“Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back”

I recently finished a book entitled, “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.” It’s a fascinating insight into how the digital revolution, which was meant to spawn a resurgent era of artistic and creative productivity, has instead turned into an exploitative decade with technology companies and “free content” advocates undercutting the very foundations of what the author, Robert Levine, calls “the culture business.” The result? Droves of dispirited, underfunded, and beleaguered artists, authors, editors, reporters, critics, performers, musicians, and creative businesses in their wake.

The story begins with the Internet, of course — a US government-funded invention that, with the introduction of the graphical browser, was imagined in the 1990s to be capable of paying back its investment with a more vibrant creative economy, one that would generate jobs by the thousands as consumption and creation reinforced each other in new and bigger ways, and as American culture was exported around the world. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was created to construct a legal environment that would balance the needs of creators and consumers in the Internet Age.

An interview with Bruce Lehman, the Commission of the Patent and Trademark Office under President Clinton, starts to show how forced compromises like the “safe harbor” provisions, compromises driven through by high-stakes lobbying from technology companies and technology trade groups, had unintended consequences for culture businesses:

Our intention was not that the music business would be flat on its back and many other industries we wanted to promote would be in trouble. . . . Unfortunately, at least in some areas, our policies haven’t worked out too well.

A key compromise that gave pirates and technology companies a relatively open field was the safe habor provision, which allows technology companies to exploit copyrighted materials in a manner that put the onus on media, music, and publishing companies to track down infringers, and then makes it difficult to enforce copyright beyond intervening on one site before trying to track them down again on another.

But this gaping hole wasn’t enough, and technology companies have worked hard to erode the rights environment that allowed artists, editors, agents, and others to thrive to mutual benefit. In fact, the fundamentals of the tale emerge as technology companies undermine intellectual property laws by funding and supporting the rhetoric of “free” and “open” — all of which benefits their business model. This required painting music companies, publishers, and copyright itself as anti-freedom, anti-innovation, and anti-openness. The result has been:

. . . a race to the bottom, and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts — first in staff, then in ambition, and finally in quality.

Sound familiar? It should. The same rhetoric has been used within scholarly publishing for over a decade, while new, technology-dependent companies like BioMed Central, PLoS, and PeerJ have emerged in our space, racing to the bottom themselves in various ways while eroding copyright protections. Most significantly, none of these three entities currently cycles little or no financial benefits back into the academic or research community. And the ultimate version of “open” in our domain — “green OA” — exploits the infrastructure of traditional scholarly publishers — after all, the vast majority of manuscripts are written to be submitted to traditional paid journals — while creating a price point that can only lead to market failure.

Perhaps the most salient line of Levine’s book is:

The product isn’t the problem.

This simple sentence kept echoing through the reporting, a backdrop to the facts Levine lays out. People like and want the music, movies, news reporting, scholarly articles, and photographs created by popular musicians, movie studios, newspapers, scholarly publishers, and professional photographers. Usage is higher than ever, but not as high as it could be. Nor is it making the people responsible for it more secure and more ambitious. The power envisioned for the Web to stimulate the creative culture is there — consumption grew, as did the rate of creation. The problem is that customers have been taught by technology companies not to pay for content. To increase their profit margins, technology companies have been methodically weakening copyright laws and enforcement mechanisms and propagating the “free” meme. After all, it drives down their costs to do so — and that increases their profits.

Levine’s book follows the money, and there is plenty of it flowing to undermine copyright laws, their enforcement, and public attitudes about traditional media and publishing companies. There are eye-opening sections about Lawrence Lessig, whose work has been funded directly and indirectly by Google for years; about Stanford and how Google influences it; about Creative Commons, which both depends on copyright and weakens it, much to the delight of its funders — Google, Microsoft, eBay, Best Buy, and the Consumer Electronics Association, all of whom have a vested interest in reducing prices for content so they can sell more technology and technology services.

Looking at Creative Commons’ finances via 990 forms, it’s clear that the organization has no real revenue model, but is funded by organizations interested in modifying the rights environment, and for obvious reasons. Of course, Lessig serves on the board, as do the business development manager at YouTube, and major investors in Flickr and other open Web businesses. As Levine writes:

Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline. That’s why the company spends millions of dollars lobbying to weaken copyright.

Levine uses the term “parasite” to describe the companies that exploit creative companies without compensation, and he uses it in an informed fashion, harkening back to its original meaning in Greek:

The term “parasite” comes from the Greek word parasitos, used to refer to someone who at at someone else’s table without providing anything in return.

This “providing something in return” aspect is particularly important to track. Even attempts by Apple to return money to artists have fallen generally short, as per-song purchases don’t compare to full album purchases, and the share of revenues are generally smaller and don’t fund the value chain of artist development and risk. In addition, technology companies are notoriously stingy with customer data, which is vital to knowing your audience and charting a course forward.

We are seeing a similar set of tensions in scholarly publishing. For instance, even the oft-maligned Elsevier provides something in return to the 500 or so professional and scientific societies contracting for Elsevier services. But the “providing something in return” goes much further once you get beyond the commercial publishers — most scholarly publishers are part of professional societies or universities, many organizations depend on revenues from these publishing activities, and scientific communication itself is strong and vibrant because these publishers and organizations are well-funded through self-reinforcing systems. But the new breed of technology-driven and copyright-disdaining publishers — BioMed Central, PLoS, F1000, Bentham, and dozens of others — return little or no revenues to the scholarly table; in fact, they have reached more deeply into the larder by going directly after research funds. They are not only at the table, they are raiding the pantry. And research funding is the core creative funding in science.

A number of these publishers also come from the Silicon Valley technology-first world. There is a reason PLoS is headquartered in Palo Alto and had major involvement from Stanford people at the beginning. There is a reason why PeerJ also has started there, and has venture capital funding from other technology advocates. The lineage is quite discernible, and technophilia is, as well. As BioMed Central writes on its “What is BioMed Central?” page:

. . . restriction of access to published research prevents full use being made of digital technologies.

Yet, as Levine points out, digital technologies do not predetermine “free” or “open,” and advocates of such positions have a definite reason for their advocacy, one driven by financial interests in most cases. Clearly, BMC, PLoS, and the like are in favor of OA because they have found not only a way to make it profitable, but also because they don’t have to return anything much to the community they’ve drawn the money from. Ain’t technology great?

Levine’s book is worth reading for many reasons — it makes sense of why the music industry is suffering, why movies aren’t suffering as badly yet, and why publishers of all types are now struggling. Controversies like the Google Books non-settlement, the Napster case and its spawn (with a particularly funny note about how Kazaa invoked copyright to stop another company from making a derivative copyright-violation system), the role of Amazon, and the real reason newspapers have suffered so much — all are covered clearly and framed well.

The fundamental lesson is that we have a battle between the “open” Web and the “closed” Web — between Google and Apple, between technology and creativity. Both sides have financial interests at stake. The difference is that the technology companies don’t support artists and the creative communities they utilize, while the media companies create incentives for the content creators, rewarding them with more splash, more cash, more exposure, and more prominence. The culture companies help to perpetuate whatever culture is theirs, and they do so in tangible financial ways. The technology companies exploit cultures and return little or nothing.

Perhaps the most insidious consequence is how expectations have shifted. Levine notes that while Lessig damns Walt Disney for being “derivative,” he fails to note that Disney paid to license all the ideas he borrowed for some of his movies — he was willing to pay to play, and treated the creators of the ideas fairly, abiding by copyright willingly. Everyone benefited. Now, copyright is viewed as anti-freedom, and increasingly disdained as outmoded, superfluous, even stifling.

This mindset is distinctly counterproductive when it comes to the creative work of editors and publishers, to take one example. I’ve seen the effects of this first-hand. Not too long ago, I was involved in the development of a new product idea. We held a focus group. The participants in the focus group really loved the product. It was just what they wanted because there was a need for a high-end information source of the type we’d created — a smarter, more thorough, more polished product than anything on the market. The excitement was palpable. But then we asked about paying for it. The youngest participant went off on a short rant about how he shouldn’t have to pay for any content any more, and so he wouldn’t pay for this. Others were less absolute, but admitted they don’t pay for many content sources anymore, and kind of feel that access to content has become assumed. It was clear that higher quality — despite the fact that it meets a customer need — isn’t a viable business proposition. This is a real problem. Creatives can’t even provide the audience with new and better experiences because the technology companies have eroded the ethos and incentives at the heart of content and creative businesses.

This imbalance between content consumption and supporting content creators and their sponsors was beautifully/sickeningly captured in a recent discussion about an NPR intern who claimed she had 11,000 songs in her music library but had only purchased 15 CDs in her life. As the respondent to her observations about how “inconvenient” it was to buy music put it:

The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:

Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?

Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

I am genuinely stunned by this.

You see how this phrase I quoted earlier — “The product isn’t the problem” — comes up again and again. People love the products of our culture businesses. They are just confused about where they comes from, who makes them, what it takes to make them, and how incentives work in both the short- and long-terms. And technology companies have created the illusion that culture and information should be free, or so cheap that it might as well be. This isn’t sustainable. Already, some creative industries are teetering on the edge of oblivion.

As Levine writes, a market failure is something that rewards behavior that will eventually be bad for the endeavor in general. File-sharing is a market failure. Free online news is a market failure. In all cases, the initiatives deplete, take, and exploit a creative world they do not share in. Sadly, they are probably crippling the exact thing they believe they are making stronger — by draining away financial incentives and advocating a race to the bottom. Levine ends his book with an observation that has a touch of plea to it:

The current situation is slowly robbing the Internet of its potential. Rather than encourage innovation and excellence, it rewards cost-cutting and crowdsourcing. . . . In a functioning market, online media would get better, not just cheaper. And this, in turn, would fuel growth of more technology companies. This wouldn’t break the Internet; it would help it live up to its potential.

Of course, Levine offers some solutions — some of which seem pretty familiar and have been known to work. But to read about those, I suggest you buy the book. After all, that’s part of the solution.

[Corrections: BioMed Central does have society publishing partners of various kinds — some that endorse journals published there, some that are of the more traditional type. My estimate is that approximately 16% of BMC journals have a society affiliation. I apologize for getting that wrong by speaking in absolute terms. Also, PLoS has started a couple of journals with society affiliations, as well. Again, I apologize for not knowing about these and for speaking in absolute terms. The text has been amended to reflect the spirit of these corrections. However, the overriding points remain regarding Creative Commons’ erosion of copyright in practice, the diminution of the value of scholarly publishing at the hands of technology companies, and models that reach directly into research funds for their sustenance.]

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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.


144 Thoughts on "Review: "Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back""

Are you out of your freaking mind? This is one of the most ridiculous, repulsive, things I have seen on this site, and that says a lot.

You accuse PLoS and other OA publishers of not returning anything to the research community? How about, oh, you know, SCIENCE.

You think the trivial amounts of money (really bribes) Elsevier funnels to scientific societies while they siphon billions of dollars of public funds into their own coffers every year is the moral position, while PLoS – a non-profit whose sole goal is to make the scientific literature available to as wide an audience as possible – is acting immorally? Give me a break.

Not at all. Science is published by an association of scientists, and any surplus it generates goes back into the scientific community, either directly or indirectly. Elsevier and other commercial publishers of the traditional type contract with organizations to publish their journals, and returns significant funds to them, likely far more than they could working independently. And they do this through budgets created and set aside to provide access and subscriptions to researchers — library budgets, department budgets, corporate budgets, and so forth. They do not do this (much, if at all) by accessing research budgets. These are not “public funds” per se. These are private funds, and ones set aside specifically to purchase content, thereby rewarding content businesses that keep the money in the family.

