The Open Science revolution and the price of scientific content

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Over at The Crux, Mike Taylor outlines the toxic dynamic between research scientists and the academic publishing giant Elsevier.  Almost 7,000 scientists have joined the Cost of Knowledge boycott, citing a long list of grievances against Elsevier’s journal publishing practices.  The scientists are fed up with the exorbitant subscription rates and paywalls that limit access to their work, coupled with the publisher’s embrace of the much-loathed SOPA legislation.  Elsevier, meanwhile, is circling the wagons in an effort to keep its content exclusive, prized, and therefore profitable.  David Dobbs has been following the issue closely and I’d highly recommend checking out his reporting for more detail than I’m providing here.  The purpose of this post is to answer the question: what are the publishers thinking? (As a matter of disclosure, I currently work at a large trade publishing house and the views expressed here are my own.)

Taylor is correct to say that this long-stirring rebellion has everything to do with the Internet, which removed the traditional barriers of entry.  Publishers used to be the sole gatekeepers of content, offering editorial, production, and distribution services that authors would not otherwise have access to.  A major publisher like Elsevier also lends enormous credibility to findings that appear under its banner, crucial for those “publish or perish” scientists looking to establish their reputations.  That gate is still in place, but the fence around it has been removed, allowing anyone to go around.  Major publishers can still offer high-powered marketing/publicity campaigns beyond the scope of what most authors could provide (or pay for) themselves, but beyond that, e-books neutralize many of the market advantages that publishers held for years.

The Elsevier journal Advances in Space Research carries a whopping price tag of $4,923.00 for 24 printed issues.  An electronic-only subscription won’t save you much – that one runs $4,512.75.   Buying a single article costs $31.50.  To justify that to already-incensed scientists and science writers, the journal should have to account for where the money goes.  I can do it on the trade side.  For a standard new release hardcover priced at $26,  the retailer (B&N, Amazon, etc.) will buy copies at a 50% discount.  Of the remaining $13, the author will receive either an 8% royalty ($2.08) if it’s a print book (because another $2 or so will go toward production), or a 15% royalty on an e-book ($3.90).  That leaves somewhere between $8.50 – 9.00/copy, which is diffused into employee salaries, rent, electricity, marketing co-op, etc.  But ultimately, very little will end up being pure profit.  Trust me, trade book publishing is not, as Roger Sterling would say, the kind of business where everyone has a summer house.  If scientific journals can provide a similar cost breakdown that justifies the nearly $5k subscription price, I’m all ears.  I suspect that much like textbooks (which are priced artificially high in anticipation of the second-hand book market), there’s some room to maneuver.

Publishers like Elsevier don’t seem to realize that have the low ground in the battle for public opinion in this area.  The actions we’re seeing lately are not so much malicious as they are bewildered.  In a digital environment with a level playing field, Elsevier has done nothing but draw lines in the sand and throw up barriers in the hopes that they can enforce the value of scientific content through brute force alone.  Scientists, on the other hand, can talk about transparency of ideas and the importance of a vibrant, open intellectual community.  Researchers only want publicity and distribution for their findings, not big money (some journals pay, many more do not).  Open access journals would also help chip away at the “ivory tower reputation” that has dogged science for decades.  To a public that howled when Wikipedia went dark last month, it’s clear which side has the upper hand on the PR front.

In a half-defense of publishers, the digital age has irreversibly eroded consumer willingness to pay set fees for content and initiated a “race to the bottom” of sorts.   Years and years of free information – be it news, weather, sports, or science – have conditioned us to expect everything free and instantaneously, when in fact it does take somebody’s time, labor, and general effort to produce it.  Even widely-read magazines and websites are guilty of this attitude.  Feature editors often come to us looking for free excerpts with no expectation of paying a book author the same rate they’d pay a freelancer for the exact same article.  My standard reply is to simply ask the publication if it has a budget for excerpts.  If the answer is no, then so be it.  We won’t turn down the publicity.  But more often, they will offer something – even if it’s only $200 for 4,000 words.  That’s $200 more than I would have gotten otherwise.

