Re: Research Reports as Advertisements: An Allegory

From: Jan Velterop <openaccess_at_BTINTERNET.COM>
Date: Sat, 3 Mar 2007 20:37:27 +0000

I like Stevan's advertisement analogy. I should have thought of it
myself. (Come to think of it, I did:
00003896/01/Food_or_Thought.pdf). It makes the idea so much more
understandable, too, that the author - as advertiser - pays. But the
way he explains the analogy has more than a few oddities, at least if
he meant to make an analogy with how advertising actually works. He
may have meant that, but what he describes is a fantasy world of
advertising and has little to do with reality. The analogy with real
advertising works much better.

The main oddity is perhaps his remark that "In the case of peer-
reviewed publishing, the "ad" is the research paper itself: there is
no other product it is trying to promote and sell."

He is mistaken here. Authors are not trying to sell their papers.
What the author is trying to 'sell' (note the inverted commas,
please), his 'product' if you wish, is his scientific prowess, his
ideas, and when he is successful, he is able to 'sell' those for
citations, the currency of science. His adage in the scientific ego-
system is "I am cited, therefore I am". Top scientists are typically
better able to 'sell' their ideas and themselves, and get 'paid' in
citations, than more 'pedestrian' scientists. The article itself
conveys information about the researcher (the way he's done the
research, for instance) and his 'product' (the ideas, the research
results). The analogy with an advertisement is clear. PNAS used to
have a line at the bottom of the first page of an article that said
"This is an advertisement". I don't know if they still do, but how
right they were.

I will interleave a few other comments in Stevan's text, just in case
one might think his description of advertising reflects reality.

Jan Velterop

On 3 Mar 2007, at 14:30, Stevan Harnad wrote:

> Suppose that advertising services traditionally made their money from
> *selling* ads (to readers) on paper.

JV: One can suppose that, of course, but if 'advertising services'
are magazines or newspapers, what they typically do is selling *ad

> Merchants advertising their products
> would reluctantly agree to the placement of an access-toll
> (collected by
> the advertising service from readers) between the ads for their
> products
> and their intended customers

JV: Interestingly, merchants are usually more interested in placing
an ad in a subscription media, and pay higher rates for it, than in
free (so-called 'controlled circulation') media. At least in print
this is so.

> (for the products the merchant is selling
> -- the ones the ad is advertising), because that was the only way to
> cover paper production/distribution costs, and at least merchants
> didn't
> have to pay the advertising service for preparing their ads.
> (Merchants
> supply the raw copy, but the ad companies make it look professional,

JV: This is also rarely the case. Media typically dictate the
quality, size, and other attributes that the ad has to satisfy before
it can be accepted for publication.

> and then print, distribute, and collect the tolls for accessing it.)
> Then the online medium comes along. Merchants still want some help
> in making their ads look professional, and they don't mind their ads
> continuing to be sold on paper, but they'd like them now to be free
> online, to maximize readers and thereby product sales.

JV: Merchants may put their ads up for free, on their own blogs, for
instance, but most will pay good money to, say, Google to make sure
they're actually seen.

> So while the ads are still selling well enough on paper to cover the
> ad service's costs and provide a fair profit, the merchants put their
> ads online for free -- not the raw copy, but the version made to look
> professional by the ad service.

JV: What is the 'ad service' here? Does he mean an agency such as
Saatchi & Saatchi? You can be sure they will have been paid. Or the
magazine/newspaper/web site in which the ad is being placed?

> The ad services agree to individual merchants giving away the online
> version of their ads for free, but they oppose the merchants'
> association
> mandating that all merchants do it, saying it will destroy their
> (the ad
> service industry's) revenues and their ability to cover their costs.

JV: The link with reality is lost here.

> The merchants' association says that as long as paper ad sales are
> still covering costs, there is no justification for opposing a mandate
> that merchants deposit their ads free online. Only if and when paper
> ad sales are no longer sustainable is there any cause for objection,
> and then the objection can be met quite simply by merchants paying the
> advertising services directly for their value-added contribution.
> To make the analogy complete, it remains only to add that the
> *readers*
> of the adds are the merchants themselves: Let's say that they are
> selling
> their products to one another; hence the ads for their products are
> addressed to one another too.

JV: The typical 'business-to-business' world?

> That means that if and when the ads are no longer selling on paper
> (because the free online version is all that readers want and
> need), then
> the only thing the merchants association needs to do is to redirect
> the
> money saved (from no longer paying for the paper ads): The value added
> to the online ad by the ad service is now paid out of the collective
> savings from the access-tolls for the (now obsolete) paper ads.

JV: Stevan is applying his theory of what should happen in the
science world to a fairy tale about advertising, as far removed from
reality as are the fairies themselves. To be fair, he acknowledges
that it's a contrived allegory. What he apparently fails to see is
that the real advertising world is a much closer analogy to science

> Even the best of analogies, even contrived allegories like this,
> are not
> identities. So let me point out the three remaining flaws in this
> analogy
> before they are used as a counter-analogy. (This, of course, is the
> Achilles
> Heel of all arguments by analogy, and why they are never binding,
> either
> way -- but of course this applies to Peter Banks's original health-
> care
> analogy too!):
> (1) In the case of research publishing, the value added by the "ad
> service" (the publisher), is peer review, not just "making the ad look
> professional" (but the peers review for free; the publisher just
> manages
> the process).

JV: I would say that successfully passing muster (peer review) is
part of the condition before the 'ad' (the article) is acceptable for

> (2) In the case of peer-reviewed publishing, the "ad" is the research
> paper itself: there is no other product it is trying to promote and
> sell. Getting the "ad" read by as many users as possible is the goal,
> and getting its findings used, applied, built upon and cited is the
> reward, if the research is found useful and important enough.

JV: see my comment at the beginning.
> (3) Merchants, unlike researchers, see quite clearly the relation
> between
> free consumer access to their ads, and the benefits to the uptake
> of their
> products, hence it is unrealistic in the extreme that merchants
> would ever
> need to be "mandated" to make their advertisements free online, rather
> than toll-based. Researchers are a different breed...

JV: Here I agree with Stevan. Merchant don't have to think twice
about paying for ads, either.
A flaw in the analogy with the real advertising world is that
scientific journals do not normally operate on a 'controlled
circulation' basis, meaning free to selected recipients. Instead,
they take their money from subscribers, The equivalent is that one
pays for magazines filled only and exclusively with ads. Although,
even that is not completely unheard of outside science: have a look
at some of the 'content-free' glossy magazines in your newsstand.

> "The Geeks and the Irrational"
Received on Sat Mar 03 2007 - 20:46:29 GMT

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