OA publishers I describe have stopped “swimming in the lane” of subscription budgets, and are now directly accessing research funding, the most vital part of creative funding in science. PLoS may be a not-for-profit, but so far, it has kept all of its surpluses, and there is no link to a large cadre of scientists I know of. Right now, PLoS, BMC, F1000, and others seem to be diverting research funds to their own coffers while returning nothing tangible to the community. Sorry, that’s the way I see it.

First, let’s let the record show that you do not consider making the results of research freely available to the entire world something tangible.

Research budgets and the budgets that pay for subscriptions are separate only in the most narrow/technical senses. As you know (but choose to ignore) a large fraction of that money comes directly from granting agencies in the form of overhead, and virtually all of the rest comes from sources that support research (universities, for example). Thus this money is coming from the same overall pool of money as research funds. So to somehow suggest that OA is drawing money from research budgets while subscription publishers are not is patently ridiculous.

PLoS is investing much of its surplus into new tools to make the publishing and post-publication process better and more efficient. Plus last time I looked, the AAAS and the Massachusetts Medical Society had FAR larger positive balance sheets than PLoS – are you going to accuse them of siphoning off public funds too?

Making research results free isn’t tangible. It’s not creating new funds for research, and in fact, it’s devaluing science publications to a market failure price point.

Research budgets and subscription budgets are separate. If subscription budgets go away, they won’t likely go to plump up research budgets. They have just as much chance of going to support the football team at a university.

As to the last paragraph, PLoS is investing in its own business, which is predicated on taking funds from research budgets. AAAS and MMS and others have positive balances, but these are generated from subscription budgets — and then controlled by academics who use these funds to give grants to young researchers, conduct research for members, advocate for science funding and medical research, and so forth. The money doesn’t come from research budgets, and goes back into academic uses and remains under control of academics and physicians.

Making research results free is tangible, especially for those of us at small institutions with limited budgets and limited access to the literature. Every time I want to quickly and legally read a paper in a paywalled journal like Cretaceous Research or Journal of Morphology, I can shell out $35+ for limited-time access to the PDF, hope the authors respond to an email request for the paper, or waste time trying to find a copy elsewhere. This is all a time and money investment by me, contrasting with the 3 seconds it takes to point my browser to an OA journal or repository web page and download the article. The saved time and money goes directly back into my research – effectively creating funds for my research program where there weren’t before. I can spend the $35 to pay a fossil preparator, or use the saved 15 minutes of time (and three days of waiting) to move my research forward. When my article is published in an OA journal, it means that a not-insignificant percentage of my colleagues can just read the article, rather than having to invest their own time writing to me for a copy. These are all very tangible and immediate impacts.

You not paying doesn’t return any money to the organizations that created the venue, incentives, or prestige mechanisms for the publication, and disincentivizes improvements in quality, scope, or improvements. You are participating in a market failure. It’s called “saving yourself poor.” Scholarly publishing becomes smaller, less ambitious, less able to experiment, less adaptable, more prone to cronyism and abuse, etc. All so you can save a few bucks? Nice.

As for time efficiency, that again isn’t tangible. What I think people are worried about, myself included, is that the grants will become smaller, fewer, so no matter what amount of time you have, your funding will be reduced. Then you really might have some time on your hands.

“Making research results free isn’t tangible. It’s not creating new funds for research, and in fact, it’s devaluing science publications to a market failure price point.”

That depends entirely on what market you’re talking about. If you are thinking about the market in scholarly publishing subscriptions, then yes, open access is driving it to failure. But if you’re thinking of the market in science then the drive towards zero price is the only acceptable definition of success.

The price for “open access” is still there — it’s just a price for access to a publisher, which is what an author processing charge (APC) represents. As has been said before, an OA publisher is still selling access — to editors, brands, citations, prestige, and primacy. There is no “zero price” here at all. The problem that’s emerging is that the funding to pay the new price is coming from research budgets and going to organizations that are not integral to the scholarly community in the same way even Elsevier or Lippincott is, nevermind AAAS, OUP, CUP, Rockefeller, or others.

Thanks, Kent, you’ve done justice to Levine’s book with your review. It is a good read and articulates well what the culture business should have been making clearer for the past 30 years.

Nevertheless, “culture” is a broad umbrella, and under it, the technology companies have returned new tools for our craft. In the early days of the Web, there was always an argument over whether the content holder (the traffic magnet) or the technology provider should pay to display (the new “advertising” space benefiting content). The ebook business struggled to get off the ground. Wonderful as the technology seemed and promised to be, access to the content was essential, and Microsoft, Adobe, netLibrary, ebrary, Questia, PeanutPress, RocketBook, Softbook et al. did pay to play in the end. My point is that you may be over-egging Levine’s pudding. He has a strong argument as it is.

You cite David Lowery’s response on The Trichordist to Emily White, the NPR intern who blogged about her music collection downloaded from pirate sites. While I, too, felt that Lowery’s response was logical, it is worth noting the backlash if only to understand the depth of feeling that the “free culture” movement has engendered. If you can stomach it, check out the “arguments” at Techdirt:
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120619/11493419390/david-lowery-wants-pony.shtml. These range from assertions that Lowery’s statistics about the decline in payments to artists are bogus, to rants on how “IP piracy is not theft because the IP owner still has the original,” to mere profanity and name-calling.

Another excellent book to read alongside Robert Levine’s is Adrian Johns’ “Piracy,” where the author records the same level of heat in the debate over IP in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. With the arguments of both books in hand, what is worrying is how hard the pendulum is now swinging against the individual who seeks to pursue a benefit from intellectual property.

The “Mickey Mouse” legislation, SOPA and RWA were counterproductive tools to use in the ongoing effort to bring the pendulum to an equitable equilibrium. Some combination of Levine’s and Johns’ suggestions might prove a more effective response. So a seconding of your advice: everyone, read these books!

If the “content is fine”, why don’t scientific publishers pay the people who actually produce it, like publishers of books and music do? Why not pay reviewers? Who exactly is being parasitic here?

As has been explained here a number of times recently, researchers have something — research results — that has no economic value to them before it is published. It is non-rival (anyone else can generate the same information, and may do so before publication) and non-excludable (and you can’t stop them). By publishing it, the researcher gains priority (I found it first) and prestige (it was important enough to publish in Journal X). This is when the information becomes economically viable for them. Third-party validation is vital to this value being truly realized, and publishers provide that in a manner that is truly symbiotic. There is no parasitism here.

Reviewers also review for prestige and priority, but in a slightly different way. There is the prestige of being a reviewer, and the “priority” is the ability to see some research pre-publication.

And the quote is, “The product isn’t the problem.” The “product” of scholarly publishing is very different and much more subtle than a song. It involves priority, prestige, and publication.

By your logic, an unpublished book or song has an equally zero economic value, except for the fact that publishers may be willing to pay for it. This is an accident of history, not a justification for a business model.

An unpublished book or song does have zero economic value. There is no financial aspect to it. What are you trying to say?

Only that your point does not address my argument. Publishers do provide value, and I do not dispute that. But they would also have zero value without content. They do not pay authors except perhaps like prestige and priority, which are not ‘tangible’. By the logic of your reply to Mike Eisen, they must then characterized as parasitic. I would guess you would have to say that most societies are similarly parasitic, as they tend to provide extremely limited funds for research back to their members, and otherwise mostly intangible benefits to the scholarly community. So the funds that they receive from the publishers should not count as ‘tangible’ either.

(Of course, the whole ‘tangible’ distinction is irrelevant, as it has no particular bearing on economic value.)

“Prestige” and “priority” are as tangible as anything. Do you think a researcher would find no distinction between “Researcher, A. My important discovery. Nature; 2012” versus “Researcher, A. My important discovery. Cardiovascular Ultrasound; 2012”? That a tenure committee, future research funders, or another institution looking for a hot-shot researcher would see no difference? That no financial benefits would soon accrue, through better grants, more lab space, a tenure position, or other benefits for publication at that level?

There is no need to pay authors because authors get rewards in other ways. One could argue that authors use journals. That’s symbiosis — both succeed together. Parasitism is taking without giving back, and the specific type at issue here is taking from research funds — which fund the “creatives” in science — and stuffing those into for-profit organizations (or, in the case of PLoS, a not-for-profit with no clear mechanism for returning those funds to the scientific community, all while using the Silicon Valley playbook to erode copyright and shift to an environment that will make improvements less likely).

Prestige and priority are tangible, but access is not? If that is the basis of your argument, I give up.

Free access returns nothing tangible to science or scientists, because it’s paid for by research funds, which is what funds creative science. So, there you go. It’s tangible in that it takes.

Since the late 90’s I have collected free e-journals. Now I have more than 16.000 mostly in the humanities and social sciences. That makes tha more than 3.000 are of highest quality in accordance with Bradley’s Law (80/20) exactly the same proportion as in the Big commercial
packages. The difference is that here you can find journals from the Third World not just from
the Western countries. Free e-journals is the way to truly global science and scholarship.
Like it or not, but I do.

Music is created by musicians.
Photographs are created by photographers.
Scholarly articles are created by scholarly publishers.
And all this time I thought it was scholars! Thanks for clearing that up, Kent.

You’re missing the point — scholarly articles are created by scholars, funded by research grants and research funding. Currently, OA is positioned to siphon these creative funds away to publishers, some of whom (BMC, PLoS, F1000) have no mechanisms for returning these funds to the community they’ve been taken from. Traditional publishers draw on funds created to pay for access by and large, and only slightly on research funds, and only then under special circumstances — in addition, most traditional scholarly publishers are kith and kin with research communities.

Do you really think it’s a better publishing situation when publishers are directly taking research funds and keeping them for themselves? That’s what the biggest of the new breed of OA publishers seem to be doing. Research funds are the creative funds of science. Traditional publishers generally leave these alone, or return their surpluses to these through society or association or academic budgets.

And where do you think subscription fees are coming from? Thin air? We all benefit from publicly funded research and we all pay for it in one way or another whether it is collected as an APC or a subscription fee. Indirect rates on federally funded grants run about 50% and are paid to institutions for research infrastructure. Some of it actually trickles down to library budgets. It cost the same to publish a paper whether it is paid on the front end or the back end. The difference is it is a lot easier to access it when it is OA and costs nothing more. That holds true for researchers as well as the public as Andy Farke nicely pointed out above.

No, subscription fees come from subscription budgets, which are usually separate from research budgets.

Remember, there is no “open access” — there is only shifted access. In OA, the access people are paying for is access to a publishing system and platform, and they are paying with research funds, a trend that recent mandates may make much more permanent and much larger. This burden on research funding, especially during a time of austerity in many governments, could be a major unintended consequence. Also, there is no guarantee that APCs will remain as low as they are now — in fact, we’re already seeing them increase as more prestigious and careful publishers become involved. And the current OA publishers are for-profits (BMC, F1000, Bentham) that have no clear ties to the scientific community, so get to keep their money. Or they are PLoS, which while a not-for-profit, has no track record and no clear impetus for returning to the community surpluses it gains from research fund allocations. Most traditional publishers return a great deal to further research, education, training, networking, and advocacy for science and medicine.

I still fail to see the big difference in what budget publishing cost come from. There is a lot of unfunded research that is covered by institutions. We are also talking about a small percentage of the research budget, about 5% based on a clever estimate by John Willinsky. Also research grants cover the costs of dissemination via presenting papers at scientific meetings. It is really a historical fluke that subscription budgets are separate. If you are going to fund research why not fund dissemination? It only makes sense. Without dissemination research is useless.

