Scholarly publishing has distinctive features we can improve — peer-review, editorial review, measuring impact, retraction and related policies and practices, ethical guidelines and enforcement, authorship integrity, archival integrity, and so forth. We’ve built important infrastructure to bring some of these things up to snuff for modern technology. We can continue to find ways to make these aspects and others even better so that researchers, scholars, students, practitioners, and the interested public have the best possible information from scholarly and scientific studies. Research reports are used by a growing cadre of professionals, which underscores the value of doing all these things as well as possible.

spiral stairs

Despite our best efforts, we can also fall prey to mimicry. By following the “information wants to be free” and producer-pays modalities of Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, we set ourselves on a course that has led to a confusing mess of business models without a clear purpose or a path to sustainability, while allowing barriers to entry to fall to the point that we have an entire oeuvre of publishers (le prédateur) causing people to question reputations and capabilities.

Another bad idea we seem to be mimicking is the economic “race to the bottom” — the tendency for people to want to pay as little as possible now for a finished good, because bargain-hunting saves them money in the short term, even if they intuit it will do damage in the long term, damage that will somehow affect them negatively directly or indirectly, and which could prove difficult to undo. It’s the “penny wise, pound foolish” way of assessing value.

The damage of “race to the bottom” financial and economic thinking in society at large can be seen in many ways, from cramped airliners to stagnant wages to cheap clothing to abandoned local storefronts to outsourced jobs and lower wages to the decimation of entire swaths of certain regions as consolidation has sucked jobs into urban power centers.

The United States provides startling examples of the trend and its effects wherever you look. A good overview can be found in Sarah Kendzior’s book, The View from Flyover Country. In potent, vivid brushstrokes, Kendzior captures the  pervasive and growing sense of alienation and desperation you’ll find in various towns and cities located hours away from the major airport hubs — small towns and mid-sized cities in Vermont, Ohio, California, Colorado, Wyoming, and Florida, or anywhere else gutted by the past 20 years of economic Darwinism.

Kendzior notes that people have largely been devalued in the modern pursuits of selfish greed, with effects across the board:

In the United States, 9 percent of computer science graduates are unemployed, and 14.7 percent of those who hold degrees in information systems have no job. Graduates with degrees in STEM . . . are facing record joblessness. . . . 76 percent of professors work without job security, usually for poverty wages. . . . Since 2009, most academic disciplines have lost 40 percent of their positions, while the backlog of qualified candidates continues to grow.

Media has become more concentrated and impoverished during this same time. The mainstream media has traditionally had an air of elitism about it, with New York, Washington DC, London, Los Angeles, and Paris serving as major centers of taste-making and culture. Prior to the past decade, a panoply of smaller yet vibrant and competitive media centers offset these major hubs — these were the Denver’s, the Chicago’s, the Atlanta’s, and so forth. With strong local papers (the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Pulitzers were as likely to show up there as anywhere, as the journalists and editors exposed local corruption, covered local disasters, and completed local investigations. Now, not only are those papers ghosts of their former selves, but there is a small and growing trend of Pulitzer Prize winners in smaller markets being forced to take jobs outside of journalism by the time their prizes arrive. This is a grim sign. More substantially, when journalism was viable in more small cities and towns, citizens knew a far more about local issues, with journalists covering civic meetings and events with watchful eyes. Who knows what is going on right now in many towns and cities?

The Internet has gutted these papers and others like them, swapping in Silicon Valley culture, disruptor ethics, and a disdain for paid content. Now, the vultures are descending to pick at the carcasses left in the wake. Recently, the Denver Post’s staff editors published an extraordinary set of editorials and stories defying their private equity funders, portraying them as exploitative profit-seekers with no higher goal than strip-mining the journalism of the Post for profit. A group of investors is trying to rescue the paper. Clearly, the paper has value that exceeds the vision of its current owners.

What was so striking about these Denver Post editorials and articles is that they could have been written by journalists in many cities and towns around the country. Local media, weakened by the concentration of ad dollars and eyeballs around a few major social and traditional media outlets, lies prone and helpless. New protectionist tariffs on Canadian paper supplies are already leading to more layoffs at some papers.

Of course, what started all this was an inflection point where thinking assumed media could be free, or sustained by online advertising. This was underscored by a belief that things could just be cheaper — had to be cheaper — and that fighting for every penny in discounting was smart shopping and smart economics. Increases in paper prices and wages can’t be passed on to readers with this mindset dominating the commercial environment, so it’s easier to fire people to save the money. And so the downward spiral continues.

The consequent economic descent has been so stealthy and unrelenting we hardly have had time to register and analyze it. In just two decades, benefits, wages, overheads, offices, and careers have been taken apart, downgraded, strip-mined, and suppressed in order for purchasers to pay less while profits stayed the same or improved.

