From Bad Reporting to a Useful Study

A Vox article disappoints, while a postdoc's study of APCs proves enlightening

This past week in how the media talks about publishing felt like a dull movie I’d seen before, until a dramatic jump cut in the middle enlivened things and made them interesting again.

Cue scene. A standard bit of journalistic silliness appears. Piracy is portrayed as liberation. Publishers are portrayed as jailers of content. It’s a 19th-century swashbuckling epic shot in grainy 8mm and employing a nervous, amateurish set of techniques. The derivative style is replete with a tired “war” metaphor, out-of-focus research, and writing that exposes the inexperience, lack of perspective, and implicit conspiracy theories of the artists. Discordant, muffled music weeps in a maudlin tissue until the entire affair is bordering on parody. It’s like a Zapruder film directed by Christopher Guest.

The artist has one surprise in store for us, revealing that the article is published in Vox, which generally does better work. It’s all a bit depressing.

Jump cut! We’re now treated to modern realism — the cinematography changes to sharp 35mm with lens flares, great color, and excellent light balance as the camera smoothly follows a postdoc up some stairs, where we are presented with an actual study of OA publishing which is also summarized in The Conversation. The music sweetens and swells. We have arrived at a better place. We have arrived at today.

The author of the study, a postdoc at the University of Montreal named Shaun Yon-Seng Khoo, wanted to test the validity of the assertion by people like Jeff MacKie-Mason, an economist and a University of California librarian, that higher APC prices would spur authors to find cheaper venues. Basically, it was a test of author price sensitivity and economist/librarian thinking.

What Khoo found is that spending other people’s money hasn’t yet created any price sensitivity. (This is not a surprising result.)

To set the stage, Khoo establishes that APCs are rising far faster than inflation:

It’s a familiar curve. Every price in academia seems to rise faster than inflation, as I’ve noted before, primarily because we’re an outlier market. Inflation is an average consisting of outliers, and our market resides at the high end of increase because it’s mainly composed of salaries and other expensive things. This makes comparisons to inflation descriptive, not proscriptive. So, as baseline data, it’s worth noting, particularly because Khoo doesn’t then make the argument that APCs should only rise with inflation. He’s just making an observation here.

In fact, APC price increases may be associated not with lower article submission volumes but with higher article volumes. This also makes sense, if you don’t think of article processing as the driver of what people will pay, but rather the prestige conveyed upon articles by the venue that accepts them. This is what economists like MacKie-Mason get wrong. We are in a prestige economy — therefore, the better logic is that a more attractive venue can charge more, and that charging more indicates a more attractive venue; consequently, the more expensive venue attracts better works, becomes more attractive, and can therefore charge more, and so on.

As Khoo writes:

Case studies of fee introduction did not show any evidence that introducing an APC reduced the number of articles published either in an elite open access journal, an open access mega-journal, or in established journals that flipped to open access. A longitudinal study of 319 journals operated by four major commercial publishers, BMC, Frontiers, MDPI, and Hindawi, indicated that higher APCs are associated with higher article volumes.

There’s also likely a service component here, insofar as higher APCs probably correlate with better author service. And since authors are mostly spending other people’s money — grant funds or university funds, or combinations of those — and because they’re busy, they’re willing to spend a little more money to get a little more service along with a little more prestige.

Khoo’s data and comparisons are useful, and his charts tell an important story. He also seems to have a better handle on the market forces driving scholarly publishing than many. I’ve heard even experienced industry participants use a “horse/barn” metaphor, as in “the horse has left the barn” to signal the threat Sci-Hub or ResearchGate poses, with the implicit argument being that once your content is pirated, your publishing house is doomed. What this metaphor gets wrong is the same thing MacKie-Mason has wrong — most scholarly authors (and probably most busy readers) don’t value the horses as much as they value the barns. Authors want their works in the best venue possible, not some seedy, ramshackle location — and they are willing to pay a modest premium for better boarding conditions. Readers behave similarly, and tend to trust good horse farms, wishing to avoid a glue horse from some sketchy outlet.

Back to the movie we’ve seen before. Khoo’s findings comport with what many people have been uncovering, deducing, and saying for years now — Gold OA will not reduce costs, will not make publishing less commercial, will not level the playing field, and will not do anything but concentrate power in the market. As Khoo writes:

Open access publishing has been suggested as a potential solution to the serials crisis because journal costs are theoretically more exposed to price competition. However, examination of journal article volumes when article processing charges are introduced or increased over time shows no evidence that authors avoid journals that introduce or increase APCs. Instead, it appears that once authors are willing or able to pay an APC, that they are willing to pay them with little regard to the size of an APC. This data suggests that publishers are adept at pricing journals according to the prestige value of the title and the funding available to authors in each market.

It would be nice to stop looping the same old movies over and over again. The effort to make convincing economic and market dynamics arguments in favor of Gold OA is becoming as futile as attempts to make Green Lantern movies — each one is doomed because the premise just doesn’t hold up.

Just ask Ryan Reynolds. Some things just don’t work. But once you accept this, you can have much greater success . . .

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