Being a start-up science writer myself, I don’t have the budget to buy access to $31.50 papers from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and the others.  If  I hit a paywall in the course of my research, I have to either rely on the abstract that’s provided (not ideal, and not good reporting) or try to track down a hard copy at a library somewhere.  Either way, I won’t pay the $31.50.  But I might pay something, and that’s where an altruistic “pay-as-you-wish” model might make sense.  Instead of operating at one extreme (free) or the other (lots), why not make it a sliding scale?  A poor graduate student will pay nothing.  A book author, working off an advance, would probably feel more inclined to pay a bit.  A large bio-tech institution might not blink at paying the sticker price.

Will some people pay exactly zero dollars?  Sure.  I’d even venture that most will.  And others will continue to find workarounds.  For example, The New York Times initiated its paywall almost exactly one year ago and it’s not even close to airtight.  I know, because I have an easy bit of code that allows me to bypass it whenever I want.  So why does the NYT even bother? Reuters economics blogger Felix Salmon argues that the flimsy barrier actually works counterintuitively:

Wonderfully, the NYT seems to have disproved that idea. It’s no philanthropy: it’s a publicly-listed for-profit corporation, run for the financial benefit of its shareholders. But its paywall marks a new model and very promising in getting consumers to pay for content. It’s not a completely free pay-as-you-wish approach: the NYT nudges people quite hard to pay quite a lot of money. But I’d wager that the majority of people buying digital-only subscriptions to the NYT are doing so only after bypassing the paywall at least once or twice. If you hit the paywall on a regular basis and barge past it, eventually you start feeling a bit guilty and pay up. By contrast, if you hit the FT or WSJ paywall and can’t get past it, you simply go away and feel disappointed in your experience.


Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society. The NYT treated its readers as mature and civilized adults, and outperformed internal expectations as a result. Meanwhile, the WSJ and FT are still treating their readers with mistrust, as though they’ll be robbed somehow if they ever let their guard down a little. It’s a sad and ultimately self-defeating stance, and I hope in future they learn from the NYT’s embrace of the open web, even in conjunction with a paywall.

Swap “Elsevier” for “WSJ” in the paragraphs above and you get the gist.  Would a pay-as-you-wish model work to Elsevier’s satisfaction if it were to adopt such thing?  Would the boycotting scientists accept this as a compromise?  I have no idea.  In the short term, maybe not.  But it could be a way for the publisher to continue funding its existence without denying access to the scientific community.  It will be painful to lose guaranteed revenue from a large number of subscribers who are grudgingly paying out of obligation.  But large organizations have the luxury of adopting a loss-leader approach for a while, and over the long term, I suspect that scientific goodwill would return and journal revenues would rise again.  The Elsevier brand name still carries quite a bit of clout and cache.  In 2007, another powerful brand name, Radiohead, dropped its record label and released “In Rainbows” independently on this type of model.  The group made a lot money doing so.  Elsevier could experiment by starting small.  Why not place 10 – 20 journals (a small percentage of the company’s holdings) on pay-as-you-wish pricing for Q4 of 2012 and Q1 of 2013 and see what happens?  At the very least, it would be valuable test data.

No one knows how quickly Open Science will move (Dobbs, for his part, likens it to a roller coaster that creeps along, then suddenly accelerates when provoked).  But the revolutionaries are already plotting a new regime modeled on PLoS One.  If scientific journal publishers like Elsevier want to keep their seat of power, they can’t afford to dig in here.  They can’t wallow in self-pity and futilely proclaim that traditional industry practices will overcome.  Those are like last words before the guillotine.  The invention of the Model T was pretty bad news for the horse-and-buggy industry, and it didn’t take too long for people to stop reminiscing about the way transportation “used to be.”

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