Friday, February 20, 2015

Digital Downside

The Digital Downside

The Obsession with Open Access[1]

J. Ewing

Scholars and librarians usually focus on the advantages of electronic journals—faster processing, reduced costs, and new features (such as searching and linking)—and there are indeed many such advantages. But like all technology, electronic journals have a downside as well. Most people have ignored this downside because these problems are presently little more than annoyances. But we should understand the downside in order to prevent these small annoyances from turning into big crises in the future. In one or two cases, it may already be too late.

Here are five problems with electronic journals—problems that arise when the miraculous new technology is combined with the human fraili­ties of carelessness, greed, myopia, dogmatism, and infatuation.

1 Careless Scholars

In the digital age, we can do things we could never do before. Here are some examples from the recent literature of things we can do:

  • A journal posts an article in January; in April, without any notice, the editors replace the article with a “corrected” version.
  • A journal posts an article in July; in November, the publisher sim­ply removes the article (without notifying the authors!).
  • A journal posts an article in April, but the author posts a corrected and substantially changed version on a well-known server in Oc­tober, with an indication that the article appeared in April, but no indication that it was different.
Mathematics relies on its literature for its underpinnings; its liter­ature is interconnected. Imagine a world in which one percent of the mathematical literature is affected in the above way, in which one per­cent of the articles one finds are not the “authentic” versions. Over time, as work based on faulty references spreads, the fraction of unre­liable literature will increase. Experts may be able to overcome this, but nonexperts will be overwhelmed. We ignore this potential crisis at the peril of future generations of mathematicians.

These sloppy practices occur because new technology allows us to do things never before possible. That doesn’t mean we should do them! To prevent this from destroying the scholarly literature, we need to insist on high standards. There are two ways to handle this—back­-linking or forward-linking—and both require discipline. Every author regrets publishing mistakes (as do publishers!), but we have to resist the temptation to hide them.

2 Big Deals

The electronic age has made it possible for big publishers to offer big deals. Here’s the way they work. Rather than subscribing to journals one by one, an institution is offered electronic access to a huge package of journals across many fields (many of which were previously unavail­able to the institution). Initially, the cost of this package is comparable to the cost of the publisher’s journals to which the institution previously subscribed, and (the publisher points out) it’s always far less than the total cost of the individual subscriptions. This seems to be a wonderful opportunity for the institution, and the vice-president for information (the one who negotiated the deal) crows about the fiscal prowess that brought about this arrangement.

Big deals are now offered by Elsevier (an innovator in this area), Springer, Wiley, Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis. In a recent survey of US research libraries, 93% indicated that they held bundles with at least one of these publishers. Just about half (49%) held bundles with at least four. Wiley, Elsevier, and Springer have achieved 70% market penetration.[2]

Figure 1. Percentage of commercial journals among all mathematics journals

When asked about their motivation, most said that it was a “good return on investment” and that the “alternatives . . . were prohibitively expensive.”

But these institutions have paid a heavy price for that “good in­vestment.” Such big deals are almost always multi-year contracts that do not allow cancellations or changes. The extra titles are often of marginal value to scholars. Most importantly, decisions about what is purchased are made at a high level, far removed from scholars them­selves. In the end, big deals make it more difficult for scholars to make sensible decisions about journals based on price and need. Of course, big deals give the big publishers a substantial advantage over smaller publishers, which is their real purpose.

Big deals are hard to resist, although a few prominent libraries have done so. But the commercial publishers are winning. In 1985, roughly a third of mathematics articles were in commercial journals; by 2004, over half the articles were commercial.[3]  We need to fight back.

3 Walt Disney

The Walt Disney story is a metaphor. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was produced and copyrighted in 1928. By the late 1990s, the term of copyright for Mickey Mouse (then 75 years for corporate works) was about to expire in 2003. The Disney corporation was making lots of money on the character, partly because new technology allowed new uses. What did Disney do? It persuaded the US Congress to change the law, extending copyright by 20 years. It is now 95 years for corpo­rations; for authored works, copyright extends for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Copyright—the ability to own intellectual property—was never meant to be forever (the late Jack Valenti, as head of the movie producers’ as­sociation, was overheard to say the term should be “forever minus a day”). But as technology progressed over the past 400 years, copy­right became longer and longer . . . barely indistinguishable from for­ever. Until the digital age, this did not affect scholarly publishing much. Now, however, there are new reasons to worry about copyright’s reach.
Scholarly publishers have never made much money by selling jour­nal back volumes. In the age of print, publishers kept a few copies of old journals to sell to libraries when they wanted to replace missing volumes or (rarely) to start a new collection. Typically, such sales of back volumes amounted to one to three percent of journal revenues. Publishers expected to recover their initial costs (and make a profit) by selling current subscriptions, not by selling back volumes.

