The inevitability of free? The inevitability of open access? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I interacted with Caroline Sutton’s recent article in College & Research Libraries News (Vol. 72, No. 11, December 2011, pp. 642-45) where she engages with the thesis of Chris Anderson’s 2009 book Free (Hyperion) to argue “given that scholarly journals are now digital products, they are subject to very different economic principles and social forces than their print ancestors,” and “our product [the scholarly journal article] is also subject to the ‘zero is inevitable’ rule of pricing.” You will recall Sutton nowhere suggests that it doesn’t cost anything to publish an academic journal. Rather, the costs associated with online distribution of articles have and will continue to fall to the point that the “marginal cost of adding one additional user is for all practical purposes, zero.” Consequently, Sutton argues for a different publishing business model that moves the generation of revenue (to cover costs and make profits) away from the access (reader) side to the producer (author/sponsor) side. The resulting open access not only makes research reporting more widely available, it also creates a marketing channel to promote the publisher’s competitively priced services to new potential authors.

Chris Anderson is Editor in Chief at Wired magazine and also author of The Long Tail (Hyperion, 2008). I mentioned that Sutton’s engagement with Anderson’s thesis in his book Free was so interesting that I found myself wanting to read his book for myself.

It turns out I had a copy of the book in the Kindle app on my iPad all along but hadn’t yet taken the opportunity to get into it. I got my copy of Free while it actually was free as a special promotion on Amazon.com when the Kindle edition was first released. It now costs $9.99 on the Kindle Store (the paperback edition is just $6.40), although you can still get an abridged audiobook version, read by Chris Anderson, for free over on Hyperion’s website. As I read Anderson’s book, a number of additional thoughts related to open access publishing came to mind that I’d like to share. I won’t re-trace the ground already covered by my previous interaction with Sutton’s reading.

The Long Tail

Anderson begins by drawing on an observation he made in his first book, The Long Tail. Namely, that the Internet creates a totally unique distribution system for the movement of digital goods and services.

The abundant marketplace of the Long Tail was enabled by the unlimited “shelf space” of the Internet, which is the first distribution system in history that is as well suited for the niche as for the mass, for the obscure as well as the mainstream. The result was the birth of a wildly diverse new culture and a threat to the institutions of the existing one, from mainstream media to music labels. (p. 3)

You could almost say that the whole dynamic of online scholarly communication and publishing, including open access, is contained in this short opening excerpt.

First, in the online world we are dealing with bits instead of atoms, and bits don’t take up space. This creates a direct challenge to the notion and assumptions of scarcity because, as Anderson notes, “shelf space” is unlimited. In the physical world, some things really are scarce. Scarcity tends to increase the value of an item, and so drives up its price if it is being sold. Sometimes the value of an item is so high in terms of its rarity or cultural significance that we say it is priceless, literally beyond price.

What kind of price can/should we put on information and knowledge? This is not a simple question to answer. Clearly, all information has some value, more or less depending on its implicit value, the application to which it can be put, how accurate and current it is, etc. Too, there is no doubt that persons are willing to pay to have access to certain information or acquire certain knowledge. That there is a correlation between value and price is not in dispute. But as information of all kinds migrate to the online environment we are suddenly awakened to the fact that when a publisher controls both the process of production and its distribution it can create a false notion of information scarcity that artificially drives up value in order to force a higher price. This control was much easier for traditional publishers to exert in the physical world because 1) it was the only alternative available to scholars (both as research producers and consumers), and 2) the product of scholarly research was intimately tied to (and reinforced by) the physical product of information dissemination and access—the printed journal.

The printed journal is now quickly fading as the advantages of articles disseminated in electronic format have been almost universally appreciated and embraced. Actually, traditional publishers are just as pleased to be out of the print journal business so they can maximize profits behind the reduced marginal costs of online distribution. (Have you noticed over the last decade how the language has changed from publishers offering online access as a value-add with your print subscription to offering print as a premium option on your online subscription?) But now that the product linkage has been broken, publishers are shoring-up the notion of scarcity behind paywalls, and by pushing the value proposition (including leveraging the reputations of their top-tiered titles) to keep subscription prices high.

