creative commons -Franz Patzig-One of my mentors savored every word, phrase, and sentence he read. He read slowly, but so carefully and with such an eye for voicing and nuance that my relatively rapid reading habits began to feel reckless and disrespectful. I rarely slow down even today, but there are certain authors, articles, and books that will trigger me to apply the brakes, and I recall this person’s influence on my life. I learned from him (and others) that savoring turns of phrase or word choice or elegant constructions can be one of life’s most pleasant aspects.

Which unfortunately brings me to a Perspective article in the November 2011 issue of PLoS Biology by Michael Carroll, a law professor at the American University in Washington, DC. His editorial slowed me down to indulge in a different and slightly more perverse kind of pleasure — that is, I slowed down for the bitter thrill of mental horseradish, the scorching sizzle you get when nearly every sentence is a howler, burning the inside of your cerebellum with a painful tingle you embrace for a moment of masochism but soon hope will quickly pass.

Allow me to demonstrate with a few selections:

  1. “Scientific authors who pay to publish their articles in an open-access publication should be congratulated for doing so.” — <SethMyers>Really?</SethMyers> This bold opening sentence stands exposed on a rocky prominence, a mere assertion by an enthusiast without any substantive argument or justification for its existence. At its root, it’s a huckster’s line — “Drivers who pay to drive on toll roads should be congratulated on their discerning taste,” says the owner of the toll road. The line merely continues a lovely tradition in the open access canon, the tolling of the holier-than-thou bell to incent authors to tithe at the church of open access.
  2. “Pricing of traditional, subscription-financed scientific journals is highly inefficient.” — Despite per-article access charges that often come in lower than the cost of a song from iTunes, subscription-financed journals are called “inefficient” without any supporting financial analysis or citation. This is another raw assertion made without support. Keep in mind, we’re talking about an 8-10 page article, with experts from many fields refining the selection, expensive formatting and illustration approaches making it enticing and sensible, and editorial staff polishing it to a high sheen, yet it costs relatively little for the vast majority of relevant users, and that’s inefficient? The problem hasn’t been per-article pricing, it’s been the fact that the literature online has become more important, causing usage to grow while purchasers (librarians and others) have had a hard time carving out the funds necessary to pay for what their faculty and students need. That’s not inefficient business. That’s ineffective budgeting and funds allocations.
  3. “The growth in digital technologies and in digital networks should be driving down the price of access to the scholarly journal literature, but instead prices have increased at a rate greatly in excess of inflation.” — Haven’t we been through this enough already? Online publication can be more expensive because it involves more fixed costs (technology, staff) than print publication. And, as Michael Clarke alluded to the other day, moving online doesn’t allow the publisher to abandon its print children to the world; instead, it requires them to run a digital halfway house for all their print progeny, even those produced decades ago. Printing is easy and highly cost-effective — publishers turn over finished materials to printers who generate razor-thin margins because of a highly competitive market; access is a mailing label; and delivery is the postal service and elaborations thereof. Once printed, print materials don’t have to be revisited except through more printing. With online, we get e-commerce, online archives, platform migrations, search engine optimization, analytics, XML-native publishing systems, and so much more on top of some print legacy business. But print is fading fast. These factors have birthed organizations with fewer variable costs (paper, postage, printing) and more fixed costs (staff, IT, and systems). But lest we accept the cost-based model too quickly, let’s not forget the increase in value that’s also being delivered. Prices have risen not only because costs have increased, but also because the value of what an online publication delivers (more articles, archive access, services, search, download, linked citations, and convenient proxy access) has increased dramatically. To ignore this is to ignore basic economics.
  4. “The economic roots of the pricing problem are not difficult to discern. Journal publishers provide a platform between authors of journal articles and their readers. In these situations, the go-between can choose a mix of prices to each side of the relationship, usually charging more to the party that is more dependent on the go-between.”— Well, that’s more than one sentence, but it’s an amazingly ignorant logical sequence for an apparently long-term OA advocate. To summarize, a publisher puts itself between authors and readers, and squeezes whomever it can on either side until things work out to its satisfaction — and this is a problem. But, implicit in this condemnation of subscription publishers is the notion that OA publishers don’t behave in the exact same way. Well  my naïve Mr. Carroll, they do. They squeeze institutions with fees for discounted publication charges; sponsors for grants; advertisers for promotional revenues; and governments for policies favorable to their causes. Mr. Carroll seems blissfully unaware that OA publishers are businesses, and they’re fighting for money just like every other business. Don’t let this “wolf in sheep’s clothing” guise fool you, even if it fools him.
  5. On why publishers seek copyright: “. . . because the subscription model requires publishers to restrict access to paying customers and to use the threat of a copyright infringement lawsuit as a means of deterring competing publications from republishing or reusing the journal’s content without a license.” — This is a quote from an article for which Michael Carroll retains the copyright, but has granted me the rights via Creative Commons to use it however I want as long as I source the work. Apparently copyright has some moral utility for him, or he could merely have surrendered his copyright or given broader rights. I’m guessing he, as the author, doesn’t want his work used without garnering academic or citation credit. He wants to retain copyright to retain a sense of integrity around his work. Yet when evil subscription publishers retain copyright, it’s about restricting access. To him, it can’t be about working on behalf of authors to ensure the integrity of their works — a service which now looms larger in the world of persistent, deep archives. He then conflates the subscription model with preventing competitors from stealing content without a license. Actually, most subscription publishers want copyright because recovering the costs of publication (or a large portion of it over the life of the work) aligns their interests with the authors’ interests of having a bigger, more capable organization protecting the integrity of their works. OA publishers only align their interests with the author’s until publication — they address publication costs to their satisfaction through author fees. There is no business reason for an OA publisher to want copyright, because there are no interests to align after publication. In fact, as Carroll points out, Creative Commons licenses help OA publishers save the costs of copyright enforcement, increasing the profitability of their business model. He once again forgets that open access is a business model, preferring to believe it is a morally superior mode despite evidence pointing to feet of clay.

