Friday, November 17, 2006

Price & Value

A lot of the criticism of science publishers is often reserved for ‘commercial’ publishers (I prefer to call them 'independent'), and a lot of that criticism takes the form of ‘too expensive’. Everything is ‘too expensive’ if the value to the potential buyer of something he desires doesn’t justify the price. In a normal functional economic system, the potential buyer just doesn’t buy in that case, or buys something that can be regarded as a substitute for what he initially desired, elsewhere, at a lower price.

Academic journals with their subscription models are not functioning along those lines, as they are monopoloid, i.e. non-substitutable, non-rivalrous. The paying party doesn’t have the choice. A subscribing library can’t just cancel an expensive journal and buy a cheaper one instead, because what his patrons find in one, they will not find in the other and vice versa. That’s why the model should be ‘flipped’, from a ‘user-side’ payment, to an ‘author-side’ payment.

In contrast to users, authors do have the choice. They can, in almost all cases, decide to go to another journal with their paper. And if price becomes a factor for them or their backers, they can weigh that in their decisions. For them, journals are substitutable, rivalrous. Even at the highest levels: if Science and Nature were to offer paid-for open access, at different fees, authors could simply choose to go to the cheaper one (supposing their article is acceptable for publication). It’s easy to see that in such a system the fees will experience pressure to settle on a level that is regarded as value for money.

Not everybody gets this, unfortunately. Disappointingly, Walt Crawford, in his December 2006 Sights & Insights, says, on page 24,
Velterop wants to “flip the model” and makes the highly questionable claim that assured funding for high-priced author-pays publication would cause “real competition” and “put downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on efficiencies.” How so? Journals don’t follow standard economic models, because each one is a monopoly.

It looks as if he has firmly planted the notion in his mind that journals are monopolies, always have been monopolies, always will be monopolies, and that there’s nothing that will change that. And he completely misses the point of the claim I make, which is simply that changing to a standard economic model – which is what author-side payment for publication (i.e. payment on behalf of the party with a choice) entails – will offer us a chance to create a functional market environment and to converge the perceived value and the fee (the definition of a fair price). If that’s a ‘highly questionable’ claim, then most of market economics is.

Those who see open access simply as a way to pay less are free to do so, of course, but it makes open access a mere negotiating lever with publishers. Haggling about prices is a time-honoured practice in just about any walk of life. It has little to do with the principle of open access. It would seem that lower subscription prices than the current ones would be an acceptable outcome to them, even without open access.

The problem really is that for non-substitutable, non-rivalrous, material, the market for subscriptions is intrinsically dysfunctional. It may sometimes look as though high prices cause cancellations, but low-priced journals have suffered cancellations as well, and what’s more, there is no discernible pattern that reliably shows a distinction between higher priced and lower priced journals in that regard. Certainly there is no evidence that lowering subscription prices result in a higher take-up of the journals for which that has been tried, and without such higher take-up, there is no improvement of access. In a functional market one would expect such cause and effect.

Open access is more fundamental than about price. It is also more fundamental than increased usage figures or citation counts. It is about the notion that results of research carried out with public money are public goods. Doing the research costs money. Publishing the results is imperative, regardless of usage or citations. It’s public availability that counts. Like the minutes of important public meetings. They are validated and recorded; and only read again and quoted if and when necessary. That doesn’t make them any less valuable. Publishing the results is part of research itself. Therefore the cost of publishing is part of the cost of research.

Should the cost of publishing be scrutinized? Sure. In the same way as the cost of research is scrutinized. We, society at large, justify paying more for top researchers than for beginning ones; we justify putting more expensive equipment in one laboratory than in the next. We balance the price and the value we perceive to be getting. If we give ourselves a chance to come to fair prices for the services of publishing, then we have gained a lot.

The current subscription system doesn’t give us that chance. Nobody knows what a fair price is. We are, absurdly, measuring ‘cost per download’, ‘cost of citation’ and the like and believe we are measuring value. Has anybody ever approached, say, the proceedings of a parliamentary debate in that way? Even just as a thought experiment? What is 'usage' anyway? Scientific articles are important documents. The only thing that valuing them by their usage and citation does is to make the usage and citation potential of articles into criteria for publishing them, instead of their intrinsic scientific merit. Thus making a brilliant article that few understand seem pretty worthless. And – possibly worse – making a poor, but controversial, popular, and fashionable article seem the more valuable of the two. Surely, that can't be where we want to go.

Jan Velterop

1 comment:

  1. hi Jan -

    Very good points about the usage statistics. One example I like to use - how many researchers can there be working with any one endangered species? If the species is not cute, work in this area is likely to receive lower usage, regardless of its value or importance.

    This is a topic that I've written about in a book chapter, The implications of usage statistics as an economic factor in scholarly communications, in Fowler, David, Eds. Usage Statistics of E-Serials. Haworth Press.

    This book chapter is not as popular as my Dramatic Growth of Open Access - even though, with quality usage statistics quickly becoming a reality and a factor in pricing, it is arguable a more important and unique contribution - a bit of evidence for your second point, that the popularity of an item does not necessarily correlate with its importance.