I agree APCs are likely to rise if left unchecked. Research funders need to start putting limits on the amount they will pay and some standards on the types of journals that they will fund publishing in. For completely different reasons, the same problem exists for subscription journals.

Let’s look at subscription budgets vs. research budgets. They are run by different people, set by different people, and respond to different inputs and expectations. They are separate budgets, with separate purposes and separate measurements of efficiency and effect.

As for the 5% estimate, the NIH fights for 3.3% increases, and most research budgets are flat. A 5% effective decrease in the NIH budget is $1.6 billion. That’s significant. And with mandates driving more publishers to APCs, and journals with more expenses because they do more to papers than other journals, the 5% probably won’t hold.

Why fund dissemination with research funds? Why not fund science (the creative act)? That’s where the money belongs.

Recorded music also relies on producers, audio recording engineers, mixing and mastering engineers, etc., and not only the musicians per se. Should we forget about and de-professionalize those functions, as well?

“’a race to the bottom, and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts — first in staff, then in ambition, and finally in quality.’

“Sound familiar? It should. The same rhetoric has been used within scholarly publishing for over a decade, while new, technology-dependent companies like BioMed Central, PLoS, and PeerJ have emerged in our space, racing to the bottom themselves in various ways while eroding copyright protections.”

Please explain how companies like BMC and PLoS are racing to the bottom in “your” space? In a mere decade they have come from nothing to rival the best subscription journals on standard quality measures and have managed to be self-sufficient, even profitable. Bo-Christer Björk and I have provided hard data that these journals are on par with subscription journals published during the same period at least as far as citations are concerned, see: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/10/73

“Most significantly, none of these three entities currently cycles financial benefits back into the academic or research community. “

What do you mean by this? PLosS doesn’t, but BMC will publish society journals in a similar manner as any commercial publisher including providing a share of the profit if they so desire.

“And the ultimate version of “open” in our domain — “green OA” — exploits the infrastructure of traditional scholarly publishers — after all, the vast majority of manuscripts are written to be submitted to traditional paid journals — while creating a price point that can only lead to market failure.”

Where is the evidence that green OA has hurt publishers? How are they “exploited”? Bo-Christer Björk and I also just had a paper published in J Am Soc Info Sci Technol, today, a subscription journal published by Blackwell that has a very liberal green OA policy. Nobody forced the publisher or society to allow authors to publish the accepted version on their own or institutional web site upon acceptance. The publisher and society chose to do that on their own and that is a major reason we chose to publish in their journal.

Blackwell and the American Society for Information Science are apparently satisfied with the subscription income they are earning off the journal including our article even with their green OA policy. We put in several hundred hours of often tedious work to collect the data, analyze and write up the study and the publisher/society paid nothing for our work. We got what we wanted. The publisher and the society are apparently getting what they want. Anyone can freely download the accepted version or pay the subscription price for the copyedited typeset version. Who is getting exploited? This seems to me like it is a win, win, win situation in a free market economy.

Yes, they are profitable, but BMC in particular is for-profit. It draws its funds directly from research budgets and returns nothing to the scientific community, nor does it have to. Other measures are not relevant to this discussion. It’s all about the money. And it’s all about where the money comes from. If research funds used blue money and subscription funds used orange money, BMC’s vault would be full of blue bills, with a few orange in there, which were designed to help them earn more blue bills. Most traditional publishers would have mostly orange bills in their vaults. Where the money comes from matters.

As for quality, many of these journals have shed quality markers like editorial selection, relevance filtering, and copyright administration, all to save money and enable bulk publishing on lower standards.

Green OA is tolerable now, but it has the potential to create a bottom price of “free” in “our” market. If you don’t think you’re in a market economy, please think again. Green OA is like the file-sharing of old, but moving at a slower pace and with less motivating its uptake. But it has the potential to leverage the current publishing infrastructure against itself. And it does exploit the infrastructure that exists, because publishers support many of the incentives for publication on behalf of the scientific community. Without those, why write a paper?

Gold OA publishers should be just as worried about Green OA setting a price of zero in the market. After all, they too are selling access — just selling it to researchers to access their publishing programs, and tapping research funds instead of subscription funds.

Who is getting exploited? Research granting organizations, established publishers, and ultimately the creatives in science — the researchers. And all to help technology-driven companies make more money by taking it out of science. At least, that’s a scenario we should devote some time to, because BMC, PLoS, and others are using the Silicon Valley playbook to leverage “free” rhetoric into funding programs they can benefit from, all while inviting market failure.

“Yes, they are profitable, but BMC in particular is for-profit. It draws its funds directly from research budgets and returns nothing to the scientific community, nor does it have to. ”

And how does this different from Elsevier or any other for-profit subscription publisher?

“Most traditional publishers would have mostly orange bills in their vaults. Where the money comes from matters.”

If there is a difference in orange and blue bills in your analogy please explain what it is. Where do you think library budgets come from, think air?

“As for quality, many of these journals have shed quality markers like editorial selection, relevance filtering, and copyright administration, all to save money and enable bulk publishing on lower standards.”

An many of them haven’t shed quality markers like editorial selection and those are the ones that are publishing most of the articles. Two thirds of the APC funded articles in OA journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals are indexed in the Journal Citation Report. That is based on actual data. You can blow off quality markers like citation rates which may not be a perfect measure but then what basis can you say OA journals are inferior to subscription? Your opinion? I prefer data even if it is not a perfect.

Relevance filtering? I’m sorry, but as a researcher I prefer to do my own relevance filtering. Apparently lots of other researchers feel the same way both in where they publish and what they cite in what they publish.

Copyright administration, Who cares? As best as I can tell only publishers trying to make money off subscriptions.

Kent, thanks for contributing to the debate, its good to get a range of views.

I think there are some slight logical errors in some of the arguments here though – the base comparison between creative industries and scholarly publishing doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny.

“Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians”

Whilst this is true in terms that musicians are no longer having music sales as their primary income stream it is also true to say that model only really held in a meaningful way in a 60 year period from ~1950-2010 (we can argue about the exact window, Mick Jagger put it at 1970-1997*), instead musicians now have live performing as their primary revenue stream, a model which has existing since at least the Bronze age. Therefore its eminently arguable that the whole model of musicians recording music and selling it to make a living was only ever viable due to a particular set of technological progressions. Therefore we have to be careful to use it as a template/comparison for other completely different industries.

* – http://www.musicbizacademy.com/knab/articles/mick_jagger_on_royalties.htm

Yes, a few acts can survive through live performances, but for many new acts, their marketing budgets are so much smaller, the work is much harder, and it just doesn’t scale. Levine covers this well in the book, and talks directly to musicians who can make it work and those who have found it easier to go back to their day jobs. And this is one of the major points — if the incentives aren’t sufficient, people will do something else. Slowly. Over time. And artistic experimentation, risk-taking, and development will stagnate. I remember when there were 100 or so artists trying to sell me records. Now, it seems like maybe 35 really being supported by labels, with another couple dozen being halfway supported. That’s sad, and not good for the music culture.

Music and musicians benefited from recorded music, and a vast cultural creation blossomed out of it. People still love the product. The product isn’t the problem. It’s the way people are being rewarded for creating it. Slogging from venue to venue, paying for most of it out of your pocket, and netting $12K a year for all that work? No wonder these people go back to regular jobs.

Whatever the merits of Levine’s book, I disagree with the remark that PLoS, BMC, and PeerJ represent a race to the bottom.

Why is that Joe? PeerJ in particular must be the strangest science communication product ever devised. A basic lifetime membership of $99. Only members can post preprints. Any paper submitted for the minimal peer review “journal” must have all authors as members. Scholarship seems to play no role here, just membership. Just up front money. Give us your $99 now and we will publish your articles free for your entire lifetime. If this isn’t the bottom, what is?

Mind you, as a business model I love it. But I have a soft spot for Ponzi schemes.

That would have been a fabulous snarky comeback if it wasn’t for the fact that a) there are two ‘l’s in the US version (count them!) and b) three ‘l’s is perfectly fine in English english.

Yep, it’s fine. You’re right. But it still has to be untrue (and a lot of other things) to be considered libel.

Let’s put it this way. Publishers generally estimate that it costs one to three thousand dollars to publish a peer reviewed article. PeerJ is offering to publish one article a year for life for $99. You do the math. The only way they can pay is if later donors pay for earlier donors. That is the essence of the Ponzi scheme.

In fact we do not yet know what PeerJ’s overall marketing plan is and how they intend to monetize their user base. Please recall that one of the investors in PeerJ is Tim O’Reilly, who is surely one of the shrewdest businesspeople working in new media today. Let’s give this operation a chance before we relegate it to to trash heap. PeerJ may have something to teach us.

I personally think O’Reilly investing is just another sign of the Silicon Valley mindset at work — free content, technology consumption, nothing back to the creators and their ecosystem. He is smart, but that doesn’t mean he knows quite what he’s doing here.

Joe, I think the marketing plan is pretty clear. They need a large membership to be viable so they are basically giving them away. Then they will raise the price to that needed to pay the bills. It is a membership model. New country clubs do this all the time. I think we are going to see every possible business model tried in scholarly publishing. The smell of money is in the air. I may start a journal.

May I correct you there:

“Publishers generally estimate that it costs *them* one to three thousand dollars to publish a peer reviewed article”

New models may very well be able to do it cheaper.

PeerJ actually isn’t going to be charging $99/paper; it’s $99 (minimum) per author, in a field known for a high level of authors-per-paper. I would suggest that choosing those disciplines wasn’t merely fortuitous.

Sorry, but it is $99/author for life, for one paper per year. So if I enroll as a 30 year old post doc and publish a paper a year until I am 70, I get 40 papers for $99, or less than $2.50 a pop. But I agree that multiple authors add up, even at $2.50. Except PeerJ requires that all authors be members, which seems silly. Even country clubs allow guests. This is the wackiest formula I have seen so far, but I am sure more are coming.

You ALSO have to do one review per year, or your membership lapses.

And I would assume, in fact, that a majority of members will fail to do their required review.

Further, I suspect that the PeerJ and O’Reilly folks have done a sophisticated regression to determine exactly how many people will lapse; and then how many will re-up later; as well as how many people they can tap at “low administrative costs” to do the reviews.

So either they get lots of people doing reviews at lower admin costs (because they give an incentive) or they go after lapsers to renew later.

IMHO, it’s rather clever. But I wouldn’t consider it revolutionary.

Oh I see it, but a review need be merely a comment, like this one. Surely their business plan is not based on this.

This is part of the “race to the bottom” — cost-based and cost-reduction thinking, so that quality is chiseled away, innovation is stymied because there are no funds for it, and so forth. This is the mentality that leads to market failure, pure and simple.

You mean, as in having to pay a subscription to the current year in order to get access to older material?

I wish I could agree. In the case of PLoS, we have a mixed picture — some strong journals that aren’t financially viable because they are predicated on the cost-plus model of OA, and a journal that has explicitly removed quality aspects (editorial review, novelty and relevance criteria, high rejection rate) in order to become financially viable. In the case of BMC, we have a publisher that has courted industry and given them insights into the editorial workflow, which can only lead to corruption at some level, while starting hundreds of journals in the space of a few years, something I doubt leads to improvements in quality; more likely, it leads to a dilution of it. And PeerJ’s model is likely only to work well for authors who have papers that a) can’t make it in high-prestige journals that charge no APCs and b) can’t get APC approval from a funder, so it becomes much more of an out-of-pocket model for a group of scientists with a marginal work they still want published, which is even closer to a vanity press than anything we’ve seen yet. At least, that’s what the mechanism they’ve set up suggests will occur — we have yet to see.

