A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens o...
A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens on top of it, at the word “Internet” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes, I hear hopeful statements from publishing’s self-appointed saviors that the article economy or something like it will eliminate wasteful spending on content. These savings are portrayed as ultimately good for users and as something that puts publishers in their place. After all, why should users have to pay for things they don’t use? They should only have to pay for things they use.

But what if the things they use aren’t the goods in question, but the capabilities involved in making those goods? What if we’re talking about services and not products?

This came to mind in two instances recently.

The first occurred while I was helping my son with his French homework. My French is rusty. It was his first day back at school, so his was, too. Certain words stumped us, so I’d Google them, find them in a Collins online French-English dictionary, glean the meaning, and move on. Collins had sold some ads next to the definitions in an attempt to monetize their online content, which is otherwise free. There was very little waste — in our time, in pages traversed, or in attention. However, there was also missing the sometimes wonderful experience of zeroing-in on a word, during which other words — friends, neighbors, and rivals to the original — toy with your field of vision.

The second occurred talking with a cycling friend, who was looking for a cycling map of the Western part of our state. He and I had often used maps from a local company for Central and Eastern parts of the state, but I didn’t recall having one for the Western part. The reason he was looking for a loaner map is that the company that made the maps had gone out of business, a victim of Internet maps. This was a shame, because these cycling maps were excellent — detailed, helpful, and they listed ice cream shops you’d encounter on the way.

When you buy a dictionary or a map, you buy a lot of what some would call “waste.” There are words in that dictionary which you’ll never look up — common words, conjunctions, and obscure words you’ll never stumble across even if you read widely. There are roads on that map you’ll never take — they’re too congested, don’t lead to any destination of yours, or are simply dead ends.

But in buying these outputs from lexicographers and cartographers, are you really buying the dictionary or the map? Or are you supporting their capabilities and expertise by funding the service they provide? Is it a bit of both? And what if the price you pay supports the one but not the other? What if market pricing becomes purely focused on the wrong one?

Earlier this year, we asked whether publishers provide a product or a service. The answer is “it depends” — the difference is in what you sell. Some publishers sell products only; some sell services only; some sell a mix of the two. But in either case, publishers need to sustain both their products and their services.

When people talk about eliminating “waste” from the sales of information goods, they are usually talking about excess products. And in addition to usually dismissing the service continuum that provided the specific product, they are being subjective. What is one person’s wasteful product may not be another’s.

In “just in case” purchasing, waste only exists until the situation arises when you need something. It was a “waste” for the dictionary to have an entry for “mieux” until we needed it. The Internet provided this just in time, but its business model doesn’t yet support just in case. It is leveraging the excess of the older sales model through to what some hope will be a new way to support just in case — because, ultimately, “just in time” is simply a snapshot of “just in case.” And in this way, the argument about waste is fundamentally flawed because waste is often hard to define, unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and mostly non-existent over a long stretch of time.

Digital goods don’t eliminate waste, either. When you buy a computer, a broadband service, or software, there’s an illusion that you aren’t buying built-in waste. But there’s a lot of waste involved in all of these purchases — broadband sits idle for hours in a day; computing capacity goes untouched by your minimal use of basic programs; and software isn’t pushed to its limits or explored for its full value. Does this “waste” invalidate the value of these purchases?

Our fealty to the digital misinforms many perceptions of value. Does a $3 map of half a state really have a worse value equation than a $400 smartphone that is occasionally used for mapping? Does a $14 dictionary really have a worse value equation than a $95/month broadband account that’s used at 15% of its capacity and only occasionally to look up words? This is the magic of retail — to make the new form of waste seem more attractive than the old forms.

Digital goods are often digital services — from broadband to cloud software to your email address. It’s not entirely clear that you even own the songs in your iTunes library — at least not enough to bequeath them to your children. At least, that’s what Bruce Willis might be finding out. Part of this has to do with technology churn — I might own the songs on my old 8-track tapes, but good luck using them. Part of this has to do with the terms of use, and how those terms either contain little limitations or can be changed. In essence, it’s not clear whether your iTunes songs are goods or services. In some cases, that determination is highly conditional.

Maybe you’re just renting those songs after all.

