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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- 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.