Monday, November 5, 2012

Hitler, Mother Teresa, and Coke

Publishers are manipulative capitalists who extort academia by holding hostage the research papers they stole from helpless scholars on a mission to save the world. This Hitler vs. Mother Teresa narrative is widespread in academic circles. Some versions are nearly as shrill as this one. Others are toned-down and carry scholarly authority. All versions are just plain wrong.

Scholarly publishers do what is expected of them: they offer a service and maximize their profit. Prices are set by a free market, where consumers make cost-benefit evaluations and decide to buy or not. If journal prices keep rising at exorbitant rates, assess why publishers have the power to dictate prices, and fix what is wrong. Do not blame the bee for the sting; it is what bees do.

Scholars submit their manuscripts to journals to expose and validate their work. They are referees because they benefit from the peer-review system or hope to benefit eventually. When they become editor of a journal, scholars advance up the prestige ladder in proportion to the reputation of the journal. Every step of the publishing process rewards scholars in the currency of academic prestige, the foundation of a portfolio that leads to academic appointments.

If journals were only about the dissemination of information, they would not survive current market conditions. There are free resources (not all legal) to obtain scholarly papers: from open-access repositories, from colleagues by e-mail, or from Twitter-enabled exchanges. There are free resources to disseminate research: blogs, web sites, or self-published e-books. None of these alternatives to acquire or disseminate research have affected the scholarly-information market. Scholarly journals are expensive not because they disseminate information, but because they disseminate prestige.

Authors and editors benefit from a journal's prestige, and the survival of “their journal” is important to their field's prestige and, by implication, their own. They never personally face the cost-benefit question (Is a journal's prestige worth its price?), but they influence their organization's subscription decisions. In faculty discussions, the issue of access often serves as a proxy for prestige. For authors and editors, the university canceling “their journal” is outright institutional rejection. To a certain extent, journal subscriptions are a means to divvy up prestige. This inherently dysfunctional market is further distorted by site licenses. (See a previous blog post.)

There are no Hitlers. There are no Mothers Teresa. There are just individuals and organizations looking out for their self-interest in a market complicated by historical baggage (site licenses modeled after paper-journal subscriptions) and competing interests (access, prestige, cost, profit). Academic leaders are concerned about the cost of scholarly communication, but they are equally reluctant to undermine the established system for assessing and rewarding excellence in scholarship.

Scholarly publishers create value by attaching prestige to (what has become) a commodity service. This is not unlike Coca Cola, which ties its commodity products to various nostalgic sentiments. Where Coca Cola invested in mass-marketing campaigns, publishers invested in relationships with academia. They developed the capability of identifying emerging disciplines ready for new journals. They learned how to select editors. They learned how to acquire and disseminate academic prestige. They achieved the power to set prices by seamlessly attaching their prestige infrastructure to the academic enterprise. However, just like team spirit, family togetherness, and the desire for world peace would survive the loss of sugary flavored water, the pursuit of  prestige will survive new dissemination methods for scholarly communication.

From a free-market perspective, Gold Open Access journals seem to have the right structure. When authors pay to be published, they weigh the prestige of the journal against its price. Yet, there is a problem. To survive, a Gold journal only needs a relatively small base of paying authors. It does not need subscribers. It does not need a high impact factor. This presents an opening for opportunists to create vanity platforms. To counter this, universities could prohibit the use of institutional funds to pay for publication in low-impact journals. Unfortunately, this would also increase the difficulty of launching legitimate new Gold journals, decrease competition, and increase prices.

Scholars who grew up with the web will, eventually, question the paper-era structure of all journals. The burgeoning field of alternative metrics uses graph theory to produce article-level quantitative assessments based on correlated web usage. Altmetrics will first complement, then compete with, and ultimately replace the journal impact factor. When articles are assessed based on their own metrics, bundling articles into a journal loses much of its significance. Today, respected academics will not accept a blog post, a self-published e-book (long or short form), or a web site as a valid method to establish academic credibility, let alone prestige. This skepticism is justified, dismissiveness is not.

The journal impact factor exerts its influence through an infrastructure of editorial boards and related organizations that took decades to develop. To achieve that kind of institutional impact, altmetrics need their own social constructs. It may take considerable time and effort to develop these constructs and to have them institutionally accepted. But if it succeeds, such a prestige infrastructure could herald a new era of scholarly communication based on personal dissemination methods.