We also seem to believe that digital services are infallible, or at least perfectible. Yet, GPS systems routinely fail us in small and annoying ways. And graphical systems expose their limitations on a regular basis, such as the maps of airplane flight paths that look clogged only because the airplanes are completely out of scale (as you zoom out, the planes stay about the same size, so one plane is about the size of a major metropolitan area by the time you can see an appreciable number on-screen). So far, I have yet to meet a digital system that works infallibly. They are still an extension of us, and are imprinted with our limitations.

Usage reports at institutions are an attempt to quantify value by identifying waste — if the per-use cost of a title exceeds a certain level, that title gets a closer look before renewal. However, there is a fatal flaw with this approach, one that most librarians fully appreciate. The fact is that one download of the right PDF at the right time by the right person may completely justify not only the expense of the subscription to the title in question, it may also justify the library budget that year — a researcher makes a breakthrough that leads to huge new grants; an administrator finds ways to generate newfound philanthropic support; or a professor gains inspiration to restructure a department and attract a whole new class of undergraduates.

The caution librarians exercise in the management of their collections speaks to another constant they know intuitively, if not explicitly — that publications, as proxies for their fields, go through cycles. I’ve lived through months and years at scientific publications that yielded very little interesting science — mostly incremental findings or uninteresting negative findings. Then, a few months on, a set of reports comes through that revolutionizes the field and sets off a spate of debate, insights, and extrapolations that light the field on fire for a while. If the capability to handle these high points is scuttled because of impulsive reactions to the “waste” perceived during the low points, the unintended consequences could be devastating to a community. Worst, they may never know what they missed.

This is where brands mitigate the harsh calculus of waste — brands earn loyalty and patience. Neither is infinite, but a strong brand is less likely to be canceled or abandoned over a slump or a dry spell. This goes for brands of all types — athletes, actors, musicians, journals, authors. As one person who would know once stated, “has been” is the same as “once was, and might again.”

Our ability to anticipate needs is notoriously poor. In fact, the notion that you can know in advance just how much information or how many ideas you will need is a fantasy. Intellectual work is inherently extravagant and therefore wasteful. You need to read more broadly and discursively than you first imagined; you’ll find the best idea in the strangest place; the observation that makes the difference often seems like serendipity; and so forth. Starving intellectual work in the pursuit of product or service efficiency is akin to saving yourself poor.

I’ve written before about the hidden costs of computing and digital technologies, many of which are energy costs. Perhaps we should also become more cognizant of the waste inherent in digital technologies — the vampire power, the underutilized services, the untapped capacity. Or, perhaps, we can accept that our mental model of “waste” is wrong — that what we’re paying for isn’t what we use, but the potential and availability of utility, the associated convenience and assurances, and the expanded boundaries necessary for true intellectual awareness and work. Then, we are supporting not only the producers of goods and services, but our own unpredictable needs and inherent limitations.

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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.


24 Thoughts on "Dictionaries, Maps, and Waste — Thoughts on Publishing Economics, Digital Economics, and Human Frailty"

This reminds me of a running debate I have with a colleague over energy efficiency and cars. Every time he sees an SUV with only the driver in it he deems it waste. I point out that one’s car has to be sized for the maximum capacity use, not the minimum, so it will often be used at less than full capacity. The alternative would be to have many cars, of different capacities, which would be far more wasteful economically, even though more energy efficient. He does not listen, as he is fixated on energy efficiency, not overall efficiency.

So too it may be with those who think that publishing articles that are never read is wasteful. It is the efficiency of the system that counts, not the efficiency of each instance, action or item. The former is not the simple sum of the latter.

But this idea that research areas have highs and lows, then highs again, is very interesting. I am not sure it is being properly studied. There is a lot of work on spotting emerging new Ideas and fields, including by my team. But that the importance might oscillate up and down repeatedly is not something I have seen studied. Maybe I have missed it, but if not then it could be important.

That’s a great way to think about efficiency for cars, and it had never occurred to me except perhaps subconsciously.

To your other point, my experience working on the publishing side with a lot of insight into the editorial functions is that there are waves of research that sweep through, with lulls of incrementalism breaking them up — and sometimes downright tedium. Then, of course, there’s the rare storm of breakthroughs that can seemingly last for months without a break. I agree, I haven’t seen this studied except through the observation as a proxy that most impact factors consist of a few big papers with a long-tail of minor papers filling out the citation counts. To me, that’s evidence that there are highs and lows in the literature. Plotting those against a timeline might provide some insights, especially across journals in the same field. If things lined up, and then you plotted that against funding decisions from prior years . . .

