The Business Model for Distributing “Scientific Publications” — A “Peer Review” Finds a “Canary in the Coal Mine”

What is the real importance and impact of our rapidly changing business models in different industries and other sectors of productive activity?  Unlike the business models for music, books, journalism, and other creative works, the distribution business model for “scientific publications” may represent a unique case.   Does it?  And how should we think about it?  

The recent GIGO article, Thousands of scientific papers uploaded to the Pirate Bay,”  sheds light on  a very provocative set of issues.  Intuitively, it seems authors of published research findings typically do not get paid for what they author (i.e., by the publishing distribution channels), and the costs of distribution are most certainly tending toward zero. One of the issues raised in this article (and by the serious acts of civil disobedience it chronicles) is whether publishers are excessively profiting or acting dysfunctionally in their roles as intermediaries for the exchange of scientific knowledge. 

Accordingly, the featured protestor, Greg Maxwell, asserts:

“Academic publishing is an odd system — the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers.

And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.

As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The “publish or perish” pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.”

Leaving aside the contentious issue of whether the personal protest actions described in the article are legally or morally justifiable, let’s just focus on the business model/economic/other social issues, such as these:

  • Has the scientific publishing business model run its course?  Has technology disintermediated the distribution services providers (the publishers) handling scientific information? Have these distribution service providers become bottlenecks in the process of distributing and exchanging scientific information, or are they still necessary enablers?
  • Scientific research is not a one-way information process;  it is a dynamic exchange of information, formal (i.e., peer review, et al) and informal (on-going comments and discussions about published and unpublished findings and work-in-progress, et al).  That said, is there still a value-adding role for “platform enablers” of this information exchange (especially deploying and integrating new technologies, including social media, semantic taxonomies, etc.)?  One would think that this could very well be the case, and that “better-than-ever, more valuable-than-ever” enabling platforms for the distribution and exchange of scientific information could be established by clever inventors (private or public organizations or private individuals).
  • So is the private sector moving down this path, to add value by providing new enabling platforms to support open access and exchange with regard to scientific information?  Or is the private sector simply trying to hold on as long as possible to the “toll booths” it owns ? 
    • One sees among established publishers of journals and books (i.e., Springer, to name one) the introduction of different models for consuming and paying for information (i.e., pay to view for several days).  One also sees new start-ups like DeepDyve (talked about as the “Netflix of Academic Journals”) which has developed and operates a business model/platform that aggregates journal articles from thousands of journals and offers them in different consumable rental packages (for example, you can rent an article for 1 day for a pretty affordable price, even for a graduate student). 
    • But are these private sector initiatives removing the economic and other  bottlenecks in the scientific information distribution and exchange channels, or simply adjusting them to continue to profit from them?  Do these new approaches add value for scientific researchers and users of scientific information?  Do they stop short of what is truly valuable to these stakeholders (greater distribution/access, better information exchange)?  I am posing questions, not implying any answers.

It soon becomes more evident that the set of issues encompassed here goes far beyond the question of how and through whom the intermediation occurs (whether it is through established publishers, new start up companies, other profit or non-profit entities, or through completely free, self-organizing “open source” platforms).  There are also important issues and questions about the other actors/stakeholders, the producers of content (scientific information) and the users of it (ranging from peers in the scientific community to the general public).   And this is where the scenarios become more obscure and more difficult to analyze; and they can range from inspiring to scary, especially if one thinks about what is happening in the area of new media in todays world (see my posts regarding  The Huffington Post Part 1 and Part 2 ). 

    • Does the general public–not just the academic or scientific community–need more access to scientific information (is the public entitled to it in order to inform and educate itself)? Is greater public access to scientific information and the scientific process (at a minimum, consumption of a specific type of information content) beneficial to scientific inquiry, the public good, and individual welfare? 
      • US copyright  law allows for the “free use” of copyrighted information for educational purposes.  Does this law effectively sanction distribution of copyrighted  scientific information (legally obtained) to any interested private individual, not just members of a scientific or academic community?  If so, do intermediaries like DeepDyve go far enough in providing a solution, or is there a market failure?  After all, the problem of comparing DeepDyve to Netflix is in the fact that DeepDyve provides access to academic journals, not Hollywood movies.
      • Going further, would broader public access to scientific information be beneficial to scientific inquiry?  Or would it be a distraction or result in degrading the science?   I suppose it depends–one can imagine the downsides and the upsides. More access could mean more misunderstanding, fueling anti-scientific sentiments;  it could also lead scientists to be come unproductively distracted or even improperly influenced by public opinion.  On the other hand, more involvement of the public could facilitate the induction of more people into scientific research studies, volunteering either as subjects or assistants;  in addition, if we consider the aging demographics of the population, there are going to be a lot of highly-educated, trained minds entering a “more or less blissful” retirement, and (with the right matches) some of these retirees might not only understand the scientific information–but may also be able to provide intelligent, useful commentary
    • And, last but not least, let us not forget “the laborers toiling in the vineyards of knowledge,” the producers of scientific information–certainly, the most important actors in the whole value chain.  Indeed, these are professionals typically compensated by institutions that employ them to do their work (and to do the work under a tight set of policies and academic/scientific standards and ethics), work which traditionally has included “publish or perish” requirements. But the world of these professionals and these institutions is not continuing to be the  “ivory tower,” above the commercial fray, as it may once have been (in a mythical past?). 
      •  These professionals are not always fully (or satisfactorily) employed and compensated by the institutions, so these professionals may have strong reasons to have  “professional interests and commercial pursuits of their own” (i.e., conducting independent research, writing a popularized book, building and maintaining the the value of their own “brand,” etc.). 
      • The institutions are also increasingly pursuing their own private, commercial interests (as scientific research must be more and more funded by private sector deals and higher education itself becomes more and more commercialized and consumerized  [ see A Service Perspective on the Marketization of Undergraduate Education, Taylor and Judson, 2011). 
    • In effect, the assumption contained in Greg Maxwell’s assertion (“the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics)“) is probably becoming a weaker and weaker assumption over time (at least, as to their interest in and demands for compensation… [Note: ironically, the truth of Maxwell’s statement, “in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid,” is probably strengthening over time, as the publishing and news media industries restructure]).  Therefore, one cannot really assume any more that producers of scientific information do not have any “commercial interest” at all in what they produce, even if the claim to ownership of asset value remains unclear, not well-defined.