It’s tempting to blame faceless corporate overlords for this, but I believe consumers are the actual culprits (and, in a sort of justice, victims). By being cheapskates, they have driven the bargains, supported the leaders, and tolerated the deals that are now coming back to haunt them.

Recently, there has been another outbreak of discount fever within academia, resulting in testy negotiations around national or regional licenses. Some publishers have decided it’s time to take a more hard-line stance when faced with non-paying customers, which has surprised some institutions accustomed to retaining access even during protracted negotiations. Other types of discount fever have presented with an elegant-appearing set of symptoms, such as the recent European University Association (EUA) “Big Deals Survey Report” asserting that a switch to OA publishing could save the EU millions of dollars per year in expenditures. (Oddly, the main assertion is not addressed or demonstrated in the “report,” despite news coverage claiming a major revelation.)

There are also quasi-commercial outbreaks of magical economic thinking backed by governments and funders, such as the Érudit platform in Canada, which promises a new, more affordable home for Canadian scholars. The publishing community is quietly wondering if the funders and government are creating a white elephant, while the fundamental drivers of expense in the system — volume, complexity, and technology — grind on.

In addition, nearly every discussion about APCs is either explicitly or implicitly about how low they can be. The fact that there is no “APC Plus” level that has emerged except via market power reinforces the notion that APCs must become cheaper and cheaper with time. Some of these assumptions are baked into projections, which are bound to prove unrealistic or inadvisable, take your pick. The recent claims by Frontiers that they anticipate a $2,000 APC on average illustrates a few tricks of the trade — tucking a 15.7% price increase within a claim of low pricing, bundling a range of prices in a single stated average, and claiming it’s all free somehow.

In the midst of this short-term thinking is a set of irreconcilable ideas, namely the idea that publishers have to charge less and do more.

In the midst of this short-term thinking is a set of irreconcilable ideas, namely the idea that publishers have to charge less and do more — manage more business models, deal with endless mandates and the related compliance complexity, review and reject more papers, invent and validate new impact measures, create and promulgate more and better technology, and support every little notion about research outputs academia can dream up, from text- and data-mining to open data.

As we know, the volume of research has exploded over the past 20 years as China’s output has surpassed that of the US or Europe, while those markets themselves have grown with increased emphasis on STEM and STEAM educational outcomes. This volume-based pressure on the system is well-documented, and accounts for 90% of the increases in prices that publishers have to pass along to institutions. There is little to do about this without inhibiting science as a whole. Even OA will not serve as a remedy for a very simple reason — OA does not remove the profit motive, from either commercial firms or non-profits (which still seek surpluses and net income, despite their classification). It’s important to be clear on this — double-digit returns are normal for most businesses, no matter the source of funds, the way an organization is formed (commercial or non-profit), or for any other reason.

One recent article captured short-term cheapness versus long-term support well, describing a set of Canadian universities opting to pay $236,000 for 160 titles versus $500,000 for 2,361 titles. While their expenditures fell by $264,000, their per-title price rose from $21 per journal to $1,475 per journal. Worse, the titles excluded were likely those that need the money the most — smaller titles in emerging fields, or social science titles — appealing to scholars and researchers who are already marginalized in some way, mainly because they’re interested in things outside the mainstream. (No scientific or cultural discovery ever came from someone working outside the mainstream.)

The level of cheapness reached by some has become truly staggering, with VSNU in the Netherlands creating and disseminating a document outlining ways to get access to content without paying, even to the point of suggesting Sci-Hub as a viable alternative. When cultural norms are flouted to this degree, we’re in trouble. (The next time you think cultural norms aren’t important, ponder the traffic light. Red lights don’t stop cars; cultural norms about red lights do.)

The changes to scholarly publishing over the past 20 years can be largely attributed to a system dealing with rising costs based on a rising volume of inputs without the commensurate increases in spending to support the volume and variety of outputs. Some of these changes have propelled some innovations, but I’m actually finding it difficult to think of any that have truly worked. What has worked are these following responses, which are still occurring:

  • Outsourcing editorial, production, and technology work to markets where labor is cheaper
  • Eliminating middle-management staff and substituting consultants as needed
  • Freezing salaries, reducing benefits, or both
  • Eliminating quality steps (copyediting, proofreading) and associated staff
  • Eliminating clerical, entry-level, and support staff
  • Acquiring companies with better margins to maintain overall profitability as core businesses are challenged on the expense side

An aside about eliminating certain types of jobs relates to how this disfavors diversification of the workforce. Kendzior’s book has compelling passages about what she terms the “credentialing” of society, which you can see when you look — teachers, police officers, and office workers who now need master’s degrees to qualify for the jobs they want. There is no longer a ladder to climb, but a credential to attain. This prohibits people without the means to spend time and money on school from contributing. Having an employment-based ladder allowed people to earn money while they learned, were promoted, and achieved. In practical terms currently, this new hurdle poses a barrier for exactly the people who would make the workforce more diverse. Well-off, well-positioned elites only cement their hold on power in a credentialing system. Think of how many great people you’ve worked with who didn’t have the “right” degree but had the acumen, hustle, wits, and smarts to run circles around others with degrees, and you see the more practical sacrifices a credentialing system imposes, as well.