Even citation counts may be misleading in this context. I use the metaphor of the prospector and the miner. The prospector finds the valuable ore deposit but it is the many miners who dig it out. No single miner’s efforts compare to the prospector’s strike but without them collectively the great discovery would be useless. So a breakthrough may be followed by a lot of smaller efforts that develop it into a full grown research area, by using it to explain the world in detail. But only the breakthrough gets highly cited.

This is just a scaled down version of the Kuhnian distinction between revolutionary and normal science, and I believe it so scales. We cannot all be revolutionaries. Most of us have to do the detailed work, so “minor” may be the wrong word. The miner’s work is not minor.

Once again it is the system that needs to be understood, not the individual efforts. And you are quite right that this issue has major implications for funding decisions. For example, we may spend too much money trying to create breakthroughs whose time has not yet come.

The alternative would be to have many cars, of different capacities, which would be far more wasteful economically, even though more energy efficient.

Actually, of course, there are alternatives: carpooling/ridesharing/slugging, whereby people with no vehicle capacity (i.e., no car) use the otherwise unused capacity of people with surplus vehicle capacity, and the car share. If you belong to a car share, you can have your own little car for normal use and rent a bigger one when you need more capacity; you can have no car of your own at all and rent one on those occasions when you need it. (Thus was the U-Haul empire born, apparently.) Obviously this model works best in places where the infrastructure is friendly to transportation options other than the personal vehicle — where I live, vehicle-sharing is popular enough that we have two competing car-share companies and a bike-sharing scheme, but that’s because we also have high-ish population density, sidewalks, and fairly workable public transit. (But don’t ask me about bike lanes.)

I haven’t had enough caffeine yet today to be able to tie this back to journal publishing, but maybe someone else can tackle that one…

Or, perhaps, we can accept that our mental model of “waste” is wrong — that what we’re paying for isn’t what we use, but the potential and availability of utility, the associated convenience and assurances, and the expanded boundaries necessary for true intellectual awareness and work.

This perception is incredibly commonsensical to young people, although I’m not sure we know how to articulate it. That’s not to say, however, that judgments aren’t still being made about value relative to cost. I have lots of friends who don’t have cable TV, for example, because even the potential for use (relative to their lifestyles) isn’t worth the cost (relative to their income).

Yes, but we all work to create the possibility of excess in our lives. I don’t know of many people who want less as they mature. I think we’re seeing the modern equivalent of what was the “rabbit ears” phase of young adulthood in my day — now, it’s the Hulu phase or similar. It will pass as the careers progress. If you’re also only using a landline because cell phone contracts don’t make sense to you, I’ll eat my words.

Kent, I definitely thought I was agreeing with you, so I’m not sure I understand why it seems like you’re arguing with me.

My point was that I think the world is shifting toward valuing potential instead of actual use in the way that you advocate. My evidence for that is my own experience on the older edge of the digital native generation and what I’ve noticed in people five or ten years younger, particularly people who are only very recently starting to make their own economic decisions (recent college graduates entering the workforce, grad students).

And I don’t think that this basic cultural ideology is something that belongs to the shifting category “young people” (i.e., whoever is under thirty at any given time). Rather, I think it is something that will stay with today’s young people (those born in the early/mid-’80s and later) even as they age.

I guess maybe I’m contesting your use of “our” in “our mental model of ‘waste,'” since I don’t see myself or my age peers ever having shared that ideology of waste. But this is a slight quibble with your basic premise, with which I agree.

Thanks, Joel. I didn’t mean to sound argumentative. I misread your comment a little, however. Sorry about that.

There was recently a great interview on Fresh Air with Frank Langella, who went on eloquently about how writing back and forth to each other really damages our abilities to hear and understand each other. QED.

Yes. Totally true. Especially when we’re trying to summarize complicated thoughts in a couple paragraphs in between trying to be actually productive in our day jobs in a “fast-paced deadline-driven” industry.

Apply your logic to PDA and you have a good argument as to why PDA may be “wasteful” in the larger sense. Viewed narrowly, as Rick Anderson likes to do, PDA makes very good sense for individual libraries. But if the ultimate result of PDA will be to drive university presses out of business, the valuable service that these presses provide will be lost, and what will then be the system that replaces them? It also not infrequently happens that a book originally published for a tiny market, which would not show up on the PDA radar, becomes phenomenally successful later. Case in point: the translation of the I Ching published in the Bollingen Series (originally by Pantheon and later by Princeton University Press) was viewed as a very esoteric work with a market only among a handful of specialists–i.e., until the hippies in Haight Asbury discovered it and made it PUP’s all-time best seller!