All three of these use Creative Commons, which is another part of the race to the bottom in creative industries — not only are they not providing a copyright protection service for their authors (registration and monitoring make a huge difference to the integrity of a work, especially for really good papers), but they are participating in what Levine (I think rightly) considers to be an effort by tech companies to make copyright less prevalent in practice, which only helps them and reduces incentives for creative organizations (marketable backlists and archives go away, the long-tail vanishes, etc.). In this way, they are unwitting participants in a larger race to the bottom.

Revolutions are often bloodbaths, figuratively if not always literally, including technological revolutions. The incredible explosion of unpaid content, including piracy, has to severely impact the paid content industries; that is simple economics. Blaming people for deep change is pointless, and will not stem the tide. On the other hand, revolutions seldom go the way the originators imagine, or the zealots proclaim. This battle is far from over.

Yes but revolutions are like new businesses. Many more are than succeed. And in this case it is a business revolution, as it were.

This is such a wrong-headed and misguided post that I don’t know where to start. First, you start with

“. . . the Internet, of course — a US government-funded invention that, with the introduction of the graphical browser, was imagined in the 1990s to be capable of paying back its investment with a more vibrant creative economy, one that would generate jobs by the thousands as consumption and creation reinforced each other in new and bigger ways . . . ”

Which has indeed been the case. You don’t think all those “technology” companies you complain about have employees, i.e. jobs? And are you somehow denying the huge growth in creation and consumption though in earlier posts you celebrate just that?

The underlying problem with Levine’s and your argument is that somehow technology companies aren’t creative and so don’t matter, though the jobs in those industries pay a lot better than most “creatives.” As for those “creative” industries, they are actually doing quite well. Report after report comes in documenting how they are doing better than ever. See http://www.scribd.com/doc/79846477/The-Sky-is-Rising for example. Maybe not the recording industry, but the music industry is swelling.

Haven’t you posted in the past about how scholarly publishers have made necessary changes, continued to provide value, and thus avoided external disruption? Now you want to align yourself with traditional recording industry and others who failed to do so? This makes no sense.

And point of your arguments in the comments seem to be that any data that doesn’t support your argument is not part of your narrative and so isn’t really data. Hmmm.

The issue is that technology companies are creating technology that uses content, but not returning much if anything to content producers. Imagine if theater owners had not paid artists a fair rate, or movie moguls had not paid actors anything but bread and water.

Scholarly publishers have adapted and avoided external disruptive technologies. But this is not disruption, either technology or innovation. This is an exploitation of creativity. Why shouldn’t Google pay us a little to crawl the content of content owners? Is the trade-off for ad dollars really working out? Why won’t Facebook pay anyone for traffic referrals or to put their badges on their sites? There are ways to make the Internet economy fair and functional, but the one-way street the tech companies have paved isn’t it.

And don’t accuse me of overlooking data for a narrative. Let’s look at the report you link to. The music industry is not “swelling.” The data refute that statement hands-down. It’s smaller, less well-funded, and struggling in many ways. There are a few breakthrough artists. But like in book publishing, what’s missing is a robust mid-list. And once this is gone, the leap from nowhere to blockbuster will be less interesting and more forced. What that chart you point to doesn’t capture is that a lot of the increase is for older artists and backlists, not newer artists and new works. And the math in some of those squares would require checking. Book revenues up 5.6% over 5 years? Adjusted for inflation? Not compounded? If not adjusted for inflation and compounded, that’s not impressive. E-book sales up? Of course, they were nowhere 5 years ago. Book titles produced is a meaningless metric, because it means self-publishing (90% of the new titles were “non-traditional” meaning self-published), and who knows how well people have done with that, but the general data show it to be break-even at best, which probably foreshadows a dramatic decline soon enough. “Tracks catalogued”? What does that even mean? Isn’t that just the unbundling of albums into songs? Oh, looking more closely, it means what Gracenote has indexed, so, yes, it’s songs as albums were ingested and unbundled. Transactions? Yes, there were more, but that’s because people bought songs for $1 rather than CDs for $10, so each transaction was worth less on average, returning less to artists. Global music industry value? That’s probably largely driven by China’s increased consumption. So, I’m not very impressed by that set of charts. It’s a mixed bag and is poorly annotated. If you look more closely at the book revenues portion, it’s grown unevenly over 7 years for a total growth of about 9% over that time, or about 1.2% per year. That’s not robust growth. If inflation was 2%, the growth could be more than covered by inflation, meaning the overall market declined, as it did for a number of years. The report you point to was funded by an “association of computer product vendors and communications firms lobbying for free trade and open markets.” That’s exactly the kind of group that would want to keep exploiting creatives to sell computing devices and bandwidth. What are they paying back to the companies that help source, refine, and produce these works?

I think you might want to check your sources next time. I’m happy to look at data, but when it’s lousy, well, what can I say?

“The issue is that technology companies are creating technology that uses content, but not returning much if anything to content producers.”

Isn’t this the way markets are supposed to work? The tech company invested in the creative idea and brought it to market. Content companies could have developed the new service themselves but didn’t. Why should content companies get a piece of new products they didn’t develop? That starts sounding like a parasite to me.

Most technologies have either served content creators or collaborated better with them — printing, movies, television, radio, and pre-digital recording technologies.

A single in 1962 sold for $1 on average, or $7.60 in today’s dollars. Now, they sell for $1.29 on average on iTunes, or about $0.19 in 1962 dollars. That’s how a market fails.

Please tell me you understand the difference between the internet, based on US govt. founded infrastructure, and the WWW and the graphical browser which is used to access it, invented by scientists at CERN, an international collaboration in Switzerland, for the express purpose of sharing scientific information widely…

The graphical browser has a mixed history — standards and such developed at CERN, but Mosaic, which allowed it to take off, was developed at the University of Illinois. I had some stuff in about that, but it was too off-topic for an intro.

This is probably the most one-sided blog I’ve read here and it’s putting me off reading in the future what I thought was a fine website.

I’ve heard it mentioned here in this blog and other Scholarly Kitchen blogs that publishers, like Elsevier, return money back to the scientific community, but this is only slightly true. The big publishers (Elsevier/Macmillan, which owns Nature Publishing Group, Taylor and Francis, etc) are all public companies listed on stock exchanges. These companies exist to make money and most of the money they make goes to stock holders, not the scientific community. Now we need publishers, but they’re not the angels you keep making them out to be.

Let’s try to be a little more balanced please.

Nobody said they’re angels, but they are businesses that have a model that can be described relatively accurately. Public companies return money to shareholders, and universities invest in mutual funds, equity funds, and the like, many of which benefit from the performance of these stocks. All the companies you mention provide services for society and association publishers, and one assumes that these groups have contracted with the larger firms because it makes financial sense to do so — i.e., the professional society makes more thanks to the corporation’s efficiency and marketing/sales effectiveness than it would otherwise. And these companies are not solely predicating their business enterprises on funneling money out of research budgets ala BMC, PLoS, and the like.

This blog is run by independent people. I know not all the bloggers here agree with me. There isn’t a unified point of view here.

Kent, your quoting of Levine’s use of the term “parasitical” reminds me of what I said in testifying in a hearing on fair use before Congress back in July 1973 about an earlier form of technology: “our efforts should be concentrated on devising workable mechanisms for linking up photocopying in support of original publishing, rather than permitting it to remain a free rider, a parasitical form of publishing.” Plus ca change, plus la meme chose, eh?

Indeed. However, the big change here is that the photocopier of scientific publishing is being paid for by research funds. The parasite has attached itself to research funds.

So let me get this straight. You accuse PLoS, BMC and other open access publishers who were formed to address a major problem – the extremely limited access most people across the globe have to the scientific literature – of having businesses “solely predicated” on “funneling money out of research budgets”. As I and others have pointed out, this view is based on the ridiculous assertion that the billions of dollars suscription publishers siphon from universities and funding agencies are somehow coming from a pool of money that has nothing to do with research budgets.

But let’s apply a similar logic to your business. You use a subscription based business model which require that access be limited to people who have paid. You also claim repeatedly that the work you do it vitally important to the medical enterprise – helping physicians sort out clinically important information from the mass of the scientific literature. Indeed the whole rationale for your business is that people will receive better medical care because your journals exist – and that many lives will be saved because physicians have access to the best, carefully vetted medical literature. But a direct corollary of this notion is that clinicians out there who don’t have complete access to the medical literature because they can not afford it are not practicing in the best possible way. And, undoubtably, lives are lost as a consequence.

Therefore, the business model of your journal – The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery – and of every other subscription based publisher is solely predicated on killing people.

Nice to see that you are as logical, factual, and rational as usual.

The logic — we produce journals that help a large number of highly specialized professionals get rigorously reviewed and edited materials in a format they can use and trust; this is expensive and specialized work; without it, thousands of highly specialized professionals wouldn’t have an evolving evidence base from which to practice; therefore, we are doing a great deal to improve the care people receive.

The facts — we provide free access to our content online to more than 100 nations around the world; we field requests for articles and often provide them for free, especially if patients or underfunded people ask for them; we participate in PubMed Central; we provide free journals to trainees in the US; in short, we make our information as widely available as possible, and we promote its availability to increase the utilization of it; claims of “lack of access” are virtually non-existent given our penetration in markets, free availability online where people can’t be expected to afford our rather affordable rates, and the free print and online we provide to thousands of physicians.

The rationality — “killing people”? Really? You’re rhetoric is over the top and embarrassing.

The PLoS business model is predicated on drawing down research funds. Millions of dollars of research monies are not going to research because of it. What kind of progress is that preventing? We’ll never know, but I feel fine that our model isn’t preventing research from being done. And that’s the creative work of science.

Can you please explain why you do not think the ~$10b spent annually on subscription journals is not taking money away from research budgets?

First of all, around $500,000,000 of that comes directly from the NIH in terms of overhead payments earmarked for acquisitions in support of grants. At The University of California these overhead payments are on the order of 50% of the science acquisition budgets – and I expect this is typical of universities worldwide. This is a ballpark figure, but I would estimate that around $1b is spent directly by granting agencies to support serials acquisitions. That is money that almost certainly would go to research if it weren’t being used to pay for subscriptions.

At UC, the other 50% comes from the University’s general budget, filtered through the libraries. It’s obviously not guaranteed that this money would be allocated to research if it weren’t being spent on journals, but I know from lots of personal experience that the university administrators count this money as being spent on research, and thus it fairly explicitly comes from research budgets. Again, I would be shocked if this weren’t the case at most institutions.

Thus it makes absolutely no sense to argue that the money currently being spent by universities on journals is not coming from research budgets, and more than it would to say that buying a new sports car doesn’t cut into your kids college fund because you entered the expense under a different category in Quicken.

The only reasonable reading of the finances of STM journals is to recognize that, in addition to the overwhelming majority of the content, most of the money is coming from academic and government research institutions, and that the debate about OA is not about who should pay to support publishing, but rather how they should pay and what they should demand from publishers in return. And your efforts to tar PLoS and other OA publishers of dipping into research funds, while absolving yourself of the same crime, are despicable.

Because that money is not coming from research budgets, by and large.