Perhaps the greatest of the many howlers in this editorial by Carroll is his example at the end. It’s a hypothetical situation, and it’s a doozy — an OA publisher has gone out of business; this OA publisher retained copyright rather than using Creative Commons licenses, creating a set of works locked up by copyright; this prevents “a new, for-profit venture [which] sees value in republishing the defunct journal’s content in the new format” from doing so. That’s the hypothetical problem Carroll chooses to clinch his arguments with.

This is such a ludicrous proposition that I’m still laughing about it.

A high percentage of papers are not even cited after publication. Science changes rapidly. If a publisher went out of business, its archive is likely of little inherent value because that means the publisher wasn’t publishing works that sold (for a subscription model) or in a field with an active research community (for an OA model). What “for-profit venture” would value this content after the bankruptcy of the primary publisher? Any smart for-profit venture would want to buy the content and expertise of the struggling publisher — assuming value exists — because only that combination makes business sense. Dead content is dead content, and if it’s also in a defunct field, it’s even less interesting. Content that remains vital via ongoing expert curation and replenishment is what publishers seek.

Perhaps the deepest flaw in Carroll’s editorial is the implicit battle he’s staging against subscription publishers. OA publishers have proven they can make money and thrive, but they do so by providing a service to authors that is qualitatively different than the service traditional publishers provide. There is likely no battle here at all, just non-competing ways to serve different author needs at different times. His gripe seems to be with competitors in the OA space (Springer, Nature), yet he continues to battle subscription publishers in his rhetoric. And this old habit of OA advocates battling traditional publishers — which strikes me as akin to a fast food trade group disparaging more traditional restaurants because they both serve food, forgetting that they don’t compete for the same customer need — limits a full engagement with the realities of publishing today. And being stuck in the past is more constraining than any business model or approach to intellectual property.

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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.


