Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ego and Economics

Richard Poynder has recently (November 20, 2006) published a well-written essay entitled 'Open Access: Beyond selfish interests' (you can download the pdf via his blog). Because it is so well-written – he is a journalist after all – one may not easily spot that some of his observations are presented as foregone conclusions, yet are not supported or warranted. I must point out at least two of these red herrings, as they seem rather fundamental to the line of thought that is the leitmotiv of the essay.

In the very last paragraph of the essay, Poynder talks about “incumbent publishers intent only on preserving their hegemony over scholarly communication.”

Preserving their hegemony?

Publishers hold no more hegemony over scholarly communication than bakers hold over making bread. Anybody can choose to bake their own bread. Any researcher can choose to communicate with their peers themselves, as indeed they often do. There is no hegemony for publishers to preserve. Researchers do not ‘have to give away’ their articles to publishers – they can “just plonk their articles onto the internet”, as intellectual property law professor Dirk Visser of Leyden University recently put it (in Dutch, but I trust he agrees with my translation). And if they do have to publish, it is not publishers who compel them. Publishers provide services that enable researchers to attach credibility to their articles, so that they can be used to further their career and future funding prospects. The model to pay for such services in a roundabout way, via subscriptions, is a relic of the pre-internet past and an impediment to open access. Unfortunately, publishers are just as much locked into that model as the other actors on the academic stage, though an increasing number of publishers are keen to move on and try to support the provision of their services in a way that makes structural open access – immediate and full open access at the point of publication – economically viable.

Which brings me to the other observation that is unjustifiably presented as a foregone conclusion in Poynder’s essay. Some five pages before the end, he writes
“If funders were to mandate OA publishing those prices [the article processing charges – APCs – that OA publishers currently levy] would be locked in. And if APCs were treated as "part and parcel" of research, as Velterop proposes, there would be no mechanism for regulating prices — since researchers would be running up a bill at someone else's expense.”
He supports his observation by a quote from Harnad: “[no organisation] would not be happy to become a subsidised oligopolist, guaranteed its asking price by the government. McDonald's could make the same offer to lower and phase out the payment for its hamburgers if the government simply agrees to pay for them up-front, so every citizen can have a Happy Meal." And one from Roth: “[if politicians mandated OA publishing it would lead to] funding agencies being required to pay publication charges based on publisher demands, rather than economic reality."


This presumes that researchers, since they would be ‘running up a bill at someone else’s expense’ would just pay anything. They are running up a bill at someone else’s expense (their funders’) when they buy reagents, mouse strains, glassware, other assorted laboratory necessities. Do they really pay the providers of these goods based on the providers’ demands, rather than economic reality? Not when they have the choice of providers, one would imagine. This is where Poynder, Harnad, Roth, and I’m afraid many others, go wrong. They forget – or ignore – that unlike for subscribers, for authors there is a real choice of journal in which they publish, or at least to which they submit their articles. Where the party who pays (even if with 'someone else's money') is the party with the choice, the laws of economic do function, copyright becomes irrelevant as an economic factor, and the fact that information is a peculiar economic commodity becomes inconsequential. In that system, the tradable commodity is ‘service’, not information, and is subject to conventional market forces.

Jan Velterop

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