There is second dynamic at work in the online environment. Through this distribution system, large and small players alike can gain equal access to their audiences. As Anderson puts it, the Internet is “as well suited for the niche as for the mass, for the obscure as well as the mainstream.” This is because of the way online network technology works, and because the cost of entry is so low. (I am blogging on a powerful browser-based publishing platform, with my own unique web address, and it doesn’t cost me a thing.) This democratizing characteristic of the Internet means that an individual scholar who chooses to freely “publish” her research articles on a personal website, or an open access publisher who disseminates its journals at no charge, can potentially attract as much attention and build as much reputation as any large traditional academic publisher that moves into the online space.

This leads to a third observation, which has a potentially troubling side effect. The leveling or democratic character of the Internet is a threat to existing institutions that have been used to thriving handsomely in vertically controlled systems of production and distribution in the physical world. In some respects, smaller players can do better in the online environment than a large player because they are less encumbered by (well-developed but) lumbering infrastructures. A smaller player can often adapt much more quickly to changing social, cultural and technological conditions online.

The troubling aspect surfaces when large commercial players, feeling the pressure from their smaller and more agile competitors, are seen trying to dismantle the democratic character of the Internet rather than compete through innovation. Right now we are watching large commercial players seek government intervention to end Net neutrality (which would create a system of tiered access), or apply blunt legislative instruments to protect copyright holders (frequently the publishers, not the original content creators), ostensibly to prevent online piracy (which could have a chilling effect on the link-based economy on the Web), or to actively dull the impact of open access as a viable alternative. The vital diversity of scholarly communication, among other activities online, depends on the preservation of the Internet’s democratic character.

The Psychology of Free

The network infrastructure of the Internet enables content providers to distribute their digital goods at little or no cost. This cost savings can be passed on to consumers in the form of free access. This is the approach Caroline Sutton and her company Co-Action Publishing is using to make a business out of open access. But how do folks respond to free? How do scholars respond to open access as a concept, and as a platform for scholarly communication?

Several chapters into his book, Anderson turns to the topic of the psychology of free. At first I thought I would just skip this chapter as unlikely to contribute anything especially meaningful to this discussion. But I went ahead and read it anyway, and as I did it occurred to me that while a good chunk of the status quo system of scholarly communication is rooted in pragmatism and inertia, another significant chunk, frankly, is rooted in fear. Scholars may be afraid that their research won’t get noticed if they publish in an open access journal; or they’re afraid that open access journals won’t be viewed as credible sources of publication by employers or tenure an promotion committees; or they’re afraid that their scholarly peers won’t take their research seriously if it can be had for free. Librarians might be afraid that open access is not a reliable enough medium to replace traditional journals; or they’re afraid that open access articles aren’t adequately indexed, or otherwise harder to manage; or they’re afraid of faculty backlash if they contemplate cancellation of cherished but over-priced subscription-based journals. Some publishers have played-off these fears of scholars and librarians in order to reinforce the status quo. But now these same publishers are afraid they won’t be able to make as much money as they’ve been used to using business models from the print world.

For a profession that identifies itself with the ability to think critically, and approach questions and solve problems with objectivity and rationality, this seems like a whole lot of fear going around! I say this to be provocative. Not all fears are irrational. Too, I fully appreciate that scholarship is also a human and a social endeavor, with egos and emotions unavoidably in the mix. As Anderson writes, “Behavioral economists explain much of our perplexing responses to free by distinguishing the decisions made in the ‘social realm’ from those made in the ‘financial realm.'” (p. 66) In other words, free isn’t simply a matter of “taking money out of the equation.” In order for open access scholarly communication to move forward, we need to become more aware of how and to what degree our resistance is motivated by fear, and then use that awareness to clarify our thinking and shape our decisions and actions.

