Unending puns on “publish or perish”

We’re looking forward to coverage of the pleading to the Amerikanski Supreme Court, due up on 2001.03.28, of the case of Tasini v. New York Times, which seeks to redress proven copyright violations by publishing cartels. The Grey Lady will lose. Get used to it, because the entire oligopoly of publishing cartels will sink or swim together.

Desperate rights grabs are a sure sign of a dying industry, and Napster had bugger-all to do with it. Shall we consider academic publishing?

  1. Get ready to pay for content: Nua is at it again. “In academia, the cost of getting a quality article ready for publication can range from US$2,000 to US$4,000 dollars [sic]. Think about it. That report sitting on your desk could have cost more than the computer it sits beside. People simply don’t realize how expensive it is to publish a quality article. The Web certainly reduces some of these costs by allowing for more efficient publishing processes, but it can never eliminate the central cost. Quality people create quality content and quality people don’t come cheap.” Wee problem, Nua: Authors and peer reviewers are not paid; authors provide text and graphics in convenient, money-saving computer-readable formats; there are no discernible deadlines.
  2. Publish, Perish or Pay Up?: “A new nonprofit online venture, the Electronic Society for Social Scientists (ELSSS), is offering journals that are at least 50% cheaper than major commercial academic publishers.... ‘In the next three months decisions will be taken that will change significantly academic journal publishing in economics,’ said [a founder].” Golly, wasn’t Nua just telling us that Web publishing really didn’t save us any money? ELSSS is even gonna pay referees (nonstandard, this) and still come out cheaper.
  3. For Medical Journals, a New World Online: “And for libraries, journals have been the only game in town, so there has been little choice but to pay the $15,000 a year or more that some of them charge, to say nothing about paying for individual articles from past issues that they do not own.... And there is talk of boycotts of journals by researchers disturbed that the journals refuse to make the work freely available after a certain amount of time.”

Did you know that the cartels do a Times on you and force you to sign over copyright? Yup: If you want your article published, you no longer own it. (What do funding bodies and institutions think of this, let alone individual scientists?) And libraries will spend thousands of dollars just to get their hands on it. (“Who owns John Sutherland?”)

When “content” is critically necessary (e.g., in a specific scientific field) and available in only one place, you are faced with a de facto monopoly. We can see this as an excess of the free-market system, which free-market advocates tend to deny can ever happen. Such advocates have never tried to secure an apartment in Toronto, Ottawa, San Francisco, or San Jose.

De toute façon, chinks are appearing in the armor: As these articles describe, a samizdat movement of free Web publishing of peer-reviewed research is underway.

There does seem to be an issue of volume the publishers are overlooking. By acting like monopolists, they price themselves out of the market. (“There was a time when the University of Zimbabwe could boast of subscribing to more than 600 different medical journals, a collection that made it a standout among sub-Saharan institutions. Over the years, though, as resources shrank and the journals raised their rates with disheartening regularity, that changed. At the university’s library in Harare, there are now subscriptions to about 170 medical journals. Librarians there have even taken away the racks on a wall where journals used to be placed.”) The Scripps oceanography library has done all the numbers for you, and they, like others, are hurtin’.

Is there a better way?

When Tasini emerges victorious in the coming months, copyright thieves masquerading as respectable corporate citizens will face the music. A comparable lawsuit from leading academics with impeccable reputations and a commitment to contributing to the breadth of human knowledge would be terribly embarrassing.

Record-industry cartels are universally despised by everyone who does not work for them. (Oh, and did you know that label executives actually used Napster? Well, they have.) Imagine a similar groundswell of hatred by sober, respected, unimpeachable scientists the public finds sympathetic.

Elsevier and Springer-Verlag have cause to worry. We have already lined up our Scrabble tiles to read SCHADEN and FREUDE.

Posted on 2001-03-26