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Notes on Thoughtfulness in Scholarly Publishing (1): A la Carte Pricing

Today a senior scholar whose work I greatly respect called me an asshole. This was in response to my being snarky in a social media environment. Snarky is probably never a good stance to take. This was a reminder. I will not revisit the episode except to acknowledge that, in a diffuse way, it motivates the post (perhaps a series of posts) initiated here.

One definition of “thoughtfulness” provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, characterizes things this way:

Showing thought or consideration for others; considerate, kindly.

I was not thoughtful in my snarky comment, although it was motivated out of concern for others.

This note on publishing thoughtfulness is not in first position relative to other notes in some kind of procedural or conceptual sequence. It is just a fragment from a bigger statement or recommendation that could be composed. Its is just one piece of the larger picture of scholarly publishing practices that is on my mind today. No one is obligated to follow this counsel, of course. For anyone who is interested, here is one thoughtfulness recommendation. (The post presumes academic publishing in scholarly journals without consideration of author payment. People writing for a living in magazines and newspapers have important and different concerns.)

Before submitting an article to, or agreeing to contribute a review to, a particular scholarly journal, find out how much the a la carte price to access that work is going to be.

This is easier said than done for a host of platform and PR reasons. Before I offer some tips on doing it, here are some arguments as to why this is a thoughtful thing to do.

As I discussed in an essay for anthropologies, only a tiny portion of the world’s population has institution-based access to the scholarly literature. (Even fewer have personal subscription-based access.) This means that most people will simply not be able to legally access your work. This opens the door to an open access discussion, but I am not going to open that door. Forget it. Forget about retaining your rights. Forget about green open access. Forget about all that stuff. Just focus on a la carte pricing.

If a person has the ability to discover your work but lacks the ability to read it behind a paywall, publishers have a solution. Pay-per-view is that solution. I call it a la carte because it involves paying money for a single item of scholarship, rather than some larger bundle of scholarship.

Depending on the publisher and platform, this price can be relatively modest or (by most people’s standards) rather high. For poor people, your “relatively modest” may count as rather high, but we are not dwelling too much on that here. (See the anthropologies paper for that kind of talk.)

If you do scholarship without any institutional affiliation whatsoever, it is actually easier to find the a la carte price. Use a smart phone or some other internet connecting device and drill down to the item you want (or that counts as your investigative test case) via whatever digital platform it exist on. When you get to the end of the line, you will be at a toll gate. Chance are good that there is a price tag attached to the item. Pay the amount and get through the gate. You may get to read it for a time period before it evaporates or you may get to “keep” a PDF for an extended period. There are many variations on the use rights you are buying at the gate. For now, the key thing is figuring out the price. (Just keep in mind that you are not really buying anything. You are leasing certain use rights. You cannot give your version away, for instance. Get the used bookstore image out of your mind.)

If you work at an institution of higher education with some kind of library funded access to the scholarly literature, the a la carte price may be hard to find. Those wonderful librarians are working to make your use as seamless as possible. This means not only do they struggle to find the cash (often tuition dollars) to pay for your access, but they also make keen technological arrangements to keep it easy for you. One of these is keying access to machine IP address. Access a journal platform from an on-campus machine or via a laptop that has been configured to act like one, and you may not see the paywall. If you get in seamlessly, you never see the a la carte price and thus may not even realize there is one. Publishers like this about their platforms. Its a design feature. One designed to keep you from thinking about how much is being charged to access their work.)

A thoughtful author can do a bit of work to find the a la carte price before making a publishing decision. Have you been asked to review a book? How much will your review cost? About to send out your manuscript. If you succeed, how much will someone pay to read you?

Were you asked to write a review for a Routledge journal like Folklore? Go to the site and see. That journal recently published a two page review of a book called Tales of Kentucky Ghosts. This two page review costs $37.00 plus local taxes. Forgetting the taxes, that comes to $18.50 per page. At Routledge, the price is flat per item, thus a 28 page article in a recent issue of Ethnos comes to $1.32 per page. [Why did I pick on that review of Tales of Kentucky Ghosts particularly? Well, consider this. The book itself can be purchased for $14.97 in a kindle edition from Amazon. Six cents per page for the book being reviewed in the $18.50 per page review.]

For Wiley journals “You can purchase online access to this Article for a 24-hour period (price varies by title).” To do this (or to see the price) you have to make a Wiley account and login. To purchase a review of the book Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside from the American Anthropologist costs $12 for 24 hour access to a 1 page review. City and Society content also costs $12 for 24 hours. Thus a recent 17 page article therein comes in at a just 70 cents for an entire day of reading. [One can get Dacha Idylls from Amazon for $15.99 for as long as the technology lasts…]

Considering Public Culture published by the not-for-profit Duke University Press, you can pay per view in it for $15 for two days of access. The editor’s letter in its recent number is four pages, making it $3.75 per page for 48 hours. Because the rate is flat, the price per page goes down as the page count goes up.

