there is PLoS One, but that plays by its own rules! Although even there it does reject papers. If the profit-maximization point was as simple as publishing every paper you receive why are they rejecting papers? )

You’re right that it isn’t that simple. I don’t claim it is.

I’m simply saying that there are opposing pressures at work that make comparing per-article income not particularly informative (and in answer to Rick’s point below, yes of course there are other pressures but these don’t entirely offset those I have identified, as he concedes.)

As for charging more for publishing more, one cannot simply double a subscription if twice as much is published, since this would wreak (more) havoc with library budgets. Instead, the response to increasing submissions has been to launch new journals, which further complicates the economics.

Indeed, it is the failure to acknowledge the role of the increase in scientific output in the driving the serials crisis that is a flaw in much of the rhetoric in this area.

Of course, one of the beauties of an input, author-side payment model is that it scales with increases in scientific output in exactly the way subscription models don’t.

I think that’s a fallacy. Both scale. However, how they scale is different, and choices about how to scale can lead to moral judgments.

Note that author-side payments technically do not scale with scientific output but with scientific output from those who can afford to pay.

The two may be equivalent in big-grant biomedical science but are not necessarily elsewhere. Prolific but cash-poor groups may not find such a system so beautiful.

Richard, you’ve identified one source of commercial pressure for the journal publisher, but only one. There’s also the subscriber’s expectation of value: drop the number of articles by too much, and you start losing subscribers. On the OA side, it’s true that there’s pressure to publish more, but there’s also a countervailing pressure to publish selectively, in order to enhance the journal’s reputation. I’m not saying that all of these pressures balance each other out necessarily, but they’re important complicators of the incentive picture for publishers on both sides of the OA fence (and for those who straddle it, as some do).

I find this a little confusing and wonder if the piece falls into the trap it identifies of conflating open access (OA) economics and morality.

The imaginary argument which (I think) was put there to test the moral worth of OA does not, as stated, simply “concede the economic argument in order to stand as purely moral”. What this piece does is to posit that OA is more expensive, quickly concede that the moral case is compelling and then criticise OA on the economic grounds it has assumed.

If morality is at issue, then why not make the moral point that, say, publicly funded research should be publicly available; and then debate that moral point to discover its societal value, or some way of assigning value, in order to measure this against OA costs.

All this does is to lead into questions of the economics of OA, which are already being explored.

I would be interested in any background references to your assertion that “In fact, open access publishing is routinely calculated to be more expensive to participants than traditional subscriber-pays publishing”.

As far as I am aware, the reverse is true: that independent studies largely find OA systems as being cheaper. For instance, a national study in the UK by economist John Houghton and others. This has since been repeated for other countries and similar savings found.

If the moral argument is compelling AND cost savings over the current system can be identified, then it does make a strong case for OA now, no matter if the system could be refined further in the future.

This post was to speculate that with the moral argument being eroded by the entrance of commercial publishers who would only enter if the economics were superior to traditional publishing (for the work needed to meet OA acceptable standards), then both the moral and economic planks could crack. It becomes commercial publishing, and the price competition for commodity services (peer-review for “methodologically sound,” citation warehousing, and such) begins a race to the bottom. If this were to come to pass, then bulk publishing solutions would have to step up their already impressive throughput to make the financials work, the moral arguments would be viewed as cynical paths to profits, and the whole thing is vulnerable to abandonment.

BMC, a commercial oa publisher is over 10 years old. Hindawi, a commercial oa publisher, has been fully-oa for over five years. Don’t think the moral and economic planks have cracked yet. Or is it just happening very slowly?

I think it’s potentially governed by a threshold effect — that is, BMC and Hindawi aren’t mainstream publishers. However, once mainstream publishers like SAGE and Nature and BMJ and others become known for doing this, and some analysts start teasing out the numbers and these big guys start competing for authors, the pace to the threshold could increase exponentially, and then the pressure could crack the planks.

But surely this mixes morality and economics in the way you warn against: from your explanation, the moral point would be eroded by the entrance of commercial publishers if they made money from it . . . how is that eroding the moral point? Unless commercial publishers themselves bring immorality in their wake?

I just don’t see where the morality perspective that is mentioned comes into this at all: this is merely (but interestingly) a discussion about the economics. Moral and economic planks do not need to crack in order for OA publishing to “become” commercial publishing: OA publishing is already commercial publishing. Some OA publishers might operate on grants, but there is an commercial model for OA journals already being used – for example by Springer, as owners of BMC.

The second point of your comment talks about the introduction of commerce starting a race to the bottom. How? Following that, the idea mentioned elsewhere on this page that OA publishing is driven by the need to publish more and more at whatever cost to quality, while subscription publishing has an inherent driver to publish fewer articles, seems at odds with what actually happens. Otherwise, subscription journals would be striving to produce a single highest quality article per year to minimise cost and any OA publisher, mainstream or not, would flood their journals with rubbish to maximise profit and shareholder value! This just does not happen – so why should it happen in future?

In addition to costs for services and production, part of the economic modelling carried out by journals is the value of its brand. It has to keep its brand at a level commensurate with its attractiveness for subscribers (for subscription journals) and for readers and so for authors (for OA journals). A journal would get no readers (and so subscribers) if it published rubbish and people would not pay to publish it in, apart from vanity authors. Thus we get the publishing landscape that exists today. Vanity publishing exists, but not used by academics who wish to be taken seriously – why should this change in the future?

Subscription publishers do not strive to minimise cost to the detriment of publishing 6 issues a year (or however many). It reminds me of the old joke – “Isn’t it funny that everyday there is just enough news to fill the newspaper?” 🙂

It can be argued that OA approaches address this problem. With costs covered up-front and electronic distribution, OA journals could – if they wished – alter the number of articles within an issue – or abandon the idea of the issue completely – to publish just what met their quality threshold, no more and no less. The quality threshold is kept to the level they want to represent their brand and their reputation in the field.

