Re: Journal Papers vs. Books: The Direct/Indirect Income Trade-off

From: Hal Varian <>
Date: Mon, 12 Jul 1999 23:48:51 +0000

Stevan Harnad wrote:

> Our disagreement is only about whether I am exaggerating the difference
> between the motivations of refereed-journal papers-authors (regarding
> THOSE papers) and authors in general -- of books, magazine articles,
> etc. -- in suggesting that the former are, and have always been,
> interested ONLY in giving those papers away, whereas other authors (as
> well as themselves, when wearing other hats) have at least the hope of
> some direct revenue from the sale of their texts.
> If I AM exaggerating this difference, then Hal's view would be that
> the "optimal and inevitable" for the refereed journal literature may wel
> prove to be the optimal and inevitable for much of the rest of the
> literature too.

Yes, I think that this is correct---we will certainly see much more
"author pays" production of literature, now that the Web has lowered the
costs of
distribution so dramatically. Indeed, we already see a *huge* amount of
writing on the Web that has no (direct) compensation at all.

The big question, as you have rightly identified, is the role of the
editors/referees/filterers of information. What is the economic
model for this activity, in both the academic and the non-academic
literature? You argue that the author should pay for this filtering
role. Perhaps that is right, but one could also make a case that the
reader should pay since he is the direct beneficiary of the filtering,
and that is the real value added in the publication process, especially
now that the other costs have been driven so low.

> There have been several repeated points of misunderstanding. One has
> been that I am clearly not claiming that refereed-paper authors don't
> care about money! Nor that if there were some hypothetical,
> counterfactual way that they could have their cake and eat it too --
> i.e., if everyone everywhere could and would have free access to their
> esoteric papers in perpetuo AND some entity were also prepared to pay
> them (the authors) for it -- then they would quite happily accept the
> eyes/minds AND the cash!

I would say that this "counterfactual" is exactly what the system of
research funding agencies + university libraries does: the funding
pay researchers to produce papers which are sent to journals to be
evaluated and, in most cases, published, which are then purchased by
for the free use of the researchers. Indeed, I would claim that it
is the role of intermediaries that has got us into the current mess; if
authors/researchers faced the true costs of the current publication
they would find a way to reform it quite quickly!

> So it is not saintliness about potential direct revenue from these
> papers, if revenue could drop like Manna from heaven, that sets these
> authors (when wearing these hats) apart. It is the reality of the
> trade-off, which means revenue here could only come at the expense of
> access barriers, and there isn't faintly enough potential revenue to
> make it even thinkable to embrace that trade-off.

There is something of a tradeoff, but perhaps less than you think.
There are ways to vary access and recover costs from customers. Even
now you can purchase a journal subscription directly or go access
it "for free" in your library. Here are two different kinds of access,
one more convenient than the other, and they are priced accordingly.
So it isn't "access" vs "no access" but different degrees of access.
The same can be done in the online world; whether this is desireable or
not is a different question.

> And causality is indeed the issue, rather than mere correlation, for
> Hal is merely pointing to the overall positive correlation between
> publication/sales and impact/income: {more publication, more sales} --
> {more impact, more income}. Sure! But if there were no sales, the
> impact/income would be still higher (MUCH higher, by my lights)!

This may be correct, but then we come back to the issue of filtering.
I can self-archive/publish for free on the Web, but I probably end up
with more readers (of my technical articles) by publishing in a journal,
since the articles are vetted by peer review. You argue that author
charges could pay for peer review. This maybe correct, but I worry
about the incentives in such a system. Under reader pays, the
publisher has
an incentive to keep quality high in order to attract readers. Under
author pays, the publisher has an incentive to get as many authors to
pay as possible, and other mechanisms must be used to maintain quality.

> But (and it is hard to put this in formal terms), I still feel that
> that this is not the PARADIGMATIC case for books, as it IS for refereed
> papers; with books, is not the "name of the game," and hence it would be
> misleading to treat it as such.

