Scientific publishing and the music business

This post was inspired by a review by Kent Anderson at the The Scholarly Kitchen of Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, in which he sees parallels between the creative industries that Levine writes about, and the scholarly journal of which he is CEO and publisher. It’s an interesting insight into how (some) people are thinking in academic publishing these days. Even if, to paraphrase one commenter, it’s a bit like listening to the Kodak board agonise over how to get people excited about film again.

In the main, it’s the classic case of an intelligent writer putting forth a fairly logical argument in a frame of reference that is woefully awry. I say fairly logical, because if I tell you that the gist of his argument is that traditional academic journals are good because they are supported by library subscriptions, whereas open access journals are bad because their upfront fees come out of research budgets, you can probably see a hole in it already. But more telling is his belief, expounded in the comments, that research results have no economic value to them until they are published: thus publishers are providing researchers with a valuable service, and ‘the problem is that customers have been taught by technology companies not to pay for content,’ which he describes as a ‘market failure’. Stop sniggering at the back, there are plenty of people out there who agree with him, not least because their economic futures rely on it being true. Sadly, I think they are going to be very disappointed.

Rather than engage this rather self-validating model on its own terms, I think it might be more fruitful to examine two of the real similarities between the ‘culture business’ (I’ll stick to music, which I know something about) and scholarly publishing (again, I’ll stick to science). Doing so reveals some simple home truths.

First, they are both businesses where the price of entry has dropped like a stone of late; actually, more like a meteorite. Setting up a record label or a journal used to be a substantial investment. Now you can found one in a weekend on a shoestring. I know, it can’t continue that way indefinitely, but you can get started far more cheaply, not least because you don’t have to print any journals or press any records, so you can test the waters with minimal risk.

This is important, because historically the distributors of content – record labels, publishers – have taken the lion’s share of the profits, on the reasonable grounds that they were assuming the bulk of the risk. As this is no longer the case, we can logically expect those who supply the content – musicians,writers, scientists – to renegotiate this deal in a way that leaves the distributors with considerably less of the pie. So any sane person will expect the publishing business to contract, and contract dramatically, unless the total income from sales can somehow expand to make up the difference, which if it happens at all, won’t carry on forever. This is not a market failure. This is simple arithmetic.

Second, both the music business and the scientific publishing business have at their core a fundamental tension. Both the musician and the scientist want their creations to reach as wide an audience as possible. But distribution has to be paid for somehow, and historically this has been achieved by restricting access to the content to those who are willing to pay, even though this is the opposite of what the creators actually want. (There is a slight difference here, in that musicians typically also need to make a living, whereas scientists typically have a salary, and only need the recognition and kudos that attaches to good work, but the principle still holds). With a few ignoble exceptions who are really just there for the money, neither creator type has any great interest in making the fruits of their labour economically valuable except insofar as it serves a purpose. We can predict that any solution that serves those purposes but eliminates this basic contradiction is likely to gather enormous momentum, which I would argue is happening right now with open-access publishing.

Please note, this is not the same argument as ‘the price of distribution is falling’. It is, but not to zero, and while it remains, it has to be met somehow. The possibility of meeting the needs of the creators without selling access to the content is far more important, and if it can be made to work, is likely to sweep all before it in a tsunami of change.

So what are the actual needs of science? The ever-helpful Mr Anderson has compiled a list of 60 Things Journal Publishers Do, which makes an excellent starting point. I’ll examine it in a follow-up post, because while I agree that many people don’t understand how complex the job of the journal publisher is, I think a vulture’s-eye view of the topic will also reveal some serious problems.

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