Does Open Access Demand the Scalps of Legacy Publishers?

An agent of Elsevier publishing recently sent takedown notices to a lot of universities regarding copies of Elsevier journal articles republished by academics on the university web sites. This provoked affected outrage among certain open access (OA) advocates: Mike Taylor proclaimed that Elsevier was stepping up its “War on Access”. Andrea Peterson, blogging for the Washington Post, reported that Elsevier is “stopping academics from sharing their research”. Ross Mounce struck fear into the hearts of everyone (well – everyone who’d naughtily posted copies of Elsevier journal articles on the web, anyway) by annunciating that “No-one is safe from these legal threats”.

Now, if you read the example takedown notice posted on Ross’s own blog, you’ll see that although it does mention some laws, it doesn’t actually make any legal threat (although, naturally, it doesn’t rule them out either). It simply (and rather politely, IMHO) asks university admins to remove copies of journal articles posted on their uni web site. It expressly acknowledges that such postings may have been made in error and even offers a “cost-free agreement” for people who specifically want to post such articles. Doesn’t seem to be much reason for anyone to be fearful unless they’re intent on flouting Elsevier’s copyright.

That is where OA comes in. Let me say straight away that I’m all for OA. Sharing of knowledge and information is not just conducive to good science, but really the essence of what science is, I would say. Of course, I’d also say that real knowledge can only ever be personal and that science is ultimately a negotiation over whose accounts of their knowledge we take on trust and whose we don’t. But that’s a different story. My problem is with what is signified by the affectations of outrage that the Elsevier takedown notices have set off. The business model of ‘Legacy Publishers’ like Elsevier was established many decades ago. It predates web publishing, widespread use of personal computers and even the availability of cheap and easy photocopying. When the journal publishing business model was first established, its editorial offices, printing presses and distribution networks were all widely seen as essential to the dissemination of knowledge. Over the last thirty years or so, however, all those things have come to appear cumbersome and restrictive compared to the alternatives that information technology and the internet make possible.

Be that as it may, the legacy publishing model survives and prospers. The reason is that academic journals are commercial brands. Some are seen by academics as far more desirable places to get their work published than others and it is in the prestige of these journals that their special value to the academic community lies. These prestige journals are where commercial publishers make their money by charging big subscription rates. As far as I can see, it is only these rates that the OA advocates who attack publishers are referring to when they accuse the publishers of “stopping academics from sharing their research”. The journals are published, after all. Anyone can see them, provided they pay the subscription or get someone else to pay it on their behalf. It’s just that if you ignore copyright, then you can circumvent the publisher’s fee and if you maintain that the publisher’s fees or their attempts to assert copyright are immoral, then you can claim the moral high ground for your own flouting of copyright.

Are journal subscription fees too high? Are publishers’ profits “obscene”, as some say? Commercial publishers are essentially like any other for-profit business. They exist to maximise revenues and minimise costs. The costs bit they have easy. Academics aren’t usually paid anything for manuscripts that get published and reviewers aren’t usually paid either. But that’s not so much because publishers are cheapskates as because academics want to be above suspicion of simply writing or reviewing for money. Can’t have it both ways.

As for revenues, any for-profit business will set prices at the level that maximises revenue. There’s no point trying to sell either higher or lower than this optimum price. At higher prices, the loss of sales wipes out the increased per-sale revenue. Lower prices may attract more sales, but not enough to compensate for the reduced revenue per sale. The optimum price isn’t set by the seller but by the market, which is to say it reflects the range of values that all potential consumers of the product place on it. Basically, if publishers are able to sell their prestige journals at sky-high subscription rates, it’s because the consumers (that is, academics in the main) place a high value on being able to see it. That remains true even if they’re looking at stuff they wrote themselves and which they provided for free. Publishers’ “obscene” profits are simply a function of academics equally “obscene” desire for prestige journals.

Of course, you can argue that the optimum price is that which generates maximum benefit to the publisher which is not the same thing as maximum benefit to society at large. Maximum benefit to society, the OA advocates might argue is where everyone with any interest in a published article gets to see it. In that scheme of things, of course, ‘optimum’ price gets pushed right down to zero. Hence, I suppose, the ‘moral’ case for posting PDFs on web sites.

Thing is, while the end users of such copies may pay nothing, there are costs in making them available and someone has to bear them. Working out how to distribute those costs in a non-profit business model is probably the proper business of OA. The question is whether prestige publishing venues capable of challenging the paywalled prestige journals can be built that way. So far, their success has been insufficient to knock the paywalled journals off their pedestals, but at least the knowledge publishing market now supports competing business models. If OA advocates can produce OA alternatives to paywall that are more attractive than the paywalled prestige journals, then the paywall publisher ‘problem’ will pretty much take care of itself. If they can’t, then badmouthing the publishers is just an appeal to spite. And pretending there’s some moral high ground in doing so is just bad taste.

