Of divorce lawyers and scholarly publishers

May 8, 2013

I was reading an article recently about crowd-funded startups. One of the featured startups aims to make divorce more painless. That started me thinking about divorce lawyers. Their web-sites say they will “guide you as painlessly as possible through the jungle of legal rules and practices” and “have not only your best interests in mind, but also that of any children who may be involved“. And I’m sure that’s true of all the individuals that work at such firms. I’m sure they do genuinely good work and mitigate some of the appalling pain of a divorce.

And yet. For these firms to succeed, they need marriages to fail. From the perspective of the company (not the people in it), a successful marriage is a missed business opportunity. What a terrible, conflicted, position to be in. It must be hard to work for a company like that.

And then I thought about traditional, paywall-based scholarly publishers. Their web-sites say things like “We have a passion for digital distribution“, that they have an “objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide“, and that their purpose is “to further the […] objective of advancing learning, knowledge and research“. I’m sure that’s true of all the individuals that work at the company. I’m sure they do genuinely good work and want to make research available wherever possible.

And yet. For those firms to succeed, they need universities, libraries, doctors, nurses, teachers and others not to be able to freely access published research. From the perspective of the company (not the people in it), a shared paper is a missed business opportunity. What a terrible, conflicted, position to be in. It must be hard to work for a company like that.

This isn’t hypothetical. The three publishers whose self-descriptions I quoted above are Taylor and Francis (“passion for digital distribution”), Oxford University Press (“education by publishing worldwide”) and Cambridge University Press (“advancing learning, knowledge and research”). The very same three publishers who are currently suing Delhi University for photocopying excerpts of their textbooks.

Now leave aside whether or not the law is on the publishers’ or the educators’ side in this dispute. The issue is this. The publishers’ business model forces them to act in a way directly opposed to their mission. What they are doing in Delhi, if they are successful will prevent T&F’s goal of digital distribution; it will prevent OUP’s mission of education worldwide; and it will prevent CUP’s objective of advancing learning.

When I met Alicia Wise back in September last year, and we chatted over lunch, I think she was a bit surprised at my insistence that all paywalls on research have to come down. I don’t want to put words in her mouth (and I hope she’ll correct me if I misinterpreted) but it seemed to me that she expected to be able to meet me half way — that I would be in favour, for example, of a scheme that allowed much cheaper access to paywalled material.

In that chat over lunch, I don’t think I did a very good of articulating why I am so implacable on this. But this is the reason. As soon as a publisher has a paywall, its  mission and its business are in conflict. A paywall-based publisher cannot both advance its mission and preserve its revenue.

There are only two ways for paywall-based publishers get rid of this dissonance. Either they have to give up all pretence of being about education; or they have to give up paywalls and adopt a business model that is in alignment with their stated mission. Until they do one or the other, the baked-in hypocrisy will continue. It’s inevitable. It’s fundamental to what these organisations are.

4 Responses to “Of divorce lawyers and scholarly publishers”

  1. Mike, the hypocrisy is on both sides: the publishers and those in academic management which push for submitting articles to such publishers. I like the “divorce lawyer” analogy and I look forward for the “dentist” one!

  2. Michael Richmond Says:

    I see the power of that analogy, too.

    Suppose that someone takes the idea and extends it beyond publishers to other businesses in education. For example, I work at a university (Rochester Institute of Technology = RIT). Part of my job involves teaching students about introductory physics. RIT, like many universities, suggests that instructors place materials for class — lecture notes, homework assignments, readings, and so forth — into a content management system; ours is called “mycourses.”

    Material in this system is visible only to students registered for a course. That means that it is invisible to those same students once they finish the course, to other students at RIT, to students at other institutions, and to the general public.

    Is there a moral imperative for instructors to avoid using this system?

    (A minor point: some materials used in some courses might have copyright issues. For example, one might want to assign students to read one small selection from a book. If one uses this system, so that only students enrolled in a course can see the material, then the university is granted an exemption to use the copyrighted material. Let’s put this aside for the moment, though of course it could be very important for some courses.)

    Disclaimer: I don’t use the system myself, but put all my materials onto a public website. On the other hand, I have to develop and maintain this site and its computers myself, which is no small task and which is probably beyond many of my colleagues.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Michael. That is a good and valid question, and I don’t have a ready-made answer to hand. I’ll be interested to see what others think.

  4. […] This is the true tragedy of modern “publishers”: that as the world has become able to do the job that once only they could do, they’ve not stepped graciously aside, but devoted their energies to preventing works being available. The publishers’ outdated business model forces them to act in a way directly opposed to their miss… […]

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