“Credentialing” creates a barrier for exactly the people who would make the workforce more diverse.

There is also a cost to diversity writ large — consolidation is a major way to squeeze costs out of the system while reducing uncertainty by increasing market power. As a result of the race to the bottom, we now have what one group described not inaccurately as an “oligopoly of academic publishers.” Non-profits, university presses, and others are profoundly threatened by cost-cutting attitudes.

Stakeholders are also working in a vacuum, especially on the value side. One of the more striking findings in the otherwise unhelpful report from the EUA is that only 30% of negotiations with publishers involved university leadership. I’ve contemplated why this might be, and no possible explanation gives me any confidence that we’re on the right track to improving the perceived value of scholarly publishing in the academy.

The challenge with all of this is that we have two irreconcilable ideas — we want better scientific literature screening, review, and features, but many players in the market want to pay less than ever for these things.

Looking at the larger societal ways these irreconcilable ideas have resolved, it’s an ugly picture — a low-end of the market that just scrapes by, a gutted middle of the market that may never recover, barriers to economic mobility, and a top end of the market run by a few elite organizations that reflect the values of a limited set of people, places, and priorities. For the people involved, you have limited opportunities, stagnant salaries, job loss, and squandered careers and talent.

Scholars, scientists, and researchers seem to value:

  • Quality editorial processes
  • A comprehensible pecking orders of prestige and achievement they can navigate as needed
  • Friendly, supportive, knowledgeable staff at the publications they choose to work with
  • Rapid decisions or, lacking that, understandable processes with good communication
  • Help from experts so they can improve their research reporting
  • Help from experts so they can better promote their publication events
  • Help with OA mandates, funder policies, data policies, and other complexities of modern publishing
  • Trust that they can move on to do other things once they’ve published, and that their works will be safeguarded

If we continue to let short-term temptations to save money drive the conversation around value, nobody will get what they want or need from our market, and the scholarly information economy will ultimately shrink, become less diverse at the organizational and individual levels, and become less valued as it deteriorates.

The race to the bottom has a destination that is all too obvious.

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.

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Discussion

35 Thoughts on "The Race to the Bottom — Short-term Bargains versus Long-term Vitality"

“If we continue to let short-term temptations to save money drive the conversation around value…”

Value seems increasingly to be solely defined, ultimately, by the concept of shareholder value. This drives investment for short term gains, not for long term health of a company and the contribution it makes to its customers – and ultimately to Society.

Yet this contribution should be the final definition of value added. And shareholders, staff and customers gain a far more equitable pay off from this value.

Right now it’s unbalanced. If money/wealth is too concentrated then there are fewer people can afford to buy stuff. And a consumer economy gums up.

Whilst shareholder value remains the key financial-value metric, then even not-for-profits get caught in the snare – running faster, trying the same tricks, to keep up.

Kent, I personally choose to pay for things I value, and I recommend it as a tactic for all who care about quality. But I also don’t like to overpay for things where price isn’t equaled by value. Amidst all your discussion about “cheapness” and “discount fever,” you seem not to be tracking enough on one fundamental binarism. Either prices for scholarly communications services are set by free market mechanisms, in which case it is incumbent on each party to negotiate on behalf of their own interests to reach equilibrium pricing, or they are not. In any case, we are in the midst of a series of disruptions not only to scholarly publishing but also to scholarship and higher education that go well beyond libraries and publishers. Blaming the customer does not seem to me to be a constructive solution.

I do believe a good portion of the dynamics can be blamed “on the customer.” There has been a retrenchment of selfishness and greed at the individual level that needs to be discussed, a transactional way of thinking about everything from governance to parenting to scholarly publishing. Those ways of thinking all occur at the individual level.

I think many people sense they have made a deal with the devil, and that the time for change is upon us. Teacher strikes, walkouts over wages, marches in the streets, and so forth are also to be credited to individuals who have had enough, see things differently, and are willing to work for change. The resurgence of subscriptions — especially when people realized that unpaid media were unreliable, a trend that has only grown in urgency — are also to the credit of individuals.

Ultimately, it comes down to each of us making the right choices. If we shift blame to “the system” or other non-individual aspects of life, then I think we’re ducking responsibility.

If a customer doesn’t see the value in a product, a producer can either demonstrate the product’s value to the customer’s satisfaction, reduce the price, or lose the customer. That has always been the way. I don’t see that as shifting blame to the system at all.