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4 thoughts on “Does Open Access Demand the Scalps of Legacy Publishers?

  1. This provoked affected outrage among certain open access (OA) advocates: Mike Taylor […] My problem is with what is signified by the affectations of outrage that the Elsevier takedown notices have set off.

    It’s strange to me that you would assert (not once but twice) that my outrage is affected. I wonder why you think I would take the trouble to invent outrage where none exists? I can only tell you that I am indeed outraged by Elsevier’s behaviour here. You may think that I’m mistaken to be outraged, but you really can’t tell me that I’m not outraged.

    As far as I can see, it is only these rates that the OA advocates who attack publishers are referring to when they accuse the publishers of “stopping academics from sharing their research”.

    Absolutely no. The issues go much deeper than how much it costs to read a paper, and involve re-usability, re-mixability, etc. All that good CC-By stuff. If the legacy publishes reduced all their prices to £1 per year, we would still have a massive, crippling problem.

    Are publishers’ profits “obscene”, as some say? Commercial publishers are essentially like any other for-profit business.

    Like other for-profit businesses, yes, except in that they are stupifyingly more profitable. As has been well documented, the profit margins of the big for scholarly publishers are all between 32% and 42%. For comparison, the profit margins of some other businesses follow: accounting/bookkeeping/payroll: 18.36% (ranked #1); physicians: 13.24%; printing: 1.96%; household furniture manufacture: 1.82%; nonresidential building construction: 0.78%.

    Publishers’ “obscene” profits are simply a function of academics equally “obscene” desire for prestige journals.

    Here we are in 100% agreement (except that I’d discard the scare-quotes).

    The question is whether prestige publishing venues capable of challenging the paywalled prestige journals can be built that way. So far, their success has been insufficient to knock the paywalled journals off their pedestal.

    To me, the question is whether we can muster up the common-sense to discard this idiot notion of prestige venues altogether. Really, judging a paper by the venue is appears in is exactly as rational as judging a human by the town she grew up in, or indeed by the label of the clothes she wears.

    • Hello Mike. Thanks for looking in. Nice to see that relocating my blog has already attracted comment on a six-month old post.

      Regarding my use of “affected”, I stand my ground. To me, outrage is an agitated emotional state, so one cannot be mistaken about it in oneself. If I was in the very grip of outrage, I would not trust myself to write anything that I wouldn’t regret later. When the outrage itself has passed, however, I might write words to convey a sense of it. By that point, however, I would say that I am indeed affecting outrage since I could do the same thing whether I had really been in that particular agitated state or not. The aim by that point of the writing is to evoke outrage in readers by making them believe that I am (or have been) outraged.

      I agree that the access rates legacy publishers charge are an issue with who can participate in science, but for the “much deeper” issues than the rates legacy publishers charge – I presume you mean the issues that follow from assertion of copyright – I remain unconvinced that this cripples science overall. Copyright protects the text and figures of a scientific paper from being copied (and even then, reasonable quoting from papers – “fair use” in American legalese – is not prohibited). Copyright doesn’t stop anyone from taking the knowledge or ideas disclosed and using them as the basis of further development. If people don’t like that, they can publish their data sets on the web, public domain. Of course, that way they sacrifice attribution. And there’s your problem. But it’s only an acute problem in academic science. Industrial scientists have their personal interests much more tightly linked to the fortunes of the business they work for, so (in principal, anyway) attribution and the personal rep it brings matter less.

      As for the “obscene” profits of academic publishers, I stand by my use of quotes. They’re not there to scare, just to indicate that I’m affecting someone else’s hyperbole. I’d say that the publishers have simply been making hay in the sunshine of bloated public sector institutions with poor levels of managerial accountability (academia, in other words). As someone who works in a small-ish private sector company, I find the idea that there are ethical or appropriate levels of overall profitability laughable. To be sure, there are ethical issues over what you charge (or what you sell to) certain customers, but large institutions with armies of “managers” endlessly proclaiming their world-class excellence aren’t among them.

      Your final point about prestige venues goes back, in some ways, to the one of who participates in science (or who gets taken seriously, anyway). The adherence to prestige runs much deeper than anything to do with Elsevier’s takedown notices or even open science. It’s almost part of the condition of being human – a social, but violent, animal living in fluidly hierarchical communities. Judging people not by the color of their publications but by the content of their character is an admirable aim, but is banging on about Elsevier really the best way to spend your time in trying to achieve it?

      • I found your article because the one of mine that you cited got a pingback. I guess moving your blog is what caused that.