18 Thoughts on "Blinded by Ideology — Open Access Advocate Continues to Fight the Battles of Yesteryear"

Just one point: I believe that the majority of journals in the DOAJ are not author-charging journals and, if so, not all “OA publishers” can be businesses. I can’t speak for all OA publishers, but I publish an OA journal without funding of any kind, relying simply on volunteer labour (which, of course, commercial publishers also rely upon in the case of refereeing) and the host institution for the journal (Lund University). The technology costs are trivial, since the servers, etc. are used for other purposes and the journal management system, OJS, is open source and free.
I agree that the OA publishers that have sprung up to take advantage of author charging are businesses, but, given the quality of their output, I doubt if many of them will survive for very long!

Not charging is also a business model. “Free” is a price. Someone is paying for whatever the costs are, or the road will be short. In your case, Lund University is subsidizing your journal by hosting it — and I doubt the full-on costs are trivial (i.e., if you had to do it elsewhere, it would cost you a pretty penny).

Glad you can do it for minimal direct costs, but just because other people (volunteers, your institution, the open source software community) are bearing your costs, it doesn’t mean you’re not a business.

Before Lund University agreed to host the journal (which is about to enter its 17th year of publication) I did pay for the domain name and the hosting – and the cost WAS trivial. One can get Website hosting with unlimited storage and unlimited traffic in the UK for the equivalent of about $14.00 a year.

I don’t have an institution, being retired, so no institution is bearing my costs.

Of course someone is supporting the journal and, if all parties were to charge, the costs would have to be met. The point is that the academic community supporting the journal has grasped the fact that collaboration and the technology can make those commercial publishers who charge excessive prices, redundant.

I think what annoys me most about this advertorial (would this journal be willing to run an article extolling the economic value of the subscription model?) is that it makes the common mistake of painting all publishers with the same brush. All scholarly publishers are not enormously profitable private corporations. There are subscription publishers that use Creative Commons licenses for published papers (Rockefeller University Press springs to mind).

“…burning the inside of your cerebellum…”? Given its function (compared with the cerebral cortex or the midbrain or the amygdala, for instance), did you choose this portion of the brain on purpose?

It’s associated with language and attention, so it seemed appropriate.

Ah, probably this is one favorite canard. You’re talking about pay-per-view or ala carte article purchasing charges, right? If so, then a little context — publishers set these prices high to encourage subscription, which is much less expensive and also helps sustain the publisher. It’s part of a pricing strategy to make ala carte purchasing disadvantageous to the user. I was talking about per-article pricing within a subscription or license, which is usually quite cheap.

It’s a little deceptive to talk about “per-article pricing within a subscription or license” when most relevant users are accessing resource via their institutional library who do not tend to consider deals based on how many articles they’re getting. The closest thing I ever do is to estimate expected usage (which approximates individual article use) and determine how much each would then cost. For many “Big Deals”, this can still hover around the $30-40 range.

Why do you consider this “deceptive”? It’s a common metric used by librarians in making institutional subscription purchasing (and maintenance) decisions. You are right in that the actual users of the articles are one level removed from the actual financial transaction, but measuring usage and comparing that with costs seems a pretty reasonable metric. Publishers supply librarians with detailed usage reports so rough estimates are unnecessary.

And $40 per article is way beyond the range of the subscription price for journals with which I’m familiar. At that point you’d probably be better served by purchasing individual articles on a pay-per-view basis.

Kent, with all due respect, i think you have missed the main point of the argument that Michael Carroll was trying to make in this statement. He is really addressing the difference between what Peter Suber and others have called “libre” and “gratis” OA where only the former, according to Carroll, qualifies as “full” OA because it does not include any restrictions on reuse rights. Carroll seems to be claiming that using only “gratis” OA somehow impedes the progress of scholarly communication. I don’t think that argument can withstand serious scrutiny, however, because noncommercial reuse is what scholarly communication is all about in journal publishing where royalties are not typically paid to authors. I don’t see how posting to Wikipedia constitutes a “commercial” reuse either. His complaint also is directed here at those big bad commercial publishers we all love to hate, but the truth is that many OA journals that are published on campus and by other noncommercial entities use the CC license that allows authors to retain commercial reuse rights and so why isn’t Carroll criticizing them as well? In those cases, it is not the publishers who hold the reuse rights but the authors themselves. My main complaint is different from Carroll’s: I don;t think the commercial/noncommercial distinction is conceptually clear enough to do the job it is supposed to do. Even Larry Lessig, in one of his books, admitted as much.