And you are claiming that this is somehow a new idea that publishers must face based on the “cheapness” and “discount fever” of their customers — rather than due to the nature of the value in the publishing enterprise, as in all other information industries, changing profoundly.

I think a vicious cycle has emerged over time, accelerated, and is now causing significant damage. The challenge is that what gets hurt are not the big corporations but the little guys and the mid-sized guys. There are many other dynamics in play, including the propensity for technology to create monopolies (see AT&T and everything since). But I think people are changing their tune, which is where the tune needs to change.

It may be a generational thing, with the Baby Boomers pursuing a largely individualistic agenda, while subsequent generations (for no other reason than feeling burned by this approach) are placing more value on mutual well-being, community welfare, and fairness/equity issues. You can see this everywhere.

It seems to be having an effect as far as moving the perception of value into the realm of values. There was recently a survey by the American Restaurant Association, a group notorious for exploiting low-paid labor, where they sought evidence that patrons wouldn’t support higher pay for wait staff. They wanted a talking point based on evidence. What they found is that 71% of restaurant patrons would support higher wages for wait staff even if it caused the price of their meals to go up, with the highest percentage in the survey totally supporting this. People have changed their thinking about what’s fair pay for food workers. The restaurants can still make the same margins, but attitudes about price can be tied to fairness, equity, community, and other concepts, and this can make people willing to pay more so they don’t feel like they are exploiting others as well. Focusing solely on price may be a mindset of yesteryear, as things seem to be changing.

Thanks for this eloquent argument. It would be helpful if you addressed the following:

1) There is a comment which says that most businesses expect a double diget return. Please point to the publications which show the returns for the SSP community and comparison with others in the publishing and related industries. Part of the arguments for OA and other paths to publishing has been the cost to the academy and others that access for distribution and use

2) While the publishing industry claims value for cost, the front line still remains the editorial staff and reviewers whose compensation for work might be considered ranking with the precariat which you mention but do not mention the compensation to equity holders or staff within the industry.

3) Your discussion of the newspaper and fly-over publications are in dire straits due shifting economics, you do not address the subsidy of the pub/perish part of scholarly publications which encourage the proliferation of articles which, in all probability, regardless of merit are thin because of the pressure promoted by the academics themselves and encouraged by the publishers needing copy to fill their markets. The issue is far more complex than that which you portray.

4) Maxwell understood the economics of academic publishing and his insights are well understood by publishers, whether private, publicly held or “non-profits”. The industry benefits from the very problems you describe that have created the vacuum in “Fly Over” country. As you note using Pultzer as an example, the quality in Fly Over Country is not the issue. It is not clear what the oligopolistic scholarly publishers are doing to address the issue except by adding a few more “features” so that today, as with all the widgets in one’s smart phone that are like “chrome” on a car, the cost can be rationalized.
[Of course, academic institutions are complicit in much the same manner as they add features that raise the costs while the precariat faculty are marginalized. In both cases, as others have pointed out, its the “architecture” that is being supported and not the “content”]

As for the first point, rational economic thinking means you entertain the risk of business only if you can make more than you would by investing your money in other businesses (i.e., in the stock market). With the stock market typically returning 9-12%, any business expects to beat this, which means double-digit returns. As for a detailed look, my advice would be for you to examine the 990s or charitable disclosures for non-profits and the public company disclosures required by law to find exceptions to this. When you do, please let us know, because those lacking these returns will likely fail or be consumed by the oligopoly before long. Profit is a path to independence.

The value of publishers is well-described in numerous other posts on this blog, including the 102 Things Publishers Do, which you can find easily enough.

Your third point I don’t understand. It sounds OK at first, but then this “needing copy to fill their markets” comment makes no sense in this context. Filler copy is usually reserved for interstitial space between ads. Publishers have been unable to charge for larger journals or additional journals for some time. So, agree it’s more complex, but not sure this is the right direction for untangling it.

Your fourth point underscores that the game is shifting in ways Roger Schonfeld has outlined in a few key posts here recently (again, easily discoverable via search, so not linking).

hi kent

let me rephrase 3 and 4. The key cited for the idea of “disruption” is that the new entrant is of lower quality but cheaper. (The exception, of course, is the Applie iPhone which was neither). The oft cited entrance of the Japanese car is one example.

I agree that the publishing industry has provided “n” benefits to academic journals, but using the disruption literature, I think that what is wanted is the stripped down version ala the Japanese car which had all the possibilities built in but choice was the buyer’s.

As chips and their capabilities get cheaper, adding features as in the cited “smart phone” or the electronic enhanced automobile, is only incrementally more costly when compared to the marketing/profit on/of the perceived “value” rarely fully used. On one hand the features offered by publishers has some of the same promotional ring. At the same time, these, regardless of arguments to the contrary, will also become cheaper as these chips may be moving some of the employees to the precariat.