Now, however, like the Disney corporation, publishers see an op­portunity to make money on their old material using new technology. They want to sell their journals twice, once as a current subscription and a second time as a collection of backfiles. There are many varia­tions on this scheme, some merely sell the backfiles with the current subscription, pointing out that it makes the subscription more valuable (and hence more expensive). But the central point is that publishers carefully control access to the backfiles.

Of course, publishers who digitize their back volumes want to re­cover their costs. But rather than find a way to pay the one-time cost of digitization, and then make the material freely available, they want to continue making money next year, and the year after that, and after that, and on and on into the future. This includes publishers of every kind, not just the commercial ones.

This doesn’t make sense for Mickey Mouse, but it makes even less sense for scholarship. By “owning” scholarship and restricting access indefinitely, publishers make it impossible to realize the dream of con­necting the large body of the past scholarly literature to the present. This makes our present journals less valuable, not more, and ultimately hurts the publishers themselves.

Copyright was invented to make publishing profitable. But no one— no publisher, no author, no one—needs to hold copyright for more than two or three decades. We ought to make a pact that everything goes into the public domain after 28 years.[4]

4 Mindless Accountants

Using flawed statistics to make (equally flawed) decisions is not new. But it is so, so much easier to do in the digital age. Many people have written about the “impact factor,” which is more and more frequently misused, but I want to talk about another troublesome statistic—journal usage, which is even more dangerous than the impact factor.

Librarians all over the world are insisting on usage statistics for journals, which roughly translates into the number of downloads of var­ious articles over a given period of time. They claim this is necessary in order to measure the value of journals and to make decisions about sub­scriptions. Publishers in general seem happy to oblige—almost eager in many cases.

This is a hopelessly naive and dangerous game. What is the meaning of such usage statistics? What does it mean that some article has been downloaded 100 times? Have people read it 100 times? Surely not— you don’t read every item on which you click while browsing the web, so why would scholars read every article they download? And which is more valuable, an article downloaded once a week for ten years, or one downloaded 520 times in its first month? What about caching and the many flaws in browser software that give rise to faulty counts? There are many questions, but almost no answers—just the demand for usage statistics in order to measure value.

Making decisions using ignorant accounting has always been a bad idea, but in this case it may have some disastrous consequences. If li­brarians are really going to measure value by clicks, surely publishers will force users to click more often. It would be foolish to give away abstracts or references or even bibliographic data, for example, if this leads to fewer clicks and hence less value. And if value equals clicks, then why on earth would publishers let authors post copies of papers anywhere except on the publisher’s website. The more liberal a pub­lisher’s policy in this regard, the more the publisher risks losing value. Making decisions by using flawed usage statistics will inevitably shift publishers’ practices, all in the wrong direction. We need to explain this to those who dogmatically claim that value can be measured by a few flawed numbers.

5 Fads and Fashions

A corrupted literature, a literature controlled by a handful of giant publishers, a literature hidden away forever, a literature shaped by nutty accountants using flawed statistics—all these are potential crises caused by the advent of electronic publishing. None is insurmountable, but each is worrisome. And so with these worries pressing upon us, what do we advance as our most pressing issue in the new electronic age? Access—open access to the literature.

On the face of it, this is bizarre. In the digital age, scholars have more access to the literature than ever before. When an institution subscribes to a journal, the articles are now delivered straight to a user’s desktop. Finding articles is far easier than ever before using any number of search tools. Articles can be downloaded, printed, and (dare we admit?) sent to others via email. Even when a user’s institution does not subscribe to a journal, the user can see the abstract and (often) the list of references. This allows scholars to decide whether the article is useful and then to send email to the author to ask for a copy (or simply to find it elsewhere on the web—recent changes in publisher policies make this easy). And many publishers provide access to older articles without any subscription at all. None of this was possible in the print-only world—none of it! In the print world, good access to the scholarly literature was restricted to a few institutions, and near-universal access was unheard of. This has all changed.

Nonetheless, instead of focusing on the four potential crises men­tioned above, the scholarly community has decided to focus on access, the one aspect of the scholarly literature that has already been greatly improved in the digital age.

I have spent a lot of time trying to understand why people seem obsessed with access, and I have come to realize that there is no simple answer. In part, it is human nature: when things improve, we want to improve them still more. Having a taste of increased access, people want completely unfettered access. In part, this is because the call to “open access” is simple to understand. Scholars are not willing to invest time in wrestling with the tougher issues of scholarly publishing mentioned above, which are messy and sometimes hard to unravel. But there is a more subtle, and more insidious, reason for the obsession with access: whenever technology changes the world around us, we become more susceptible to fads and fashions. New technology opens up new opportunities, and new opportunities bring forth opportunists— zealous people who promote their own special causes.
On the face of it, increased access is surely not a bad thing: it is hard to argue against having more access to scholarship. On the other hand, it can be bad if it causes us to ignore the real problems we face, and it can be tragic if new enticing technology combines with an irresistible fad to mislead us into acting against our own interests.

