History Isn't Very Instructive

With plenty of disruption across economic and political systems thanks to populism and its totalitarian supporters in the former Soviet Union, people who once thought we had democracy in the bag are feeling lost. More often than not, they will retreat into a fog of "well, if you look across history . . ." and then make relatively feeble comparisons from schoolbook historical glosses to today's predicaments.

These aren't very instructive. We know and have a lot more now than we did even 20 years ago, must less 200 years ago. We know germ theory, have vaccination, air travel, high-speed worldwide communications, satellites, radar, sonar, lidar, and microwave ovens (even, reportedly, some that take pictures as part of a deep state surveillance program). Historical lessons as far as motivations and human foibles may be instructive, but the context is completely different. We don't have polio and small pox. We don't have double-digit infant mortality.

Our problems and challenges are new and different, so our solutions have to be new and different. We are actually more tolerant of one another at a human level than we are politically or economically, studies have shown. Over the past 20 years, we've become more tolerant of interracial relationships, gay marriage, gays in the military, and people with mental or physical handicaps. We're much more chill about how we live our lives individually than we were in 1990.

Yet, we are more judgmental about political views or economic ability. The political intolerance seems to emanate from a media space that drives divisiveness and alienation. The economic Darwinism is more puzzling -- it's as if the feeling of social isolation and alienation has made people more miserly and protective, less generous and considerate, because they feel like they're on thin ice within a society that appears more willing to marginalize its own citizens.

These are new times, with few historical precedents. People are still alive who were born before commercial aviation was commonplace, much less taken for granted. There are people who still remember the polio epidemics. We've changed perhaps too quickly to realize that a new game requires a new playbook. Oddly, what the US electorate advanced is a team reading from a playbook that is truly historical, making them ahistorical -- they are living outside of history as we know it and as it has happened. We need to wake up to what today is, and move forward from here.

The Bear and the Fox -- A Modern Parable

Once upon a time, there was a small, old fox who fancied himself young and big. This may have been because his elder fox protected him from the harder lessons of the forest, or because the younger fox was given a big den and easy food at a young age. Nobody knows for certain. But the small, old fox grew up both spoiled and insecure, but also foolish and vain.

There was also a wise old bear in the forest, one who had once roamed the territories fearlessly, but who lately had become a relic of his old self. The wise old bear in the forest knew about the small, old fox and his vanity and insecurity. He kept this knowledge to himself, for the wise old bear knew many things about the forest, the most important of which was that you never knew when knowing something might matter.

The wise old bear was not the relic he seemed. Recently, something had stirred in the old bones, and he was once again marking his territory and venturing out. But, over the years, the forest had changed, and he could not make it his own unless he changed it back to be more like the forest of old.

Then, one year, the small, old fox entered a race to see who was the swiftest animal in the forest. The fox had tried running the race before, but the other animals had always been faster or bigger than the fox. But this year, sensing a weaker field, many small animals wanted to run, and there was only one big animal scheduled to run the race. The fox sensed it might be his year after all.

The big animal was different -- a female, rare in this race -- and another fox, but an arctic fox, which made her all the more different. She was tough, but austere. While younger than the small, old fox, the arctic fox seemed older somehow. The forest creatures were used to the small, old fox, but the arctic fox seemed aloof and remote. They thought she could win for she had run many races and always won, but the prospect didn't fill them with the same enthusiasm as the current champion's two wins had in the past. They looked at the arctic fox with detachment.

The day of the race came. The small, old fox quickly outpaced the small animals, who were easily kicked aside or scared away with a growl from the sharp-toothed and vain old fox.

The arctic fox took an early lead, and it was a big one. She seemed destined to win.

But then, the old bear started to work his tricks. He didn't like the arctic fox. She had embarrassed him in years past, and also she scared him because she was truly smart and wily, while the small, old fox was vain and easily fooled. The old bear knew which fox he wanted to win the race.

Before the race, the bear had enlisted the help of other forest creatures, and even creatures from outside the forest, to thrown sticks and stones at the arctic fox as the finish line approached. Why there were so many sticks and stones littered along the racecourse was never a question that entered their mind. They didn't know the bear had asked his friend, the ermine, to distribute them beforehand. The bear provided them, the ermine set them along the course.

The crowd saw the sticks and stones being thrown, and soon began to think that the only reason sticks and stones would be thrown at the arctic fox was if the arctic fox had done something wrong. They didn't know what, but just having the sticks and stones thrown was evidence enough for some. They, too, began to boo and harass the arctic fox.

The small, old fox was gaining as the arctic fox was pelted with the sticks and stones -- the bruises, the tripping, the distraction all slowed her down.

Bolstered, the small, old fox spoke to the crowd, but his words were so strange and his breathing so labored that they began to worry about his mind and heart. He slowed down, out of breath, and the arctic fox sped ahead.

Then, a very strange thing happened -- one of current champion's coterie, who swore to have no effect on the race, began to jeer the arctic fox, as well. He even found some sticks and stones nearby and threw them at the arctic fox. This caught the attention of the crowd, for this animal was viewed as a friend of the current champion. Again, the mere fact that he threw sticks and stones made the crowd wonder about why so many animals were against the arctic fox.