Sandy, I definitely agree that that the NC distinction in CC NC licenses is too vague to do its job. But your specific point about Wikipedia misfires; it is a fact that Wikipedia will not accept text or images that have NC licenses attached; Wikipedia content is widely used in commercial contexts.

I’d like to respond to just one point that you make here, Kent:

“The problem hasn’t been per-article pricing, it’s been the fact that the literature online has become more important, causing usage to grow while purchasers (librarians and others) have had a hard time carving out the funds necessary to pay for what their faculty and students need. That’s not inefficient business. That’s ineffective budgeting and funds allocations.”

I’d like to suggest that “efficiency” may itself be a red herring, at least when it comes to the sustainability of the system. A Big Deal (or even a single subscription) is arguably efficient to the degree that it offers users access to high-value articles at a low per-unit cost. But the make-or-break criterion for subscribers, whether institutional or individual, isn’t efficiency; it’s affordability. You can increase the efficiency of a subscription by any of three strategies: 1) increase the content while keeping price constant, 2) increase the content at a rate that outpaces the price increase, or 3) lower the price while either keeping content constant or increasing it. Any of these approaches will increase efficiency. None of them except the third has any bearing on affordability. To say that a product is unaffordable is not necessarily to say either that the product’s price poorly reflects its value or that the seller is operating in bad faith; it’s just to say that the customer can’t afford it.

Of course, what’s unaffordable to one subscriber may be affordable to another. (And you could argue that virtually any scholarly product is “affordable” to the subscriber willing to spend money on nothing but that product.) This brings up your characterization of a subscriber’s inability to keep paying as an example of “ineffective budgeting and funds allocations,” which I think is unrealistic. When the budget is flat and prices are going up by 10% annually, that creates a problem that can’t be fixed by an improved budgeting system. As for allocation: does the university’s failure to give the library as much money as publishers demand represent ineffective fund allocation? If so, then aren’t you implying that meeting journal price increases is always and necessarily the best use of university funds?

To be clear, I’m not defending Carroll’s article, or even the statement that “journal… pricing is inefficient.” Nor am I arguing that efficiency doesn’t matter. I’m only arguing that when it comes to pricing models, efficiency will always be trumped by affordability, and that steep price increases (not failure to budget skillfully or the campus’s failure to give libraries enough funds) are what make it hard for libraries to “(carve) out the funds necessary to pay for what their faculty and students need.”

Fair points, but my point was that while reliance and usage of the scientific literature has increased with online access — and all the conveniences that brings (proxy access from home or while traveling; search and discoverability; reference linking; deep archives) — the budgets for what scholars need hasn’t increased as much as warranted. I worry that administrators are out of touch with their core missions at times, and worry more about showpieces of a university. For instance, I’d be interested to know which other areas of the U of U’s budget since 2001 have increased more than the subscriptions budget. That would help identify priorities over the last decade.

It sure would, and in some cases you and I would probably agree that those priorities are misplaced. On the other hand, I doubt that any area in the university gets a 9-10% budget increase every year, and that’s what it would take for the serials budget just to keep up with its existing science journal subscriptions (let alone ever subscribe to a new title).

I’d be more interested in measuring it in dollars, not percentages. Percentages presume that the baseline possessed the right mix to begin with.

I’m sure if you checked the athletic department budgets at the top research universities that have Div. 1 football teams you’d find both the absolute and percentage increases well exceeding the increases in the subscription budget. Heck, probably just the football coach’s salary increase alone exceeds the increase in the subscription budget! We all know where the real priorities lie….

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