Open access has had both effects on mathematics. When plan­ning for our digital future, we spend most of our time talking about access (already greatly improved), and almost no time talking about the integrity of scholarship, copyright issues, foolish bureaucrats who use faulty statistics, or (worst of all!) avaricious publishers who have created a crisis in scholarly publishing. Instead, we talk about ac­cess. And, of course, those avaricious publishers are delighted by the distraction.

We also formulate ideas that are clearly bad for mathematics. The author-pay model for journals simply does not work for mathemati­cians. Our funding levels do not support it and they never will, at least at the levels of medical sciences. We will always be at a competitive disadvantage to other scientists in an author-pay world.

The self-archiving model of open access is clearly bad for mathe­matics, which more than any other discipline depends on the long-term survival of a reliable web of scholarship—into the distant future many decades from now. And preprint servers, without any obvious source of long-term funding, are not much more attractive.

The government-funded model of open access is also clearly bad for mathematics, which has never competed well with the other sci­ences for government largess. Besides, the budget for the government-funded model seems to assume a stable publishing environment for the long term, without the need to invest in ever changing technol­ogy. Surely this is short-sighted. We will have to invest even more in the coming decade than we have in the past in order to keep up with changing technology. Will the government really do that investing?

Indeed, every model of open access that has been proposed is clearly detrimental to the broad interests of mathematicians. But open access has become an obsession for many that has blinded otherwise thought­ful people into acting against their own interests. That is a real down­side to new technology that may do the most damage in the long term. This is a downside that already affects us.
Don’t believe me? Just check out those large commercial publishers who are all beginning to embrace open access. They are creating sepa­rate corporate units, just to promote and implement open access. They can do that—they have the resources. They know that no matter how the business model changes, they will be able to take advantage of it to make money—lots of it. Surely publishers who have raised subscrip­tion prices for years will feel equally free to raise author charges in the future. Change is good for large corporations, who have the resources to invest in change; it is a lot harder for the little guys who operate on a tight budget and make a tiny profit. This is especially bad for math­ematics, which has traditionally relied on more small and independent journals than any other discipline. If open access is so great for us—if open access is about to solve all our problems—why are the commercial publishers jumping on the bandwagon?

6 Summing Up

Are there disadvantages to electronic journals? Of course there are. Should we advocate abandoning the digital age because of those dis­advantages? Of course not. And in any case, the digital age is here to stay, no matter what we advocate. But as we move forward into the new age, we need to make clear the principles that should underlie our scholarly literature.

I believe in formulating clear policies about the integrity of scholar­ship. I believe in fighting to keep decision making in the hands of schol­ars. I believe that no one should own ideas for too long—scholarship belongs to all of us and moving walls should be universal. And I be­lieve that scholars, and not accountants, should measure the value of scholarship.

But I believe most of all that we must stay focused on these real problems as the world changes around us, and not be distracted by fads—especially fads that will hurt mathematics (and scholarship more generally) in the long run.

The digital age will dramatically change the way in which we dis­seminate scholarship in the future . . . but we have to guide that change so that it makes things better and not worse.

[1] Based on a talk given at a conference in Aveiro, Portugal, 2006.
[2] The survey collected data from 89 of the 123 member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries during November and December of 2005.
[3] These data were derived from Mathematical Reviews.
[4] The term of 28 years was standard for more than two centuries after copyright was invented, and therefore has historical meaning. See Notices of the AMS 51(3), March 2004, p. 309.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Who Pays in Author Pay?

I have read several comments recently indignantly protesting that "author-pay-journals" are not after all actually "author-pay". The fees the journal charges for publication of an article are supposed to be called "article processing charges", and there are supposed to be safeguards in place to guarantee that articles are published whether or not the fees are collected. These are safeguards offered with the best of intentions. They are hopelessly naïve and perhaps even slightly dishonest.

The new open access mathematics journals offered by Cambridge University Press are a good example. Proponents claim that once a paper is accepted for publication, an author has merely to arrange for his/her institution to send a letter stating that it is unwilling to pay the article charges – with no need for justification whatsoever. And I am quite certain that in the heady early days of gold open access, some institutions and funding agencies will indeed pay the charges. But some will not, especially without required justification. Over time, will the former continue to subsidize the latter? Surely not, and surely a business model built on volunteer payments alone cannot sustain itself in the long-run.

