Re: Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives '99

From: Hal Varian <hal_at_SIMS.BERKELEY.EDU>
Date: Sat, 10 Jul 1999 16:12:10 -0700

On Sat, 10 Jul 1999, Stevan Harnad wrote:

> Yes, but the question was whether they would trade it off for their
> refereed journal articles, not for their books and other activities.

But of course they do---the time spent writing textbooks, consulting,
and so on takes away from time spent writing and publishing academic

> (It would have been absurd of me to suggest that the authors of refereed
> journal articles don't care about making money at all: It's just that
> they don't want to make money by selling THOSE articles.)

I agree that under the current system they don't expect to make money, but
if they were offered a payment for academic articles, few would turn it

> Perhaps the meaning of "make money on their texts" was not antirely
> clear the first time. I hope that now it is: It is the blockage of free
> access to THOSE texts (and not other texts they may write, or other
> things they may do with their time, that we are discussing here).

This is a very, very limited sense of "make money on their texts".
Obviously academics make money on their works since they are paid,
in part, to publish them. Perhaps you meant to say that academic
authors would prefer to maximize the readership of their works.
I agree that this is true. But it is also true of non-academic

> I said something stronger, and I repeat it: The authors of refereed
> journal articles are not interested in making money on THOSE texts at
> all.

I submit they would be happy to make money on those texts, as long as it
didn't dramatically reduce the readership. You have implicitly assumed
that the only way to "make money on those texts" is to charge people to
read them, thereby limiting access. I think this is a very narrow view,
and limits the kinds of business models you might consider for information

> The conclusion is that in the case of the refereed journal literature
> only, the author has an interest in there being NO INCOME (to anyone)
> from sale of his texts, because income means access-blockage. This is
> also in the interest of the author's institution, which likewise gains
> kudos (and grant income) from the impact of his research (not to
> mention their savings from S/L/P cancellations!)

Here is where your confusion lies. It is false (as an economic
proposition) that there is a direct relationship between "no income" and
"access blockage". Consider a field where there is an economic demand for
the research (engineering, medicine, finance, etc.) It is common to see
research produced in these fields where publication is delayed. It is
first made available for a high price via consultancies, newsletters,
affiliates, etc., and later made available to the academic world at large.
This way the authors have their cake and eat it too---make money, and
still make the research available to all. Obviously this practice can be
abused, but that is beside the point. The point is that income can be
made even while providing broad access.

A similar example is JSTOR, where back issues journal articles are
available at zero marginal price to subscribing institutions.

Indeed, this model is becoming somewhat common in the for-profit trade
literature. An author first publishes a book, then 2 or 3 years puts the
text up on his or her web site.

This is "second degree temporal price discrimination" and presents one
interesting business model for information goods. See various papers
for other examples. Or see my trade book at, or either of my textbooks at They all
tell the same story with respect to this issue, simply directed at
different audience.

> So with refereed journals it makes sense (and with books it does not)
> that costs should be paid for at the author-institution end (yielding
> free access for all) rather than the reader-institution end (blocking
> access, impact income).

The conclusion has some merit, but I disagree with the analysis. I claim
that the fundamental force is not the difference in motivation of the
authors (since trade authors and academic authors like both money and
readers) but in the nature of the production process of research, and, in
particular, that the producers and consumers are the same people. To see
why, look at another genre with this characteristic---fanzines for
hobbiests (science fiction, collectors, etc). In the print fanzine world
authors were not paid and the readers paid for zine via subscription, just
as in the academic genre. Now most of the hardcopy zines have moved to
the Web where they are freely available. I think you are right that this
will happen with academic journals, but it isn't because academic authors
wouldn't like to get paid for their texts.

> Sure they would, but so what? That still would not connect the author's
> income CAUSALLY to the income from the sale of his (refereed-journal)
> texts. (And, to simplify, if we say directly that it is
> impact/visibility, and not publication simpliciter, on which the income
> ladder depends, then the NEGATIVE causal relation between S/L/P access
> barriers and author/institution income becomes even clearer.)

Well, we could quarrel about the metaphysics of "cause", I guess, but I
would say that there is a pretty direct causal relationship between the
number of readers of one's refereed articles and one's academic salary in
the US. (This differs, of course, from field to field.)

> The trade/nontrade divide is fairly represented by desire and
> expectation of revenue directly from the sale of the text.

This is simply wrong. Most trade books make very little money for the
author directly from royalty revenues. You only have to look at the
statistics on authors' incomes. The National Writers Union publishes
such a survey and the numbers are strikingly small.

