One of the strengths of the Scholarly Kitchen is that it’s a group blog, written by individuals who don’t always agree. This is something that is often misunderstood, and you’ll regularly find us arguing with one another in the comments section of each article. Usually we leave it at that, but something in a recent article by Kent Anderson struck me as both inaccurate and unfair, and that problematic remark ended up obscuring an important point.
In Review: “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back”, Kent made the following point:
. . . companies like BioMed Central, PLoS, and PeerJ have emerged in our space. . . . Most significantly, none of these three entities currently cycles financial benefits back into the academic or research community.
BioMed Central, PLoS, F1000, Bentham, and dozens of others — return no revenues to the scholarly table
First, in the case of BioMed Central, the statements are inaccurate. While for-profit and owned by Springer, BMC does indeed publish journals that are owned by research societies and research institutions. Some of the profits from those journals are returned to the research community through those groups, as is the case for any other society journal publisher.
The statements are unfair in the case of PLoS. The Public Library of Science is a not-for-profit organization. Like all not-for-profits, PLoS must actually turn a profit to ensure its survival. Not-for-profits need excess funds in order to grow, to develop new offerings and technologies and to put aside in case of major upheaval or market shifts. PLoS has only recently had its first profitable year in 2010 (2011 numbers have not yet been released).
It’s unfair to demand that PLoS return excess funds to the community when it has only begun to generate those excess funds. Given the level of development and experimentation at PLoS, it’s unlikely that there’s much left over from those 2010 profits. They have likely been reinvested in PLoS itself, serving the community indirectly through the creation of new communication tools, things like article level metrics, open APIs, and whatever else PLoS has up its sleeve.
You can’t attack a company for doing something it hasn’t yet done. If at some point in the future, as PLoS continues on its upward trajectory, it starts hording cash beyond what it needs to continue to develop, grow, and survive, then one could make this sort of accusation. But that hasn’t happened yet, and given the nature of PLoS, I suspect that if profits reach that level, they will be returned to the community through philanthropic acts, donations, lowered APCs, etc. Keep in mind also that PLoS is facing a new wave of competition from eLife, PeerJ, F1000 Research, and others moving directly into their market space. Having a war chest of funds may be essential to their survival as market conditions may radically change.
I think Kent did have a reasonable point he was trying to make with the statement — there are publishers who do return the profits they make to the research community (not-for-profits, university presses, society publishers) and these should be contrasted with those who remove funds from the community, putting them instead into the pockets of shareholders and investors. The line between them can’t be drawn by looking at their open access (OA) policies. There are some OA publishers trying to siphon money out of the research community and into the bank accounts of venture capitalists and stockholders.
The poor choices of examples used and the combative tone ended up turning what could have been a provocative discussion in the comments into a bog-standard unproductive flamewar.
And that’s a shame, because there’s an important dilemma facing the scholarly publishing world that could use further exploration. We want things to progress, we want new tools to be developed, new discovery mechanisms, new ways of using and re-using the literature. But these things don’t come cheaply. Big changes require significant investment. In order to motivate that level of investment, we have to offer rewards to those taking the risk.
The question, then, is how to balance the rewards offered with a desire to limit profiteering. If we prevent the Elseviers of the world from reaping their profits, then they don’t spend the money necessary to create SciVerse, nor do they do all the interesting things they’re doing with APIs and encouraging app creation. If publishers can’t profit from journals, then they can’t pay for the promising new semantic technologies under development. A world without profit is seemingly a world with a lot less innovation.
The subject came up in a recent comments thread following Judy Luther’s piece about altmetrics. We see a horde of new startups, many privately-owned and for-profit, working to develop new metrics, ways to improve upon and replace the impact factor. Innovation will come faster if those companies are offered the carrot of profits as a reward for their hard work. At the same time, the scholarly community cannot afford to allow itself to become solely dependent upon a for-profit service that can change the rules and change the levels of transparency and access at the whims of investors.
There’s no easy answer here.
Another good example can be found in recent OA mandates. The RCUK mandate requires that papers be released under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. This means the articles can be re-used for commercial purposes without any compensation to the author or the publisher. The idea behind it is to spur innovation, to drive the creation of new businesses based on re-use of the literature. The problem is that it also removes any motivation on the part of the publisher for improving the articles, updating them as new technologies come along that make them easier and more informative for that re-use. Why bother building open APIs, creating systems to easily allow mass downloads, when there’s no return offered on your investment? Why strive to improve an article’s metadata when you’ve already been paid all you’re ever going to be paid for the article in question?
In this case, the scholarly community might be better served by thinking in terms of compulsory licensing. Mandates could require that non-commercial re-use should remain free, but for those intent on using journal content as raw material to make a fortune, a fair and affordable price is set for that raw material. Think of the small fees a radio station pays each time it broadcasts a particular song. This compromise would still enable businesses to be created from content re-use while at the same time motivate publishers to drive that re-use forward.
And that brings us full circle back to the important message of the book Kent was reviewing in the article that caused such a commotion. The growing business strategy of our era is to drive the cost of everyone else’s product to zero in order to make more money from your own product. If you can convince the world that the raw material you need to get rich should be free, then it’s easier (and cheaper) for you to get rich. It’s a great business model if you’re on the side where you’re getting things for free. It’s not so great if your livelihood has been devalued by others trying to cash in.
And most importantly, this imbalance stifles innovation and creation. If we want great new music to enjoy, we have to pay musicians. If we want new tools for scholarly research and we want the literature to evolve in exciting new ways, we have to offer rewards for those willing to invest the effort and money needed to drive things forward. There’s a fair balance in there somewhere between “free” and “way too much.”