Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most incisive part of Michael Lewis’ book “Boomerang” is when he observes that Americans have become obsessed with getting something for nothing, spotlighting California as the example of this taken to an extreme, as various propositions over the years have reduced tax revenues while other propositions have increased the obligations of the state to provide services for its citizens. The recent announcement by Governor Jerry Brown that the state’s deficit will be $16 billion instead of the forecasted $9 billion just underscores how ridiculous this imbalanced mindset has become. The fact that this is viewed as a spending problem is even more pathological.

Drive any road in America now, and chances are you will be faced with decay — failing bridge expansion joints, potholes, crumbling shoulders, faded paint, and sporadic lighting. In some cases, streetlights have been taken out of entire towns in an effort to save money. Yet, in aggregate, Americans are spending $25 billion more on new tires, broken axles, and alignment problems than previously, more than any tax increase for proper roads would cost.  We are truly paying for our cheapness.

The Federal government is also being penny wise but pound foolish, with two recent examples coming to light — one to cut the collection of census data pertaining to how people work and live, and the other pertaining to cuts to the collection of economic data.

For those who think ignorance is bliss, shutting down data collection on people and the economy is clearly an attempt to restore bliss.

The recent outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) in Washington state is another example of what happens when you’re short-sighted and cheap — a few thousand people get sick, it costs $400 per individual to test for the illness, and the money you saved on vaccinations a few years ago now seems like a small amount compared to the direct costs in medical care, lost tourism, and missed work, not to mention the agony of small children, perhaps the most shameful cost of all. As one physician involved said:

Do you know how much vaccination you can buy for half a million dollars? It’s an outrageous way to spend your health care dollar.

Our town just considered building a new fire station. The current one is more than 120 years old. The cost for the new station at its peak will be $10/month/resident, an amount that will slowly decline over 20 years. Yet our town center hosted protesters wearing sandwich boards against the tax hike. Do they not recall the stories of American homes burned to the ground because of similar skinflint tax attitudes that left these residents too self-reliant to have a fire department? Predictably, the measure failed, and this in a state that has successfully tied taxation with social benefits in a way that not only makes it a great place to live (and live longer), but also to do better economically than most. The cheap bug is increasingly prevalent.

And we turn to scholarly publishing, where the “how low can you go” mindset has become a drumbeat within industry for the past decade. The Elsevier boycott is a complaint about pricing. The recent announcement of PeerJ is just another example of the mindset that publishing can be dramatically cheaper.

It certainly can. Remove the lawyers, marketers, managers, editors, technologists, bibliographers, market researchers, agents, sales people, accountants, copy editors, production staff, HR personnel, aggregators, search engines, administrators, financial staff, governance bodies, database administrators, UI/UX experts, consultants, licenses, archives, paper, ink, post office, health insurance, heat, lights, and salaries, and you can make this all very inexpensive indeed.

But how good is it likely to be?

I don’t like wasteful spending any more than the next person, and have led many initiatives to ratchet down on it over the years. But cost-cutting is a delicate operation in most cases, requiring an appreciation of systems both observable and intrinsic. Where to cut, how to cut, and when to cut are questions to always ask, but not without asking where to grow, how to grow, and when to grow. If you are only asking one type of question, you’re probably not thinking very hard.

A major challenge I see lurking in our midst is the motivation to move inexorably and only to cheaper.

The drive for less expense may have already spawned some consequences — a proliferation of secondary journals, a reduction in stringent quality control at various levels in order to preserve margins in the face of inelastic pricing, experimentation with models that draw money from other parts of the academic or research budgets and thereby potentially affect the amount and longevity of ongoing research grants, or a flood of barely interesting papers that leads to more churn and undertow in the scientific record and slows the journey from bench to bedside.

Cheapness has consequences in the long run. We all end up paying for it somehow. And cheapness has a funny way of being expensive.

I will return to the themes I see as important this year — the observations that much of what we’ve published can’t be replicated; the increasing number of serial retractions; the 20-year trend showing that library budgets have been reduced while university revenues have increased; and the marginalization of science in the world through the relatively lower salaries and less certain career paths PhDs have to contemplate because of academic centers only willing to offer soft-money positions. These are the results of what we’ve sown — cheaper is not better; cheaper is not more reliable; and cheaper is not more sustainable.

You can save yourself poor as a business or an industry.