The return from the stock market as the basis for profit is subject to debate and, is far from straight forward. And as I suggested, looking at the evolution from the insights from Maxwell, the profits from the academic journal is also more complex and leans heavily on the exploitation of academics

Thanks for clarifying. I don’t see where there is any desire for a stripped-down journal. The market is very hard to read in this regard. Some say the PDF is all that’s needed, while others foist myriad requirements on publishers, and still others want innovation and improvements. I don’t see a clear signal. But even in the “stripped down” world imagined by some, the same volume pressures apply.

As for exploitation, I think when multiple institutions have an endowment larger than the entire scholarly publishing economy, while researcher career potential has become constrained, student debt has skyrocketed, support of professors has diminished, pressures to publish have increased, and so forth, the exploitation blanket is larger and covers multiple parties. I think we need to step back and look more broadly as who is exploiting whom, why, and what we would change. This means getting beyond simple things like pricing and blaming publishers.

On the double-digit claim, one thing is 10 % and another is 40.

A more commonly mentioned figure is that «Over the very long run, the stock market has had an inflation-adjusted annualized return rate of between six and seven percent» (http://www.moneychimp.com/features/market_cagr.htm http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data.htm ).

Alternatively,

Avg. annual real pre-tax rate of return, 1926-2006
Small company stocks: 9.68%
Large company stocks: 7.42%
http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/suppl/2014/09/04/1409785111.DCSupplemental/pnas.1409785111.sapp.pdf
(elaborated data from Morningstar)

Going back so far is a bit like saying today that the average score of basketball teams has been around 40 points, when there used to be a tip-off after every basket so scores in the early days of basketball were often 20 points per game per team. The game has changed a lot, as has the stock market.

Stock market returns for the S&P 500 (which now undergirds many mutual funds and index funds) have been around 12.23% historically (from 1923 through 2016). The big change in the game is that most investors benefit today from this subset of the market. There are also now more international stock markets calibrating value throughout the day, electronic trading (pros and cons to that), new instruments like index funds and mutual funds, and more.

Returns have actually been more muted since the introduction of these and other elements, primarily because the risk has been mitigated to a high degree. Stock market crashes are not impossible, but they tend to be smaller, resolve sooner, and have less of a negative effect.

Tom:

I choose to address your second point; namely: non payment for reviewing and editorial services. Payment for these activities are not necessarily tied to dollar compensation. Many reviewers do so for other reasons such as keeping up to date, a sense of obligation to one’s discipline, interest in the article for research reasons, etc. Editorial services look good for the VITA and for the school and department, an interest on behalf of the editor to have an impact on the discipline, etc. Lastly, no one puts a gun to one’s head to make these volunteers perform. They seem to do it because they want to do it. At least this is my observation after spending some 45 years in the industry. In fact, the willingness to perform as a volunteer seems to be very fulfilling to those who do and I applaud them for doing it. Why? Their activities add value to the proposition and as an aside help keep costs down!

A major issue is the amount of “double-digit returns” larger publishers are taking out of the system. When gross margins (profit) for Elsevier is running at 64% and Wiley at 73% one might consider it excessive compared to average returns for NASDAQ (41%), Dow Jones (46%) or the New York Stock Exchange (41%). Median profit margins for the exchanges are not materially different from the means. There’s still room for the “faceless corporate overlords” to do fine by their shareholders without having such a negative impact on the entire system.

Profits at a certain level are reflective of satisfied customers. The issue here isn’t profitability, but the tendency to value price above all else, which leads to an inability for high-quality/high-care providers to thrive, industry consolidation, market imbalances, and so forth. You’re talking about a symptom, not a cause.

(Quoting gross margins isn’t helpful, by the way, as they are not net many expenses.)

I am not certain, but I believe that Kent may have counter his own position when he said the issue was “price”. In part, price is problematic, particularly for that segment of the global scholarly community that only has limited funds across their entire program (there are some efforts in this area). The issue is value and what scholars want/need when all the persiflage provided by the “high quality-high care” providers are stripped away. Again, the many features touted by smart phone purveyors that sit idle in their chips or on the dash of vehicles are examples.

The point cited about the restaurant industry customers and willingness to pay more for underpaid wait staff is an excellent example. Rather than dismiss Curtis’ comments, Kent should counter by noting the net returns and then respond why there can not be more of the income be directly provided to the editorial community, Harvey’s response not withstanding. In actuality, editorial reviewers don’t get the credit that Harvey claims. Many in service sectors, child care is a paradigmatic example, do care, like reviewers and do suffer, like restaurant wait persons.

Thus price which signals high net returns is a legitimate marker. In the world of internet platforms it is now understood that the first or earliest in the “class” tends to the highest returns and best survival. Thus, Kent, again, is right when he suggests that the returns are needed to survive a competitive environment and maintain the stock holder returns from such leverage as opposed to what he identifies as a rising sense of community.