“Information Wants to be Free”

Anderson recounts the history of how this now famous declaration of the digital era originated (in a slightly different form) as one of the principles of the “hacker ethic” proposed by computer science students at MIT in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (You can read about this fascinating era in computer history in Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which was originally published by Doubleday in 1984.)

It turns out that this famous reformulation by Stewart Brand is only a half-remembered meme of a larger statement he originally made at a conference of computer hackers in 1984. Anderson quotes Brand:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other. (p. 96)

Interestingly, Stewart Brand changed the hackers’ original meaning of free from free as “unrestricted” (those students wanting to get access to the mainframe computer) to free as in “zero price” (the way Anderson means free in his book). It turns out that both these definitions of free are employed in discussions surrounding open access scholarly communication (see Peter Suber’s article, “Gratis and libre Open Access” on SPARC’s website). Anderson attempts his own reformulation of Brand’s statement with an explanation:

Abundant information wants to be free. Scarce information to be expensive.

In this case we’re using the marginal cost construction of “abundant” and “scarce”: Information that can be replicated and distributed at low marginal cost wants to be free; information with high marginal costs wants to be expensive. So you can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free, but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time. I’ve got a lot of kids and college isn’t getting any cheaper. (pp. 97-98, emphasis added)

Anderson went and talked with Stewart Brand to try to get a clearer understanding of the context and intended meaning of his statement. Brand explained that he intended the statement as a paradox, not a contradiction.

Paradoxes are the opposite of contradictions. Contradictions shut themselves down, but paradoxes keep themselves going, because every time you acknowledge the truth of one side you’re going to get caught from behind by the truth on the other side. (p. 99)

At one and the same time, information as bits “[are], economically at least, virtually free, but their meaning [can] have a wide range of value, from nothing to priceless, depending on who [is] receiving them.” (p. 100)

This returns us to something we said above. There is a correlation between value and price, though it’s hard to nail it down what that correlation is or should be. A traditional commercial publisher rightly argues from the “information wants to be expensive” side of the paradox, that the information contained in its journals and articles is valuable. Too, there is the established publisher infrastructure and journal reputation that imputes a different kind of value. From here the reasoning flows: If a reader deems the information in our journal(s) to be valuable, they will not be adverse to paying for access, regardless of the actual cost of delivering that article to the reader. It is the value of the information and its access, not the distribution, that the reader is paying for.

Sounds logical. But there are a raft of complicating factors. For example, it is to some degree up to the reader to determine whether the value of the information available in a given journal is worth the price the publisher is charging for access. But not always. Sometimes the reader effectively has no choice because all the key research reporting for the discipline is tied-up in a few journals (the scarcity factor). The reader, or the library as his proxy, may feel compelled to pay the publisher’s price in order to access that research. Further, an author may believe that the reputation she will derive from being published in a certain journal is valuable for the advancement of her career. But it is still appropriate to ask whether she really intends the access to her research to be limited behind a paywall, and maybe at the additional cost of her intellectual property rights.

In fairness to the paradoxical nature of Stewart Brand’s declaration, a group of scholars or a publisher who is advocating for open access from the “information wants to be free” side still needs to grapple with all the non-distribution costs associated with journal publication. Yes, it is easier and far less expensive for a small player to get into the game online than a large player with a costly infrastructure and an accustomed revenue stream to protect. Too, new, innovative, and readily available tools can help startups build attention and reputation online fairly quickly. But the commitments of time and energy from numerous folk, and a business model with a sustainable source of funding are absolute requirements to successfully facilitate that free flow of information.

