The Replicability of Research’s Irrational Publishing Economy

After a year of sabbatical concentration and isolation spent working on a pre-history of intellectual property, it’s good to be back blogging on the here and now at Slaw. The book I finished (with a draft online) still needs work in its tracing of the intellectual properties of learning from Saint Jerome to John Locke. I’ll give it a blog or two later, point, but I’m keen to get back to what currently tickles and troubles learned publishing.

Certainly, the previous academic year has seen gains, if not tipping points, in favor of open access as the model and goal of research and scholarship. It is now the case that every federal agency in the United States with any sizable expenditure on research is required to have a public access policy to ensure that the public can view the research conducted in its name.

The open access mega-journal, pioneered by PLOS, continues to establish a new standard for the circulation of knowledge, through dozens of publishers, from Nature to the Royal Society. Here we see the positive knock-on effect of open access and online publishing, with much more efficient publishing of peer-reviewed research, based on the scientific competency of the work without the limits of space restrictions guiding judgments of significance and suitability. The mega journal is certainly not our parents’ journal piling up on the corner of their desks awaiting a browse, even as it suggest gains in the circulation of knowledge.

In fact, every segment of the scholarly publishing enterprise is toying with this new openness. Corporate publishers have open access options and open journals. Among scholarly societies, I had the pleasure this past year of being involved in an American Educational Research Association initiative that saw the launching, with SAGE, of the mega-journal AERA Open. This was the first new journal launched by this 24,000-member association since 1979. Change is afoot. AERA Open’s article processing charges (APC) are scaled back to better match the field’s research funding with $100 introductory APC for members. To put that in perspective, authors are now paying APC fees up to $3,000, if not beyond, for the publishing of an open access article in the sciences and among corporate publishing houses.

While the majority of the ten thousand open access journals do not charge authors such fees (see DOAJ), it is the APC that has drawn a whole range of publishers into open access, from for-profits to scholarly associations. For all of the radical changes, for the good I would argue, that open access has been introducing, many are troubled by the increasing prevalence of APC. It does appear to be on the verge of neatly reproducing what might be characterized as the exploitive irrationalities of the late twentieth-century print economy for scholarly journals.

What is irrational here is the stark disconnect between the price of a journal subscription and the quantity and quality of the articles it publishes. This has been well documented by Ted Bergstrom, an economist at UC-Santa Barbara, initially in 2001 and again just a few months ago in 2014. In this latest piece, Bergstrom et al. work with the pricing of the subscription bundles of the major corporate publishers, which they were only able to obtain through the Freedom of Information Act. Secretiveness is the friend of irrational economies. They built in a quality measure, be calculating the cost-per-citation factor, and found that corporate pricing was three times that of non-profit societies for the same quality of work. Yet this three-times factor was at tier one research universities, where the pricing for other universities was lower, based presumably on the assessed willingness to pay.

Of course, there is not shortage of reason to this irrational pricing model. And of course, the corporations that have thrived through this monopoly pricing in print, and then with online subscriptions, seek to reproduce this model again with APC. The question of the moment, then, is whether the research community can offer and organize itself around an alternative approach to highly profitable irrationality. No one is questioning the essential and beneficial nature of the publishing services at issue. Rather, we ask only what would it take to begin to rationalize this economy. For what is irrational about this economy cannot help but appear to be an exploitive drain on research and scholarship funding.

We might begin by working with publishers to arrive at a fair and competitive market pricing for publishing an article (including platform costs and investments in future improvements), rather than replicating monopoly pricing determined by discipline grant levels. This might, in turn, call into question the extent to which the circulation of knowledge should carry the financial burden of increasing shareholder value or subsidizing the operation of scholarly societies. It might lead to looking at system-wide pricing to reduce transaction costs given this shared and common interest among funders in community and public access to this body of knowledge. This is only to ask whether we can move, this time, beyond this tradition of irrational pricing to some form of rational choice in how best to circulate and grow what we know.

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