220.1 CAMERON RESPONDS TO BENSMAN (216) AND JOHNSON (218)
Jamie Cameron, Director, Publications, Institute of Mechanical Engineering, firstname.lastname@example.org
Received March 23, 1999.
I am responding to a piece by Stephen Bensman of Louisiana State University -- no.216.
I have some fundamental disagreements which I will list using his numbering:
1. I simply do not accept that the "new material will be of secondary importance." I don't believe there are any generalisations that can usefully be made about journal titles and quality of content -- even if one could agree on an objective definition of quality. There are many examples of new journals either in niche areas or in cross disciplinary areas which have rapidly become highly respected and contain extremely high value material.
2. Nor do I accept that "the vast proportion of the high quality scientific technical information produced is already being published in a cost effective manner by US Associations." What is certainly the case is that in North America the society journals play a more important part in journal publishing than elsewhere in the world. This is simply because the national North American societies have a very large single language market whereas elsewhere -- for example in Europe -- the market is fragmented by nationality. The advent of the commercial scientific technical and medical journal into America comes largely directly or indirectly from Europe -- Inter-science (now Wiley), Academic Press, Elsevier, North Holland etc.
I also do not accept that "commercial publishers are largely restricted to the secondary scientific and technical information" -- making the assumption that by secondary you mean second rate in quality. In some cases a society journal may be regarded as superior to a similar commercial journal but in other cases the reverse is true. I am not aware that any exhaustive quantitative study has been done on for example citation indices -- but I don't actually believe that this is an absolute benchmark though I know it is highly regarded.
3. He seems to be saying that new journals "foster an increase in the amount of secondary scientific and technical information" but this simply is not the case. Every leading commercially published journal -- and there are many of them and it would probably be invidious to mention titles -- started off as being "new" journals, invariably in a new and important area of science, technology or medicine.
I find the statement that "the material of the commercial publishers costs more than the material of the US Associations is because commercial publishers cannot sell as much of it due to its lower quality" quite extraordinary. Probably the main reason why the society journals are in general cheaper is that they have a large number of members who often receive it as part of their subscription or at any rate at a heavily discounted price so the journal can reap the benefits of economies of scale because of the large numbers. This is particularly true of North America.
Some comments also on the piece from Richard Johnson of SPARC.
In his first paragraph he talks about the "considerable debate as to how best to transform scholarly publishing" and I think, as he possibly implies, that it is really because none has solved the problem, which essentially stems from the fact that the money for research over the past few decades has far outstripped money available for disseminating that research.
Next, when he talks about "superior alternatives to high price journals" I think it is a mistake to assume automatically that a SPARC journal is "superior." On the whole journals are not competitive one with another and it is not my understanding that the SPARC journals set out in head to head competition with other journals but may be I am wrong here. Also, I think it is a mistake to assume automatically that a cheaper journal achieves a broader dissemination partly because journals are not very price sensitive and partly because of the lack of direct competitive element which I mentioned earlier. I think it is true to say that in recent years while journal subscriptions have declined steadily readership has increased due to photocopying, interlibrary loan, electronic availability etc. Obviously, if a SPARC journal goes to all members of the society involved, with the benefits of economies of scale mentioned earlier, it will get a broad dissemination -- but only I think in North America, unless SPARC is making similar arrangements with societies outside North America.
I was interested in the comment that "highly profitable corporations are ... hesitant to take a risk and slow to act." Having been very closely involved in journal publishing with two successful/profitable commercial publishers and three learned societies I am fairly sure that the reverse is the case. Also, I worry about the phraseology of "arrayed round society publications is a range of second-tier and niche publishers." If he means by second-tier, second quality I strongly disagree but I would agree with the niche. What was a niche 40 years ago is now a major discipline and the examples are legion -- polymer chemistry, immunology, molecular biology etc.
Finally, yes we do need a solution which has a critical mass of "single support" but I think that different sectors of the population have different priorities -- engineers, physicists, computer scientists industry, academia etc. -- and the problems are behavioural, economic and technological, all three of which have to be addressed.
220.2 BENSMAN'S RIPOSTE TO SPARC
Stephen Bensman, Louisiana State University, email@example.com
Received March 24, 1999.
The response to my recent screed by Richard K. Johnson, SPARC Enterprise Director, has provoked me to take up my word processor again, for he has manifested certain misunderstandings as to my position on the ARL SPARC project.
However, I hope that my criticisms of the SPARC project will be regarded as an expression of the concerns of a friend -- not as the attacks of an enemy. I certainly agree wholeheartedly with the guiding principle of the SPARC project as formulated by Johnson in the following statement: "The central idea is that competitive market forces must be unleashed if the status quo is to be challenged." My doubts relate not to the goal but to the way in which SPARC is interpreting and trying to achieve this goal. These doubts relate particularly to the "publisher partnership" programs.
