Thursday, February 21, 2008

Using free to overcome network effects

I heard an interesting news report on the radio yesterday, about a major breakthrough in the use of stem cells to treat stroke victims.

What I thought was interesting was that the breakthrough was not (as is customary) published in Science or JAMA. Instead, it was published by Public Library of Science, a relatively new family of journals that is directly challenging scientific publishers and their high subscription prices.

Some of the traditional journal prices are truly exorbitant — my favorite Elsevier journals annually charge libraries $2100 and $1300, respectively. On the other hand, this is a very thin market: we’re talking a few hundred libraries and a few thousand individual subscribers, not the millions who read Time or buy a Christina Aguilera CD.

So while libraries don’t to pay $1000+ to subscribe to journal, the story is a little more complex. In addition to the concerted efforts of publishers, there has already been pushback by moderates to efforts to require mandatory use of “open access” (free beer) journals.

This reminds me exactly of the open source debate. Some academics are open source advocates (tipoff — they say “FOSS” or “F/LOSS”, not “OSS”) that want the whole world to use open source. Others welcome the competition in terms of quality, efficiency or price, but leave it to the market to decide what is the best solution. A tiny number just view it as an interesting phenomenon and try not to take sides.

The open access journals don’t charge their readers, but they also save a lot of money by not having dead trees, subscription lists, marketing, or website authentication. They also get more readers by being searchable and linkable from the open Internet, and encourage the reuse and redistribution of their content. However, I have some questions about how widespread they will become, at least in the near term.

First, these “free” PLoS journals are not exactly free, because they charge authors a publication fee of $1K-$3K per article. This works on a $100K-$1 million biomedical research project, but not on a social science or humanities paper that might have a research budget of $100.

Second, for medical research in the US, there’s one agency (NIH) that’s mainly paying for the research to be produced and to be consumed, so it is willing to increase producer prices if it dramatically cuts user prices. The funding of social science and humanities research is much more fragmented, and thus the funders are more likely to pursue their parochial interests rather than seek a systems approach.

However, Wednesday’s PLOS story does suggest they’ve overcome a third problem: the chicken and egg problem of reputational network effects facing scientific journal publishers. The problem is that important research isn’t published in 2nd tier journals because, well, they’re 2nd tier. And without important work, these journals remain 2nd tier.

The stem cell article was published in PLoS One, which already has more than 1000 articles under its belt. So it appears that the PLOS crew has gone a long way to gain legitimacy among authors and readers.

1 comment:

Jim Till said...

Please note that the majority of OA journals don't charge any author-side fees. See: Author Pay Model in Open Access Publishing