Nobel laureate, Danny Kahneman remarks in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that the external pressures from the institutions are drivers to publish. Many decisions are made on such records without clear understanding of the implications or value of what is published. In other words, impact factors and other measures become default surogates. This implies that the publishing industry works hard to maintain this relationship, again, at the expense of the editorial “community” basically discounting Harvey’s rationale.

Price does not signal high net returns. Value of scientific research is never clear, often for years or decades, but if we think it has to be, then we are in that same transactional and short-term mindspace that leads to devaluing things that don’t have immediate, obvious utility. I can’t address the other points here because it’s not clear at all to me what you’re trying to say.

I know it is unfair to pick up on one sentence from the essay, so let me be clear that what I intend is just an example of difference in perspectives:
“a set of Canadian universities opting to pay $236,000 for 160 titles versus $500,000 for 2,361 titles. While their expenditures fell by $264,000, their per-title price rose from $21 per journal to $1,475 per journal.”
I’m a consumer only, and this sounds to me like “you’re so unreasonable to go to Madrid [I’m in Europe] for 5 days this summer, you should go to Patagonia for two weeks instead, you would get more attractions per dollar spent”. As much as I would love to, I don’t have money to fly to Patagonia. Once we settle this one fact, that I absolutely cannot pay 500k dollars for subscriptions from one publisher – because the hole in my budget will equal the hole in the roof of our Most Honorable Aula – what we are left with is this egregious surcharge per-title. Sort of “to pay less, you need to pay 70 times more per-title.” Wait, what?
What I’m trying to say is that consumers are unlikely to appreciate this wonderful deal that they cannot afford. At the same time, they are highly likely to complain about this quite crappy deal they can afford.
On a more general note, as much as I value the quality, I think that by now the scientific publishing operates within the luxurious goods area, and there the prices are exorbitant for no reason other than this that they need to be expensive to stay luxurious.
And pardon my vocabulary, in fact I am angry about the whole story. I am a student, and do you know who pays in the end for these Big Deals? (hint: it’s not “taxpayers” as a block)
PS. I should probably add that I’m not sure if the reparation of the Most Honorable Aula is where the universities should spend their money, but indeed they seem to be fond of Aulas much more than they are fond of subscriptions.

Prices for scientific publishing are actually quite low, often costing institutions less than $1 per download. Comparing work that is mainly done by thousands of people who have to evaluate and manage new information each day with travel is, as you note, unfair. If you know it’s unfair to make the comparison, why make it? Simply to cast aspersions, I’d assert, which is a problem. We can’t have a reasoned discussion when people are “angry” as you note, and then cast aspersions, make unfair comparisons, cand won’t discuss in good faith. Also, your example is not only unfair, but inaccurate. You don’t pay for scholarly publications, your institution does. And they do have the money. If you think that a cut in subscription spending will lead to lower tuition or fees, you’re fooling yourself. As noted, the money that institution asserts it “saved” on subscriptions will be spent elsewhere. They aren’t shrinking their budget. In fact, I’ll bet in 2-3 years, their budget is larger because a) they will have been forced to repurchase many subscriptions on less-advantageous terms, and b) they will have invested in a white elephant or two as a result of this move, and will be too stubborn to give it up.

Institutions usually spend a tiny percentage of their entire budgets on journals and information resources. What drives the cost of tuition is not information services but many other factors, also based on the fact that humans are delivering the services. This is what has been termed “the cost disease,” and it affects healthcare as well, where expansion means bringing in more people, who are expensive. Education, publishing, healthcare, the performing arts are all examples where we can’t expect prices to continue to fall like they do for mass produced goods. They will continue to go up as they offer more information, treat more patients, or put on more performances.

The point of making this comparison, even if unfair, was to say both that I try to understand and that I fail. It serves also to make my standpoint clear, apparently it worked, you were able to address it completely.
Thank you for your reply, it gives me something to think about while I crawl the literature for my thesis.