Sandy, you can characterize my view of PDA as “narrow” if it makes you feel better; I would prefer to characterize it as the “view from the ground, where the money is spent.” Kent makes good points about the dynamics of waste at the system level. The problem is that decisions about resource allocation aren’t made (nor the consequences of those choices experienced) at the system level; they are made and experienced at the level of the individual author, reader, publisher, and library. If my library pays $80 for a UP title that then sits on the shelf and is never used by a patron of my library, was that money (and the staff time to process it, and the space to house it) wasted? Kent would say “Not necessarily; that expenditure may well have created value that is experienced elsewhere and maybe even experienced indirectly by your patrons.” You would say “Not at all; that expenditure helped to prop up the valuable industry of scholarly publishing.” Fair enough. But there’s a problem: my library’s mission is much more specific than either of those, and my library’s resources are severely limited.

This means that when I spend $100 that does little or nothing to support my institution, I have to question whether I spent those $100 in the right way — even if that expenditure created real value elsewhere, or created some amount of indirect and non-obvious value, or helped to prop up a noble industry. Those external and indirect benefits may be real, but they provide cold comfort to the student or professor who has no access to something she really needs in order to do her scholarly work because I instead spent the money on something she didn’t need. It’s true that, as Kent puts it, “what is one person’s wasteful product may not be another’s.” But we on the library side are charged with spending our universities’ money in support of our universities’ patrons, which means that we can’t (and shouldn’t) give equal privilege to every person’s definition of “waste.” What our students and faculty experience as waste is (and must be) more relevant to our spending decisions than what a scholar in Wisconsin or a student in China experiences as waste.

To your (repeated) point about the I Ching, I’ll offer my (repeated) rejoinder: there is no book about which it cannot be said “Someday this book may change the world.” Since there is no book about which that cannot be said, that fact is of no help whatsoever when it comes time for my library to decide how it will spend its severely limited book-buying funds.

All of which is to say that rationality for libraries is calculated at the library level, appropriately enough. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, with respect to the plight of the revised dissertation, various subsystemic rational decisionmaking processes, when taken together, can result in dysfunctionality at the whole system level. It is not your problem as a librarian to solve, but somebody should be worrying about such dysfunctionality because sooner or later it will affect everyone in the system.

Rational behavior for every actor in the system is calculated at some level below that of the system as a whole. That’s why publishers don’t share revenues with each other, and libraries don’t deliberately pay double the list price for a book, and readers don’t buy three copies of a book when they only need one, and researchers don’t work on a volunteer basis. If any of those members of the system were to do those things, it would tend to strengthen the system as a whole. But it would also be absurd.

So, the question remains, Rick, who’s minding the store when it comes to the system as a whole? The manifest irrationality that exists at the system level has harmful consequences for all of the actors in the system, but nobody seems to be doing anything about it. This is true both treating a single university as a system and also treating universities collectively as a system. E.g., associations that represent different sectors of university activity take stands on various issues of public policy, but there is little to no attempt to harmonize those positions at the all-university level.

Sandy, can you tell us what such system-wide oversight might look like, or how it might be instituted? I ask sincerely: if you do have ideas along those lines, I think the Kitchen would be an excellent forum for discussion of them. Believe me, the discussion would be vigorous.

As far as harmonizing positions on “issues of public policy… at the all-university level”: I don’t know whether by “all-university” you mean across all units of a single university or among all universities as a group. Either way, the idea is ridiculous. Within a single university (at least any public one), trying to harmonize the positions of all units on any matter of public policy would be seen, correctly, as an inexcusable breach of academic freedom. If the librarians and physicists tend to disagree about the importance of OA, well, that’s what often happens when people are allowed to think for themselves. As for promoting such harmonization across universities… hoo boy. Good luck.