In our culture at large, we are currently letting a fringe political group undercut major portions of our civilization — education, roads, vaccines, public safety — to save a few bucks in the short-term. These people will vanish like smoke when it’s time to account for the costs their savings incurred, from unproductive workers, to banged up cars, to sick kids, to homes lost.

There is an analog in our professional world — people who come in and demand that things be cheaper, can be cheaper, will be cheaper, and who are willing to lower standards to achieve this. Yet, there are other important questions we should be asking beyond just, “How cheap can scholarly publishing be?” A few examples we might consider:

  • How well can a published work reflect the actual findings and experimental techniques?
  • Is this really a publishable advance? Do we learn anything?
  • How reliable is the report going to be for others to follow?
  • Are these robust, interesting, and useful findings?
  • Is the report truly as unbiased as possible?
  • Was the hypothesis stated prior to enrollment so patients weren’t part of a fishing expedition?
  • How good can we be?

Before we accept the blunt and relatively uninformed question of, “How inexpensive can a journal be?” we should contemplate other dimensions of what we do — trust, quality, relevance, importance, reliability, and sustainability.

Everything else is a cheap shot.

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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.


22 Thoughts on "The Race to the Bottom — Data, Pertussis, Roads, Fires, and Scholarly Publishing"

These are the results of what we’ve sown — cheaper is not better; cheaper is not more reliable; and cheaper is not more sustainable.

But there’s also the other side of the coin. Sometimes — more expensive is not better; more expensive is not more reliable; and more expensive is not more sustainable. Sometimes more expensive is just more expensive.

Look at the big picture of an economy. We have all the ills of cost cutting that you enumerate.
We have stagnant or declining real incomes for most people, and yet we have booming profits for mega-corporations and sky-rocketing income for the 0.001%.

The problem is that the economy no longer bears any relationship to cost or value. It is simple a power war in which the winners accumulate power to enable them to win more.

And here’s you. Are you part of the problem? You defend repeatedly the value of your scholarly publications, but as long as the price of your subscription reflects the value of content that you get for free (and others pay for), you are part of the problem. I’m not saying you are part of the 0.001% – you are part of the superstructure that holds up the 0.001%. You are doing what you must do – you are defending your part.

Your attempt at rhetorical equivalence fails when it comes to practical applications — that is, higher prices are always subjected to scrutiny while lower prices too often get a free pass. More expensive is not necessarily better, but because it is a price increase, the value proposition is analyzed before the higher price is accepted. You have to EARN a higher price. You don’t have to earn a lower price. That’s one point of this post — if you’re offered a lower price for something, what other prices now or later might you pay?

The economy no longer bears any relationship to cost or value? That’s pretty extreme. Major sectors of our financial world need to be snapped back to reality, that’s for sure. As for your tired and unrealistic statements that we’re getting content for free that others paid for so we’re part of the problem, I hope you’ve been paying attention to the recent weeks here where we’ve talked about the ESSENTIAL economic reality that the information scientists have is not valuable to them at all until it’s published — it is non-rival and non-excludable. Publication with a journal or in a book that sets the date and places the work in the ecosystem makes the information rival and excludable — it turns it into priority and prestige, which is the coin of the academic research realm. And guess what? We don’t charge authors anything for that where I work. They pay nothing. We assume all the risk for them, and hope to earn the money we’ve spent rejecting lesser works, beating their work into shape, and distributing it. If readers don’t consistently find something worth paying for in what we publish, they stop paying, and we fail. That seems like a very healthy way to match cost to value — one that charges nobody in the production cycle anything for what they get out of it (which is far more usually than what they put in), and earns subscription dollars from readers who value the product. I think you need a re-think.

I think understand basic economics adequately well — at least that part that has a sound rational basis. Free markets under competition do as you say: they match price to value and to cost. The problem is where there is no effective competition. Without competition price is set by market power not value. You are right here comes point where the customer wont pay, but long before that there are prices higher than a competitive market would produce and often no relationship to cost.

“The economy no longer bears any relationship to cost or value? That’s pretty extreme. ” There’s a website being valued in its IPO at about $100B. It’s product is so valuable it is given away for free.
The website’s stated value is that it does “self-served advertising”. Advertising as industry is huge break between cost, value and price. I’d that was all a pretty good example of what I’m getting at.

I do not think the main reason for the resurgence of certain preventable diseases is parents (or other healthcare funders) being too tight-fisted to pay for vaccinations.

