Re: Savings from Converting to On-Line-Only: 30%- or 70%+ ?

From: Arthur Smith <apsmith_at_APS.ORG>
Date: Mon, 31 Aug 1998 12:25:15 -0400

There were some good questions on my arguments in Stevan's response,
(under my name) which I will try to address below. But let's turn
first to the core of the argument, from the middle of his response:

Stevan Harnad wrote:
>If we agree that we are talking about the
>same much-reduced costs, then I am just saying S/SL/PPV is simply
>the wrong way to recover them in this new medium, because, by
>definition, toll-gates mean access blockage, and this special
>category of authors (unlike trade authors) does not share the toll
>receipts, condone them, or in any way benefit from them. In paper,
>they had no choice, because costs were so high that there was no way to
>make the literature free.
>But in this new medium there is a way. It's not the way the trade
>literature will or should take; but it is certainly the optimal and
>inevitable way for this anomalous little subset (relatively speaking)
>of the human written corpus, one in which, perversely, authors have
>been giving away their texts, wanting nothing but readers in return,
>all along.

Stevan has been stating this in various forms for at least 4 years now,
and at first I believed it. But now I'm beginning to wonder: are scholarly
authors really so different from "trade authors"? Let's look at a few
examples of trade authors:

1. Book authors (fiction or non-fiction). Some are paid up-front with
minimal or no royalties, and some do get substantial royalty payments.
This is the clearest-cut case for Harnad's argument, but even here the
royalties are not usually the driving force for an author's actions.
Any author not yet highly successful is really looking for critical
acclaim, wide distribution, and a fat contract for a next book. These
things can be enhanced through the editorial and marketing skills of
a reputable publisher. Ignoring royalties, compare what a self-published
author can hope to achieve (say posting their book on the web) relative
to one who relies on a traditional publisher. This really isn't
all that different from what scholarly authors seek.

2. Journalists. Generally salaried, they receive
no particular royalty on each copy. Rather, their jobs and careers depend
on their own reputation and the success of their publisher, to both of which
they contribute by providing quality articles. Wouldn't any journalist
"pay" to see his work on the front page of the New York Times, just as Harnad
has suggested a scholarly author would "pay" to get into "Science" magazine?
But the value of the reputation of the publications is what precludes
this kind of payment system.

3. Free-lance journalists. Paid by the piece, and not tied to a particular
publication, but otherwise much the same as regular journalists. Their
main motivation is to get wide recognition for their work, so they
can ask a higher price in future.

4. Advertisers. Harnad has claimed that scholarly authors are closest
to advertisers in motivation, but that cannot be generally true. An
advertiser does not particularly care about peer recognition or future
fame or fortune through the content of the ads - the goal of an advertiser
is to catch people's attention and direct it to thinking about the product
being sold. If academics were like advertisers, they would bulk e-mail
their thoughts to all and sundry - this doesn't happen.

In my view, scholarly authors have much in common with all "trade"
authors - all authors want their work presented in a manner that will ensure
a wide readership and particularly recognition from their peers.
Whether or not they receive royalties for their work, the reputation and
authority of a given publisher are what promote its success. The toll-gates
do not directly benefit journalists at all, and while royalties are
nice, do little for most authors either. They do provide a huge indirect
benefit however - specifically for salaried journalists in ensuring
the survival of their employer, but also for other authors in ensuring
that reputable and authoritative publishers have some means of keeping
themselves afloat. The same incentives apply to scholarly authors
and the journals they publish in.

I realize I'm being a bit contentious attacking Stevan's central
argument - but I'm really no longer convinced by it. Perhaps he
can convince me again...

Lets turn to some of the other questions.

>Only when this pressure is felt by all will page charges be seen as the
>appropriate cost-recovery mechanism; until then, tide-over subsidies
>for free online-only journals are the way.
>Together, free public eprint archives and free online-only
>journals will be the experience and practise that changes the
>culture, but, alas, this cannot happen overnight.

The "tide-over" concept sounds good, but what exactly is the mechanism
you propose? I've heard several concepts:

1. Libraries cutting subscriptions and paper expenses and putting their
savings into this - is that a realistic concept? Wouldn't libraries put
their savings into their much-abused book collections? Wouldn't recalcitrant
faculty members force libraries to hang on to one or two "essential" paper
subscriptions, now exhorbitantly priced because of subscription declines?
What university is going to support libraries sending their money to
third parties who provide their information free anyway?

2. Governments, which ultimately fund most scientific research (although
where does this leave the scholarly works in applied areas like
medicine or engineering, not to mention the humanities?). Try to
get the US Congress to go for something like this... Do you think
legitimate peer review journals will actually see much or any of the money?