Subscription publishers cannot do this, as their customers have pre-bought a nominal amount of articles per issue and an expected number of articles. The subscription publisher has to meet this and it could be argued that their own quality threshold varies in order to meet this economic driver. If they do not have enough high-quality articles for an issue, then do they fill the issue with lower-quality work? More likely they have a reservoir of high-quality articles they can call on to fill the issue. In which case, they are delaying circulation of research, which could have been put out earlier.

I think large publishers bring skepticism in their wake. This skepticism could bring more of an evaluation of the economics and moral assertions around OA publishing. That could be a slippery slope.

OA publishing is commercial publishing, but it’s viewed as morally superior. That might not hold. The fact that you just expressed that link shows that the two are becoming associated.

Quality thresholds that are obviously tied to quantity benefits are dubious. This is a point of weakness if skepticism mounts.

Subscription publishers can alter their frequency, issue sizes, and so forth, and have online publishing options. But subscription publishers aren’t beholden to funders but to subscribers. That is a fundamental difference and a different moral argument wrapped in economics.

>>Subscription publishers can alter their frequency, issue sizes, and so forth, and have online publishing options. But subscription publishers aren’t beholden to funders but to subscribers. That is a fundamental difference and a different moral argument wrapped in economics.

Ok – subscription publishers are beholden to subscribers (researchers, or their agents in University libraries): OA publishers to funders (authors, or their agents in University support units). That is a difference, but not a fundamental difference: and not a difference that will affect quality thresholds of either publisher.

If that is the core of the argument, then this assumes that there is no feedback between the reason that authors publish in a particular journal and the value that is put on that journal by its readers. And surely, that is not the way that academic authorship, readership and preference works . . .

If Journal A is evaluated by researchers as having high quality standards in its field and Journal B is known as publishing rubbish: then which will an author (aka OA publishing funder) choose to publish in? Surely, that is the feedback mechanism that negates this argument and means OA publishers are utlimately beholden to both researchers and authors – the people who have a vested interest in maintaining quality within the system.

In addition to institutions dropping OA memberships because they prove too expensive, there are also the costs emerging through calculations like Phil Davis’ in yesterday’s post, where a subscription criticized for its cost proves cheaper than the OA fees paid by the same institution to get a couple dozen papers published elsewhere. OA looks cheaper because it’s marginal still. If it moves to the mainstream, the lack of cost offsets and scalability in the model might prove a severe liability.

Great post, loaded with lots of good ideas. This will certainly not be the last time you post on this subject.

The only quibble I have is with this line: “Often, when people seem to be arguing about economics, they’re really arguing about moral values.” It’s certainly true, but I would expand that to include most political discussions as well.

One overall point: while this post talks about Open Access up front, this is really about Open Access *publishing* alone – only one part of the Open Access approaches to disseminating and using research findings.

While economic modelling of OA journals can be argued, there is an existing network of over 1,800 repositories worldwide holding text duplicates of published research and making this available as open access. (See our own service OpenDOAR for a listing )

While the economics of such a system working alongside traditional publishing can itself be argued, it is increasingly clear that any economic change works at a speed over decades and rather than being disruptive, changes to accommodate OA repositories (if any are needed) are likely to be swallowed up by changes to business models bought about by other factors. The high-energy physics archive – arXiv – has been in existence for over 15 years and yet subscriptions to high-energy physics journals keep selling . . .

Kent, it would help if you specified that you are writing about open access publishing (“gold OA”), not about open access itself. Yes, there’s a lot of conflation of economics and ethics in the back and forth about gold OA, but the argument for OA itself, and green OA self-archiving (and green OA self-archiving mandates) in particular, is overwhelmingly practical, rather than either ethical or economic: Researchers need access to all refereed research findings, not just those to which their institutions can afford subscription/license/PPV access. That access can be provided by researchers themselves, by self-archiving their refereed final drafts. That’s what green OA and green OA mandates are all about.

Continuously conflating gold and green OA just muddies the waters, and contributes to the economical/ethical conflation you bemoan. It also slows the progress of OA itself (but that, of course, serves the purposes of some of the interlocutors…)

Stevan Harnad

I agree with Stevan that the argument for Green OA is utilitarian (and, to that extent, moral, I would add), but I would also argue that even Gold OA, whether or not its overall costs to the system are greater or less than TA-publishing, has the vast advantage of allowing researchers and students to access content directly, potentially through a single or very small number of portals, whereas all TA-publishing results in siloed content residing on multiple platforms that are not cross-searchable. So, putting the economics argument aside, I still think OA wins hands down in terms of overall utility, not only to academe but to all humanity with Internet access. I would also ask the question whether the system is not paying a high price, for either TA or OA journal publishing, when it has to include profit margins of up to 30% for commercial publishers. This is money that oozes out of the system into others’ pockets, whereas non-profit publishing, whether by university presses or society publishers, internalizes both costs and benefits within the scholarly community. That is both, in my mind, a moral and an economic argument in favor of OA, most certainly for all Green OA and for Gold OA so long as it is done by non-profit publishers.

Whether any endeavor (academic or otherwise) has to include a 30% profit margin for a commercial entity is essentially a philosophical/political question. I happen to strongly agree with your sentiment, but unfortunately that’s the way the world currently works (as Joe, I believe, has said before, if NIH is going to single out something as an exception, universal access to health care might be better).

As for the lack of cross-searchability, that is an oft-used argument but not applicable. Publishers simply need to let search engines crawl their content (and they do). Google does not need to host all web content to be able to search it…

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