Saturday, December 10, 2011

The future of today is not what it used to be

One of the threads on the Liblicense-L discussion forum, on 'the future of the subscription model', has been running for quite a while now. Without much consensus. A few exchanges on the desirability and practicability of an 'author-side-paid' open access model as an alternative, strayed into a system financed by submission fees rather than fees for publication, and I am inviting views on that idea. The exchange on the forum, in chronological order (unedited save for a few typos and the insertion of a few hyperlinks):
(7 December 2011) There was an earlier comment on this thread (which I lost, alas) to the effect that one way to build an author-pays service is with a fee for submission rather than for publication. This is a great idea, and in a world without ruinous competition (John D. Rockefeller's phrase), it would work beautifully, as it aligns the cost to authors with the actual cost of delivering the service. But what happens when your competitor offers a free Christmas promotion? Or if eLife takes 10 years to figure out a business model? In a competitive market, you can never be smarter than your stupidest competitor, and if that
competitor wants to give away the store, I can see your store loaded onto someone else's truck.

Joe Esposito
(7 December 2011) Joe, isn't this already happening? And isn't this why a system based on submission fees hasn't successfully emerged yet?

The competition (subscription-based journals) are offering free promotions (to authors) all the time. They have found people who pay them through the back door (librarians, paying for subscriptions, as
long as it lasts). "In a competitive market you can never be smarter than your stupidest competitor." The words are yours.

This discussion is called "Future of the Subscription Model". The fundamental issue here is that the subscription model is simply not suited to an environment where maximum distribution is possible without marginal cost, and what is being distributed is not consumable (in the sense that it disappears if you consume it). In the bible there is a story about 'loaves and fish'. Allegorical (I presume). But scientific information in the internet environment is like the biblical loaves and fish. Albeit not food for the body, but food for thought. Scientific thought.

Jan Velterop
(9 December 2011) Oh, gosh, Jan, where to begin? This is just plain wrong. There is nothing "back door" about having a librarian pay for something. And it would be a wonderful world if maximum distribution were possible without marginal cost, but in fact there are huge costs to that distribution, if by "distribution" you mean that you persuade people actually to read something. Moving bits around costs nothing, and presumably this is what you mean, but the bits on my hard drive are meaningless unless I engage with them.

We have here the old saw about non-rival goods. It does not apply to media. Media is not a product but something that must engage human attention. That's a scarce thing. There is no superabundance of information when you take into account that someone has to be thinking about the information.

But it really is unfortunate that you insist on making this a binary game. I don't know if I could possibly have been more lavish in my admiration for the author-pays model.  It sits side by side with the subscription model and other forms of traditional (that is, toll-access) publishing. Who has to choose? Over time, the different economics of these models will influence the nature of the content such that you will get different things from subscriptions than you do for author-pays. Is there anything wrong with that? Why would anyone accuse a radio of not being a television?

Joe Esposito

(9 December 2011) Joe, I fear we are talking cross-purposes. My frame of reference is primarily STM journals. In that frame of reference I just don't recognise your definition of 'distribution' as "actually persuading people to read something", unless 'something' means literally that. Sure, publishers try to stimulate downloads, since they help them making he case to librarians that they should renew their subscriptions and licences. But it's a numbers game, in which 'something' pretty much means 'anything', and the marginal cost of extra downloads is negligible.

Indeed, the bits on your hard drive are meaningless unless you engage with them. Researchers do engage with the information they have access to, and they would like to have even more to engage with, but all this engaging isn't necessarily in the form of reading nowadays. Perhaps it can be described as 'meta-reading', but it is more and more about extracting facts and assertions, collating them with those from a large number of publications, connecting and relating them, analysing them, and using the information gleaned as a basis for further thinking, experimentation, et cetera. Occasionally articles are still being read linearly, but even then, particularly if they are being read online (or nowadays also in PDF when the PDF is opened with the likes of the scientific reader Utopia - free from as a starting point for further navigation of information and knowledge.

Human attention is indeed a scarce thing. And that attention is less and less being attracted by journals per se, let alone their publishers. It's the connections between facts and information across a vast array of publications and databases that attract attention. Fragmentation of information in all manner of different journals some of which are accessible and some not is the scourge of many a scientist. The observation that most articles are being accessed only after having been found with general search tools such as Google are testimony to the fact that practically nobody relies anymore on the choices journals and their publishers make.

The role of a publisher nowadays is to provide the service to a scientist of having his or her contributions peer reviewed and subsequently added to the common pool (well, ocean) of knowledge and information in a standardised, accessible and attributable way. That role is not satisfactorily played with the encumbrances of the subscription model.

You are right that the subscription model may be suitable to content of a certain nature. Magazines – even scientific ones – and the like come to mind. Nothing wrong with that. For the mainstay of scientific communication, however, the model is not suitable any longer. Of course it will amble along for a time. Quite a long time, even. Inertia is a pretty strong force.

Jan Velterop

The discussion is likely to continue...

1 comment:

  1. Below Joe Esposito's reaction on the Liblicese-L forum:

    Sorry to be so difficult, Jan, but you keep making statements that make it hard to call this discussion closed. Thus you write the following:

    "The role of a publisher nowadays is to provide the service to a scientist of having his or her contributions peer reviewed and subsequently added to the common pool (well, ocean) of knowledge and information in a standardised, accessible and attributable way."

    This is just not true. The role of the publisher is to help readers by identifying the best work, investing in it, and bringing it to the reader's attention. The role of the publisher is to SUPPRESS production. There is always more information that could be read; publishers sort through it--not always successfully, but with higher standards than the open Web.

    Your description of what publishers do applies perfectly to open access publishing, if publishing is the right term for it. It is different from the traditional model because it privileges a different audience. For open access publishing, the author is the customer; for traditional publishing, the reader is the customer. This is why overtime the kinds of content for these different models of publishing will diverge.

    You are welcome to have the last shot. I'm done with this thread.

    Joe Esposito which my response on Liblicense-L (and here) is:


    I don't regard you as being difficult. We just differ in opinion.

    I agree with you where you question the term 'publishing' for what 'publishers' do, or think they do. I've long held the view that science 'publishers' should really be called 'quality assurance providers' or something in that vein, and I restated that in a recent blog post ( Where we seem to differ is our view whether this applies to all science 'publishers' or just to open access 'publishers'.

    I am, frankly, surprised by your characterisation of a publisher's role as suppressing production. It reminds me of the opinion I've heard from quite a few prominent scientists over the years that someone who wants to have access to less information rather than more cannot really call himself a scientist.

    The bringing to the attention of scientists of any more than the occasional individual article is just not possible with the million+ articles published every year (and counting). As I made clear, I'm talking about journal publishing and not book publishing, in which realm your views may be more relevant.

    Jan Velterop