Important post.
There are, of course, a massive number of reputable journals for which price concerns are not much of an issue. Most of the journals on the DOAJ for example, which now has about 10,000 listed – the majority don’t charge anybody and don’t need to. They are edited from academic departments, or by librarians, a few by professional societies, and using very small budgets and a combination of grants and volunteer labor. The software is free (mainly OJS is used). This DIY sector can be criticised for not being able to handle volume, but it seems to be sustainable, in the sense that it has lasted, and many journals have attracted really good submissions and authors. Librarians in particular are doing a great job and we have discussed university publishing many times on here. All of this merits a mention in the blog post.
The current initiatives of interest in this area include freejounals.org, which includes Sir Tim Gowers and Mark Wilson and focuses on journals, and also radicalopenaccess, which is hosting a big conference in the UK in June. That’s a bunch of publishers and digital humanities people with a different and new ethos. The sentiment is that we need to nurture a caring and common (OA) form of publishing that is released from commercial pressures, released from publish/perish imperatives in academia, and that adapts itself to what the clients – academics, mostly – actually need. Some in this sector are social enterprises, like Mattering Press or Punctum – others, like me, produce a journal because we are dedicated to OA ideals, which seemed like common sense back in the day. Although we have become very commercially viable, we refuse to enter that world because the type of work we put out is all about social and environmental justice. And we have just enough labor and time to do the work. There are hundreds of similar stories.
As a social science professor with 25 years behind me, I would say what we actually want is
– Open access journals . Journal hard copies are now largely redundant.
– And there is a movement towards OA for books too, but the variety of desired publishing models for those is broader
– Low or no APCs. This may be different in the very few universities that have big bucks, or in STEM where you may get a grant that pays, but in the social sciences and I am sure across the humanities, most APCs come out of a salary or small pot of departmental/library funding. No, we do not have much institutional money for APCs. I pay all mine myself, in an R1 university.
– Breaking the oligopoly – many of us really hate the big four or big five publishers now, as they buy up everything and charge our libraries. Junior colleagues publish with them because they need tenure. We all thought Elsevier’s profits were obscene long ago. There are those academics that don’t care of course – but very few are unaware of the nasty side of big publishing. Memories are long, back to Maxwell, and we have warned our PhD students. …..
– If our university libraries are paying subscriptions to publishers, keep these within affordable limits. I have yet to meet a university library that feels the budget allocated to it is sufficient to meet the needs of the staff and students. And librarians are annoyed with the oligopoly too.
– Enjoy publishing – slowly or fast, as authors and editors [for those who are good at it]. Preferably without the pressures of cost, tenure, journal snobbery, or linguistic imperialism. And if enjoyment increases as we step off the treadmill a bit, referees might be more willing to step up, too!

Well said, Simon

Garretted grad students contemplating stealing the cheese from the mouse trap across the room will find that working with their libraries that selectively purchase journals and husband, even those fiscal crumbs that Kent cites, that the net effect over purchases of the much touted “bundles” will yield a positive return to both themselves and their colleagues that use scarce university resources. Husbanding those resources might mean RA’s for graduate students, fewer faculty slipping into the precariate or departments from beingdecimated or eliminated. Maybe the publishing community, particularly those focused in the STEM arena might read some of the journals outside of their area. Perhaps, as some corporations now understand, maximizing stockholder value, particularly in those enterprises that are closely held, may need to be re-examined.

Kent’s rationale that the margins are needed to both enhance the much marketed persiflage and to ward off being absorbed by others speaks well to the insights that were perceived and promulgated by Maxwell.

Kent, I appreciate your perspective.

“Institutions usually spend a tiny percentage of their entire budgets on journals and information resources.”
Yes. And libraries usually spend an enormous percentage of their entire budgets on journals and information resources.
As a collection development director in a well-funded academic library who just concluded a long negotiation with Elsevier that resulted in our dismantling our “big deal” journal package, I can assure you that Cheapness, Fervor, and Anger did not make this decision. The Deans and Provost of our institution made this decision for us when they denied our requests for library budget increases for multiple years. When faced with years of zero percentage increases to our budget and upwards of 6% annual increases to our journal packages, it wasn’t Anger that forced our hand; it was math.
We need realistic examples that counter the narrative that publishers and libraries are constantly at odds and that libraries are making major acquisitions decisions that affect our user community simply because we’re angry.

“And they do have the money.”
Any suggestions for how libraries can get ahold of these giant pots of institutional money?

Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I think there are larger narratives that are driving perceptions among Deans and Provosts, and these are putting publishers and librarians in a bind that ultimately leads to loggerheads because they have been abandoned to some extent by the powers that be. One part of the larger narrative is that online information is free or cheap, which is demonstrably untrue. Another part is that the subscription model will be flipped away by OA APCs, a highly unlikely event for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that these same Deans and Provosts would be hit with far larger budget requests, especially for large, well-funded institutions. Third, there is a narrative that publishers are exploitative, which is largely untrue. There have been vast increases in research outputs in the past decade, and the system is under tremendous pressure. Price increases are very small overall when volume is adjusted out (that is, there is very little profit to the price increases because all the money is used to deal with the major increases in volume). Finally, these Deans and Provosts are themselves facing a great deal of pressure because in the US especially civic support of higher education has decreased dramatically, forcing tuition increases on families, expenditures on facilities and marketing and student services, and so forth, with the library and access to resources presumed to not be a major draw for students or a differentiator (compared to nice lawns, great buildings, sexy computer centers, and good coffee shops).