Overhead payments cover a lot of different things. How you move them around inside a university budget is probably fairly moot at a certain level. But even if your data are accurate, there is the additional point that if it is paying for subscriptions to AAAS journals, OUP journals, CUP journals, society journals, or even most Elsevier or Lippincott journals, those monies go back under the control of scientists and academics who then decide how to allocate it again for research, education, training, and advocacy. There is a virtuous cycle, and the creatives are reinforced by it. The OA model that’s emerging takes money directly from research and puts it out of play, in for-profits like F1000 or BMC or Bentham, or in a non-profit that doesn’t cycle it back into education, research, or training, and only advocates to increase its business model’s adoption.

So, yes, most of the money is coming from academic budgets, but not research budgets per se — and, more importantly, it’s largely going back into academic budgets of one type or another, to be recycled into the same system that provided it.

You clearly have no idea about how overheads function. They are the result of a complex negotiation between the federal government and every university or other research organization in which the government looks explicitly at how much the university spends in support of its federally funded research. One of the line items is library expenses, which, nowadays, is primarily serials acquisition. The university doesn’t get to reallocate this money as it likes. If they don’t spend money on journals, the money goes back to the NIH.

And are you really arguing that the pittance Elsevier gives back to societies whose journals they have bought out somehow compensates for the billions of dollars they siphon out of government and university budgets every year? You think this is a virtuous cycle? Really????

Thank you for confirming that the budgets for subscriptions are separate, and are returned to the NIH if not used.

Your point is?

If money isn’t being spent on journal subscriptions, it would go back to the NIH, who would, almost certainly, use it to fund as many extra research grants as they could. This is what they do at the end of the budget year – try to squeeze every last dollar they can out of their budgets and get them to researchers.

Less money spent on subscription –> more money for NIH –> more money for researchers. Get it?

Actually, the indirect costs supported by NIH grants consist of many items, including office supplies, memberships, Internet access charges, administrative staff, books, postage, etc. Library expenses can be staff, books, journals, photocopying, and repair and maintenance. Subscriptions are only a slice of this, and the philosophy is that these things support the researcher, who is the creative in science. So, ultimately, these are research expenditures, but they stay within science mostly now because they go back to organizations run by academics and scientists by and large. Goes back to NIH? Stays in science. Goes to OUP? Stays in science/academia. Goes to Elsevier? A good proportion stays in science/academia for more than 500 journal publishers contracting with them. Goes to BMC? Not clear. Goes to PLoS? Not clear. Goes to Bentham? Not clear.

Oh. I get it!

All us ignorant researchers have been barking up the wrong tree. It’s not funding agencies like NIH, NSF or HHMI we should be looking to to fuel our research efforts. It’s Elsevier! How stupid we’ve all been trying to lobby the government to put more money into the NIH budget. What we should be doing instead is lobbying our libraries to INCREASE the amount of money we spend on journal subscriptions! Then Elsevier and other publishers would have more money, which – in the virtuous cycle Kent has so kindly informed us all about – they would then undoubtedly give back to the scientific community in the form of research funds. Thanks for explaining it!

NIH only funds a portion of the research conducted in the US every year, and research isn’t the only thing science and academic institutions need to support the creative endeavors of science. Grants come from associations and societies all the time, and education/training/advocacy are major elements, as well as publication, supporting scientific progress.

If associations and societies weren’t being killed in the Internet space, they might be able to negotiate better deals with Elsevier or avoid them altogether. But the past decade has made this more difficult and unlikely as the “free” arguments and OA pressures have undercut their ability to generate a sufficient margin without the help of a large multinational. All these signs of market failure are subtle, but real.

John Barber just published a related article concerning writers at the Globe & Mail:

Here’s one fascinating quote: The Penguin Group “spent $116-million to acquire upstart vanity publisher Author Solutions Inc., an Indiana-based firm that earns most of its income not by selling books, but by charging amateur authors hefty fees to produce unsellable books. As if to celebrate the transition, the stock price of Penguin’s parent company, Pearson plc, hit a 10-year high the morning of the announcement.”

These are simply market forces at work, though. There’s a vast supply of content creators who will work for free or a slim chance of making money, just for the fun and glory of it (such as it is). Now that the Internet has made production and distribution facilities cheaply available to everyone, whether through direct digital distribution or print-on-demand via Amazon, the oversupply will drive prices down to zero for all but the most unique and desirable products. This was going to happen even if outright piracy didn’t exist.

The product is a problem. Amgen was unable to reproduce the results of 83% of important clinical papers. The delay between submission and publication is typically many months and sometimes years. What we are reading in the academic literature is out of date and quite possibly erroneous. The publishing industry is also failing to reach many of the most important audiences including patients, community health providers, startups, small to midsize businesses and policy makers. Support for public institutions of higher education has fallen dramatically over the past decade. The perception that academics are insular and isolated is a direct result of the proprietary publication model that makes the vast majority of academic work inaccessible to the general public.

A few threads to separate here.

The quality problem is a sign that underfunding publishers, editors, and reviewers isn’t getting us where we need to be. As noted, this is a sign of a market problem. Review is even less stringent in the new breed of journals.

Timeliness is something everyone is seeking, and some are achieving. However, the time to publication for even the new breed of journals has increased and continues to increase. Reviewers themselves (and authors) are often the source of delays.

The distribution methods have increased accessibility incredibly over the past decade, but just because someone can see something doesn’t mean they can access the information in any meaningful, addressable way.

Support for anything we all benefit from has fallen in this era of selfish, short-sighted, and mean-spirited economic and public policy.

The perception that academics are insular and isolated has increased because they are so specialized and doing things many people can’t relate to. Also, many translators of science vanished, and are slowly coming back (Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, Morgan Freeman, the Mythbusters). Accessibility isn’t the solution to public appreciation — translation and engagement are, and those are difficult and expensive to bring to market, as well. They require creatives, too.

Peer reviewed conference proceedings publish on a significantly accelerated timescale compared to most journals. Coincidentally, they also publish the list of reviewers (program committee), something most journals do not do. Public credit for the reviewers (and a hard deadline) provides incentive to turn reviews around promptly. Transparency also helps to reduce bias in the selection of reviewers. Women tend to be greatly under represented among reviewers in many fields, a real problem. I suspect the same is true for Asian scientists, but have not seen hard data.

On accessibility, if someone cannot access the material, it really doesn’t matter if they have the background to understand it. Many patients with chronic diseases do follow the medical literature, to the extent that they can access it, and do become sufficiently knowledgeable that they find it useful to devote time to reading articles about their disease. Lack of access to the academic literature for scientists in startups and small to midsize businesses is a significant economic development issue. And many policy makers do not have adequate access to the relevant technical literature.

We agree that engagement is key to public support for academics, but we disagree on the need for transparency. Today’s internet savvy readers have had enough marketing spin thrown at them that they often do want to dig down to primary sources. If these are inaccessible publications, the reader has every right to be skeptical. Morgan Freeman and Mythbusters are all well and good, but they are not going to help scientists in a startup find the information they need to make a product fly.

You seem to assume that the subscription model is inherently better at funnelling money back to scholarly societies than the gold OA model. Is there any reason to think that this is true? It isn’t hard to imagine a society making a deal with an OA publisher, where the APC is set e.g. 100$ above the price needed to cover costs and a reasonable profit. That money can then be given to the society in return for providing editorial services and credibility.

The subscription model doesn’t draw directly on research funding, and has proven successful at supporting academic and scholarly societies, doing so very well for many, many years now. The gold OA model drives us out of a value-based system to a cost-based system, kills the ability to monetize the archive or backlist, and draws more directly on research funding.

If we’re trading one for the other, we should do so with our eyes open. The call of Silicon Valley to content businesses is that we have to find new business models. In many cases, these business models support technology businesses more than they support content or creative businesses. Perhaps we’re not the ones who need to adapt. Perhaps technology companies should adapt to support the creative works they depend on to make it worthwhile to buy their tech. Cable television learned this, and is doing phenomenally well, producing more interesting, experimental, and robust programming all the time thanks to a virtuous funding cycle. Why can’t we bring the tech companies to heel?

The gold OA model is as much – if not more – of a value based system than the subscription model – it is just about value to researchers as authors rather than value to libraries.

Yet, evidence suggests not. PeerJ is about lowering prices (costs). PLoS hasn’t increased prices as the value has supposedly increased. Most OA seems clustered around $1,500-$3,000, and it’s not moving. High-end publishers estimate a per-article charge anywhere from $7,500-$15,000 or higher, just to cover the costs and provide a reasonable margin, and OA people scoff at this. If it were value-based, then price would be less of an issue, and arguments like those permeating this thread about driving costs down wouldn’t be as pervasive.

$7,500 – $15,000? I would be very interested to see how they justify that.

There is an assumption that seems to run through your arguments that all scholarly publishing needs to be extremely high end. I don’t think that is the case any more than every car needs to be a high end luxury sedan. There is a role for that type of publishing but not for all research reports or even most. I think it is a waste of resources and actually quite detrimental. Getting rejected 2 or 3 times by journals that have a 5% or 10% acceptance rate and going through 3 revisions after a manuscript gets accepted doesn’t necessarily make sense. It drags out the publication process and wastes a lot of time and resources. I am not talking about junk science but studies that are useful and properly done but not necessarily Nobel prize quality. Those studies need to be disseminated, archived and the authors given appropriate credit for their work and it needs to be done efficiently.

Also there is plenty of evidence that the inter-rater reliability of editorial review isn’t all that great so particularly out at the tail of the distribution (5%-10% acceptance rate) acceptance/rejection is somewhat of a crap shoot. I am not talking about junk stuff but is this paper quite good enough for Science or Nature? Maybe yes, maybe no. It is that point it gets to be a crap shoot that depends on the whims of the particular set of reviewers and editor. You loose and you waste another 3 or 4 months going through the review process with another journal. For example see:


I think journals like PLoS One make a lot of sense for much of the research that is being done. The review process is designed to cull out poorly done research and gets the rest published disseminated efficiently. That’s why it has been so successful.

This is the problem with cost-based approaches — you have to “justify” it by opening your books to people who can pick and choose, disagree, dissemble, and diminish without knowing what they’re doing.

A value-based approach asks the simple question — Is it worth it?

If OA isn’t cost-based (as Michael Eisen alleged in another comment), then why are things like this always said? “Justify it”? That’s a cost-based mentality. You’re only asked to justify your salary when you’re being viewed as a cost, not as valuable, for instance.

PLoS ONE eliminates a good deal of value from the publishing equation. If you don’t know that, it could be costly ignorance.

Can you please explain what you mean by a “cost based” approach versus a “value based” approach, because I am completely confused.

PLoS ONE eliminates some things you value from publishing, but it replaces them with things authors clearly value more – speed, not having to deal with capricious editorial decisions, etc…

Cost-based pricing is cost-plus, meaning you take the costs and add a little margin, and that’s what you charge. Value-based pricing is when you see what the market will pay, and charge that, and increase the price as the market gravitates toward preferring your product.

To your claim that PLoS ONE is fast, it WAS fast for a while, but now papers take 6-12 months to publish; and “capricious editorial decisions” is just another word for relevance-signaling, which is valuable and drives value-based pricing (people who actually can use the information because of specialist knowledge, skills, and abilities will pay more).

Kent, you say:

“To your claim that PLoS ONE is fast, it WAS fast for a while, but now papers take 6-12 months to publish”

That is completely false. I look at PLoS ONE stats all the time and the amount of times papers are in our hands has been decreasing.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

In an effort to show that PLoS ONE is slowing down, you took a sample of 10 articles from 15,000 and report aggregate and extreme stats from these 10 articles as if they are somehow representative? Are you serious? I hope, for the sake of public health, that you require more rigor in the statistical analyses published in your journal.

