A couple of months ago, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) released a white paper by Dr. David Shulenberger, an economist and Senior Fellow of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. In that paper, Shulenberger argues that a systemwide “flip” from journal subscription charges to article-processing charges (APCs) would result in higher costs to the system overall — that such a “flip” would, in fact, constitute a “cure that [is] worse than the present disease.”
The author’s position is framed as a response to what he sees as the two basic arguments offered by those in favor of a systemwide flip to APCs:
- Since APCs are based on the cost of processing articles rather than on determinations of demand in a free market, they should be both lower and less prone to increase than subscription costs.
- For hybrid journals, “some research university libraries have calculated that, had the APC route of acquisition (rather than the subscription route) been followed when their faculty published, university total outlay to obtain the same amount of scholarly communications would have been smaller.”
Shulenberger contends that both of these arguments are false. As for the second one, I confess that I find his presentation of it rather garbled and can’t tell for sure whether it’s valid or not — and since he provides no links or citations to examples of what he’s talking about (indeed, he provides no support anywhere for any of his characterizations of others’ arguments or findings), I can’t refer to any such examples for clarification.
But his first point is easier to comprehend, and, as it turns out, seems to be rooted in a radical misapprehension of some basic truths about the marketplace for scholarly journals. (For additional discussion of this point, see Jeffrey MacKie-Mason’s fine rebuttal.)
Shulenberger’s argument is that authors have no market power in the journal marketplace, because they are required to publish in “highly respected journal(s) within their discipline(s).” This, he believes, puts the journal publisher in the driver’s seat: if you control the “highly respected” publishing venue to which authors want access, you get to set the price of access and authors have no choice but to pay it. In Shulenberger’s words, a flip to APCs would create a system “that is still characterized by monopoly power on the seller’s [publisher’s] side but one where there is zero market power on the buyer’s [author’s] side.” And this argument would make a great deal of sense if there were, in fact, only a single journal in every discipline in which tenure-seeking authors must publish in order to advance their careers. But unless this is the case, Shulenberger’s argument is fatally flawed.
And of course, it is not the case, as anyone reasonably familiar with the marketplace for scholarly journals would know.
Consider, for example, the field of biology. A complete lack of competition among high-prestige biology journals — in other words, the existence of only a single prestigious biology journal — would support Shulenberger’s argument with regard to that discipline, because tenure-seeking authors would have no choice of submission venue and that single prestigious journal would be able to demand high APCs with impunity. However, the existence two prestigious biology journals would significantly undermine his argument in that discipline (because the existence of an additional prestigious biology journal would introduce an important competitive element that would tend to drive down APCs in that discipline). And the existence of three or more such journals would undermine his argument radically.
So what does the marketplace of biology journals look like — are there multiple highly-prestigious journals to which authors can submit their work for publication, in the reasonable hope that publishing in any one of them will advance their careers? The answer, of course, is yes: Nature, Science, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Physiological Reviews are only a few; in biology’s many subdisciplines there are quite a few other desirable, high-prestige publishing venues as well.
Many other scientific and humanistic fields show a similar competitive dynamic, with multiple journals offering high-prestige publishing opportunities:
- Journal of the American Medical Association
- New England Journal of Medicine
- American Journal of Sociology
- Social Forces
- American Sociological Review
- Critical Inquiry
- Deleuze Studies
- Postmodern Culture
- Physical Review
- American Journal of Physics
- Journal of Computational Physics
- Annual Review of Anthropology
- Human Nature
- Current Anthropology
In other words, Shulenberger is right to observe that in an APC-funded journal marketplace, “a journal funded by APCs would be expected to literally charge what the market would bear.” But he’s wrong to believe that in such a market, any individual journal would enjoy monopoly control over what the buyers (i.e. authors) want (i.e. a prestigious publication venue). The market for publishing services would actually be more competitive than it is now — because in addition to competing with each other for authors in a prestige market (trying to offer the most attractive publication venue), as they do now, publishers would also be competing for authors in an APC market (trying to offer the most attractive price for their publishing services). This new element of competition would tend to push APCs down, not up. Whether this pressure would ensure that APCs either become or stay reasonably low is a separate question, of course, the answer to which will depend on multiple factors and will surely vary from discipline to discipline. But in most scholarly and scientific disciplines, there really are multiple prestigious journals, and in an APC-based system there would be meaningful price competition between them.
Now, it would tempting to assume (as Shulenberge does in his paper) that in an APC-based journal publishing ecosystem, one area from which competitive pressure would disappear would be in the marketplace for content access that currently exists: one in which the buyers of scholarly publications are libraries and individual journal subscribers shopping for the best deals on subscription prices. But in fact, competition from that direction is largely illusory in the current system, and it’s not primarily because (as Shulenberger contends) of “the consolidation of top journals into the hands of fewer and fewer publishing entities” — although that dynamic certainly hasn’t helped. What really undermines price competition between journals is the fact that each journal enjoys a pure monopoly over its product (a unique set of content). For an author, placing an article in either the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) might be enough to move her towards tenure; thus there is meaningful competition between those two journals in the marketplace for authors’ content. But a medical library does not have the same freedom of choice: invariably, it will have to subscribe to both. Why? Because while JAMA and NEJM may offer articles in the same research discipline, they are not competing sellers of the same basic product, as two car manufacturers or two toothpaste makers are. The articles in an issue of JAMA are not a good substitute for those in an issue of NEJM, because they contain completely different information. JAMA and NEJM are not like two different brands of toothpaste; one is toothpaste, and one is dental floss.
For libraries, this means that when faced with faculty demand for JAMA, they won’t be able to satisfy that demand by offering NEJM instead — even though both are excellent medical journals. In fact, where there’s demand for NEJM there will almost certainly be a need for JAMA as well. And this means that when selling to content access to subscribers, journal publishers are operating in a market of complements rather than one of substitutes. This is one of the reasons journal prices have risen they way they have over the past decades: to the degree that your customer base consists of libraries charged with building research collections, there is little effective competitive pressure on journal prices. (The same isn’t true for databases and aggregator packages, which often do offer similar or substantially identical packages of information, and therefore do experience meaningful price competition.)
There’s one other point in Shulenberger’s essay that needs to be addressed: his contention that “flipping from subscriptions to APCs changes the incidence of cost from libraries to individual authors, regardless of whether the APC charge is reimbursed or not.” This is nonsense. A cost that is paid by the author from funds provided for that purpose by some other entity is, therefore, a cost not borne by the author. The author may be the one writing the check in this scenario, but that doesn’t mean the author is bearing the cost; it means only that the author is acting as the administrator of payment. Furthermore, the idea that an APC-based system would necessarily shift costs away from the library is mistaken: under some proposals it would, and under others it would not. (Interestingly, Shulenberger seems to believe that APC subventions come only from authors’ institutional employers; in fact, APCs are very often paid out of grant funds.)
I realize that all of this may make it sound like I’m taking the side of those who argue for an entirely APC-based journal publishing system. I’m not. For me the jury is still very much out on this question, and none of what I’ve said above is intended to advocate for an entirely APC-based journal publishing ecosystem. I don’t know whether such a system would be better than the current one, or that it would necessarily lead to lower costs throughout the system. Much more analysis needs to be done before anyone can safely assert either that it would or it wouldn’t. But Shulenberger’s argument against it is based on mistaken assumptions and apparent ignorance of fundamental realities of the publishing marketplace, and simply doesn’t hold water.