I think it would be interesting to survey students about how often they use the materials the library purchases for them, gauge how reliant they are on these to complete their work, and surface the value beyond expense. Because once the student is there, they need to learn. My own students say they use library resources in nearly every class and for nearly every assignment.

Publishers and libraries are actually subject to the same pressures — a rapidly expanding information sphere with the rise of China, more STEM and STEAM students, more pressure on academic and knowledge careers with publication even more valuable than ever, and so forth. They have the same customer. I don’t think they should be fighting. I’d love to see a conversation where the publishers and librarians talk openly about how to demonstrate value to college administrators and funders, and show that access to content and trust in publishers are both important.

Take the monies that are allocated for journals. Apportion, in part, to the departments that demand subscriptions, ascertain the use of these journals and then determine how many subscriptions and how much pay-per-view would be expended. Present that to the faculty and departments and have them determine how to spend scarce resources. Put them on the budget committee and let the library manage their investment decisions.

This is pretty much what occurred before subscriptions were centralized via site licenses through the library. It had its pros and cons, as does anything.

I agree, but the question is “what is included”, including conditions on a site license. This is the same when subscribing to cable where the provider has a few of top demanded programs and throws in a bunch of others under the idea that the buyer sees the cost/pgm amortized over the spread. That’s the argument being made here by publishers on a “cost/article” basis. As I suggested, don’t give up a site license but weighted by the library’s perception of demand where some journal articles are better purchased a la carte. In the past every dept wanted every journal like everyone wants their cars filled with all the toys whether they use them or not.

The recent rebellion by computer folk over Nature’s putting a new journal under a pay wall shows that there is a growing concern. The argument that the library budget is but a spit in the total univ budget and the issue of access is ever present and, perhaps problematic, maybe not for the highly profitable publishers (as the IPO wrinkle notes) but for the smaller houses who scramble to fill issues and fight for IF’s

The current model is a popularity contest if you follow this logic. That means only popular journals — large research fields, large practitioner fields — will survive. Science is not a popularity contest, and scholarship should allow for ideas to flow freely whether they are mainstream and popular or nascent and challenging. Analogies to consumer products never acknowledge this vast difference in purpose. Short-term savings that hurt professional, scientific, and scholarly societies will have long-term implications.

Hi Kent,

From your response, above:
I think it would be interesting to survey students about how often they use the materials the library purchases for them, gauge how reliant they are on these to complete their work, and surface the value beyond expense. Because once the student is there, they need to learn. My own students say they use library resources in nearly every class and for nearly every assignment.
—————
Indeed, that would be most valuable. When Garfield created ISI, one of the publications was “Current Contents” which was an actual page view of the table of content of the journals. ISI’s other publications followed with the idea that researchers were interested in the articles and the authors. The fact that they were in a “journal” was of lesser importance until Garfield came up with IF for articles and journals. There are a number of electronic equivalents that alert folk to subject and author profiles.

Thus the underlying issue, as your comment suggests is how to find and access the article. The publishers are vested in their journals and selling the journals though it should be able to find the data even from the most obscure journals. One could then calculate (price again) the cost/article read amortized over the number of readers of the articles. One could argue that, perhaps, some time in the future, a critical article, ignored when published was buried due to lack of the journal being included in some publishers “bundle”. In the digital age of increasing search capabilities, that chance is v. small.

There are subscription models that could deal with the actual access to the knowledge and not the overly packaged journal where IF’s depend, ultimately on the value of the research.

In fact, given capabilities today, articles could initially be sent through clearing houses that could effectively parse these to be dealt with by appropriate parties or other paths, challenging Maxwell’s hegemony.

Awareness doesn’t work like that. People need things that cut through the clutter, and search engines aren’t reliable arbiters of discovery, especially not when their business models are based on selling ads (as Google’s is now — PageRank is barely comparable to what it once was). And that’s how things are sold.

Your history of ISI isn’t quite right. It was all meant to be a discovery tool itself. It was appropriated by academics as a measure of prestige, because that’s all that matters to them. That’s why the “journal” as brand and marker of articles persists, in large part. It also has commercial conveniences for both sellers and buyers.

Glad that Maxwell continues to get a mention every time you comment. He’d appreciate that. He was vain.

Hmmm, it’s a matter of “prestige” for academics? It’s a matter of convenience for publishers and buyers (libraries)? Then all the screaming about cost is not about the value of the material, but is about the equivalent of the value of the “designer” logo on a pair of jeans or the convenience for the publishers and libraries while Maxwell’s academic demons moil in the review pits or scramble to access the bits and bytes?

And the publishers worry, not about brand erosion by pirates but in fact appreciate it that this reinforces their position? Seems more like Africa today with its vestigial colonialism.

And, yes, Maxwell was quite vain. I am not certain that it was accidental (my opinion).

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