Scholarly Publishing – Where is the Value Realized?

Peter Jones Information Ecology, Media Ecology, Service Design

Now that Elsevier has withdrawn its support for the Research Works Act, it will be interesting to see if the academic boycott goes “full Occupy” on Elsevier (and other publishers) or recognizes that its been listened to with respect. Its a complicated and emerging relationship. Thinking about scholarly publishing as a service system, the authors are not actually customers of the Elsevier services directly – they are end users of a subscription service. So while they complained about high prices, they themselves never paid those prices, even indirectly. The university library has always been the “customer” and the subscriber business model is not the same as a service. There is no exchange for realized value.

In scholarly publishing, the academic author has a relationship with the journal and editor, never the publisher (e.g., Elsevier). So the argument about providing work as IP to a publisher is also disingenuous. An author is free to submit work to one of hundreds of journals – online publishing has proliferated more journals than ever in history (and most of the new ones are not that good.) So the argument might be that Elsevier has “monopolized” the good journals. However, those journals also became good because of how they were supported and managed, not just “because they are good.”

Washington University’s Medical Library recently published their own facts about their relationship with Elsevier content and services, as a customer of the company. In The Elsevier Boycott and its relationship to WUSM:

As a library we are caught in the crossfire of this ideologically charged boycott debate.  While we agree with many of the arguments against Elsevier’s business practices, we also rely upon and, in fact, promote many of their products such as SciVerse Scopus, Clinical Pharmacology, and MD Consult.  Elsevier’s business practices influence many of our collection and operational decisions, leading to a relationship that is sometimes complicated.  It is in this light that we have decided to present some facts about our Elsevier subscriptions to add local context to a topic that has evolved into an international publishing controversy.

The RWA never had much of a chance, especially after SOPA, so it was hard to take either side seriously. But the boycott did have an interesting effect on Elsevier’s decisions, which I hope some academics see in a positive light. As a business they are willing to change with the times.

However, it seemed nobody associated with the boycott cared to examine the facts of the single company they chose to shame. It was a pure morality play without regard for history, scientific or publishing culture, the typical operations of business, the customer-provider relationship, or any of the service relationships we come to expect in society. So it wasn’t a very clean morality play. It was an attack on business models and profits, without understanding (at all) how those profits were really made. They just assumed – in a self-centred way – that it was because they “donated” their work which was then sold at straight profit markup. That’s not a business model in reality, but it was an assumption upon which the boycott was launched.

That they published their total lack of insight into business practices is astonishing to me. The boycotters made arguments that they as professors would never accept from a undergraduate essay. They then also made it appear as if the academic world is somehow exempt from the business and contractual relationships that everyone else deals with on a daily basis. As if writing a paper is the only thing of value in the equation, and that Elsevier (or any publisher) provides zero value. That the millions of dollars of online, search, management, analytics, new products and innovation risks, and distribution of a publisher is somehow something anyone could do with OA from their own lab’s PC. If that went away, each journal would have to manage their own processes separately and price and manage relationships to the libraries and users separately, and so on. And then Google would run the show, which may be OK with these academics, as long as the profits are not made on their contribution.

A magazine can go away and knowledge is not really lost. But if scholarly publishers broke up, the management of journals would not be guaranteed. The constituent journals and monographs could not go to the governments or universities, because publishers are international entities.

The shortsightedness of even the well-educated shows that in the “new world of free” that no business is safe from the deflation of value. Innovation that is not free or “open” is on notice. Jaron Lanier expressed his concerns about this devolution of value in “You are Not a Gadget.” (He argued in favor of new types of protected publishing models to help creative producers maintain their value). The value of electronic and managed publishing may not be apparent to scholars who just want to hold and print the PDF of another scientist’s article. We should hope that  is a fungible artifact that the author could have published themselves.

Content does not appear by magic. The comments on most of the articles published around this issue reveal an alarming lack of knowledge of how publishing, or any business, really operates. When considering the costs and risks of providing a service system such as scholarly publishing, we should be glad we’re not doing this ourselves. People really have no idea what goes into a publication process to generate thousands of articles in hundreds of publications constantly, annually, archived, ad infinitum.

Where is the realized value of the research article, the journal, the collection in your library? I would argue its not the “knowledge” in the article, as any newsworthy research is discussed in multiple locations. It is more the ability to deploy the meaning of the article, which is also related to context and quality of source, the ability to cite with authority. The article as an artifact is what service science would call “potential value.” It is not the value in itself. And there are many other ways to realize the value of knowledge than the canonical artifact of the journal article.

In a world where  “free everything” is demanded, the payer is you, just paying somewhere else.