So what does it all mean? 

We started from an article about “pirating” or  “liberating” scientific producers and users from the clutches of what the protesters see as a market failure or as a greedy extraction of excess profits by the intermediary service providers.  One thing is certainly clear and obvious from this article (focused mainly on the intermediation process of what are presumed to be unique, in some way “public” goods produced by non-economic actors):  the value chain (and attendant business models) for the production and distribution of scientific information are being challenged and are changing. 

But when we expand our perspective to look at the whole value system, we see a very complex, emergent process occurring (one that encompasses many potential economic actors and shifting interests, new technology adoption, and new platform/ecosystem structures taking shape, economically and normatively).  

  • At one level, we are witnessing the emergent formation of yet another technology-enabled platform/ecosystem that will change the functioning and economics (including the distribution of economic benefits) of production, distribution, and exchange of scientific information. 
  • At another level, and occuring across other information domains (like publishing and news media), we are witnessing changes, that may be constrained by or more likely will change (even overturn) very significant norms (scientific, et al) with significant, long-range societal and economic impacts.   
  • Moreover these changes, outcomes, and impacts are being driven by forces that are not only not well understood , but more importantly are in rapid accelerating motion and getting little attention from government, NGOs, public interest groups, and academic institutions.   There is also no question that the forces driving and governing these changes emanate from  a globally-funded private sector (here there are no NASAs or DOD ARPANETS in the mix, not to mention no oversight or inquiry of the FCC, etc.). 

Maybe this is OK, and how it should be?  Maybe we are drifting into dangerous waters?   I am not sure of what to conclude about this (but I am apprehensive).

But what I can reasonably conclude is that there is definitely a massive set of changes  in business and society, driven by technology and other forces, that are very rapidly taking place in the way that economic exchange of value is structured in possibly all industries and across all activity sectors where value has been (or is newly starting to be) created.  And these changes need to be better understood, monitored, and possibly managed/governed in a broader context than they are being currently. 

  • One of the most prominent and powerful models is that of platform and ecosystem.  By its very nature, such a new structure (that significantly alters relationships) will tend to be accompanied by redistribution of economic benefits and affect changes in far-reaching normative dimensions (including power, societal norms, individual values/behaviors).  Platform proliferation is occurring rapidly, and it is powerful, not well understood development.
  • Platform models and “information sectors” make for a highly volatile combination–and one with impacts far-reaching into our social fabric, social norms, and social contracts.   As the adoption of platform models in the industrial sector started accelerating in the early 1980s, there was little impact beyond production processes, physical supply chains, and capital and labor markets.  But “information” represents a very different kind of good, one that may be more like “water” than “petroleum” (but, in combination with platforms, much more volatile and explosive, with much more rapid, far-reaching, and often hard-to-notice impacts).  Information can rarely be only an economic good:  it can certainly have an economic dimension, but it also often carries a valence that cannot be (or which social contract deems should not be) reduced/limited to economic terms.  Consequently, the emergence of new information platforms/ecosystems, driven largely by private sector interests (and to a large degree outside the attention and comprehension of the public or the public’s government representatives) may be a reasonable cause of some concern (at least should be noted, monitored, analyzed). 

The rapid evolution of new information platform models (such as in publishing and news media)  should warrant considerable attention in societies that value (and where there is a social contract supporting) the free flow of information among private parties (with some forms of information having privileged or protected “public status”).   The changes in the value chain within the  intersection of publishing and scientific information (scientific publications) provide a cogent and critical example of a significant change underway (one with significant, far-reaching impacts, and one which probably should not be solely governed/managed by the private sector).  There are clearly many interests involved that are not clearly commercial and there is certainly a public interest. 

My personal perspective is that the article reviewed in this post presents a “canary in the coal mine” and that the acts of civil disobedience covered and the questions raised by the article (though only the tip of the iceberg) point to more extensive, serious issues that need to be brought into the light of day and not left out of sight, in the shadows of enormous media headlines and stories pronouncing and acclaiming new “information platform business” IPOs.



  • ananymous
    February 2, 2012 - 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Enablers, my ass. If bloodsuckers like Springer, JSTOR, ACM, and the like, had to compete over the same set of articles with e.g. CiteSeer, the market would force their prices down to cents.

    The “value” that mob provides doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the charges they collect, and thus their business is not one of providing value, but one of blackmailing — you pay them for the lack of choice you’re facing.

    It’s a shame that a researcher should do such outright spin-doctoring for a cause as ugly and absurd as paid science.

    For centuries now, “science” has stood for knowledge that can be challenged publicly. Paid “science” would only be known or available to a bunch of like-minded circle-jerkers, so eventually it would be esoterics, not science.

  • andrewkarpie
    February 2, 2012 - 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Appreciate your colorful commentary! :-)

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