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?