Mr. Market, the personification of the marketplace, has been credited with many things. He matches buyers and sellers, strives for an efficient use of capital (and hence of human effort), and spurs various parties to compete with one another, with one outcome being improved goods and services. He has not, however, at least as far as I know, been given credit for one of his more daring cultural enterprises. He is as much Maxwell Perkins as he is the embodiment of free-market theory. Mr. Market is a brilliant editor. When we look for the finest publications, we should pay serious attention to what Mr. Market recommends.
Someone will immediately object, Isn’t the market precisely what got us into this mess in the first place? The burning of fossil fuels, the corruption of governments, economic inequality, and, not incidentally, the inability to get a timely customer service call from your cable provider! And we haven’t even gotten to Elsevier yet! I am no free-markets guy myself, but those who are critical of the marketplace would be advised to consider whether what they object to is a function of marketplace economics or their absence. This point was recently made incisively in an essay by Yale economist William Nordhaus in the New York Review of Books. Nordhaus notes that Pope Francis has it all wrong, that what the Pope pins on markets is in fact an indictment of interference in markets. I think there is little likelihood that this amiable Pope will become an economist or a Presbyterian, but if he continues to argue against modern economics, it will not be out of compassion but ignorance.
My personal discovery of Mr. Market’s editorial genius came about while researching altmetrics. And here I want to thank my fellow Kitchen Chef Phill Jones (he of two ells) for helping me navigate a rich, complex, and growing field. For those who are still not comfortable with the various forms altmetrics can take and their implications, I heartily recommend a white paper by Richard Cave, which is as good an overview as you are likely to find. My own view of altmetrics appeared on the Kitchen a while ago My conclusion: baseball does it better.
Altmetrics have come about because just about everybody is in full-throated agreement that Journal Impact Factor (JIF), the metric of yesteryear, is a crock (“In the light of ever more devious ruses of editors, the JIF indicator has now lost most of its credibility”). JIF has been derided because editors have learned to game the system, because it fails to include some journals, discriminates against new journals, focuses on journals instead of articles, was slow to pick up on the growing body of open access literature, is calculated over a short and arbitrary period of time, and takes the broad and complex matter of “impact” and tosses out such things as how many people read an article or how it has been shared across the wider scholarly community — and, for that matter, by interested laypeople. Impact factor, in other words, has been dismissed as virtually fraudulent by everyone except those who make decisions.
As feckless as the altmetrics movement has been to date (has anyone yet gotten tenure on the basis of their number of Twitter followers?), it is hard to argue with its underlying motivation and that is to broaden the measurement of scientific literature. Altmetrics, in other words, seeks to be an über-metric, not something dismissive of traditional notions of impact but rather a method of incorporating a large suite of various measurements all properly weighted.
I wish the altmetrics crowd the very best, but in the meantime it has to be said that such an über-metric already exists. It is called sales and its avatar is Mr. Market. How much is something worth? Well, let’s see. Let’s add up the number of citations to the number of Tweets, Facebook Likes, blog posts, downloads, Web page views — everything. We then observe that the world of scholarly communications, like it or not, operates in the marketplace where individuals and institutions make mostly rational decisions about how to allocate their capital. Do I purchase this journal or article or the other one? Mr. Market makes that decision, incorporating all metrics, and points readers to the literature of highest quality. To insist that Mr. Market is not a good editor is to argue that librarians are stupid and that the individuals who subscribe to publications directly don’t know what they are doing.
The problem that Mr. Market currently is having in doing his job is that no publisher wants the marketplace to work; they want to be able to control the marketplace, and in many instances they do. (With reference to the marketplace, John D. Rockefeller railed against “ruinous competition,” and he would know.) The Big Deal, for all its many virtues (lower cost per article, lower cost per download, reduced administrative costs, etc.) was conceived and is supported by the largest publishers not because it is a natural expression of the marketplace but of its corruption. Please go back and read that Nordhaus article again, and when you finish with that, take a look at Paul Krugman’s review of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism, which points to the problem of a lack of enforcement of anti-trust law. Librarians are not suffering because of Mr. Market but with him.
So let’s hear it for Mr. Market. He really deserves our support, at least if identifying the finest materials is our goal. And rather than work to find “alternatives” to the marketplace, perhaps we would do better to ensure that the marketplace is given the room to operate with its own natural rhythms.