> prevents seeing that this reader-end market is the wrong one for
> refereed journal articles, which authors have always wanted to give
> away, but have been prevented from doing so by the economics of paper.

Again you are making the leap from "maximize the readership of" to
"give away". I agree with the former motivation (at least to the first
order) but I deny that it immediately follows that the content must
be given away. This is one tool, but not the only one.

> But this author-end market does NOT generalize to most books, which
> will continue to be bought and sold on the old, trade model. To blur
> this crucial distinction in either direction is to miss the fundamental
> development that the old, trade model, which was "right" for ALL texts
> before, is no longer right for refereed journals.

Well, I can hardly dispute the claim that "[physical] books will be
bought and sold on the old trade model", but the more interesting
question is how "writing" will be distributed. I claim that a smaller
and smaller fraction of total written works will be sold in in the trade
model. The majority of written work will be given away on the Web
(in fact, that is probably true today).

> Fine. I'm actually losing my grip on what we are disagreeing about...

The only substative point on which we disagree is that I claim that the
stark distinction between trade publication and academic publication that
you make is overstated. I say this from the perspective of an author who
has written:
   1) journal articles that are read by thousands of people each year
(according to the Social Science Citation Index);
   2) textbooks that are read by tens of thousands of people each year
(according to my royalty statements);
   3) technical trade books that are read by a thousand or so people each
year); and
   4) a nontechnical trade book that has sales in the many tens of

I've also edited an academic journal read by tens of thousands of people a
year, and have self-archived many of my publications online for 10 years
using gopher, ftp and the Web.

In my experience, most publication is a mixture of economic and
non-economic motivations. My textbooks and trade book were successful
because my academic papers were widely read. The visibiilty resulting
from the academic, text, and trade books leads to more offers for speeches
and consulting. I don't see the stark division that you describe.

> For freebies are then associated with the vanity press, without quality
> control (peer review). From this it becomes clear that SOMETHING still
> has to be paid for here, and that is the IMPLEMENTATION of the quality
> control (for referees referee for free). That is what leads to the
> unintuitive shift from a reader-institution market to an
> author-institution market for the SERVICE of quality control and
> certification (instead of the PRODUCT of a text).

I agree that the filtering is what need to be paid for. (A quibble:
some referees are paid, though typically not a sum that covers the
time cost.)

> It's not academic vs. trade authors! It's academics when they wear
> their refereed-journal-author hats and every other author, including
> themselves, when wearing their book-author hats (except in the case of
> esoteric monographs).

Hmm. So academic authors like money when they write trade books and don't
like money when they write trade books? This seems rather strange. A
more accurate account is that they they like money and readership
whichever hat they are wearing.

The real difference is not at the level of the author, but at the level of
the industry. In the trade book industry the authors and the readers are
quite distinct, whereas in the academic publishing industry the authors
and readers are, by and large, the same people. The academic publications
are both an input to and an output of the research process. Other
publishing industries where authors and readers are the same people had
similar business models, and, I suggest will have similar dynamics in
their move to the Web. (The apparent necessity of paying for the
refereeing overhead makes things a bit more complicated in the academic

> This is all no doubt true. But books, academic and nonacademic, can in
> principle bring direct incomes to their authors, and journal articles
> can't, and that's the point.

I agree that journal articles don't bring direct income to the authors
under the current business model, but that is a rather obvious
observation. Whether they "can't" or not could be disputed. But the more
interesting observation is that trade books generally don't bring much
direct income to authors either. Authors publish trade books because of
glory they get, for the most part, some of which can be translated into

> There are still
> texts that the author wants to sell. Let's call those trade (and they're
> mostly books) and texts the author wants to give away (let's call them
> nontrade, and ALL refereed journal articles fall into that category --
> from their author's viewpoint).

You are simply making the same false claim over and over again. Authors
would be happy to make money from their journal articles, it's just that
few publishers offer them this option. So it is not the motivation of the
authors that is relevant, but rather the business model for the industry.

I don't have substantive quarrels with the rest of your argument, or
with your understanding of the academic publishing industry. I just
think that you don't understand the economics of the trade publishing
industry. The simple fact is that very, very few authors make any
substantial sum of money in the trade industry, and their motivation
for publishing trade books is more complex than you assert.

Hal Varian, Dean voice: 510-642-9980
SIMS, 102 South Hall fax: 510-642-5814
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-4600
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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