Journal Article Royalties: Reanimating the "Faustian Bargain"

Stevan Harnad harnad at cogito.ecs.soton.ac.uk
Mon Sep 20 03:41:10 EST 1999


A belated, but as always extremely informative exchange with Andrew
Odlyzko:

> From: Andrew Odlyzko amo at research.att.com
> AT&T Labs - Research voice:  973-360-8410 
> http://www.research.att.com/~amo fax:    973-360-8178
>
> I agree strongly with you that the incentives for authors to, for
> example, "pick free online journals over established ones" are very
> low. That is why I have been writing so much about the huge inertia in
> the scholarly publishing arena, and also about all the perverse
> economic incentives. Altruism is simply not a powerful factor.  

And that is why I think that self-archiving, with its own incentives
(i.e., have your paper published in your refereed journal of choice AND
make it available online to everyone, everywhere, for free forever) is
the most promising, realistic and coherent path to the optimal and
inevitable.

> One reason I have been collecting the usage data that we discussed
> about half a year ago is precisely to assemble evidence that authors do
> have something substantial to gain by making their papers available for
> free.  I suspect that in math, physics, computer science, and some
> other areas, we will have such evidence within a year or two (given
> the typical 100% per year growth rates one sees in online usage),
> but even then, it will take a while to get scholars to pay attention
> to it.

The data will be a great help, and Physics/Maths will again show
themselves, historically, to have been ahead of everyone else in all
this. 

I have dubbed this (particularly recalcitrant) problem the
"horses/water" problem for scientific communication: One can lead the
scholarly/scientific cavalry to the optimal/inevitable waters of free
online self-archiving -- shewing all its benefits through the example
of LANL, research impact, etc. -- but it is still a socio-historical
puzzle what will, in the end, make them drink!

We can just keep trying to do our best, in our short lifetimes! What is
already a historical fact is that the optimal/inevitable
was already WITHIN REACH in the '90s, but most of the scholarly
scientific community had simply failed to grasp it yet.

> On another front, there are some interesting attempts to turn back
> the tide.  In "The economics of electronic journals," I wrote that
> 
>   The perverse incentives in scholarly publishing that are illustrated
>   in the examples above have led to the current expensive system.  They
>   are also leading to its collapse.  The central problem is that
>   scholars have no incentive to maintain it.  In book publishing,
>   royalties align the authors' interests with those of publishers, as
>   both wish to maximize revenues.  (This is most applicable in the trade
>   press, or in textbooks.  In scholarly monograph publishing, the
>   decreasing sales combined with the typical royalty rate of at most 15%
>   are reducing the financial payoff to authors, and appears to be
>   leading to changes, with monographs becoming available electronically
>   for free.)  For the bulk of scholarly publishing, though, the market
>   is too small to make provide a significant financial payoff to the
>   authors.
> 
> Well, there is at least one publishing house that is attempting to
> create economic incentives for authors to refrain from free circulation
> of their papers.  They are planning to create at least one journal (an
> electronic one, but perhaps with a print version as well) in which, 
> according to what they told me, authors would get 30% of the revenues.
> (To be precise, authors publishing in that journal in the year 2000
> would get 10% of the revenues from year 2000, as well as 10% from
> each of the following two years, creating an incentive for them to
> push their libraries to subscribe.)  I am not sure this incentive
> is large enough to matter now, but it could.  Authors would not be
> able to make a lot of money, but even a small amount, when compared
> with nothing, can affect decisions.  If the average article were
> to bring in revenues of $4,000 (which is unlikely in the early years
> of a new journal, but is close to the general average), that would
> mean $1,200 to the author(s), which is not entirely trivial.  Let's
> hope this attempt does not succeed.

If every published journal paper really did mean $1200 royalty revenue
to its author, I do believe the project of freeing the refereed
journal literature online could be effectively slowed (though not
forever: see below).

You are right that $1200 would not be enough to tempt the author of
important research ideas/findings to return to the era of the "Faustian
Pact" <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/THES/thes.html> by
blocking access with a financial firewall, but most published
journal articles are not important, not cited, and probably hardly
read, so its authors would no doubt be tempted.

So this might indeed be a way to keep this cash cow (or golden goose,
pick your metaphoric poison) alive for yet another generation. In that
case, the NIH/PubMedCentral's hope of drawing authors toward the free
journals may prove be the only hope left, and the process may indeed be
driven by authors' ("altruistic") considerations about quality and
importance.

For if it is indeed the more important articles/authors that prove to
be immune to this Faustian temptation to collude in the toll-gating and
access-blockage in exchange for a cut from the take, then the
for-free/for-fee dimension (which is currently correlated negatively
with quality and importance, the higher quality journals being
overwhelmingly on the for-fee end) could become reversed,
paradoxically, with the for-fee journals inheriting the mantle of the
"vanity press" that stigmatizes the for-free ones currently!

In that case, my guess is that the 1/3 ($1200) available for sharing
Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View [S/L/P] revenue would gradually
shrink, as the demand for this lower quality end of the literature
declines under price pressure.

So in the long run, this strategy (which we would call an
"evolutionarily unstable one, in Darwinian theory) would lead to
extinction -- whereas the author-institution-end publication CHARGES
for the Quality-Control/Certification service alone (paid for out of
1/3 of institutional S/L/P cancellation savings) that I have been advocating
would be an evolutionarily stable strategy, with interests aligned
instead of at odds. [Think this one through: The causality is subtle
but, I think, decisive.]

But I agree with you that as a short-term market strategy journal
revenue-sharing could conceivably hold off the optimal/inevitable for
yet another while, alas. So I hope that publishers, in the interests of
science and scholarship, will not resort to it -- and that if they do,
authors (in the interest of the same) will resist it...

--------------------------------------------------------------------
Stevan Harnad                     harnad at cogsci.soton.ac.uk
Professor of Cognitive Science    harnad at princeton.edu
Department of Electronics and     phone: +44 23-80 592-582
Computer Science                  fax:   +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton         http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/
Highfield, Southampton            http://www.princeton.edu/~harnad/
SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM           




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