Looking at several months over the past few years (with n>1500 in each month), the average time from submission to acceptance has crept up a tiny bit – around 5 days to around 120, but has been made up for by a decrease in time from acceptance to publication from 35 days to close to 30, with an overall time from submission to publication of around 5 months, with very little change in the amount of time papers are spending in PLoS ONE’s hands.

Please read the entire post I linked to. This was one set of 10 randomly selected articles from 2006 compared to a set of 10 randomly selected articles from 2011, adjusting for timeframe. To see if there was a seasonality effect, I looked at 10 more articles in another season to compare these. Your rebuttal here doesn’t span the years my little analysis did — you don’t even tell me which years you compared (you just say “the past few years”). As the comments on the original post noted, 2010 seems to have been a year when things leveled out, but by then, speed was getting pretty average, not “FAST” as your marketing says. A week is fast, and selected papers are commonly published that quickly in big journals. Five to six months is pretty average for a journal that doesn’t print. I also detected in my data set what you’re saying, which is that you seem to be ratcheting down on the production times to make up for lags in review times. It may have been a small study, but it detected what you’re claiming.

Tell me it’s wrong, from 2006, when PLoS ONE claimed “FAST” and delivered 3-month publication times, to now, when it’s 5-6 months by your lights, and 7 months by my analysis. Still seems like it’s nearly doubled at the least, even using your data.

I did read your post in its entirety. But surely you understand that 10 randomly chosen articles from any time frame can not be representative?

In any case, I can get older numbers. But I’m not sure anybody will really care. What they care about it how fast PLoS ONE is handling things now. And, honestly, I think we’re too slow on several fronts. 1) We have trouble finding editors and reviewers for some fraction of our papers, and we don’t have great systems in place yet to deal with these outliers. 2) 30 days from acceptance to publication is too long. I won’t be happy until it’s indistinguishable from 0.

“High-end publishers estimate a per-article charge anywhere from $7,500-$15,000 or higher, just to cover the costs and provide a reasonable margin, and OA people scoff at this.”

I was wondering how they get an estimate of their costs and reasonable margin being $7,500 – $15,000. Perhaps it’s all in the “reasonable margin. 🙂

I don’t doubt it costs high end journals with large professional editorial staffs on the order of $10k per published article. But it’s a bit of a weird number, since the main expense does not come from reviewing and processing the published article, but from all the time expensive editors spent on the much larger number of articles they ultimately rejected. Thus the number is really a consequence of a model in which most submitted and reviewed articles are rejected. If, instead, they published all sound papers they received and also published their assessment, the cost per article would be very very different.

For what it’s worth, the STM industry reports revenues of around $10b to publish ~1.5m articles. That’s on the order of $6,500 revenue per article. Some fraction of that is profit – at least 1/3 I’d guess – so expenses average $4k. PLoS community journals – which use academic editors and have reasonably high rejection rates, expenses run around $1,500-$2,000 per published article.

And PLoS ONE subsidizes the specialist journals, which didn’t generate a surplus on their own.

And Kent, you also say, “And PLoS ONE subsidizes the specialist journals, which didn’t generate a surplus on their own.”

I’m glad you feel so confident speaking about PLoS’s finances. But this too is factually incorrect. The community journals PLoS Genetics, PLoS Computational Biology, which are highly selective, editor driven journals, generate surpluses even when fully loaded with their share of administrative expenses for the organization.

PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine are the only two PLoS journals that do not break even, although PLoS Biology comes fairly close if reasonable assumptions about the share of PLoS ONE articles that come from PLoS Biology are credited to it.

And while we’re on the subject of subsidies. You rather nastily asserted above the PLoS does not use any of its surplus to do good things for the research community. In fact, PLoS uses a large fraction of its surplus to fund PLoS Medicine – which has become an important venue for publishing articles about health care and health policy in the developing world.

Glad to get some clarity. Thanks. Interesting that the two journals that are probably the most difficult to edit and in the most competitive fields are the ones you haven’t priced right. Again, value-based pricing might help you here.

It sounds like PLoS Medicine is seriously underpriced. I like how you’ve twisted “returning surpluses from publishing to other uses in science” into “subsidizing another journal that takes money from research funds” as a good thing.

A large fraction of the articles published in PLoS Medicine are not research articles and thus generate no revenue – something we are happy to subsidize as a service to the global medical community.

Also, what is the % surplus on the genetics and computational biology journals? I don’t need a real number, just tell me if it’s 10%.

When PLoS launched PLoS Computational Biology, one of our society journals, it was in collaboration with the International Society of Computational Biology. As part of the arrangement, PLoS would use a portion of the author charges to pay for memberships in ISCB.

And note that several societies have now started their own OA journals. See, for example, G3 from the Genetics Society of America.

I have promised myself that I would never get into debates about open access, nothing good ever comes of these discussions – in fact they are not discussions at all but merely positions statements. However Kent, you write about the current state as if the outcome was a surprise (or perhaps could have been different). Truth is, anyone with a basic knowledge of economics could have predicted that the internet would lower the barriers of trade for all segments of the communication industry. With or without the open access movement (or the big tech companies) it was inevitable that the technology would break down the barriers around content. You write as if PLoS et. al. are the cause of publishers’ pain when they really are just a symptom. The end game of a highly profitable publishing industry was written in the stars the moment the internet went mainstream. With or without legislation, with or without open access, with or without the big tech companies the internet would have ended high profit margins for publishers and scholarly societies. We are merely observing the logical consequence of the introduction of electronic access. Yes, it is painful and yes it will disrupt traditional revenue streams and the status quo – but then that was indeed the point (and promise) of the internet; wasn’t it?

This genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back. Societies and scholarly publishers are going to have to find other revenue streams if they are to survive.


Point of information: SpringerOpen uses the BioMedCentral platforms, and SpringerOpen does, in fact, work with scholarly societies. E.g., BioInterphases for the American Vacuum Society, and Metallography, Microstructure, and Analysis for the IMS. I believe there are others, but those are two of the ones I know off the top of my head.

(Disclosure: I work at Springer, opinions are my own.)

Sorry–correction–the second journal should be Integrating Materials and Manufacturing Innovation, with the TMS; not Metallography, Microstructure, and Analysis for IMS–I got them mixed up.

The Scholarly Kitchen is sounding ever more like the board of Kodak must have sounded through the 90s and early 00s (and as such, increasingly boring and not worth reading). A retrenched position might provide comfort to those with invested interests in the past, but the world has changed, for all publishing industries (print, music, video).

And the question we should be asking is, Has it changed for the better? Are we seeing better quality? Getting more value for our money? Not all change is good, or inevitable. In this case, when copyright was honored, culture businesses did well, and technology companies had more business. Both thrived. Now, it seems technology businesses demean culture businesses in order to boost their profits, portraying their actions as “free market” and “innovative.” The concern is that in a decade, where will be the journalists, editors, and musicians? Already, many are failing.

Not all change is inevitable, not all is good, and if it’s win-lose, that’s not balanced.

You seem to be suggesting here that PLoS and other OA publishers are not honoring copyright, which could not be further from the case. Every article we publish the authors have chosen to release their copyrighted work under a Creative Commons license – and we have gone to great lengths never to violate anyone else’s copyright.

What Levine writes about mirrors what you’re saying — Creative Commons depends on copyright, but was set up by technology companies and the very related “free content” crowd precisely to erode copyright in the market, in actuality. Creative Commons is supported by technology grants, and can be perceived as being a front group for tech companies seeking to make “cheaper gas” so that they can sell more of their “cars.” I’m suggesting that by participating in CC licensing and advocating for it, PLoS and other OA publishers are witting or unwitting participants in eroding copyright in the market, which makes it so that technology companies can exploit creative works without having to pay a fair price for access to the works. And it’s clear the tech companies see it this way. Why else would they support CC and similar “free content” initiatives with millions of dollars of support?

Please. Many content creators have an interest in seeing their work widely distributed with appropriate attribution. This is the reason Creative Commons was established and remains widely used. It is an entirely appropriate use of copyright. You seem to imply that the only legitimate use of copyright is to perpetuate a system in which copyright and control are held by intermediaries and the vast majority of economic benefits accrue to these intermediaries. If these intermediaries generate the majority of the value, a system like that might be appropriate, but many authors and readers are voting with their feet to say that this is not the case for academic publishing.

Is there economic competition between content control intermediaries (publishers, movie studios, record labels, etc.) on the one hand and authors, readers, distribution channels and archives on the other? Sure. Welcome to the business world, and the creative destruction of new technology. If publishers paid authors, editors and reviewers a fair price for their contributions, I might have more sympathy for the argument that technology companies are not paying their share, but the reality is that many journals charge authors page charges on top of subscription fees and the reviewers and editors contribute voluntarily.

There is a legitimate concern about whether public institutions are being responsible stewards of public resources when they allow faculty and staff to contribute publicly supported time and effort to the benefit of proprietary publishers, and when they allow valuable intellectual property (copyright on publications describing research) to be transferred to private entities without an open and competitive bidding process. Distributing research results through channels that make them easily and inexpensively accessible to the public fulfills the mission of a public university. Giving them to private publishers who then lock them up behind copyright and subscription fees that many users find to be prohibitively expensive does not serve the public interest.

Most content creators (researchers), especially in scholarly publishing, want their work represented as well as possible to the most appropriate audience, an audience that will understand, appreciate, and use the information productively. It does them little good if you just cast their works to the seven winds, as many repository-like journals do, or bury them in obscure titles with no clear link to a community or robust way of making people aware the information exists. Creative Commons undercuts the targeted publication of science in the long-term because it disincentivizes audience-pays publishers, who do the legwork to identify, address, and deliver appropriate information to an interested audience. Technology companies and others are exploiting free information for their own ends, and not returning to the content creators. For instance, why shouldn’t Google and every other major search engine pay publishers US$1.00 for every article indexed? Is that burdensome on Google or Microsoft? It seems more fair to content companies, who have assumed the risk of taking content from authors and preparing it for market. Right now, search engines are indexing content for free on the premise that they’ll deliver traffic. What we’re finding is that it’s not much qualified traffic (i.e., legitimately qualified users of the content, people who anyone in the space really thinks can use the content), and that it’s not worth very much overall. To us. But it’s worth an awful lot to Google and Bing.

You claim to be bothered by people working for free to the benefit of for-profit companies. In scholarly publishing, most of the companies are non-profit (first of all), and even the for-profits return a decent amount to the community through contracts with the parent non-profit. Technology companies are currently returning very little or nothing to the scientific community, which has led to reduced library budgets, publishing companies working on a cost-plus basis (which inevitably leads to quality compromises), and so forth. If technology companies were playing by the rules, we’d have a win-win, but right now, it’s a win-lose. And you can’t deny that technology companies are funding Creative Commons and other copyright-weakening voices and initiatives for a reason, which is they want more free information to feed their content-consuming technologies.

Bottom line — if you’re bothered by for-profit companies that exploit the free work of scholars, look to the technology companies now. They’re not only exploiting it, but they’re also exploiting (and positioning themselves to exploit even more) the non-profit and highly aligned scholarly for-profit publishing companies that do a lot to support scholarly communities. Libraries, universities, and research organizations aren’t immune to the same forces, either. They all have major dependencies on copyright and other IP functions.

