I tried to ignore it. It deserved to be ignored — an ill-informed activist with academic aspirations using the Guardian as a pulpit to deliver a tiresome sermon filled with intentional misunderstandings, misinformation, and misapprehensions about academic publishing.
It deserved to be ignored.
Predictably, it caught fire in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and on Facebook. And now I feel compelled to jump into the fray. After all, the only coherent response I’ve seen was unfortunately limited to the admirable but necessarily finite accomplishments of Nature Publishing Group.
The author in question is George Monbiot, a sometime-professor with an ability to ignore basic economic realities for the sake of rhetorical extravagance.
His fundamental economic misunderstanding is that price is the defining problem when it comes to the accessibility of scientific information. Monbiot thinks that making scientific information free to readers is all it takes, and that the result will be a magically smarter populace:
Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.
Has he read a scientific paper recently? Let’s assume everyone with a beating heart is interested in cardiology topics. Let’s search PubMed for a paper on “cardiac.” Let’s take the first one we find. Let’s read the conclusion from the abstract:
Intrathoracic herniation of the liver (“liver-up”) is associated with predominant left heart hypoplasia in left diaphragmatic hernia but not right fetal diaphragmatic hernia. Our observations indicate that this difference may result from different ductus venosus streaming sites in these conditions.
So my layperson understanding of intrathoracic heart hypoplasia is vital to my ability to function in a democracy and make informed political decisions? I think I sense a herniation just from the stretch that takes to achieve plausibility.
Let’s assume I can read the whole paper. Like 99.9% of the population, I’m not going to know what to make of it. It’s for specialists, or better, subspecialists (cardiologists who specialize in neonates, I suppose). It was published early online, so it’s likely free. Most journals make their content published early online free for a limited time. We have the English abstract, but it’s a German journal. Who paid for that translation, assuming there was one?
Economics have nothing to do with accessibility of this information. Specialty knowledge is a prerequisite, and German language expertise would help.
There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me in any way that’s going to affect my ability to function in a democracy. And people who do need to see those papers can see those papers, probably know the authors, probably heard the poster session or talk at a meeting, and will know about the published report if it’s at all worth reading.
Monbiot claims there’s monopolization going on, yet three entities control only 42% of the market (by his math, 42/3=100).
By my reading, no single entity controls more than 17% of scholarly publishing contracts, as far as I read the figures, and competition is robust for journals contracts. Journals move from house to house, go independent, or subdivide all the time. This is hardly a monopolization. Yet, to Monbiot, a market in which hundreds of not-for-profit publishers, for-profit publishers, academic centers, and confederations compete for editors, authors, audience, cachet, and revenue — well, is it a monopoly because they’re all journals?
Monbiot compares scholarly publishers to Rupert Murdoch. This is a clear misunderstanding of the economics of publishing. Murdoch publishes hundreds of daily newspapers, runs television networks, and owns movie studios. His operation is about scale and reach, about the lowest common denominator. His fixed costs for any particular initiative are spread across tens of thousands, if not millions, of customers. Scholarly publishing has a much smaller possible audience, in some cases numbering in the dozens. It is most assuredly not about the lowest common denominator — sometimes, it feels like it’s about the least common denominator, or drifting in that direction as specialties and disciplines emerge and splinter and subdivide. Publishing materials for small audiences makes spreading the costs down below a certain level impossible, so comparing the two is invalid on many levels.
Yet, despite serving increasingly fragmented and demanding audiences, scaling up new editorial support systems, hiring new editors, knitting together new peer-review networks, and establishing new brands, scholarly publishers have found a way, in partnership with libraries, to make information available at prices Murdoch would never contemplate — because they’re amazingly low on a per-use basis. Yes, site licenses make most resources available per-use for pennies on the dollar, and price increases are negotiated robustly by both parties, usually hovering in the single digits on a percentage point basis. Site licenses have centralized purchasing at large institutions, saving departments thousands in redundant subscriptions, while providing academics with incredible access even while traveling.
But Monbiot seems ignorant of these economic realities — that scholarly articles are available at rock-bottom prices for the specialists who need them, the very core audience who Murdoch would charge the most. He even goes so far as to insinuate that astronomical journal prices account for tuition increases, when in fact the net expenditures of libraries have moved at a fraction of the pace of tuition hikes.
Monbiot swings at everything in his path — lengthy peer-review times are publishers’ fault (actually, peer-review takes time to organize, complete, and move along); publishers add little value (even though, somehow, no meaningful, important science gets published without them — maybe specialized infrastructure, marketing, editing, packaging, typography, archiving, institutional memory, domain expertise, connections, and branding all add value); and big publishers’ sometimes impressive margins (yet the publishers he points to are highly diversified companies, so it’s hard to know how much of their margin comes from academic publishing).
Monbiot is also apparently ignorant of the emerging inverse economics of abundance. That is, there’s so much information available at such low prices, most of it free, that people aren’t motivated to seek it out. The perceived opportunity cost in time in a barrier-free world is too high, so they wait for information to find them. Overcoming this is about more than just making information free.
An echo of the Monbiot rant can be found on Gigaom, where the author wonders when academic publishing will be disrupted. As we’ve discussed here, I believe it’s already been disrupted. Too often, the rhetorical use of “disruption” is meant to refer to the rending of the fabric of an industry, when in fact it’s about finding a new way to knit an industry together to achieve the same ends. Disruption, in the sense Clayton Christensen coined the term, is about achieving the same end product (not some new end product) using more efficient, newer, and leaner methods of manufacturing. So, Honda disrupts Harley Davidson with cheaper motorcycles as it moves upmarket into expensive bikes; Toyota disrupts GM with cheap cars as it moves upmarket with Camrys — either way, consumers still have motorcycles and cars.
Journal publishers have been proactive about adopting new technologies and business models, effectively disrupting themselves, which is what Christensen’s writings urged businesses to do — wise up to this phenomenon and don’t rest on the laurels of the incumbent, but disrupt yourself. So, site licenses, online manuscript and peer-review systems, open access experiments and initiatives, ending or curtailing print editions, supplementary data, video and audio, mobile versions, apps, blogs, and so forth — all this was done knowing full-well the risks they entailed, but it was done, and done proactively.
Ultimately, Monbiot’s essay reads like the ramblings of a Rip Van Winkle, who has dozed under a tree for a decade and woke up to find a memo from 1999 pinned to his shirt, a memo printed on recycled paper retrieved from the garbage can shared at one point by Pat Brown and Harold Varmus.
Monbiot’s portrayal of scholarly publishers, librarians, and scientists is roundly insulting to all. In Monbiot’s eyes, libarians are powerless dupes, scientists are exploited fools, and publishers are “parasitic overlords.” The fact is that librarians are intelligent players in the scholarly space who, working with publishers, have secured excellent, sustainable deals for their constituencies to resources that are almost all online now; scientists are altruistic, pragmatic types who know that prestige, connections, and ideas lead indirectly to professional advancement, so play vital roles willingly in authorship and review because they know the rewards will come; and publishers are the nexus for highly specialized professionals who help other highly specialized professionals craft information for small, exclusive audiences of highly specialized professionals.
To chart a useful course forward, we need accurate information, rational thought, and reasonable plans. Monbiot provides none of these in his inflammatory, off-base, and ultimately unfair rant.