ECON 000

In Part 1, Caroline Sutton indirectly referenced Gordon Moore’s and other related computer technology “laws” (the costs associated with bandwidth, storage, and processing are being reduced by approximately 50% every year) coupled with Joseph Bertrand Competition economics (in a competitive market, the price of a product will move toward the marginal cost of producing an additional good) as the key principles driving the “zero is inevitable” rule of pricing in the online environment. She also mentioned that top-tiered journals retain certain “marginal utility,” but she didn’t really define this term. It might be helpful to spend a moment teasing out these concepts from Anderson’s book.

Anderson explains if “free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint,” why it is that Microsoft was able to gain a virtual monopoly selling its Windows operating system and Office productivity software for hundreds of dollars apiece.

The answer lies in that part about “competitive market.” Microsoft created a product that benefited hugely from network effects: The more people use a product, the more other people feel compelled to do the same. In the case of an operating system like Windows, that’s because the most popular operating system will attract the most software developers to create the most programs to run on it. In the case of Office, it’s because you want to exchange files with other people, so you’re inclined to use the same program they use.

Both of these examples tend to produce winner-take-all markets, which is how Microsoft created a monopoly. And when you’ve got a monopoly, you can charge “monopoly rents,” which is to say $300 for two plastic disks in a box marked “Office,” when the actual cost of making those disks is just a dollar or two. (p. 173)

The analogy to academic journals is striking. Until recently, journal publishing has been largely a non-competitive winner-take-all market, creating the network effect, and a virtual monopoly in scholarly communication. But there is another force at work that can carry over into the competitive online world.

The other thing about Bertrand Competition is that it applies mostly to products that are similar. But if one product is vastly superior to another for your purposes the primary determinant of price is not marginal cost but “marginal utility”—what it’s worth to you. Online, that can reflect either the features of the service or how locked into it you are. (p. 173, emphasis added)

In one sense, a journal is a journal is a journal in terms of its function as an instrument for communicating the results of scholarly research. There may be many or few journals in a given discipline. But we also speak about “top-tier” and “second-tier” titles, and how scholars desire to publish in or cite from top-tier journals—journals that have acquired the reputation of attracting and publishing the best research. This is the “marginal utility” of a journal. Commercial publishers seek to leverage the marginal utility of their top-tiered journals online to argue that continuing to pay (even) a high price for access is better than the free alternative of open access. “Let the buyer beware.” “Remember, you get what you pay for.” “Stick with what you know—and who you trust.”

This can be a powerful argument. But the argument may not hold quite as much force now that there are alternatives, and now that younger web-savvy scholars, with perhaps less “brand loyalty,” are willing to experiment with new forms of online communication. Too, while scholars may affirm the research from top-tier journals as trustworthy, and while they may view members of their editorial boards and reviewers as respected peers, questions are now being raised about the trustworthiness of publishers that employ tactics to fend off legitimate competition, or lock scholars into restrictive intellectual property arrangements. Let the buyer beware, indeed!

The Online “Currencies” of Reputation and Attention: Links and Clicks

In Part 1, I quoted Caroline Sutton as saying: “At its core the scholarly economy is a reputation economy in which prestige ranks before all else.” Scholars typically are not paid money to publish in journals. But the attention they receive through publication converts into reputation, which they can use to advance their careers. In scholarly communication, including journals, the non-monetary “currency” of attention, and thus reputation, is the citation. When Scholar B cites Scholar A in an article or book, Scholar A’s reputation is enhanced because Scholar B draws attention to him. The more times Scholar A is cited by Scholar B and others the more reputation he accrues. Conversely, by drawing attention to Scholar A, Scholar B’s reputation may also be enhanced to some degree (e.g., she understands the importance of Scholar A’s work on her own). Already understanding this non-monetary economy of attention and reputation prepares scholars for operating in the online environment. Anderson writes:

[W]hat if we could treat attention and reputation as quantitatively as we do money? What if we could formalize them into proper markets so we could explain and predict them with many of the same equations that economists use in traditional monetary economics? To do so, we’d need attention and reputation to exhibit the same characteristics of other traditional currencies: to be measurable, finite, and convertible.