You’re using the rhetoric they’ve taught you — copyright is “locked up” and <$1/use is "prohibitively expensive." That's nonsense. Copyright creates a zone for economic transactions, and is highly correlated with advanced and thriving economies based on raising all boats — tech becomes more useful because it has great content, and content creators create more great content because they have incentives to do so. Universities are paying a few dimes per use thanks to site licenses, which is not "prohibitively expensive." Online has fulfilled much of the potential of lowering per-use prices, and the only real crisis in library funding is that it's been cut by universities for the past 30 years for really murky reasons. It's not "prohibitively expensive" — it's shockingly undervalued, and the rhetoric you've been taught is part of that attitude. Librarians should be really worried about what this means for them.

The rhetoric you're using has been created for a purpose — to help technology companies have access to content without having to pay for it. How is that right?

Have you checked your own web site lately? The per article charge for JBJS is $30 for 30 days of on line access to one article and specifically excludes commercial use of material obtained from the site. This is prohibitively expensive for many users. As a scientist in a startup, my language is not someone else’s rhetoric, it is personal experience and business reality. And yes, I regard my former colleagues who continue to publish in expensive proprietary journals to be insular and isolated from the broader world. My taxes pay their salaries and fund their grants. I want ready access to the results of their work.

Single-article charges are high because subscription publishers work on a subscription model. This works because it creates a long-term relationship with an appreciable audience. Selling single articles for cheap is a quick way to bankruptcy in the narrow fields of science, so single articles are available, but at a price that encourages subscription. What does a subscription cost? For us, the per-article cost of an annual personal subscription (and this only counts the new articles delivered during the subscription, not access to 100+ years of archives or all the services we support) runs about $0.60 per article. Who buys expensive single articles? Law firms, mostly. If patients need an article, they can contact us, and we’re happy to provide it for free. We also work with DeepDyve for article rentals.

Now, before you go asking this, back issues are expensive because a) we have to store them, retrieve them, and mail them, and b) we want to encourage subscriptions.

As for your rhetoric, whether it’s derivative or you feel it’s original, it’s still problematic.

I would be interested to know what start-up you’re working on. From what I can tell, you’re an academic with a long track record working for the government and academia.

As for what your taxes pay for, they paid for the research to be done and the report the scientists submitted to the funder (NIH or DOE or whomever). Your taxes did not pay for third-party peer-review, professional editing, professional formatting, editorial review, print and online publication, and ongoing support and maintenance, nor for the margins necessary to make those things and much more viable.

“Universities are paying a few dimes per use thanks to site licenses, which is not “prohibitively expensive.” Online has fulfilled much of the potential of lowering per-use prices, and the only real crisis in library funding is that it’s been cut by universities for the past 30 years for really murky reasons. It’s not “prohibitively expensive” — it’s shockingly undervalued, and the rhetoric you’ve been taught is part of that attitude. ”

I can only speak for my state supported university but almost none of the above is true. I’m on the university’s library committee and our library budget since 1985 has increased at above the rate of the rest of the university budget and well above inflation. The serials budget was way above that at the expense of monographs. This is from memory seeing the figures about six months ago but I believe the acquisition budget flipped from spending two thirds on monographs and one third on serial to the other way around.

We looked at the cost per access statistics and they vary tremendously across journals. Again it’s been about 6 months but from memory but I believe the average was more like a few dollars than than a few dimes. Also inter-library loans cost on average about $25 each to do. They drive the librarians crazy because every publisher has their own rules. In many cases they have to take digital copies of articles print them and then scan them to re-digitize them before sending them out to the other library in order to meet the requirements of the licensing agreement. Talk about a waste of resources.

There is nothing murky about the reason libraries can’t afford to keep up with the inflation in serial prices. Since the 1970s our state support has gone from 70% of the university’s budget to around 32% or 33% budget. Students unfortunately have eaten a lot of the costs but departments have taken huge cuts, about 20% in the last 7 or 8 years not even taking into account inflation. I think this is pretty typical of what is going on in state universities in the US.

Your response is all predicated on the notion that prices should be based on costs, which is a commodity model. Journal articles are not commodities. Each one is unique, and each one takes a lot of work if it’s edited and reviewed with quality in mind. This is a value model — what’s it worth? And this is part of the problem, part of the “race to the bottom” — that is, if there’s no incentive to race to the top, no value increase to get, and it’s always about driving down costs, then quality, ambition, and innovation all falter.

You’re right about library funding. See: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/02/15/a-shrinking-piece-of-the-university-pie/

Kent, we agree that scientific manuscripts are not commodities. But much of what you write here is predicated on the notion that the value of individual manuscripts derives primarily from services provided by publishers – review, editing, etc… While I agree that these things have value, they are trivial compared to the value derived from the actual science itself.

If you really want to allocate the money spent on journal articles according to value, then the vast majority, which are accessed infrequently and rarely, if ever, cited, should cost nothing, and highly cited, highly accessed articles – the small number that have a profound impact on scientific progress – should cost tens of millions of dollars.

You and many other publishers have convinced yourself that people are paying for the value you add to the scientific literature. But when people subscribe to your journals, they are paying for two separate things – the editorial services you provide AND access to the underlying content. The way the current system works, authors decide to send their papers to journals based on a complicated set of parameters. But once they’ve chosen a journal – precisely because, as you correctly point out, scientific articles are not fungible commodities – anyone who wants to access that information has no choice but to pay to read that journal.

In contrast to what you believe, I posit that the vast majority of the revenue subscription journals receive comes from libraries, etc… who want access to their contents, and not the editorial servies they provide. Of course I can’t prove this, but neither can you assert that they are paying for editorial servies. You may value them highly. You may think others should. But it is not clear that the market does.

Indeed, I would argue that the rise of PLoS ONE argues that an important constituency, namely authors, do not value the service of editorial selection nearly so much as you do.

How much market research do you do? Does PLoS ONE actually have a market it addresses?

Readers value stringently reviewed and well-edit content. The services make the product. Separating them is meaningless, and you tend to underestimate all that’s involved in a really robust and stringent publishing enterprise, and have stripped away many in order to present a marketable cost to authors.

The more we drift into a services business and the more we become focused on satisfying authors, the less incentivized we are to make a fine product, and the more susceptible we are to letting readers/users down. Even Tim O’Reilly, who is providing some funding for PeerJ, balks at the notion that publishers are just providing a service. To him, that was akin to giving up, and surrendering to entropy and vanity and bias. One of the tensions every good publisher navigates is how to satisfy the higher aspirations of an author while also being somewhat confrontational — did you really write this? do you have any conflicts of interest? why were your analyses incomplete in this section? why does the conclusion say something the evidence doesn’t support? did you work through an IRB? did you control the data? why does this image look wrong?

I like how you say that publishers have “convinced themselves” that markets pay for quality content. The way we “convinced” ourselves was through evidence over a few hundred years. The Constitution of the United States itself notes how important this is, via its copyright clause. What this post was about is how technology companies and their advocates have taught people that copyright is wrong, restrictive, and a prison for content. It most certainly is not. It is the balance point for a creative economy, and if it’s tipped by things like CC and other anti-copyright market forces, suddenly the tray holding all the content becomes lighter, more polluted, and less palatable. Ultimately, this is bad for tech companies, too. In science, an abundance of mediocre studies with incremental or no advances already exists, and we seem poised to fill the literature with more of this rather than demanding novelty and relevance. All this makes the literature less valuable and harder to use. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Access isn’t a problem for working scientists, and shouldn’t be in an information economy that values content (library budgets should be supported, and so forth). The problem we’re facing is a quality problem, and weaker, less stringent, and less incentivized publishers aren’t the answer.

What quality improvement to the literature has PLoS introduced?

One service journals provide is rejection, which leads to quality and relevance signaling. The content that’s published has to carry that cost. That’s why even in a services model, the content carries costs beyond the content itself. Also, the content has to carry a surplus for the publisher — a good benchmark is a percentage that is higher than leaving the money in the bank, or about 10-12% these days. So, you have the cost of rejection, a margin that makes financial sense, and of course the fixed costs of staff, archive, technology, and so forth — and this doesn’t even deal with the continued market preference for print in many areas, which is baffling to some degree but understandable when you do market research and realize how powerful it is as an awareness and branding tool.

As for whether the authors of PLoS ONE value editorial selection and other editorial work, I’m not yet convinced the PLoS ONE approach has stolen any authors who could hope to publish in high-quality journals. I think there are some low-interest papers authors can now publish there to burnish their resumes, but they are still sending their best work to the top journals; otherwise, it seems like you’re getting incremental research that either would have been filed or would have bounced around for a while before landing in a niche journal and was probably deemed not worth the effort. Submission rates are up across the board, so I don’t see a zero-sum game here. My assertion remains that these lower-effort, lower-quality outlets are sopping up papers authors didn’t really want to work hard on getting into a top-tier (or knew the science wasn’t novel or interesting enough), but thought they might as well add to their CVs as long as it didn’t take much time or effort. If that’s the type of service outcome you’re achieving, no wonder it doesn’t command a high price in the market.

I’ve never heard of this “market research” thing you’re referring to, but I looked it up on Wikipedia. What a great idea. Somehow we managed to build up a thriving business without thinking about customers or what they were interested in. Imagine what we’ll be able to now.

Yes, readers value stringently reviewed and well-edited content. They also value being able to access content they are interested in in a timely manner, and in being able to access it at all. You assert that practicing scientists have all the access to the literature they need. This is simply wrong. And egregiously so. I am at one of the biggest and most prestigious universities in the world with an elite research program across all scientific disciplines and a fantastic library system. But I come across papers that I want to use in my research but can not access ON A DAILY BASIS. Indeed, I would be surprised if there were a single researcher anywhere on the planet who did not frequently run across articles they could not access. So please stop claiming that access isn’t a problem for researchers. It is. And it gets worse all the time.

And remember that readers are not the only relevant parties in the equation. The current structure of scientific publishing is as much about serving authors as it is about serving readers. And while authors value the CV glitter that comes with publishing in highly selective journals, our market research clearly shows that they would prefer to simply have their work evaluated on its merits independent and not through a byzantine system of submit-review-modify-lather-rinse-repeat.

I think it’s great that you take such extreme pride in what you do as an editor. I know a lot of journal editors, and to a person they are thoughtful and extremely hard working, and care deeply about how science is communicated and how research functions. I know that, like my friends in the industry, you see the rise of open access and other changes in publishing as a threat not just to your career and all the things you have built in it, but to the way science functions.

But your perch gives you an incomplete – and often somewhat addled – view of research and how it is conducted today. I don’t pretend to speak for all scientists, but I know I speak for an awful lot of them in saying that the modern system of science publishing has become a major obstacle to the smooth functioning of science. Access is one of the issues, but it’s far from the only one. The whole idea of having thousands of journals, with papers ping-ponging from one to another, undergoing a review process that is far too often about glitz and gloss and not about true impact, is outdated – a relic of the age of print journals.

And, as I have written here before, I am not trying to create a world where works are not assessed for their novelty, rigor and import. Rather I think that the current way we do it is not worth the cost – the cost of limiting access to so many people, and the cost of time papers spent languishing in review (something that I think greatly impedes progress in science and medicine) – and that we can create a much, much better system that, rather than clinging to a system optimized for last century’s technology, takes advantage of the amazing advances in communication the internet enables.

PLoS ONE is a step in this direction – but it is not the final step. What we need next is a system in which the import, impact, audience, etc… of papers are assessed and recorded by editors and reviewers at the time of publication, and re-assessed throughout the useful lifetime of the paper. This would be infinitely easier if we had more talented editors working with is to figure out how to do this effectively, rather than looking constantly for ways to pick apart and demean what we’re trying to do to make science better.

