Moral dimensions of Open, part 1: “marginal cost is zero, so price should be zero”

April 4, 2016

As I mentioned last time, I will be participating in the “Moral Dimensions of Open” working group at the forthcoming OSI2016 conference. Having laid out what I see as the foundational aspect of this discussion in part 0, I’d like to briefly survey some of the specific moral arguments in favour of Open — with particular reference to open access, since it’s an area that I have more experience in than open data, open innovation, and so on.


To me, the most foundational reason that access to research should be free at the point of use is this very simple one: once production work has been completed and the first copy of a paper created, each additional copy is free to produce and distribute. This means that we can create an arbitrarily large number of copies, and send them around the world, resulting in a huge increase in the world’s wealth. Not doing so is … silly.

If “silly” doesn’t sound like quite such an emphatic denunciation as might have been expected, let’s try again. When we have the option to create free wealth, refusing to do so is profoundly wasteful. We’re failing to make things better for other people, at no cost to ourselves. We are passing up the opportunity to do the most moral thing possible even though it wouldn’t cost us anything.

If I give my food to someone who is hungry, I will have less food. But if I give my PDF collection to an under-resourced researcher, doctor, policy-maker or teacher, I don’t have less knowledge. I have created free knowledge out of thin air. Why wouldn’t I do that?

If we could create free food for people who are starving, we would do it in a heartbeat, because we want people to be fed. If we could create free medicine for people who are sick, we would do it in a heartbeat, because we want people to be healthy. We can create free knowledge for people who are under-resourced — so we should do it in a heartbeat, because we want people to be educated.

To me, it’s that simple. Open access is a moral necessity because it’s morally repugnant to deny people privileges that cost us nothing to provide. I feel exactly the same way about paywalls preventing access to research as I would about mechanisms that prevented free food being created for starving people if that could be done at zero cost.

Some objections

“But it costs money to transform an author’s manuscript into a published paper.”

Yes, it does: managing peer-review, typesetting, creating metadata and so on are real costs, and publishers need to be paid for these things to happen. That is why I said access to research should be free at the point of use.

There are costs to be met at the point of production, and various ways of meeting them. We could debate what those costs are, which ones are legitimate, how high they should be, and where the money should come from. All of these practicalities are subject to legitimate disagreement between reasonable people.

But since it costs no money at all to make and distribute an additional copy of a paper, what is simply not acceptable is to prevent access.

“But distribution online is not free.”

This is an important issue to address, and to think about clearly. Angela Cochran recently asserted this on a mailing list of OSO2016 delegates:

If you throw a paper in the Internet and hope people find you, you won’t get far. Researchers publish with journals because they want their work to be discoverable. They want it in Scopus or Compendex, Web of Science, and Google scholar. This requires feeds, structured metadata, humans to follow up every time an author can’t find their papers in those places, license agreements to maintain, etc.

I submit that this is a red herring. What Angela is describing here are ancillary services. They are of real value, but they are quite separate from the issue of access. A researcher in the developing world doesn’t care whether a paper on the efficacy of new anti-malarial drugs is indexed in Scopus — she cares whether she can read and use it.

It’s perfectly reasonable to make access to papers free, but to sell subscriptions to value-added services such as the Web Of Science. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that it’s not. What is not reasonable? Conflating these two things such that the need for WOS to have a business is allowed to impede access. If value-add services are to survive as businesses, it must because the value they add is worth paying for.

“But I want to keep making an enormous amount of money for very little work.”

Sorry, can’t help you there. There is nothing moral about rent-seeking, and no moral argument for preventing the free creation of wealth in order to facilitate its continuation.

Some publishers’ arguments against open access have had this character. Many publishers’ public comments in favour of the Research Works Act, for example, were of the form “please reduce the wealth of the world for our private benefit”. I am very glad to see the frequency of such statements decreasing over the last few years. I can only hope it indicates a genuine change of heart, rather than mere PR.

[Read on to part 2: “the public paid for it, so the public should have access”]

13 Responses to “Moral dimensions of Open, part 1: “marginal cost is zero, so price should be zero””

  1. Anonymouse Says:

    Thank goodness OSI isn’t going to produce anything binding, as I disagree with your premise. You increasingly sound like a 14 year old defending warez.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t think anything anyone says is “binding” — with the possible exception of funders.

    Which specific part of what I said do you disagree with? On what grounds?

  3. dale Says:

    Your moral arguments are iron-clad. However. People are resistant to change, even in a capitalist society. There is no free lunch. The idea is to convince the capitalist system that there’s lots of profit to be made in what you’re suggesting. New science to be made. Technology to follow. Money to cash in on. In that order. Sounds crude but this is how our system works. Bottom line? Efficiency! If your target audience does not understand, you need to drop words like “expense” and replace them with “investment”. Speak their language and use positive wording. Reread about what I said about Amazon. Always use them and never be used by them. To do that you need to create a win-win situation FOR BOTH SIDES. My 2 cents.

