Why publishers cannot be around the table when the scholarly community discusses its communication options

June 29, 2017

Publishers provide certain services (peer-review management, typesetting, brand badges, sometimes proof-reading or copy-editing, archiving, indexing) to the scholarly community.

Those services are of greater and lesser value, provided at higher and lower levels of quality, and cost greater and lesser amounts. Of course, we in the scholarly community want high-value, high-quality low-cost services. This is true whether the publisher in question is a multinational corporation with a multi-billion-dollar turnover, or a tiny boutique press run on a non-profit basis for the sheer love of the process.

Since the scholarly community (researchers, authors, peer-reviewers, academic editors, etc.) is spending money in exchange for publication services, and since publishers are providing publication services in exchange for money, it is clear that the goals of these two groups cannot be aligned. Any money that the scholarly community can save on publication costs is income lost to publishers; and any additional money that publishers can charge for their services is money lost to the scholarly community. I hope that so far, this is uncontroversial.

In the same way, if you sell me a second-hand car, then however well you and I might get on in civilian life — we might support the same football team, drink the same beer, discuss the same novelists, watch the same films — then for the purposes of that transaction, what is good for you (a high price) is bad for me; and vice versa. Note that in saying this I am not condemning or even criticising you. I am just stating a fact about transactions.

Now, suppose my wife and I sit down and decide that we need to buy a new car. We consider Hondas, Fords and Fiats. We weigh up various models on their merits, compare their prices with their features, and reach a decision on what we want to buy and how much we’re prepared to spend. We then approach the various Honda dealers (or, as we may have decided, Ford dealers or Fiat dealers). We negotiate with them to agree a price that we are happy with for a model that is in good enough condition. Different dealers compete with each other to win our custom by offering good cars at a low price. This is a functioning market.

What we don’t do is invite all the dealers to come and join us in our initial conversation. When my wife and I are discussing how important it is to us that our new car has variable-speed intermittent windscreen-wipers, we have that discussion in an environment quite free of car dealers telling us how great Fiat’s intermittent-wipe feature is. How could we possibly reach a coherent decision on what our own requirements are if we’re bombarded by the claims — some competing, some in collusion — of all the car dealers? And how can we think sensibly about what we’re prepared to spend if we’re surrounded by the dealers’ defences of the various financing arrangements they offer?

So in the same way, I feel that the scholarly community needs to figure out what publication services it needs, free of the influence of publishers who (and again this is not a criticism) have their own agenda. Then, when we know what we want, we can go to the publishers who offer the kinds of services we’re interested in, and invite them compete for our business on the basis of features and price.

But involving them in the initial what-we-want discussion can only lead to confusion, and a compromised outcome. Which is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years. This was the fatal flaw that led to the deeply flawed Finch Report and to the erosion of the RCUK’s initially very progressive OA policy.

As a side-note: my wife and I may end up deciding we don’t need a car at all: we might decide we can walk, or cycle, or take public transport. Car dealers would hate that: they would advocate against such an outcome with all their might if they were involved in that discussion. Which is why they can’t be.


Note. This post is adapted from a message to the Open Scholarship Initiative mailing list.


4 Responses to “Why publishers cannot be around the table when the scholarly community discusses its communication options”

  1. Karli Says:

    Sure you have to decide what you want first before talking to the dealer/provider of any good/service. Agreeing and nothing is wrong with this.

    But staying in your picture: what about if all your five kids plus their wives and husbands plus their grown up kids rely on the car you want to buy too? As well as your choice has to be adopted by all residents in your street? Agreeing on something suddenly starts to get complicated again. And your’s and your wife’s personal choice might not match with the rest of the family and the neighbors. And suddenly one car type might not be enough to solve everybody’s needs. You might even have to start thinking of public transport.

    From my experience talking a librarian is like talking to hundreds of people as librarians serving a diverse community. And I think this is where your picture limps.

    In your world it looks to me that you think sales people are just selling. But in most cases they are also advisers for very complex situations (especially transitioning to OA) which go far beyond buying apples, your daily newspaper or even cars. And this is why a lot of customers and sales people in the publishing industry constantly communicate and exchange. To find solutions to align the goals.

  2. gemstest Says:

    Agree++ saw that Elsevier were giving a masterclass at this year’s EAHIL. The relationship between libraries and suppliers really needs resetting.

  3. Fair Miles Says:

    Oh, I love analogies!

    Now let’s say there are only two or three brands of cars which, it doesn’t matter how, had manage to get all the other manufacturers out of the business. Your employer said you are free to choose your own way of transportation, that walking and cycling were perfectly ok, but you were required to travel faster than 80 km/h to be considered useful for your work. Suddenly your choices seemed to reduce: you loved your work, it was what you knew how to do, and in fact it was not easy getting there (and, by the way, your children love to eat). You protested trying to convince her that such potential high speed was not really necessary, that traffic was really the problem, that you could reach your destination nonetheless. Your employer did not agree, reasonably backed by her success story into the company after paying for that luxury car in which she moves around.

    Then, someday, teletransportation was discovered. There were great parades, big egalitarian promises; you were there, you can remember clearly. Maybe that’s the reason you cannot be able to understand why your employer still insists you must buy one of those expensive fast cars. You tend to resist, even when he has offered you to only pay for half of it, and they will manage to arrange the rest with the brands themselves. And even when you see everybody around wanting a new car, which are getting faster and more expensive, although still stucked in the traffic. You feel confused, sometimes depressed, occassionaly angry. Maybe it is only you, that you love to walk that much…

    [Sorry. I said I love them!]

  4. Chase Says:

    I agree with your points. However, I am a bit confused on one point. I understand the notion of your analogy that one should ponder privately before buying something (especially in the case of something expensive like a car or an article publishing charge), and thus the scholarly community should do so to. However, because (as noted above) there are just so many people involved in journal publisher-author transactions, it’d realistically be near-impossible to facilitate such a meeting of academics in order to “to figure out what publication services [the scholarly community} needs”. I would agree with Karli above in that different entities will have different opinions or suppositions as to where they’d like to publish. In fact, I’d bet (or at least hope) that the vast majority of researchers do think about where to publish in financial context before doing so.

    Just to clarify, this is not to say that reform is not needed in scholarly journal publishing. Publishing prices and article prices in some cases (I’m looking at you, Elsevier) are excessively expensive in my opinion, and I agree with your comments in previous posts on this website that a whole lot of stuff that is certainly not in the best interests of science or scientists goes on in the publishing industry (the destruction of SSRN preprints without notifying the authors by Elsevier, or that time Elsevier patented a form of peer-review are recent examples). However, my point is that I don’t see what your getting at here that isn’t already going on, just on a smaller scale.



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