date: June 21, 2012
The serials crisis is a rather complicated thing, and I think many folks tend to assign too much blame to for-profit publishers. Of course, I'm not a fan of anyone earning a 36% profit margin1) at the expense of my wallet, but attributing the crisis simply or predominantly to for-profit publisher greed only explains the possibility of a crisis (that it can exist) and does not explain the mechanisms that power the crisis.
Quite a few mechanisms are involved. For example, copyright creates a sort of monopoly 2) (although this is a complicated matter too) because a specific article can only go to one journal and that journal will only have one publisher. That article essentially becomes a unique commodity, and if you want it, there will be only one place to get it. There is, of course, competition among journals where those journals compete for similar intellectual content (also a complicated matter with respect to monopoly talk), and this competition probably prevents publishers from earning 200% profit margins, but at the article level, copyright guarantees a monopoly.
Publish or perish is another mechanism that drives up journal prices. If the intense pressure to publish did not exist, then we might expect less output among researchers (or so goes the argument). However, it's not the hypothetical decrease in output that might curb journal price increases. Rather, what would hypothetically curb journal price increases would be the relaxed pressure to produce. There is a fine difference between these two things, such that less pressure to produce does not necessarily entail less output and less output may not necessarily be due to less pressure to produce. However, while publish or perish may explain some of the serials crisis, it itself is only the result of how faculty are “graded,” so to speak. Some have addressed this issue by arguing for a rubric that grades scholarship and not scholars. 3) I think Robert K. Merton would agree and would say that a great scientist is one who has developed good judgement about fundamental problems and that good judgement would result in higher quality output rather than more output. 4)
There are a number of other mechanisms involved, but we might also ask who has the most power to fix the crisis. Librarians have been trying to get scholars' attention about the serials crisis for over three decades, but it's only been fairly recently that the attempts to fix this issue have really gained momentum. 5) It may have taken so long because some groundwork was first needed. First, librarians had to inform the community of the problem (a difficult task). Second, the community had to become informed (a much more difficult task). Third, the community had to care (an even more difficult task). Fourth, concepts such as Open Access had to develop and, in its various forms, had to become viable and acceptable publishing alternatives. And so forth.
Besides having to inform the community and having an informed community, the real interesting part of the problem is the caring issue. I've been thinking about this issue in terms of incentives and we can see that in much of this post. For example, I have basically stated that faculty have a greater incentive to publish more (quantity) and not simply publish well (quality). The tacit assumption is that there is a causal relationship between having an incentive to do something and doing something. That is, a person who has an incentive to do X explains why the person does X. Furthermore, I've assumed that the incentive functions within a cost-benefit framework such that the reason for the incentive is due to there being some utility attached to the incentive. The implication here is that a person who has an incentive to do X does X because the benefit resulting from doing X is greater than the benefit resulting from doing the alternative Y.
This has all been my way of thinking about the matter for a while now, but last night there was a really interesting Freakonomics podcast about what influences people to do things. 6) It turns out that we often do something simply because it's the norm; that is, we often do something simply because others in our group are doing it. It's a pretty straightforward idea, and probably one that we all kind of know, but it turns a cost-benefit analysis on its head and requires a rethinking of what incentives mean. More about that in Part 2.
date: July 18, 2012
As I said in part 1, I normally think about the serials crisis in terms of the incentives and the mechanisms that drive it along. I think this is a good heuristic. Conceptualizing and theorizing about incentives can be quite explanatory and eye opening, especially when incentives are defined with respect to some kind of tangible or empirical outcome (tenure, profit, etc.).
However, it may now be time and fruitful to consider what kinds of social influences drive actions that lead to the serials crisis. This would mean that instead of blaming the scholarly system itself (and things such as peer review), capital's influence on the scholarly system (profit motives), or the glut of scholarly output, it might be necessary to spend more time on other mechanisms, such as the various forms that social influence can take: e.g., compliance, conformity, obedience, acquiescence, norms, and so forth. (See this helpful literature review published in the Annual Review of Psychology titled Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity, written by Cialdini, R.B., & Goldstein, N.J.) 7)
While I think that conceptualizing and theorizing about incentives is extremely necessary, much of my conceptualizing has been influenced by the theory of revealed preference (I blame this on readings of the persuasive Ken Binmore). Eric M. Cave (2005), writing with a much different purpose, provides a nice description of this theory:
According to the theory of revealed preference, orthodox among economists, an agent's preferences are revealed by her behavior. If an agent chooses in order to realize one outcome when she could have chosen so as to realize another outcome, then we are to interpret her as choosing to further a preference for the one outcome over the other (p. 443). 8)
It seems like a very straightforward theory, and in a way it is. In fact, its simplicity might have something to do with how conceptually difficult it is to escape its clutches, even in the face of the many problems with the theory (Cave describes a few of them).
Aside from these various problems, the theory can't explain fundamental human motivations and it offers no clues about why we behave in some ways or why our actions and choices are sometimes constrained or inconsistent. (In fact, the theory assumes that our choices are always consistent and never constrained.) If we were to rely on it too much, then an explanation for the serials crisis, from the point of view of the authors of scholarly works, could be easily explained by meeting certain goals, such as tenure. Tenure is often viewed as a mechanism that drives scholarly output, but as I explained in my previous post on this topic, it's not a very convincing mechanism. In fact, because of the way tenure applications are graded, it's really only a symptom and not a mechanism at all.
Authors of scholarly documents work in communities and its the values and the norms of these communities that drive many of the problems with the serials crisis. It seems to me that if we are to address the serials crisis at its lowest level, then those norms and how those norms influence behaviors, decisions, policies, and strategies must be critically examined.
For example, and I'm not the only one, but I suspect that the serials crisis can never be resolved without the actions of senior, tenured faculty. However, even when they know about the serials crisis, they may not necessarily care about it. Why is that? Are they too attached to the way incentives are dished out in the current system? How do people working in that system knowingly, or not, protect its survival? How are these attitudes and actions coercing the behavior of junior faculty? And there are other, better questions to ask.