The main reason is ignorance, but costs factor in — Colorado has seen vaccination rates drop because they are seen as too expensive, so they aren’t taken or supported, either at the individual level or at the state level; the new Affordable Care Act would mean that co-pays and deductibles would be waived for vaccines, a cost that drives a lot of low-income people away from routine vaccination, especially tetanus and childhood vaccines. It may not be a main reason for most, but it’s a main reason for some and a secondary reason for some more — and soon, the herd effect is hobbled.

Regarding pertussis, readers may want to consider that, according to the CDC, Washington State has the highest rate of vaccine exemptions in the U.S. While you can blame the government for its failure to intervene, the current whooping cough resurgence as detailed in this piece is a direct result of failed prevention driven by misinformed parents. That’s what’s ‘most shameful of all.’

Agreed. But “misinformed parents” happened for reasons having to do with underfunded public health agencies and health care that’s perceived as expensive and dangerous. And this happens in an affluent state in an affluent nation?

The rising exemption rates are not a consequence of failed government or lack of funding but rather a social fear originating from the Wakefield paper a decade ago. Not a good example for your point.

I find it odd that anything should be blamed on “mis-informed parents”.We have a system in which the powerful exercise and maintain their power by ensuring that the population is mis-informed and incapable of critical thinking or making informed rational decisions .. we have powerful, well-funded operations to discredit science – we have an entire profession dedicated to winning arguments regardless of their merits and industries whose mission is to convince people of truth of whatever their paymasters want them to believe and who can, at the very least, muddy any issue.. and then we blame the population for their inability to make informed rational decisions!

What’s more, the issue of whether to take a vaccination isn’t as clear-cut as suggested here. Taking a vaccine has risks to the taker, just as not taking the vaccine has risks to the population as a whole. Which risk is greater requires knowledge of real facts. However the “best” solution for an individual is almost always for everyone else to take the vaccine while foregoing the vaccine oneself. Thereby you get virtually all the benefit, without any personal risks. But, of course, such a decision would be deprecated as selfish. We should all bear our share of the risks, for the greater good, right?

Consider a somewhat analogous situation. In the face of predicted economic malaise – a recession – companies race to layoff workers – a process specifically designed to ensure the predicted hardship falls upon those who carefully selected as the least able to carry the burden, while protecting the dividends, share price and bonuses of the executives and investors – those most able to carry the burden. Just as in the vaccine case – where everybody taking the selfish decision leads to the worst possible case – the layoffs cause a reduction in demand and the prediction of recession becomes self-fulfilling.

Shouldn’t companies take the “greater good” action rather than the “selfish” action? If companies hired workers in the face of predicted recession – so the executives and investors (those most able to carry the burden) carried the risk of a real recession — then demand would be boosted and the recession might not happen. Everyone would benefit – particularly executives and investors who took the risk.

But the suggestion that companies should act “for the greater good [of companies]” is heretical, whereas we expect individuals to do so.

Before we accept the blunt and relatively uninformed question of, “How inexpensive can a journal be?” we should contemplate other dimensions of what we do — trust, quality, relevance, importance, reliability, and sustainability.

Everything else is a cheap shot.

What about accessibility? What happens to academia and industry when only richer schools and libraries from wealthier towns can afford to provide journal access to their students and citizens? Right now the vast majority of the population is cut off from learning about and contributing to scholarly work, which isn’t just bad for the population but for scientific progress as well.

Is that a “cheap shot”?

When you ask “What about accessibility?”, I feel compelled to respond. I think it fair to say that in the age of print, the large wealthy universities had much larger libraries than the smaller, poorer colleges. And the public had little access at all unless they happened to live near a university or college with a library walk-in policy. Most members of the public and those on smaller campuses had to make do with interlibrary loan for materials held elsewhere. And even interlibrary loan was not going to work if you did not have access to good indexing resources. The 21st century, by astounding contrast, has most scientific content indexed on Google (Google Books, Google Scholar), and other services, freely available to the computer-literate. And these items are typically readable online down through the level of the abstract. If you do need to resort to interlibrary loan, it is at least a very well researched loan you can request. It is also the case that through publisher programs relating to eBooks and e-journals, college and university libraries both large and small can have full text access to far more than they could ever afford in the print world. Further, with the steady rise of the open access publishing model, we see more and more content coming online for everyone. The problems I hear most about today relate to too much access to too much material, not the other way around. For this type of problem, we need to be continuously working on new types of discovery tools, high selectivity in what is published, and perhaps an alternative to the tenure process that encourages publication of incremental “least publishable unit” research.