My first set of concerns pertains to the fact that, by providing venture capital and guaranteed sales to start-up publications, libraries will become participants in the market and, thus, forfeit their required neutrality. Libraries should not back one set of publications against others but guarantee a free market to which all should have fair access. I am also perturbed by the opportunities this opens for corruption, but this may be a function of the fact that I live in Louisiana, where we not only tolerate corruption but revel -- nay, roll -- in it. However, in this respect, we are not alone but are merely setting a standard which others are having no trouble in meeting. I want to emphasize that I am not accusing the persons involved in SPARC of any intentions of corruption. Nevertheless, I was trained as a military intelligence analyst by the US Army, and the one thing that the Army was the most assiduous in beating into our thick, little skulls was the principle that estimates of the enemy must be based not on his intentions but on his capabilities. SPARC flunks the capabilities test, because it is putting librarians on both sides of a market transaction.
My second set of concerns relates to the fact that SPARC is only trying to replicate what the US associations and the commercial publishers by means of their better titles are already doing. This manifests itself in the following misrepresentation of my position by Johnson: "As both Kostelnik and Bensman write, the central question is how authors will be motivated to migrate from current high-priced journals to new, more cost-effective outlets for their research findings." That is not the central question. The better scientists are already publishing their findings in the "more cost-effective outlets" and do not need to migrate. The central question is how should libraries handle the research that is not good enough to be accepted by the better journals. If one would understand that the scientific information market operates not on the normal distribution but on the negative binomial and other related, highly skewed distributions, one would understand that the vast bulk of research is of secondary importance.
Regression analyses performed by me (Library Resources & Technical Services, 40 (1996), 145-170; 42 (1998), 147-242) have revealed that there is an inextricable and inverse link of cost with quality, i.e., paradoxically, the better the scientific information, the cheaper the price. For all types of publishers -- association and commercial, US and foreign -- price goes down as quality goes up. Recent plots created here at LSU show that both cost-per-library-use and cost-per-citation rise exponentially with the decrease of the quality of journals as measured sociometrically by faculty ratings, total citations, and total library use. These graphic representations of the dysfunction of the scientific information market are quite dramatic, and the causal process underlying it is basically twofold: 1) as quality goes down, citations and use also decrease; and 2) as quality goes down, price tends to increase.
In respect to price, the above dysfunction is partly the effect of first copy costs, by which publishers can sell the better journals in greater numbers and therefore do not need to charge as much to cover these costs. This factor affects both the association and the commercial publishers, and it means that if the US associations undertook to publish the secondary science and technology, they would soon manifest the same dysfunctions as the commercial publishers are manifesting now. This phenomenon is already apparent when the US associations publish Russian translation journals. These journals retain their characteristics of high cost and low utility despite being published by US associations.
Thus, Johnson and I may interpret "competitive market forces" quite differently. In my interpretation, the central question is not "how authors will be motivated to migrate from current high-priced journals to new, more cost-effective outlets," unless he means by these outlets the simple posting of research by authors on some web site managed by libraries, etc. What I have in mind is unleashing what Joseph Schumpeter (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1942, p. 81-86) has described as "the process of creative destruction" by capitalism, i.e., reducing the publication of secondary scientific research by free market forces. This task may not be as pleasant as enticing authors to migrate, because its accomplishment may have to be done in the face of a faculty fighting in the last ditch to protect their publication outlets. However, it must be done to clear the way for the continued exponential growth of good scientific knowledge -- something that may be necessary for the survival of human society. It may turn out that much more money will be needed to finance the scientific information system, but I, for one, cannot recommend the investment of more funds into such a dysfunctional system. In this unleashing of "competitive market forces," it is absolutely essential that librarians maintain their neutrality as impartial referees and not become interested participants.
There is an extremely important role which the ARL can play in reforming the scientific information system, but it is not in fostering new publishers and publications. This is only adding more fuel to the fire, and one puts out a fire not by adding fuel but by depriving it of oxygen. The oxygen in question is being delivered by the subscription system, which publishers are abusing by using it as a conduit to pump tons of scientific schlock into libraries and then charging them on a tonnage basis. A free market system based on documentary delivery shifts the financial risk of the zero and other low use classes from libraries to the publishers, who may have to take greater care in what they publish so that it may be purchased to be actually read and not just to be stored. It is a challenge that the commercial publishers should be glad to meet not only to prove their mettle, but also because a free market based on document delivery offers unlimited flexibility and opportunities for niche marketing. The proper role for the ARL would be to facilitate the transition from the subscription system to the free market of document delivery by coordinating the creation of the technical and legal conditions for such a market. Leadership is definitely needed in many areas, for example: 1) setting uniform technical standards for how electronic documents should be formatted, so that the submitting and archiving of electronic documents can done on the same basis; 2) designing systems for storing electronic information and accessing it from libraries; 3) preventing restraint of trade by withholding documents from sale on an individual basis, etc. In all these tasks the ARL should keep in mind that the traditional and proper role of librarians is not that of "market participants" but of "market makers," whose primary function is to bring the producers and consumers of information together.
It is time to give the capitalists what capitalists have always feared the most -- capitalism.
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