Several years ago, earnest scholars who had begun free online journals ran out of volunteer time and the modest amount of money needed to keep their journals running. These were high-quality journals with admirable goals, and the scholars proposed a simple scheme to keep them going: They asked libraries to pay a very small subscription fee, hoping that many small fees add up to the modest support they needed. That small fee would be a contribution to the battle against high subscription fees for commercial journals, they argued. Surely libraries would want to contribute. Invariably, they did not. If universities could access journals for free, why should they use scarce dollars to pay for access?

Now we are expected to believe that universities will make a much more substantial voluntary contribution to publish the papers of their own faculty. Maybe, for a while, they will. But over time, as dollars become scarce and there is pressure to spend them on other important things, even wealthy universities will decline to subsidize less-wealthy universities.

The long-term consequences of these policies are determined partly by simple business principles, but even more so by basic human psychology. Alas, the naïve scholars who assure us that gold open access can be accomplished without authors ever actually paying the charges are not especially attuned to human psychology (or business principles). The publishers who are their partners in the new journals are not naïve, however, and the initial low article charges and assurances that no one will actually have to pay are slightly dishonest. They know better. This is simply bait-and-switch, albeit in a scholarly and refined setting.

The author-pay model is exactly that—the author pays. We should not try to obscure reality with fanciful promises. Right now, the fee may come from the university or some funding agency, but inevitably the author "authorizes" the charge. For many new and proliferating journals, authors themselves are indeed paying, and journals cannot prevent them from doing so. Over the long-run all journals will require payment somehow—they must. If one insists on gold open access, this is the price one pays. It may be worth the cost, but pretending there is no cost is foolish.
John Ewing

Saturday, November 10, 2007

What is the price of journal?

What’s the price of a journal?

For that matter, what is the price of a car or a novel or a loaf of bread? All these things are frequently discounted, but we don’t throw up our hands and claim that they don't have a "real” price. Yet on several occasions recently, I’ve heard people say that we can't tell the price of journals because they are often discounted.

When the editorial board of the journal Topology resigned and began a competing journal, Elsevier wrote: “Because the majority of our subscribers purchase this journal in a larger set of journals, most are paying a fraction of the institutional subscription price.” I’ve heard similar arguments from other publishers, who like to compute the “price” of a journal by dividing the total revenue by the number of “subscribers”. But that’s not the price! It’s the “average revenue per subscriber."

The (list) price of a journal is set by the publisher, and it’s plainly visible to anyone who examines annual price lists. For some journals, there may be a two-tiered price, one for institutions and one for individuals, but in every case there is a price. Just as for cars or novels or bread, journals may be sold at a discount. But it's important to remember that publishers discount journals for business reasons, not because, in a sudden fit of remorse, they want to lower the price. Journals are sometimes discounted to agents, who consolidate them to help libraries purchase from multiple publishers. They are discounted to institutional members of scholarly societies as a member benefit, in return for dues. And journals are discounted to subscribers who buy bundles of journals, often making a commitment to buy for several years. In each case, the publisher is discounting journals in order to gain some advantage -- it's a simple business arrangement.

There is nothing wrong with discounting journals; it's good business. But it doesn’t change the price. Indeed, the price is the starting point for all discounting arrangements, defining the terms of a bargain: I’ll return a portion of the price in return for some action on your part – consolidating, being a member, or purchasing a bundle. Confusing the discounted price with the actual price ignores one half of the bargain.

We should pay attention to the list price of a journal because inevitably some subscribers (quite often, most) pay the list price. But there are other reasons not to let publishers substitute the "average revenue per subscriber" for the price. The average revenue is a quotient, and publishers control both the numerator and the denominator.

Unlike the list price, we must rely on the publisher to tell us the numerator, that is, the total revenue for a journal. Calculating total revenue sounds straightforward until one realizes that when selling bundles, large publishers apportion revenue among many journals – a somewhat mysterious process that isn’t easily discovered. For many publishers, the total revenue assigned to a particular journal is a very fuzzy number indeed.

The denominator is even more problematic. How many subscribers does a journal have? If a publisher adds many journals to bundles at no charge, the number of subscribers will quickly rise. But adding unwanted (and frequently unused) journals to bundles doesn't really change the number of subscribers to each journal in any meaningful way. Allowing publishers to use these arrangements to calculate either the average price per journal (for an institution) or the average revenue per subscriber (for the publisher) is like allowing politicians to count all those people who might have voted for them (but didn't vote) in an election. And allowing publishers to tell us the "real" price of their journals is like asking car salesmen to dictate the "best" price for their cars.

Scholars face a crisis today caused by high journal prices. If they are going to make headway in addressing that crisis, they have to get smarter about journals and more sophisticated about business practices. They can't allow publishers to redefine the problem by redefining the price. That's neither smart nor sophisticated.

John Ewing