I think a lot depends on how you average in creating your paradigm.
Most books don't make much money, if any. A few books make a lot. The
goes for authors. The primary motive for authors, I think, is to
be read. They would like to be paid for this activity, but only
a few manage to do so.

I turn now to the direct responses, limiting myself only to those
where something new can be said.

> Yes, IF (equals where, and when) the subscription is paid. Tell that to
> all my potential readers who are NOT lucky enough to be at an
> institution that can afford the subscription!

JSTOR price discriminates as well---large organizations pay more than
small ones. In general, the savings in shelf space vastly outweighs
cost of JSTOR. So if an organization "can't afford" access, it is
likely an accounting illusion rather than actual lack of money.

> It may very
> well be that a large proportion of the readers of my refereed journal
> articles are themselves authors of refereed journal articles, but so
> what?

> I don't think any principles follow from this inbredness ...

The important principle is that the readers are willing to pay something
for the filtering services provided by the journal. And it is this
willingness-to-pay that supports the current business model. You could
be right that "author pays" is superior for the reasons you cite. But
my worry is that the economic incentives to provide value to the reader
filtering) are weakened.

> This is the general Net freeware/vanity-press analogy, and I'm afraid I
> still don't find it helpful: Yes, refereed journal articles are
> give-aways, like fanzines, but they are quality-controlled, certified
> give-aways, hence not vanity press (and they still require an economic
> model for covering the essential costs of
> quality/control/certification).

We are, I think, agreed on this point---that the costs of quality
must still be covered by someone. The issue is, should it be the
author or the reader? I maintain that the reader gets substantial value
from the quality control, which is as argument for making the reader
pay. This doesn't negate your argument---I perfectly agree that the
author gets value from having his works published, which is an argument
for making the author pay. I just don't know what the net of these two
effects is.

> And perhaps the profession also
> contains a large proportion of failures. But surely no writer's desires
> and expectations are based on the actuarial facts about starters and
> failures!
> There is a counterpart in refereed-journal writing too, though. Most
> articles are read by few and cited by none (except the author himself).
> Does this restore the analogy? Hardly, for the dream of the researcher
> is of making an important finding and thereby making an important impact
> on further research (and, yes, its indirect income-enhancing
> consequences); what is the nonacademic writer's dream, if not being
> widely read?

This is a fair point---it may be that authors of book want to make
but few of them do. And, as you say, authors of journal articles want
to be read, but few of them are.

> Would you not say that the long-standing practise of distributing free
> (paper) reprints to reprint-requesters tends in my direction? As does
> the absence of a corresponding tendency with books (except in the case
> of Vanity Press)? (Publishers are always happy to pay royalties to an
> author in the form of free copies of his book: Why is this not taken up
> more by authors?)

I would say that paper reprints are provided to me for free, or
at least can be purchased via a grant. But copies of my book have
to be purchased out of my own pocket. I don't find it remarkable
that authors give away for free something that they receive for free,
but wish to charge for something they have to pay for.

> > 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).
> Would you say that the rising success of Amazon Books was evidence for or
> against your prediction?

Last year the aggregate sales of books in the US fell by 2%, after
years of increase. Amazon's success is coming at the expense of other
vendors, not from an increase in the total sales of books.

> By what business model would authors make money from their journal
> articles? how much? and how do you think that would fare against
> self-archiving? (Another way to put it -- I think I've already asked
> this once: How much money would the publisher of my refereed paper have
> to pay me so that I relinquish my self-archiving right? And where would
> he get enough money for that?)

Remember, the real question at issue here is not whether the author gets
paid or not---the debate started when I asserted that authors of trade
books don't get paid much either. The question that is of primary
to you is whether readers pay. You argue that authors derive the most
value from publication, therefore it makes sense for them to pay
for the costs of publishing. This may be right, but another argument
is that readers benefit the most from the filtering, so they should pay
for the costs.

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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