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

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 13 Apr 2002 23:51:07 +0100

On Wed, 10 Apr 2002, Chris Zielinski wrote:

> This discussion presents an over-simplified binary opposition:
> 1) Group 1: academics who want to give their scholarly journal work away
> 2) Group 2: publishers who want to earn money from the sales of
> scholarly journals
> There is a third path, however:
> 3) Group 3: academics who (noting those 40%+ operating profits achieved
> by some major academic journal publishers) would like to be paid for
> their scholarly journal papers. These academics do not feel that they
> are satisfactorily and sufficiently compensated by research grants,
> tenure and the joy of communication.
> I am not offering this observation as a proponent of Group 3, but
> because the discussion is incomplete without reference to those who
> would go along with the status quo, provided they get a cut. Group 3 is
> not as organised, vociferous and iconoclastic as Group 1 but could
> represent a greater long-term economic threat to Group 2, because they
> don't need to smash the business models altogether.

I could not disagree more!

This topic has already been discussed in this Forum on the thread:
"Journal Papers vs. Books: The Direct/Indirect Income Trade-off"

as well as:
"Journal Article Royalties: Reanimating the 'Faustian Bargain'"

Chris is making a speculation here, namely, that if authors were
offered a choice between open-access to their work and a share
in the publisher's profits ("royalties") per article, not only would
some authors choose the share in the profits over open-access, but
that enough of them could do so to pose a greater economic threat
to publishers than open access poses.

I regret that I have to say that this is so far-fetched that one wonders
why Chris (who is not advocating it) even mentions it.

Let us sort out the logic and causality, making some rather liberal
assumptions along the way:

(1) The average gross revenue per published article is $2000. Out of
that, $500 pays for peer review and at least another $1000 pays for all
the other products/services provided by the publisher -- copy editing,
mark-up, reference-linking, print-on paper, distribution, "marketing,"
"fulfilment"." There is some dispute about how much of this is really
essential, over and above peer review, but in order even to begin making
concrete sense of what Chris is conjecturing here, we will have to
pretend as if the full $2000 "value-added" product is what is at

(2) Now let us make the very generous assumption that 40% of that
average $2000, namely, $800, is profit. And let us make the further
generous assumption that publishers would be willing to split that
profit 50/50 with the author in order to preserve the toll-access

(3) Does anyone really believe that authors would rather have $400 per
published article in exchange for renouncing all the potential impact
made possible by open access?

(4) Are we forgetting that it is not long ago that authors were PAYING
$400 or more in order to purchase and (snail)-mail (likewise at their
own expense) paper reprints to the would-be users who scanned Current
Contents and wrote to request them?

Indeed, Tom Walker's recommended strategy for achieving open access,
the one that launched the American Scientist Forum, was based on an
author payment of more than the above in exchange for open access, rather
than in exchange for renouncing it!

"Re: Should Publishers Offer Free-Access Services?"

Chris says of the special population he has in mind:

    "These academics do not feel that they are satisfactorily and
    sufficiently compensated by research grants, tenure and the joy of

Academics, whether contents or malcontents, apply for research grants
and/or are subject to salary review annually. This determines the
lion's share of their revenue. The principal criterion for both of
these basic sources of revenue is research impact.

Is Chris suggesting that the prospect of $400 per refereed article per
year would be sufficient to offset whatever benefits the lost potential
impact (because of toll-access) might have provided them in the form of
grants and salary?

But let us grant him even that far-fetched hypothesis, for the sake of
argument. I now have a much more telling question about the causality
and indeed the coherence of his conjecture:

There are at least 20,000 refereed journals, publishing at least 2
million articles per year. If they really do average $800 profit per
article, and publishers would be willing to split that with authors as a
kickback to buy them off of providing open access to those articles by
self-archiving them, then exactly what causal sequence is Chris
imagining as getting us from HERE (toll-access, no profit-sharing) to
THERE (toll-access, profit-sharing)?

For there is certainly no incentive to share profits until the need
arises. And the need would only arise if there were a palpable threat
to revenues from self-archiving.

At the moment, only physicists are self-archiving in any significant
numbers. And there has been no loss of publisher revenue there yet,
hence no pressure to buy those authors off.

The BOAI is dedicated to hastening and
facilitating open access through self-archiving (as well as open-access
journals). The BOAI's rationale for this is to enhance research access
and impact. If BOAI succeeds in inducing authors to self-archive, they
will have done it for that reason.

Now let us pursue Chris's hypothetical scenario: This impact-driven
self-archiving starts to threaten publisher revenue, so what do
publishers do? My own hypothesis is that that they cut costs, downsize,
phase out the inessentials, and eventually convert to open-access
publishing, with the essential costs (perhaps no more than the $500 per
paper cost of peer review) covered by institutions out of their annual
$2000 windfall savings, per outgoing paper, instead of as access-tolls,
per incoming paper.

What is Chris's alternative hypothesis? That instead of cutting costs,
downsizing to the essentials, and converting to open-access, publishers
will approach their authors with profit-sharing proposals? Which
authors? For the ones that will already have brought the situation to a
head will be the ones who did it in order to maximize the impact of and
the access to their own research. Does Chris imagine that the offer of $400
per paper will change enough minds to make a difference?

This is not even how Chris puts the alternatives. He implies that
somehow the profit-sharing drive from authors is (already?) an
independent force, and a bigger and more threatening one than the
impact-maximizing drive!

I rather doubt it. I think this is just another one of the incoherent
bugbears that are being floated willy-nilly by those who would like to
discourage researchers from self-archiving, or at least to keep them in
that state of confusion and ignorance that has so far kept this optimal
and inevitable outcome at bay, well past the time when it has become
not only possible but readily reachable.

Or it is simply the straightforward propagation of confusion,
from not thinking things through.

I am an optimist, and I think that whereas you can fool (or confuse)
all of the researchers some of the time, and some of them all of the
time, enough will come to their senses soon enough (with the help of
the BOAI) to fast-forward us all to the optimal and inevitable -- open
access -- at last.


Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01):

Discussion can be posted to:

See also the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

and the Free Online Scholarship Movement:
Received on Sat Apr 13 2002 - 23:51:52 BST

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