Social Forces published by Oxford University Press? $35 for 24 hours.

Of course, such a quest my lead to discovering that a journal does not provide a la carte access. (Ethnology seems to be one example of this. American Antiquity seems to be another.)

Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory? $0 for infinite hours. (Amusing myself with that one–of course there is no a la carte price at Hau–its a gold OA journal.)

You get the point.

One kind of thoughtfulness in publishing decisions focuses on the end price to legally access the scholarship that we give to publishers with the hope that they will get it before the eyes of interested readers. If I used only the data presented above, I cannot easily make a case for one toll access publisher over another. It gets easier when other considerations are brought into play. Still, if you recoil at the idea of someone paying $35 to read your book review or at the idea that someone would pay the same about to rent access to your article for a single day, then the thoughtful thing to do is to not publish in such venues or, if you must, to do so in a way that allows you to legally share your work in green open access ways.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim Elfenbein #

    Thanks for the post Jason,

    It is always good for authors, and others, to learn even a little bit more about the differences between specific journals and publishers, and you are right to suggest it. From my perspective, this is on the way toward thoughtfulness, but it stops short because it doesn’t ask anything about why publishers set prices as they do.

    You are asking authors to make simple price comparisons, not for themselves but for their potential readers. For most academic authors and readers, who are more or less completely shielded from cost considerations in publishing and accessing scholarship, this is an important first step. But if the analysis stops at the paywall, we are left with no better understanding of why publishers set prices (or do anything else) as they do. Is a particular journal hoping to preserve subscription sales, instead of having not only individuals but also libraries buy articles on-demand (PDA-style)? Would variable pricing schemes require additional infrastructure or labor costs to implement? Has a publisher determined that demand for single articles is inelastic enough that lower prices cannot justify the revenue losses it would face?

    These kinds of questions get at the tensions and practical decisions behind strategies for pricing a la carte. What if this analysis reveals that a journal is losing money on every pay-per-view sold (when you figure the cost of setting up and administering such a service), but they wanted some way of providing access to non-subscribers? Is the price fair or not in this case? It is difficult to say.

    The point isn’t to attack or defend any specific publisher’s practices or pricing: it is to acknowledge that we need to at least try to understand them. You hint at these kinds of considerations, and I give you credit for doing so. Even before this post, inspired as it was by the wish to be more thoughtful, I would have described you as one of the more thoughtful people discussing publishing in our corner of academia. For me, however, your price-comparison suggestion isn’t thoughtful enough because it limits an author’s kindly considerations to a group of potential readers while maintaining the posture of war between authors/readers and publishers.

    My fear is that authors are not only recoiling at the idea of potential readers paying high prices to access their works: they are increasingly recoiling at the idea that anyone should pay anything. The readers shouldn’t need to pay to access our common pool of knowledge, but authors who have added to it shouldn’t be asked to pay for the publishing services they use, but libraries cannot afford to purchase subscriptions anymore either. With no one is left to pay, some have cobbled together an interesting solution: claim that publishing is, or should be, nearly costless.

    That an author of a non-peer-reviewed book review would still prefer that readers access the published version, instead of the same review in a Word doc, blog post, or their faculty web page, suggests that journal publishing matters. If it matters, then authors need to be thoughtful enough to ask how the labor and infrastructure needed to publish their work is supported and sustained. We are only going to be able to effectively tackle the problems of scholarly communication if we extend the bonds of solidarity beyond authors and readers (and libraries). The people who publish your review deserve some thought, and they are as likely to be extending their considerations to potential readers as you are.

    Thanks again for your post. I look forward to more discussion.

    November 10, 2013
  2. There is lots and lots of great stuff above in Tim Elfenbein’s thoughtful comment above. He, in essence, has written a second post on this theme. One that I agree with and recommend. It directly tackles or foreshadows a number of key themes for a full treatment of publishing thoughtfulness. The “why” of pricing, the nature and impact of platform choices, human appreciation to those who are paying for our publishing, appreciation for those who are doing the labor behind our publishing, recognition of the reputation economy and its effects–all that and more is present or implied in Tim’s comment. All deserve revisiting or visiting. I am glad that Tim recognized that I was biting off one arbitrary chunk and that there were others lurking beneath the surface (or sitting on the surface, as with my repeated use of the word legal).

    November 10, 2013
  3. M. Jackson #

    “only a tiny portion of the world’s population has institution-based access to the scholarly literature.”

    By the same token, only a tiny portion of the world’s population has even the slightest interest in reading my contributions to scholarly literature. But sometimes folks actually email me to ask for a copy; and I always provide it (and legally: I’ve never come close to giving away 50 e-prints, even for my articles that have more than 50 citations).

    November 13, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Notes on Thoughtfulness in Scholarly Publishing (2): Tim Elfenbein on the *Why* of a la Carte Pricing in Route to a Multivariate Thoughtfulness | Shreds and Patches
  2. learning to live with digital scholarly publishing | digital digs

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