Consumers or Producers?

Who we serve matters, and publishers' financial choices are really about this

Consumers or Producers?

Which side of the communication exchange do you serve? The choice determines what you optimize. If you serve the consumers of information, you optimize relevance, quality, and delivery. If you serve the producers of information, you optimize efficiency, throughput, and virality.

The economics that flow from these choices reinforce any decision. This was captured nicely yesterday in a post on the LIB-LICENSE listserv by Red Jenkins, PhD, from the University of Dayton:

As we move more to payment on the author end (whether author or institution), the motivation for the publisher to demand something of exceptional quality or of interest to a fair number of readers rapidly goes down. I can cancel a journal if it doesn’t find readers on my campus, but there is still pressure to pay APCs needed to stuff someone’s cv and advance their career. The divorce of readership from the economics of publishing should be of much more concern that it seems to be. Nor do the optics of paying to publish, however framed, look good to a public that already has grave doubts about the value of the academic enterprise.

This touches on the choice the market is gliding toward, seemingly without a care in the world, even though it is an existential and fundamental choice — do we serve consumers of information or producers of information?

We seem to be drifting away from serving information consumers to serving information producers.

Jenkins also hits on an aspect that should chill us all, which is how the choice could cement or shatter public trust in the academic — and I’d assert, scientific — enterprise.

As you know — and I’m sorry to have to bring this up again, because I’m tired of the topic at this point — but preprint servers represent an extreme of service to producers. So, it was no surprise but still troubling to see another preprint illustrate the problem of catering to producers with no concern about the consequences for consumers. The one that recently broke across the media is about whether being nice to dogs works better than being mean. Based on a preprint from bioRxiv, the “study” is definitely in the lower quartile of studies, both in concept and execution. Not only do all reputable dog trainers in the world already know the answer to this (as well as most humans with a modicum of experience with dogs and good sense), but the sloppiness of the methodology and the lack of definition of key but simple language like “long-term” is shocking.

[I’m not linking to the preprint or coverage about it because, well, I would consider sending traffic to bioRxiv for this akin to rewarding a dog for having an accident on the carpet.]

Choosing to cater to producers rather than consumers is a road to nowhere for publishers and others who have been trained to work in a world focused on information consumers — librarians, editors, marketing professionals, and even technologists. Why we would choose this option escapes me. Why we aren’t more vocal in resisting the producers and their ilk — funders, mainly — who want to be catered to also escapes me.

Funders are by definition working to help create and support information producers. Good for them. But there needs to be a bright line between their efforts and those focused on information consumers. Taking funds from governments and rich funders to publish works on their behalf places us in the camp of information producers. Plan S explicitly seeks to leverage the power of those paying for information production so that they in effect control those working on behalf of information consumers.

But in a Plan S world, who is looking after the information consumers? Isn’t the goal of publishing to make information more readily consumable, more reliable, and more relevant to information consumers? Doesn’t the world need a disinterested set of professionals to evaluate what is produced, swat away the garbage, and move only the most relevant and best stuff forward? If we step away from this, then users are left to fend for themselves in an environment that is already too exploitative of their time and attention, too confusing, and too biased.

More important than the service aspect, there is a fundamental cultural power play at work here, which becomes visible when you contemplate the logic that politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from information. Producers who can pay to publish already have cultural and political power. If they also control information flows because there is no intermediary funded more broadly, but instead becomes entirely dependent on the patronage of the powerful producers, their lock on culture and politics becomes virtually unbreakable.

Truth to power remains a vital role of publishers (and librarians), and aligning with information consumers is what keeps this front and center.

The stakes are sky high when you think about them. At some point, I’ll explore this more exhaustively. But right now, I’ll leave you with this as food for thought:

Who do you think you serve?

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