Sunday, March 08, 2009

Getting the right arguments right

Congressman John Conyers has publicly responded, on the Huffington Post, to the call from Larry Lessig (initiator of Creative Commons) and Mike Eisen (initiator of PLoS) to speak up.

Peter Suber, in turn, responded in detail to John Conyers. Admirable detail, and a discussion with well-articulated arguments, like this, is the way forward, in my view. In an earlier post, 'Aiming at the right target', Peter is saying "Let's not make it easy for the bill's supporters to say that the critics simply don't understand". He is right, and in that vein I feel that I should humbly offer some advice.

In one of his arguments he points out the problem with the old NIH policy, which, he says, "...had the effect of steering publicly-funded research into journals accessible only to subscribers, and whose subscription prices have been rising faster than inflation for three decades". It is the second half of this sentence that is misleading. Technically it is true, of course, especially if he refers to average prices. But it is misleading by omission.

There are at least two reasons why the comment about inflation has to be put in context in order to avoid being misleading:
  1. The average journal prices have risen faster than inflation, but the average number of articles published in them as well, reflecting the above-inflation rise in scientific output. The correct measure should not be the average journal price, but the average price per article published. That may still have risen faster than inflation, and I haven't done the math, but having those data would turn the argument of inflated prices into a real one, or render it irrelevant.
  2. Secondly, scientific journal publishing is a global pursuit. Inflated prices may just as easily be an effect of a precipitiously plunging currency (at the library's side), or a steeply rising one (in the publisher's country), as of publishers' pricing policies. Indeed, if much of the work hadn't been sweat-shop-ized, outsourced to low-wage countries, price rises might have been much bigger. As with so many of the goods we purchase these days.
I think the arguments for open access are strong enough without the inflation red herring.

Jan Velterop


  1. When a library determines what subscriptions fit into their budget, you will find that they are lucky when their budget is adjusted for inflation. The cost of subscriptions is more then the rate of inflation and consequently subscriptions are dropped.

    When a publication includes more papers, there may be a theoretical argument that justifies the price. Practically the students, researchers and teachers that frequent the library will find that they can no longer stand on the shoulders of giants.

    This is exactly what Open Access hopes to prevent.

  2. Jan Velterop3:36 pm

    Gerard, an explanation for price increases is not the same as a solution to the problem. The deeper problem is that funding of research doesn't universally include a proportion of money to be set aside for publication of the results. Whether that is in the form of an article processing charge for open access publishing or a contribution to the library budget. Library budgets have for decades, on the whole, not kept pace with research spending and research output. They are natural soft targets for university bursars, who, quite logically, from their point of view, follow the absence of vigorous protests from faculty to cut the library budget. And the protests after all are not there, because unlike the imperative 'Publish or Perish' there isn't an equivalent on the side of reading the literature. No 'Read or Rot'.

    As a result, libraries have cancelled, leading the publishers to spread their expenses over fewer subscriptions, resulting in higher prices, and behold: the vicious cycle of periodical costs.

    Only a universal realisation that the cost of publishing is integral to the cost of doing research gives us hope of a structural solution.

    Jan Velterop

  3. Jan is right about the distinction between the rising average price of journals and the rising average price of articles. However, it doesn't weaken my point in response to Conyers. Conyers argued that the NIH policy reversed a successful policy. My counter-argument was that it reversed a very unsuccessful and perverse one. If most publicly-funded research is funneled into subscription journals, and the average subscription price rises faster than inflation (and faster than library budgets), then access to that literature declines. As the volume of literature continues to increase, the percentage of it accessible within universities steadily decreases. That's enough to show that the previous policy was perverse.

    It may well be that article inflation isn't nearly as bad as journal inflation. It may even be that average article prices have decreased; but if so, it's because of bundling, not falling pay-per-view fees. It may well be that if we paid for access to new literature by the article, rather than by the journal, we'd not only pay lower prices per article accessed (lowering the effective inflation rate), but we'd stop paying for articles we didn't want to read (negating the effect of bundling).

    If US law steered publicly-funded research articles into pay-per-view vending machines, even if the price per view was significantly lower than we pay now through journal subscriptions, that would still be perverse and the NIH policy would still be an improvement. But because most researcher access is through priced journals and not priced articles, and because journal prices have been rising faster than inflation more more than three decades, it's even more perverse. That's all I wanted to say to Conyers.

    On Jan's second point: I'm careful not to assign causes to the rise in journal prices, and don't care whether it's publisher greed, currency fluctuations, or something else. My point is that prices are access barriers, and rising prices are rising access barriers. Even if publishers are innocent victims of currency fluctuations, it's perverse to let them be the exclusive distributors of publicly-funded research.