We’re actually coming close, thanks to the 1989 creation of Tim Berners-Lee: the modern hyperlink. It’s a simple thing—just a string of characters starting with “http://”—but what it created was a formal language for the exchange of attention and reputation, and currencies for both. Today when you link to someone on your blog, you are effectively granting them some of your own reputation. In a sense, you are saying to your own audience: “Leave me. Go to this other place. I think you’ll like it, and if you do, perhaps you’ll think more of me for having recommended it. And if you think more of me, perhaps you’ll come back to my site more often.” Ideally, this transfer of reputation leaves both parties richer. Good recommendations build trust with a readership, and being recommended confers trust, too. And with trust comes traffic. (pp. 182-183, emphasis added)

The citation is still a citation, but in the online environment it also becomes a link. When the link is clicked it takes the reader to a linked article (which may or may not be immediately accessible and free, depending on whether or not it is sitting behind a publisher’s paywall). Clicks become a metric of traffic, i.e., attention. The more clicks the more attention. The more attention the higher the reputation. The higher the reputation the more attention, and so on. This metric finds its way into search engine indexing such as Google’s PageRank algorithm. Notice Anderson’s reference to citation analysis in scientific journal literature as the idea and work behind Google’s PageRank:

PageRank is a deceptively simple idea with great power. It basically states that incoming links are like votes, and that incoming links from sites which themselves have lots of incoming links count for more than those that don’t. This is the sort of calculation only a computer can do, since it requires having the entire link structure of the Web in memory and recursively analyzing each link. (Interestingly, PageRank is based on earlier work on a much smaller scale in scientific publishing. An author’s reputation can be calculated by how many other authors cite him or her in their footnotes, a process called citation analysis. There is no more explicit reputation economy than academic reputation, which dictates everything from tenure to grants.) (p. 183, emphasis added)

“Publishing is no longer the sole privilege of the paid”

The interesting thing about this online link economy is that—assuming an open, democratic Internet—it can work just as well for small and large players, because the size of the player doesn’t count as much as the player’s link reputation. While talking more specifically about journalistic publishing online, Anderson makes an observation that seems to be relevant to scholarly publishing as well:

It’s true: free does tend to level the playing field between professionals and amateurs. As more people create content for nonmonetary reasons, the competition to those doing it for money grows. (As the employer of lots of professional journalists, I think about the relative roles of the amateurs and the pros all the time.) All this means is that publishing is no longer the sole privilege of the paid. (p. 234, emphasis added)

This, as I said in Part 1, becomes an opportunity for open access. It’s OK to think of ourselves as “amateurs” (Anderson certainly didn’t mean it as a pejorative). We have as much right in the online space as any “professional” publisher. We’re learning. And we’re here to compete.

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Posted in Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Open Access
4 comments on “The inevitability of free? The inevitability of open access? (Part 2)
  1. […] Pingback: The inevitability of free? The inevitability of open access? (Part 2) « Omega Alpha | Open Acc… […]

  2. […] those who are so inclined need not look very far for moral support of open access. Finally, as was already discussed while interacting with Chris Anderson and his comments on the democratizing impact of the Internet […]

  3. […] in cost savings for customers. Subscription prices just continue to rise. As I discussed in an earlier post, commercial publishers have readily invested in online infrastructures in order to benefit from the […]

  4. […] My first exposure came just a few months after starting the blog. I read an interesting article by Caroline Sutton in College & Research Libraries News (December 2011) entitled “Is free inevitable in scholarly communication? The economics of open access.” Sutton applied the economic theory popularized by Chris Anderson in his 2009 book Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price to argue that the online journal as a digital product operates on a marginal cost of production basis that will inevitably drive the price of additional copies toward zero. I wrote a review of Sutton’s article here. I was so intrigued by this economic concept applied to scholarly publishing that I also read Anderson’s book. I wrote a review of Free from the context of scholarly publishing here. […]

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