Actually, there have been major reports, like the National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication (1979) and many of those that come out of the National Academies of Science, that have attempted to get universities to act in more coordinated fashion, on issues ranging from copyright policies to support for the system of disseminating scholarly knowledge, but rarely does such harmonization follow. I don’t believe the bodies that produced these reports thought what they were proposing was “ridiculous,” but I am sure they all felt frustrated at the lack of uptake of their recommendations. One idea that Paul Courant and I have been pushing as a way to implement OA for scholarly monograph publishing is to use the already existing competition among universities for tenure-track junior faculty to goad universities into upping the initial grants they give these faculty sufficiently to include the cost of paying an OA fee to get their first book published. As Paul points out, an additional $20,000 added to this grant would be a mere drop in the bucket compared with the investment a university makes over the lifetime of a scholar’s career. Once one top university started down this path, others would be sure to follow because none would want to lose out on getting the best new faculty. Universities offer mega-salaries to top football coaches in this competitive fashion, so why not do so with star faculty also?

When you say that you and Paul have been pushing that idea, does it mean that there’s a proposal ready for public dissemination (or perhaps already disseminated)? Let’s have the details — I’ll be more than happy to build a Kitchen posting around your proposal, and let’s see if we can get some more conversation going about it.

The most recent forum where Paul pushed this idea was a special workshop convened by Robert Darnton last February at Harvard to discuss open access for scholarly book publishing. The focus of the workshop was a proposal that Frances Pinter has made, and partly implemented at Bloomsbury Academic, for OA monograph publishing, and she is now trying to gain support for it in a broader way; her idea is based on getting a library collective to support the “first copy” costs of publication. It thus involves setting up a whole new mechanism for getting to OA, whereas Paul and I think the easiest way to get there is to use the already existing system of competition among universities in giving grants to junior faculty. I don’t know whether Paul has published his paper anywhere. If he reads TSK, maybe he can let us know; or else you could ask him yourself.

What you’re semi-describing doesn’t actually sound to me like a system of harmonizing positions on issues of public policy across all universities — but again, if a proposal for doing something like that exists, by all means bring it here and let’s discuss it. (As opposed to suggesting that a proposal like that might exist and then suggesting that I go looking for it.)

The discussion of “waste” makes me think of term life insurance, preparations for 100-year storms and other “wasteful” efforts that actually make sense because the consequences of relatively rare events are so important. Sort of the flip-side, mirror-image of keeping lots of publishing potential running along on “minor” stuff so there is a strong channel for delivering really important news. I especially like the concerpt that “just in time” is a snapshot of “just in case.” What works for inventory control for a car manufacturer relies on agile suppliers responding with parts that meet a spec, hardly the case for publishing research.
For the record, I don’t want a car suited to my hypothetical maximum need, nor a house so sized.

“Or, perhaps, we can accept that our mental model of “waste” is wrong — that what we’re paying for isn’t what we use, but the potential and availability of utility, the associated convenience and assurances, and the expanded boundaries necessary for true intellectual awareness and work. Then, we are supporting not only the producers of goods and services, but our own unpredictable needs and inherent limitations.”

Every morning, I bemoan the incredibly shrinking newspapers that grace my front porch. I find very little news about the city council and neighborhood goings-on but an abundance of articles & pictures about the latest sports event or personality du jour. Your thesis is perfectly illuminated. With newspapers, it turns out that what we were paying for wasn’t really what we were buying. Now the whole edifice is about to come crashing down. The digital world (Craig’s list, mostly) did in newspapers but has no ways or mechanisms to replace them. And we’re all suffering for it.

This distinction makes no sense to me. But then I also don’t see myself in your assumed attitudes towards digital services either. Taking your argument to the physical realm, when I need a new wrench I’m glad there are wrench manufacturers and a market for wrenches. But I don’t expect to pay for the entirety of the possibility of wrenchness. Or even for the other wrenches I didn’t buy.

I’m coming late to this discussion and may not have perfect examples, but I worry that groups may judge libraries the way that Rick Anderson judges university presses with similar negative consequences for libraries. I could see a small academic institution where the the state library provides enough online resources for free and the students have enough money to buy their own books that the rational financial decision would be to close the library. At my own university, I select materials for the Romance languages. Funding is so tight that I have very little money for faculty requests. While the library has PDA for ebooks, language faculty find relatively little of use for their research since they need materials in foreign languages. I could see their wanting to have their departments recapture money to build a departmental collection. I’ve already written a column in Against the Grain that I don’t understand why they aren’t complaining. I had a student in my academic libraries course report on an article that deans are becoming less likely to support funding for the library because they believe that they could do more useful things for their colleges with the funding that would become available. Finally, I’m waiting for the college and university to discover that much use of the library is for quiet study space and computer access that might be provided much more cheaply by a unit without expensive librarians.

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