3. An independent fund or trust, or scholarly societies themselves.
We're talking about at least a few hundred million dollars yearly (various
estimates have given 1 - 3 million published scholarly articles a year,
and minimal peer review costs of at least a few hundred dollars). Has
anybody stepped forward to create and run such a beast? Why should the
other parties in the publication process trust it?

Whatever the solution, somebody is up there deciding which
electronic-only journals qualify for subsidy - I don't think
any of this will be easy or easily swallowed by libraries,
governments, or publishers.

I earlier asked what was wrong with inexpensive access, versus free access:

>The answer is simple: Because [reader fees...] are access barriers,
>toll-gates, fire-walls. They would mean I cannot just link to xxx and
>pick up everything and anything. I must go through a financial obstacle
>course of S/SL/PPV (assuming that publishers' licensing packages can be
>made to interdigitate into a seamless literature at all).

Site licensing (SL) makes things pretty much transparent, as long
as the institution subscribes (authors probably expect that a reputable
publisher will have all relevant institutions as subscribers). Pay-per-view
(PPV) at least permits access. I would argue the current fees are
much too high - they should come down significantly as electronic
payment schemes mature. And publishers are already competing on
price here (Elsevier has a new test system for about $7/article, half or
a third of the average out there now). Password-based individual
subscriptions can be cumbersome, but there are technical means for
easing that. I agree that tolls are a hassle - it's a hassle that you
have to pay to read a newspaper or book too. But I argue it's a necessary
hassle that people will be (and are) accepting, and the painfulness
should go down as the technology matures.

As far as "seamless literature", I think the only prospect we have
for that in the next few decades is through the secondary or tertiary
services (abstracters and indexers and the likes of Science Citations).
Any other mechanism would leave out too much of the literature (past
as well as current), and most people doing literature searches
would not use it.

>The optimality [of free/online-only] to the reader is obvious.

That's the kind of statement referees are supposed to catch...!

>Now ask yourself why AUTHORS
>should wish it otherwise? Are financial firewalls that gate access to
>their work any advantage to them? Is there any earthly reason I should
>not archive all my work publicly, in my home server and xxx?

Because it's a hassle for the author. I used to have a bunch of my
papers available on a personal web site, but the computer they were on
was re-purposed. I re-installed them on a new system, but that went
away too. I haven't bothered to do it again, and I'm really not sure
anybody ever downloaded one of my papers while it was up, free for
everybody. Wasn't I just wasting my effort? "xxx" is a bit of a different
case because it acts much like a publisher - it has a reputation (at
least in some segments) and normalizes, processes, and aggregates articles
from many authors. But even there, it's not trivial to prepare your article
to be made publicly available.

Let me turn the question around - if an author's work is getting published
in a reputable journal, and the author knows it will shortly be
available and highlighted to the peers whose recognition he or she craves,
what reason does the author have to put extra effort into posting
it free on the web?

>You are posing this question from the point of view of the present,
>paper-bred S/SL/PPV status quo. You ask the reader (without mentioning
>the fire-wall problem): wouldn't it be simpler to keep the present
>system, with cost-reduction, rather than to move to page-charges, with
>all their bad associations?
>This is a Trojan Horse. It would make us forever hostage to
>counterproductive toll-gates when, for the same money, rechanneled in a
>more sensible way, we can free the literature for once and for all, for
>one and all.

As I argued above, I don't think the rechannelling will be by any
means easy. But suppose we achieve our Nirvana of free literature
and free access to peer-reviewed material supported by page-charges.
Wouldn't this whole system be unstable to the following:

1. A new S/SL/PPV journal forms that has no page charges, perhaps even gives
authors royalties, but only accepts the very highest quality work,
in exchange for a guarantee from authors that they will not post the
material free on the web.

2. Authors try out the new journal because it saves them money (no page
charges). The most famous established authors are solicited to write

3. Readers demand the new journal, and libraries subscribe, because
it clearly contains valuable material that can't be found elsewhere.

4. Other journals follow this lead, and S/SL/PPV becomes a mark
of high quality.

At the least we end up with a mix of free and S/SL/PPV journals.
But then we have the same problem as now. The only thing that can
keep this from escalating to the current mess is extreme vigilance
by librarians that they only pay for high-quality S/SL/PPV. But perhaps
the current serials crisis can lead to such a solution without
needing an intervening free-access phase?

My comments on non-profit and for-profit publishers were based
on the assumption that for-profits have much better marketing
and contracts, as well as a profit-cushion that will probably
give them an extra one to two years of survival beyond where
non-profits start to collapse. If the transition to free-for-all
is rapid, less than a year or two, then non-profits will suffer
by far the most. If the transition is slow, then both will suffer.
Unless of course the "tide-over" business can actually be made to work...

                        Arthur (
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

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