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Notes on Thoughtfulness in Scholarly Publishing (2): Tim Elfenbein on the *Why* of a la Carte Pricing in Route to a Multivariate Thoughtfulness

If you find value or interest in the discussion initiated in my post on pay per view journal article pricing and its relevance to scholarly authors and general readers, then do not miss Tim Elfenbein’s comment on that post.

Tim is the managing editor of Cultural Anthropology and an all around great person to keep up with. Among many other things, he is a knowledgeable, well-positioned reader for my post. He is a great interlocutor for many reasons, including (importantly for me) that he kindly saw that I was bracketing out a lot of important stuff. Rather than calling me out for that, he saw the opportunity to extend the conversation, adding another “note” toward a more holistic set of considerations. It should be in this slot as a guest post, but you can find his comment here. I recommend it.

Tim puts an important range of considerations on the agenda. Most directly he tackles the need to understand something about the “why” of a la carte (or pay per view) pricing, but he also points to 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, and recognition of the reputation (and tenure) economy and its effects. Even the ways that digital, legal, and financial transformations have devastated the old interlibrary loan model is lurking in there. 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).

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim Elfenbein #

    Thanks for your kind words Jason. I’m doing my best to live up to your very generous description.

    My complaint about your post, that it doesn’t take more into consideration, is in many ways unfair. The same can be said of any blog post. You have already demonstrated your commitment to tackling a whole mess of linked issues within scholarly communication, so I can happily give you the benefit of the doubt. Most commentators on scholarly publishing, especially in anthropology, haven’t made such a commitment. And those who are only willing to investigate so far tend to settle on the same narrow slice of issues.

    I was prompted to reply to your last post because I worry that the topic you chose to discuss, a la carte pricing and, more importantly, paywalls, isn’t really an arbitrary chuck of the whole. One important version of open access activism has made the scene of the reader hitting a paywall its central trope. Discussions that start and stop at the paywall demand indignation from discussants and, I believe, not much more. There is no prompt for further inquiry into the organizations, infrastructure, and labor that makes up publishing, because in this picture, all that publishers do is lock up the gates of knowledge. The paywall as a trope has a way of naturalizing some very dubious assumptions: that publishing is nothing more than a form of rent-seeking; that electronic documents are immaterial and therefore cost nothing to produce and disseminate; that search engines have removed all barriers to the discovery of content; or that dis-intermediated means we can do without bureaucratic-organized publishing firms altogether. From my perspective, the scene of the reader and the paywall does more to block productive conversation about publishing and open access than forward it. As I said in my last comment, the posture of war between authors/readers and publishers, with the paywall taking the part of the front-line, is not conducive to the collaborations that are going to be necessary for the future of scholarly communication.

    Authors and readers are, with good reason, more engaged in talking about and through those parts of scholarly communication they are familiar with: the labor of writing and reviewing; the frustrations of navigating through publishing systems that are opaque and whose limits seems arbitrary; the difficulties of finding and accessing scholarship. Shaking fists at paywalls is one expression of scholars’ discontent. It does preciously little to help people understand why we are where we are, or what kind of practical actions are needed to change the situation. The challenge for those of us who comment is to push the conversation beyond the paywall. My hope is that I can push these conversations into a more collaborative frame, and I hope I can convince you that there is good reason to do so.

    November 11, 2013
  2. Thanks Tim.

    If and when I have a chance to post again, my focus will be (I think) production costs from an author’s and editor’s and publisher’s point of view. My hope is that such a post (if I can manage it) will contribute substantively to the discussion that you have initiated.

    At my individual level, you won’t have to convince me about collaboration with many of the relevant actors (societies, university presses, libraries) even if I am uninterested in further collaboration with one group of them (commercial publishers). I feel like I have learned a lot from view fruitful (and ongoing) collaborations of a number of sorts over the past decade. Publishing collaborations have been a highpoint of my resent work.

    Thanks again.

    November 11, 2013
    • Tim Elfenbein #

      Let me know what I can do to help.

      November 11, 2013

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