Exit and voice in access to scholarly articles

For some reason, this week is the week of discussion of open access to scholarly articles. Here is a call for scientists to share results or lose funding (in Bloomberg). Here in the NYT is concern that new legislation will lock down NIH funded research where previously it had been openly available. Here is Kevin Drum (late to the party) commenting on the JSTOR downloading case and claiming that it is right to see punishment there. And here is Megan McArdle reacting to Drum and then going off in a very long post that pretty much concludes that there is no real argument for free access.

So let me weigh in on this. In many respects, I am going to echo McArdle but hopefully be somewhat more efficient about it (although I applaud her long justification that nonrivalry does not imply free). In doing this, I am going to confine myself to the case of publications of publicly funded research. The Michael Eisen piece in the NYT is the conventional argument on this subject: if the public has paid for research, then they should be able to receive access to it and for free. Part of this argument rests on a notion that what publishers of journals add is far less in cost than what they charge for in subscription fees. This argument has been long supported by economists. Basically, the problem here is monopoly power. The solution usually proposed is ‘exit’ — academics should stop publishing in costly journals. Here is Eisen:

Researchers should cut off commercial journals’ supply of papers by publishing exclusively in one of the many “open-access” journals that are perfectly capable of managing peer review (like those published by the Public Library of Science, which I co-founded). Libraries should cut off their supply of money by canceling subscriptions. And most important, the N.I.H., universities and other public and private agencies that sponsor academic research should make it clear that fulfilling their mission requires that their researchers’ scholarly output be freely available to the public at the moment of publication.

Now this is certainly within the power of academics although it requires some coordination as journals have market power for a reason — their reputations for quality handed to them by academics make entry hard. But global citation counts (such as Google Scholar) are breaking all of that down.

But let’s consider the equilibrium for the moment. Let’s start with the fact that journal prices actually appear to be rising. Here is a discussion of the sorry situation in archaeology.

The ‘big four’ academic publishers have acquired rights to the articles you need to make it as a scholar, and have been jacking up prices steadily every year – an average 8.5% increase between 1996 and 2004. For a reality check, see the Springer price list for 2012. Institutions pay an average of $2168/year for a Springer journal.  For four issues! The humanities and social sciences are cheaper – The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, for instance, costs just $764. Anything to do with chemistry, mathematics, or medicine will set your library back $3250-6500.

Now when you look at that it starts to make more sense why publishers are sometimes offering academics an option to pay to allow their articles to be open access. That option has been priced at $3000 but when you look at these charges, that starts to line up. To be sure, publishing an article doesn’t cost $3000 but the potential loss of subscription revenue may.

So can ‘exit’ improve the situation. At the moment, I suspect publishers are worried about exit and that is currently constraining journal prices. If publishers raised them as much as they could — especially since with digitization they now charge for access to the back catalogue as well as new journals — then we could see some serious price rises. Think about what is happening as libraries are redesigning, academics are requiring digitization just to search ever increasing knowledge and old journals are not being maintained. Add to that new academic libraries in emerging economies and demand is soaring. My point is that publishers are probably behaving themselves to keep ‘exit’ in check. That is why smaller publishers often have much higher subscription prices than the Big 4. They don’t care as much.

But suppose ‘exit’ works: no one publishes in existing journals and only open access ones. Then there is no constraint on the incumbent publishers. They will then price as monopolists for access to the back catalogue. There is every possibility that this would lead to prices that would start to exclude Universities and organizations and focus on the larger, richer colleges. My point is that, against firms with market power, it is not clear exit will work as exit does not take away the demand for old knowledge.

JSTOR has some of that back catalogue in it and so had it been released that power may have been taken away. But there remains plenty that is still proprietary and unlikely to be let lose any time soon.

For this reason, to fix scholarly communication, we need to consider ‘voice.’ That is, we need to negotiate with the current rights holders. But in coming to that we have to understand what might be reasonable to pay for. The argument that it is publicly funded, therefore, should be free has resonance but is not correct. Put simply, the vast majority of people do not benefit from direct access to scientific knowledge or, more to the point, in expectation, their value is very, very low. In contrast, university researchers have huge value to that access. And that value comes to them in various forms including reputation — that allows them to charge higher tuition fees, earn greater endowments and earn higher salaries with nicer facilities. And some institutions and faculty more than others. In tapping into the public good of research, they are the 1% and, therefore, should be expected to pay more. So, there are costs associated with breaking past monopolies and also producing current scholarly publications and those users who value it the most should pay.

Of course, that is currently what happens. The problem is that the mechanism — high prices — excludes the 99% even from realising low expected values from that research. This is definitely an issue when we think of countries outside the OECD or elite research areas. It is their plight that motivates the cause of open access and that plight is why we need to negotiate a solution.

My belief is that governments have a role here. The best approach would be to levy higher education institutions (maybe differentially according to ‘wealth’ and research focus) and it would be they that funded the system of scholarly communication. The levy would then be allocated (just as they are for copyright collecting societies) on the basis of use and back to journal publishers. Journal publishers would lose some monopoly power as a result of this and turn into a more regulated situation albiet with earnings based on usefulness. But they would get a longer life and continued existence in publishing. Having then imposed the levy to cover these costs, scholarly research could then become open and DRM free for all. Everyone would have access to JSTOR and could download it. There would be no need to lock it down as those accessing it would never be asked to pay. This would achieve the goal not of making the information free but what it really wants to be, shared.

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