  4. panchamkauns Says:


    I don’t agree. Yes, there is likely money to be made for the capitalist system in general, in the long run – I belive more access to knowledge will increase prosperity – but there is no convincing legacy publishers that they can make any money off open access, because they can’t. And they know that better than anybody.

    They themselves are not providing much of a win/win scenario. They are the only ones winning, not science, nor individual scientists they publish. There is no point to ther business model anymore, so instead of trying to convince them to change (with capitalist arguments) I think we need to convince scientists to simply stop enabling them.

  5. Possibly Anonymouse does not see how academic publishing is different from, say, entertainment or programming. Pirates of those products make similar arguments about marginal cost which, to me at least, are unconvincing. But that is because those industries rely on proceeds from sales to fund production of more content, while in academic publishing there is no such cycle. Money going into publication of research does not fund more research; it leaves the system and is lost.

    It is absolutely stupid of funders, creators, and consumers of research to keep pouring money into the pockets of legacy publishers when they have cheaper, better alternatives. The publishers will either adapt to the new conditions, or they will be sidelined into irrelevance; there’s no need to “convince” them of anything. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work.

  6. dale Says:

    I understand. But once again, it is my understanding that Amazon is NOT looking at the bottom line ($$$). She is looking at assimilating authors for long term stability. This would work if it were an accurate long term prognosis based on Amazon’s business proceedures [which is … thankfully … highly predatory (efficient)]. So long as Amazon’s diversified portfolio doesn’t collapse then, profits in scientific publications are a very minor worry. At the very least, it should be wholefully cheaper to publish currently through them. There is still (contrary to what you have stated) immediate profit on both sides. Amazon charges by the megabyte. It is the scientific publishing subsiduary that determines the actual price of the product. That’s left up to us. The bottom line for Amazon is the authorship (vis-a-vis publishing). So do not suggest that there is no profit to be made by either side. It’s all in the art of making the deal. They have what we want. We’ve got what they want. The price we set is not going to be ZERO. That’s a lose-lose proposition for everybody … particularly authors of papers. As for readers, they’ll get them very cheaply with the “great” feeling that most of the $$$ goes back to the authors … not the publisher. If Amazon were to make only a nickle on each paper, the authors would make 2 nickles. Again. It’s not costing Amazon a dime to do this. However. If you want FREE access to all papers where the authors make zero, then we both have a very different view of this world. I’m all for the author and student. And if Amazon can get us there … all the better. This is as close to operating in the real world as I can get with little compromise to my morals. For what you are proposing (in my opinion) requires a far more predatorial publishing company than Amazon. That would be a State publishing company wherin the tax payer would foot the bill completely whether they like it or not. But if they do … they’re going to want practical applications from that research. We’re going to be left in the same spot we started from. I’m not saying this is wrong but is it realistic to allow a more socialist concept to guide scientific publishing ? Why not address the authors of multiple scientific journals and see how they feel ? When you advocate something for free, you are in essense advocating for complete loss of control. It’s much, much harder to deal with gov’t that isn’t dependent upon profit. You got no leaverage.
    My 2 nickles.

  7. […] be in the Moral Dimensions group. [Part 0 laid the foundation by asking why this matters; and part 1 discussed the argument that price should be zero when marginal cost is zero.] As usual, I will be […]

  8. […] [Read one to part 1: “marginal cost is zero, so price should be zero”] […]

  9. Dale – I see a reference to “what I said earlier about Amazon” but I don’t know where the original argument is, so I can’t quite make sense of the rest of your response.

    At any rate, market forces are unable to do much good in the current system. The parties that are selling research (the publishers) do not choose which research to pursue or fund, only which research they wish to publish. And they do not sell individual papers to individual researchers (well, they do, but that is a negligible part of their overall sales); instead, they sell bundles to institutions through very opaque deals. The invisible hand cannot work on what it cannot see.

    The point being, changing the business model to eliminate direct payment by the consumer does not effect the consumer’s leverage, because the consumer currently has no leverage. At least, not of the voting-with-your-wallet kind.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    “The invisible hand cannot work on what it cannot see.” <– That is extremely well put, and exactly right.

  11. ech Says:

    “once production work has been completed and the first copy of a paper created, each additional copy is free to produce and distribute.” – This argument as presented in this post seems to apply to a lot of things, from ebooks to music and movies.

    Is that your intention? If so, you are essentially arguing against copyright altogether, right?

    If not, I think this post would benefit if it had some clarification as to why this argument applies to research papers and not to those other things.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    I think what follows from the zero marginal cost is that, if a product is not to be made freely available, a case needs to be made for why not. In other words, when marginal cost is zero, the null hypothesis should be freely distributable.

  13. […] open (particularly open access), we’ve considered why this is important, the argument that zero marginal cost should result in zero price, the idea that the public has a right to read what it paid for, the very high profit margins of […]

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