Some implications of "digital" for academic publishing

Do publishers provide what researchers need?

Tesla charging station (image from Tesla promotional site)

I was shocked by a Scholarly Kitchen post this week (Roger Schonfeld, “Publishers Still Don’t Prioritize Researchers”, January 26, 2021), not for what the article stated, but for the response from the community.

Perhaps one moral of the post is how important it is to make a single point in a single post. Roger Schonfeld’s excellent article had two main themes, about discovery and about submission, but unfortunately, the comment on discovery seems to have got lost in discussions about the submissions. In this post, I will focus on discovery, not submission.

Schonfeld’s main argument is that, as his title states, publishers, by providing walled gardens of publisher-only content, do not provide what researchers want. Publishers want to discover content from the entire body of scholarly literature. Even Elsevier, the largest publisher, has less than half of all scholarly literature, so to search on the Elsevier platform is a waste of time. Schonfeld is absolutely clear about this: “The very existence of publisher-specific websites is misaligned with researcher needs”. Instead, researchers continue to find content via collections of abstracts (such as Web of Science), or using Google Scholar, despite (as Schonfeld points out) its imperfections.

As a researcher, I want to read about all the research relating to my subject, such as coronavirus. In response to the pandemic, some portals have been created for just this purpose – but it is indicative that it takes a pandemic to solve this problem, and then only temporarily. So why don’t publishers collaborate to produce a single collection with everything researchers need?

Assuming Scholarly Kitchen is one of the most widely-read discussion sites in academic publishing, I expected a chorus of agreement. But there was none! The only comment I could see on this aspect of Schonfeld’s post was by David Crotty, Director of Journals Policy at Oxford University Press:

I will put on my Joe Esposito hat to respond here — if these things were valuable to researchers and their institutions, they’d be willing to pay for them and the market would provide them. So far, it has failed to do so, which perhaps should ask the question of whether they really matter enough to invest in.

Crotty’s response to the lack of a single discovery platform reads like the kind of neo-classical economic thinking that has been condemned by many economists for thirty or more years: If the market doesn’t provide it, then nobody wants it. The free market is the answer. Unfortunately, left to their own devices, markets frequently don’t deliver what the customer wants, as a result of monopoly power, or cartels, or simple commercial rivalry. From a commercial point of view, it suits publisher A not to provide a common platform with publisher B. Economics textbooks from over 50 years ago have plenty of examples of market failure, and this is one of them. Market failure is defined as when “the allocation of goods and services by a free market is not Pareto efficient” (Wikipedia). Academic publishing is a clear example of market failure.

The bland “if these things were valuable … the market would provide them” ignores participants in the market doing their best not to work collectively. Publishers lack willingness to cooperate and to reach a common solution. If the market did provide what users wanted, there wouldn’t be any demand for SciHub. Researchers make use of Google Scholar, but it could be much better. Libraries don’t provide an answer: they also fail to provide a full index of scholarly content, but that is for another post.

To give an example of market failure in other areas, look at charging points for electric vehicles.  A recent post from November 2020 describes the current situation with electric chargers in the UK:

  • Slow chargers: These have a Type 1 (J1772) connector or a seven-pin Type 2 (Mennekes) connector.
  • Fast chargers: Almost all fast chargers have a Type 2 (Mennekes) connector, though some use a Type 1 (J1772).
  • Rapid chargers: These come in two flavours: AC and DC. DC rapid chargers use a JEVS (CHADeMO) or a CCS (Combined Charging System) connector. Rapid AC chargers are rarer, and have only a Type 2 (Mennekes) connector.
  • CHAdeMO connectors are of Japanese origin and fit electric Nissans, Toyotas and Mitsubishis if they’re capable of rapid charging. Volkswagen, BMW and Ford favour Type 1 (J1772) connectors and the related CCS system.
  • Tesla’s proprietary rapid chargers are known as ‘Superchargers’ and there are over 150 of these in the UK.

What does the customer want in this case? The customer wants a universal power connector, as widely distributed as possible. Instead, the customer faces a plethora of non-compatible charging systems provided by individual providers. Of course it is in Tesla’s interest to provide chargers for their own models only. Now let’s return to David Crotty’s comment: “if these things were valuable to researchers and their institutions, they’d be willing to pay for them and the market would provide them.” Well, the researchers do want them, yet Roger Schonfeld’s post is met by a deafening silence. It would be good to hear the response of academics to this post, but they are not, typically, readers of Scholarly Kitchen. While Scholarly Kitchen does not have a consistent editorial tone, there is an underlying strand of free market thinking that I find complacent and disturbing, yet this position is defended with venom by several of the contributors; which is why this comment does not appear on Scholarly Kitchen itself.  

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1 Comment

  1. Roger C. Schonfeld

    Thanks for this response. I appreciate the electric car charging analogy. I would encourage you to post a link to this piece on my post on the Kitchen.

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