To turn the discussion toward books again (since this blog generally focuses way too much on STM journals and ignores the rest of scholarly publishing), let me give you an example of a struggle I had as director of a university press that always had to be very conscious about expenses. I earned my spurs in university press publishing at one that had extremely high production and design standards, Princeton University Press, which even hung on to its own printing plant for quality-control reasons long after it became economically inefficient to do so (giving it up only in the early 1990s). PUP was a major art history publisher, and that was one reason for the high standards. I became director at another press, Penn State, whose strongest list was art history. I could have saved a lot of money by abandoning that field and lowering the quality of production for other books significantly. (We made some concessions on cost by, e.g., having most of our art books printed in China, sacrificing speed to publication but maintaining high quality at lower cost.) Over the long haul, however, I took a calculated risk that maintaining a reputation for high standards would benefit the press more in the long run by attracting more authors of the first rank to publish with our press compared with others whose production standards were lower. I feel confident that this bet paid off. So, there may be circumstances where going the cheap route is not always going to be the best way to run your business and maximize your profits.

Two points:

The Elsevier boycott was about more than pricing as you surely know.

Published biomedical research has never scored very well against the criteria of trust, quality, relevance, importance, reliability, and sustainability.

I think you’re wrong. If you read the post that started the Elsevier boycott, the first point is, “It charges very high prices — so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it.” The next two points are about how they “get away with it.” There is one point about SOPA/PIPA. So, 75% of it was about pricing, and I think it was more than that in essence, if you read the post and many of the follow-ups. What evidence do you have otherwise?

As to your other point, you apparently believe the scientific record is of little interest because it can’t be trusted, is of low quality, has no relevance, is not important, is unreliable, and will never last. I can’t agree with that point, either.

“We are truly paying for our cheapness.” As a California resident, I would be happy to pay a tax increase that would go to improved road maintenance. However, any tax increase–even one specifically declared as being specifically for road maintenance–would end up being sent to former policemen who recieve more in yearly pension than I do after ten years of rocket-science-ing, who do not live in the state where they worked, who paid for their house and their car with cash, and who did it all before age fifty-five.

Hello Kent,
I agree with your line of thoughts that someone should pay for the quality, robustness, bias, etc. But I think it is hard to argue that everything published in the current system has those attributes you praise… Therefore, may be there is a way to do it 1) cheaper or 2) the same cost, but better (increasing the percentage of interesting, useful and unbiased findings, reproduceable experiments, etc.)

This is the problem, though — cheaper or the same cost get a pass. The system of scholarly information has become more complex, and needs more work to make it better. There are more conflicts of interest, not fewer. There are more authors and more papers, making more sorting work for everyone. There are more specialized studies and areas of knowledge, meaning more specialists have to be recruited and organized to help, and that’s not easy or cheap. There may be a way to do it cheaper or at the same cost, but I don’t think it’s likely. Why isn’t it reasonable to anticipate that a system growing in complexity, increasing in value, involving more people, and requiring higher quality would cost more?

I agree not everything published now has the qualities we want. That argues against either cheaper or the same cost being reasonable results of improvement.

I can testify that expensive certainly certainly doesn’t buy truth and/or accuracy. I had gotten interested in an article in an Elsevier biomedical journal. I thought the paper sounded a bit odd — well, actually, more like totally bogus — and did some research on the author. In the paper, the author claimed he was a “PhD” and that his “research institute” was affiliated with a university. It took little effort to ascertain that the individual did not have a “PhD” and that, in all likelihood, he had never even attended college. And the university to which he claimed affiliation denied such.

So I emailed the editor of the journal with what I had discovered and she politely said she would turn it over to someone else who was responsible for such matters. That was six or so months ago. Nothing has happened so far. The paper is still there and the editor hasn’t responded to any subsequent inquiries.

Anyone reasonably knowledgeable will recognize the absurdity of the paper and the overall consequence of its existence is likely nil. Nevertheless, you would think the editor would feel some responsibility for the integrity of the journal and take some action to prevent use of fake credentials to promote ideas and gain publication. Not to mention that, in this case, the article is also being used to promote the sale of a medical device by the manufacturer pointing out publication of the article in a respected medical journal!

So, no, this experience has taught me that expensive definitely does NOT translate into accurate and reliable.

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