        You seem to be saying that bny definition all written outrage is affected. If we accept that (which I don’t, but let it pass), then why even bother with the phrase “affected outrage”? Why not just call it “outrage”?

        It’s impossible for us to tell just much we’re losing in science by having our outputs encumbered by copyright owned by for-profits. Famously, the Human Genome Project disclaimed all ownership of its outputs, and the resulting economic value (to say nothing of its value in non-economic terms) is estimated at 141 times the cost. The opportunity cost of putting barriers up is (both literally and figuratively) incalculable.

        The obscenity of academic publisher profits is not just in the amount, but in the way they’re obtained: by exploiting both unpaid labour and market monopolies. The total cost to the world of the average paywalled paper is about $5000. When open-access publishers are able to make handy operating profits when charging 27% as much ($1350 for PLOS ONE) or indeed 8% ($250 at Ubiquity Press), it’s clear that most of that is slop, possible only because the market is totally dysfunctional.

        It’s inevitable that some notion of prestige will arise in any society, yes. The present system of research prestige is more broken than most because it’s based not on the content of the paper but on where they’re found. By all means let some papers be prestigious because they’re good. But while papers attain prestige by being in the same journal as papers that were good, all incentives are perverse.

        Is banging on about Elsevier the best way to reach the goal of ubiquitous true open access? It’s one prong in a multi-pronged strategy. A big part of the reason we’re currently stuck in an idiot system that throws away $10 billion of academic funds every year is because so many people are acclimatised to it, and can’t even envisage an alternative. One of the components of changing that is making people aware of what our present system actually represents.

      • ”Famously, the Human Genome Project disclaimed all ownership of its outputs, and the resulting economic value (to say nothing of its value in non-economic terms) is estimated at 141 times the cost. “

        The HGP was both open source and public domain (PD). Open source means that raw data were openly available (and that someone was willing to bear the cost of maintaining a means of access) but does not necessarily imply a disclaimer of ownership since data can be ‘openly’ available under license (e.g. CC-BY). PD, on the other hand, implies no claims of ownership but does not in itself imply that any means of access will be maintained. When you say “disclaimed all ownership of its outputs”, I suppose you mean the combination of both.

        The 141X economic return on HGP estimated by Battelle is impressive, but the results of US government-funded ‘health’ research like the HGP (e.g. NIH-funded) have always been declared PD. There was nothing new about the HGP in that respect. That means unsuccessful US govt-funded programs were also PD, so I don’t see that the return on HGP proves anything about the benefits of PD. As for being open – well, it had to be, didn’t it? HGP was primarily an exercise in technology development and logistics. It was clear before it even started that it stood to produce more data than anyone would know immediately what to do with. Certainly more than those who were producing it would know what to do with. A major benefit of the project was to be the kick-starting of research into what to do with vast quantities of genomic data. It certainly did that, not least in provoking the formation of Celera as a private sector competitor that aimed to make genomic information proprietary. And Celera was beneficial to the HGP because when the HGP people realised Venter meant what he said about being able to do it quicker and at a tenth of the cost, they started doing things his way and saved time and money themselves. So the HGP shows how proprietary science can be beneficial even to PD projects.

        The obscenity of academic publisher profits is not just in the amount, but in the way they’re obtained: by exploiting both unpaid labour and market monopolies.

        By unpaid labour, I take it you mean people who peer-review manuscripts? I’m sure you realise that if people were paid full commercial rates for doing it, the nature of peer review would very likely change and probably not in a good way. Just because people don’t get paid, doesn’t mean they don’t get value from doing it. Back in the day, I was occasionally asked to review journal manuscripts myself. I was pleased to do it where I could because I learned from reading the papers closely and because (I thought) being able to say I’d refereed for Journal X in my CV would up my career cred. I didn’t feel I was being exploited (at least not any more than by, say, the PI of the lab I worked in). That was quite a while ago, but I still see mention “journals I’ve refereed for” in the CVs of scientists (esp. younger ones) that come across my desk.

        As for “market monopolies”, that’s just hyperbole. Academic publishing is a competitive market if any is. Your mention of PloS’s “handy operating profits” just a couple of sentences later undermines your own argument!

        To be sure, some academic publishers own some very strong journal brands (Nature!), but that’s not a monopoly and actually has nothing to do with open access. There is no reason why OA publishers couldn’t develop strong-brand journals. In fact, seeing as they fancy themselves as where it’s at in academic publishing. They ought to be the very people to come up with the next generation of strong-brand academic publishing venues. That seems to be a better way for OA advocates to focus their efforts than dancing on the dying bodies of legacy publishing dinosaurs. But then, you just can’t keep away from dinosaurs, can you?

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