Economics is a dangerous game

Late last month an editorial appeared on a blog for publisher Wiley in which two editorial executives start off talking about online publishing.  The discussion is fine, if predictable and self-serving, until it turns to models of open access.  “Gold” open access is mistakenly identified exclusively with “author-pays” models, even though the majority of gold OA journals do not charge author-side fees.  Then the authors drop this line “The second model is known as the “Green Road.” It might be described as “no one pays” and thus is unlikely to be sustainable.”

This, of course, is nonsense.  No one seriously believes that green OA is without cost.  What the publishing executives cannot figure out is that the costs of many green OA repositories are being borne by research institutions, and others, because they believe that this form of access to scholarship serves their core missions and is an appropriate investment.

On the other hand, administrators are beginning to doubt whether continued support for commercial publishing is a good investment for them.  In a recent EDUCAUSE column, Brad Wheeler from Indiana University wonders “About that $1B per Year” that a group of 257 research universities estimated they spent to buy back the research done on their campuses in 2006.  Wheeler is groping his way towards a cheaper OA solution; one that would rest on faculty authors not surrendering their intellectual property for nothing.

A recent study in the UK shows us that the economic drain on universities from the traditional publishing system is even greater than Wheeler suggests.  According to research done by JISC, the cost of uncompensated editorial and reviewing work done by British university faculty members is over 150 million pounds per year.  Clearly that number would be much larger in the US, where there are more faculty members and more articles published.

As I have written before, if we start having a serious discussion of sustainability, I am not sure the result will be what traditional publishing expects.  The traditional publishing system is founded on its ability to free-ride on the intellectual labors of scholars, then sell the results back to the very institutions that actually pay those scholars.  Thirty years ago this might have seemed like a sustainable model; today, when digital technology has eliminated the scarcity problem and reduced transaction costs, it does not.

Green open access, and gold OA publishing, represent opportunities for universities to reap more benefit from the research done on their campuses, assert better control over costs, and recapture some of the uncompensated labor that has long been expected from their faculties.  In a recent article on the Scholarly Kitchen blog, Phil Davis asserts that it is time to put an end to the “library as victim” narrative and recognize, he says, that we are getting more value for money as the price of traditional journals rises.  Only the first half of his argument is supportable; we do need, in libraries, to stop thinking of ourselves as victims.  Instead, we should assert our central role in the research process as publishers.

The economics of this transition will not be easy, but they are nowhere near as impossible as the economics of standing pat are, and we are beginning to work them out.  In December this article by a Norwegian economist appeared in First Monday, itself a gold OA journal that does not charge author fees, and looked at open access journal publishing.  Starting from the observation that the economics looked very inefficient, the author reached a couple of interesting conclusions.  First, he decided that traditional journal publishing and its open access counterpart were about equally inefficient.  Second, he issued an indirect challenge to the institutions that support open access journal publishing — many of them academic libraries — to streamline their operations and take advantage of economies of scale.  If we continue to progress and to respond to these challenges, we have an opportunity to create the one system of scholarly communications that has a chance at long term sustainability.

2 thoughts on “Economics is a dangerous game”

  1. In a recent article on the Scholarly Kitchen blog, Phil Davis asserts that it is time to put an end to the “library as victim” narrative and recognize, he says, that we are getting more value for money as the price of traditional journals rises.

    Please re-read my blog post, for I do not argue that libraries are getting more value as prices increase.

    My post was to point out that that the narrative constructed by Darnton was based on selective data, which, analyzed more fully, provides counter-factual evidence to the position he was attempting to make.

    Darnton promotes an old narrative that views the library as a victim of a simple injustice perpetrated by greedy, profit-seeking commercial publisher. I argue that casting oneself as a blameless and innocent victim is not helpful and finish by suggesting that the library needs to find a new narrative — hopefully framed positively — that helps chart the future of academic libraries.

    Not all academic librarians support this simple victim narrative. Ivy Anderson promotes a more realistic view that views open access solutions in a more positive light. While her view is much more nuanced and takes paragraphs to explain, I believe it is a more helpful (and hopeful) library narrative to promote.

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