And we get to the root of what this post was about — if a well-funded university has ratcheted down its content acquisition and licensing budget so significantly that researchers there can’t get their work done (access the information they need) despite it being produced, and those content producers can’t get compensated fairly for their investments in all the things they do, we are on a slippery slope downward. Your answer is PLoS ONE, which removes many of the facets of a journal (diminished filtration, lackluster designation) in order to reach a low-cost solution, further greasing the slope.

Studies have found that 90% of researchers can get the information they need, and access inside the subscription model has never been easier, and is getting easier all the time. That said, there’s nothing wrong with asking people who benefit from using information to pay for its use. In fact, it should be a fair trade, and that’s what creates a market. You’re asking for a price of “free” to suffice, with your trade coming with funders, who are buying access to your publishing services. That’s a completely different market, and one I believe has many pitfalls long-term, including an emphasis on costs (and believe me, funders love to squeeze costs out of systems — this is a major reason why library budgets are shrinking).

As for papers languishing in review, sometimes slower processes yield better quality. I’ve known of papers sent back because the reviewers and editors wanted more follow-up to believe the effect was real. Ten years later, the paper, with all that follow-up, re-appeared, was published, and was a major milestone in the literature. If the first one had been published, the finding may have never been replicated because the results were too murky for another funder to support.

Actually, the “age of print journals” invented peer-review and a well-attuned quality and relevance signaling system, which is why papers flow often from the perceived top of any field down to whatever niche they generally belong. There is nothing wrong with this. Do you think we should have one university (University of Phoenix), because it makes no sense for researchers and academics to work hard to get positions at Stanford or Harvard? There should be no incentives for truly exceptional work?

“The current structure of scientific publishing is as much about serving authors as it is about serving readers.” I don’t think that’s true yet to any major degree, nor should it be, but I believe you want it to be the case; and your belief in this is precisely the source of my strong suspicion that the OA approach will ultimately be viewed as an expensive and misguided detour toward something better. But to get to that, we need to restore the essential fairness of “content is valuable, so content has a price, and users of the content should pay that price.”

This post was about how various players in the information space are witting or unwitting participants in the deterioration of content businesses. Because you are running a content business that has explicitly removed quality aspects for viability, I believe you are part of that deterioration. Not the sole source — there are many sources, and many factors, with the 30-year deterioration of library funding being a major root cause and things like OA probably just a symptom of that.

I don’t think anyone else is listening anymore, but I’m fascinated by your apparent belief that the value exchanged in the scientific literature is between readers and publishers. Surely you must see that the true exchange is between readers and authors, with publishers at best a useful conduit. Yet you seem constantly to imply that publishers are creating content and deserve to be paid for it, ignoring the fact that publishers play virtually no role in creating this content – they don’t come up with the ideas, they don’t fund it, they don’t provide a place for it to be carried out, they do none of the work, they don’t write the papers and they do only a small part of the assessment, the rest being carried out by members of the community. If content is king, and the creators of content deserve to be paid for what they have created, then publishers are literally stealing billions of dollars a year from content creators. If you really believe this than you are worse than any record label in the history of music – it’s as if they were taking all of their content for free from musicians and giving them absolutely nothing except the prestige of having a record made and being played on the radio. The only way in which one can not view scientific publishing as a ten billion dollar a year theft is to recognize that it is not at all like music, movies, books or any other content industry, because, unlike in all these other cases, the content producers are being paid to produce content for the public good, and to release this knowledge so that others can build on and benefit from it. There is no need to compensate content producers for the content they have produced, because they already have been compensated. Yes, we need to pay the middlemen – publishers – who play a role in disseminating this information. But to treat them as content producers is totally and completely ridiculous.

I’m not implying that at all, and never have said that. In fact, I’m quite clear on the distinction, even if many people aren’t. I’m implying that publishers provide an objective third-party assessment function, whip content into shape, help it find its appropriate outlets, provide infrastructure and functions researchers would be foolish to provide themselves, shepherd the literature responsibly across generations of researchers and new technologies, and so forth. Scholarship is a different market. Publishers create the venues for prestige and priority. Some venues are better, some are worse, and sometimes, venues shift. That’s market behavior. Trying to drain a market of its value on the false premise that valuable information should be free is completely irresponsible behavior. And you also sell access at PLoS — it’s just access to your version of a priority and prestige system. My point is that you’re undervaluing this in two ways — by not putting all the elements of quality into what it could be (except maybe for your premier journals, but even then, copyright is missing); and by not charging based on pursuing the value you’re creating. In essence, you’re undervaluing what publishers do, but you’re religiously devoted to that attitude. I can’t change that. Irrational market behavior seems to be in your blood.

What authors have you paid lately? I’ve never charged an author of a scholarly report a dime in my life to publish their articles. Why do you? Oh, because it has cost, not because it has value.

It’s very clear that when you call a legitimate marketplace “theft” that you don’t understand value exchanges, especially those in scholarly communication.

I didn’t call it theft – I was saying that the logical extension of your focus on rewarding content creators was that publishers who take content from them without compensation are stealing their work.

Your refusal to recognize the reality that the money that pays for your journals comes from the same pool as the money that pays for open access journals leads you to make all sorts of ridiculous assertions about PLoS drawing down research budgets while subscription publishers enhance them, and prevents you from recognizing that paying publishers through subscriptions is only one way to compensate them for the services they provide the research community, and that other ways might accomplish more for everyone involved.

You can have the last word. We’re wasting our time here.

Most of the funds in overheads like those you’re thinking of actually go to fund staffing at libraries — some figures have it at 65% or so. Librarians are part of the scholarly research ecosystem, and help researchers all the time. Only a small part of overheads goes to subscriptions, and even then, the subscription fees usually go back to scholarly non-profits, making it a self-reinforcing system. There is currently no way for PLoS to recycle the funds it receives back into the scholarly environment, except for developing journals that overall devalue the entire system by supporting CC licenses that allow for free use and driving revenues down by adhering to a low-cost model that doesn’t reflect the value delivered. Weakening publishers is not a good thing, and devaluing what publishers do is not a good thing. I’m afraid I think you’re doing both, which is (not a good thing) x 2.

You got a reference for that 65% number? When I looked at the UC stats > 60% went to acquisitions.

And this is the beauty of fungible assets, like grants and overhead allocations, and the like. The 65% number I found was what a couple of other major universities said they did. So, some people throw it against acquisitions, some against staff, etc. But if you think overheads aren’t part of grants and always will be, I think you’re wrong. We might as well take them off the table, because the universities won’t give them up. No matter what, they’re compensating for something else in their budgets.

It doesn’t work that way. Overheads are not fungible. Universities have to justify every dollar they get, and they are carefully audited. Remember the scandals when Don Kennedy was head of Stanford? The overhead amount changes over time, and there is no guarantee that the hundreds of millions that go to libraries are a permanent fixture, nor should they be. As point of reference, HHMI used to give fairly generous block grants for libraries to universities that had HHMI investigators. But as publishing changed, and HHMI became supporters of OA, they stopped these block grants in favor of giving their investigators supplements to support OA charges. Result – less money for acquisitions, but better access to HHMI funded research.

“The only way in which one can not view scientific publishing as a ten billion dollar a year theft is to recognize that it is not at all like music, movies, books or any other content industry, because, unlike in all these other cases, the content producers are being paid to produce content for the public good, and to release this knowledge so that others can build on and benefit from it.” So Mr. Eisen here admits that his arguments work ONLY for science (if then). But then he goes on to criticize recording labels. I’m confused. I want to be sympathetic to the argument, but the scientific worldview is so narrow and distorted by hubris that its “logic” falters once applied outside a very, very limited sphere. Not that it matters: soon my singularity will be melded into the grand sphere of memes in any case!

It was an analogy. You know. Like you find in all those novels you read.

I was pointing out the absurdity of Kent’s suggesting that open access is bad because it doesn’t reward the “creatives” in science, who, under the system he cherishes, receive no compensation – which is AS IF record labels gave no money back to musicians.

Researchers and academics don’t need (and shouldn’t get) financial compensation for publishing their results. They have non-rival and non-excludable information (research results, which until published, might also be in the process of being discovered elsewhere). By publishing the information, it becomes rival and excludable (priority and prestige are established). This leads to beneficial outcomes for them personally and professionally, but these are indirect, which is as it should be. Rewards need to be modulated to diminish the chances of fabrication and exaggeration, which already occur far too frequently even in a system with such indirect rewards — yes, the incentives are already so strong that some people lie, cheat, and steal to attain them. And you want to add direct financial payments to this? Wow.

Publishers create and maintain and improve the system of scholarly communication. Over the past decade, it’s been improved tremendously, and the value delivered to customers is much higher — digital archives, new online services for authors and readers, education online, faster publication, and much more. These innovations were possible because there were financial incentives and knowledge of constituencies. You want a system that caters to authors instead of readers; recovers costs but not the value created; turns over content to technology companies for them to use freely to drive their own businesses; reduces the number of addressable markets for publishers to one (authors); and undercuts the value of the entire system, which only leaves options on the table like diminish quality, reduce ambition, eliminate jobs, or cease innovation. I think that’s foolish.

Oh, yeah, don’t analogies just suck when you don’t know how to use one (“science” defined)? Anyway, I’ll leave you to stew in the comfort of your own smugness. Goodbye.

It’s regrettable that this comment thread has devolved into a barroom brawl. I don’t wish to engage the issues again, but I do wish to correct a common misperception. What is the profitability of journals? It was suggested in this thread that profit is about a third of sales. That is true for only a small number of publishers, and big publishers at that. It’s not even clear whether journals publishing as a whole is profitable. Elsevier makes huge profits, but the big publishers account for only about 25% of all journals. I have worked with many journals that are subsidized by their parent societies. Nothing in my remark denigrates small society publishers or the outstanding work of PLoS. I am myself looking forward to the launch of PeerJ. And I am a Kitchen contributor. We don’t all speak with the same voice. The comments about the Kitchen’s point of view assume a unanimity that is not there.

I wonder if anyone who is NOT a scientist has any regard whatsoever for any culture that is NOT scientific. It seems to me that when discussing publishing models, scientists have only one culture in mind: their own. Needless to say, I know many scientists who do not read anything longer than 5,000 words and probably have not read a novel that wasn’t published by a major press — if they’ve read any at all. That is for a reason. A reason I doubt that scientists can ever understand. What this thread proves to me is that “culture” has become entirely scientific. That’s sad, but oh well. We’ll all be cyborgs soon if PLoS ONE, Genomics, Google, and Lessig have their ways!

I know. Don’t you just long for the middle ages when all anyone did was sit around and read novels. Technology sucks.

Incidentally, can you name ONE novel written in the middle ages? I doubt it, because they were not even invented yet. So much for (some) scientists’ claim to intelligence!

Kent, you’ve taken much time trying to make a point because you have a broader understanding of the matter. Most of those refuting your arguments are doing so by countering only bits and pieces of information of the whole article (somehow engaging into logical fallacies – for their own benefit). Your point is and remain that society will be worse-off considering the trend – the cacophony that will result from OA will definitely make the whole internet become a World Wide Wikipedia (jabber jabber without validation, proof or standard). Same way a customer service representative provides lower grade service after a salary cut, the scholars will spend less time on research either because of lack of motivation or time deficiency (trying to earn a living doing some other activity)… all this coupled with an increased number of reviewers of lower grades and you get a really owned “WTF did I just read?”….

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