The arctic fox had slowed by this time to enjoy the final yards to the finish line while avoiding the last sticks and stones, but she stumbled upon hearing the jeers from the champion's compatriot. By this time, the small, old fox, rallied by the betrayal coming from the champion's camp, found one more burst of speed, and appeared to win the race. Yet, in one more oddity, the arctic fox was shown later to be the fastest, but the small, old fox won on points awarded by the judges of the race.

In the heat of battle, everyone had forgotten about the wise old bear, who was now far away from the spectacle and having a hearty laugh. His ploy had worked, and now the champion was a small, old fox who was easily fooled and only concerned with his image. The wise old bear immediately sent a flattering message to the small, old fox, while plotting his next moves. He would have to be careful now. But, being wise, he was prepared.

The wise, old bear did not trust just flattery and foolishness to keep the small, old fox in line. He knew it would take more. So, while everyone had been throwing sticks and stones at the arctic fox, the wise old bear had been saving up some sticks and stones of his own, the kind that would scare the small, old fox the most. They were ones taken from around the big fox den the elder fox had left for his offspring, and they held secrets and special meaning the small, old fox would fear.

And so, when the small, old fox was awarded the champion's medal, the wise old bear knew that the medal being slipped around the neck of the small, old fox was really his medal. He had won the race, and the championship was his victory.

The Irony of Gold

Investing in gold is stated by some as a "safe haven" approach in dire economic times, as gold supposedly retains its value in bad times, and perhaps gains value while other financial instruments decline.

However, there is an irony to this idea of "the value of gold" which often escapes proponents of this investment strategy.

To understand this irony, you first have to understand that gold itself only has value because we believe it does. It is a commodity, within a commodity marketplace. Therefore, it has value because I believe you believe it does, which is what makes value-based trading possible. If you didn't believe gold had value, you wouldn't want it. Only because we agree does gold have value.

We often express this value in terms of a local currency. In the US, this means expressing the price of gold in US dollars. The thinking is that gold will be worth more US dollars in bad times. This makes gold a counter-currency -- if the US dollar loses value, gold gains value relative to the dollar. You can get more dollars for each ounce of gold in bad times.

Because the value of gold is expressed in dollars, which themselves have value for the same reason -- because you and I agree they do. If one of us stops believing this, the dollar becomes valueless to our exchange. 

Therefore, your faith in gold is based on your faith in the US dollar. If the US dollar loses its value entirely, gold is worth very little, if anything. Or its value will be stated in entirely alien terms. It's only in a very limited set of circumstances that gold is a good investment -- as a way of hedgingagainst the US dollar or whatever local currency you have. 

Aluminum used to be the most prized metal on the planet. Napoleon's most cherished eating utensils were made of aluminum, and preserved for us at state dinners of the highest order. But when our abilities to mine and refine aluminum made this metal commonplace, its value dropped precipitously. It is now so cheap that we wrap leftovers in it. Like gold, its value is based on scarcity, and measured by a fiat currency.

The valuations of both gold and dollars are based on a shared belief. They interact, but neither is any more "real" than the other. As a metal, gold has some nice properties, but it's of limited utility. This is why separating currencies from a gold standard and into fiat currencies has worked so well. There was no inherent dependency. The relationship was imaginary, and the separation only shows how fanciful our belief in the value of gold was. 

The irony of gold is that its value is imaginary value is measured relative to another thing of imaginary value. But as long as we agree, we're all set.

Government Is Not a Business

We're seeing some strange things these days, some of which seem to emanate from confusion about the role of government compared to the role of a business. 

Among other things, government is supposed to enact laws to ensure a safe, fair, and free society; collect tax revenues to get things done collectively that we can't do individually; deal with international affairs and diplomacy; and adjudicate national and international disputes and treaties. Governments are political entities..

A business is supposed to take a seed of capital and attempt to grow it into a mighty oak capable of spawning new trees, while providing shelter and shade to its workers and partners.

Businesses are economic entities governed by political entities. There is interaction, but that's the general relationship.

The stunning Brexit vote was based to some extent on arguments that portrayed the government as a business -- for example, the now-famous-worldwide "£350 million per week" argument, as if the UK government were a business flushing capital down the drain recklessly. Not only is the figure inflated, but the value is not included. It may turn out that for the benefits derived, the UK may need to spend far more. But the spending is beside the point. The political importance of the contributions to the EU are clearly far more important than the money, as the aftermath has shown. 

In the US, the student loan scandal -- in which the government earns a profit off student loan interest -- shows this conceptual mistake in all its glory. Running the government as a business has led our politicians to make a decision to exploit its citizens, not through a tax (the government's proper way of raising money) but through the banking system. State lotteries are another business-like way of levying regressive taxes under the guise of business, turning storefronts into de facto tax collectors.

Candidate Trump also reflects this confusion. A businessman with no experience in civil service, very little experience in politics (and most of it apparently not having left a mark), and no military experience is doing well in the run up to the election. His demagoguery aside, he is running as a businessman. This shows that the confusion between government and business has been sufficiently smudged as to be meaningless to a wide swath of voters. 

It's odd particularly because businesses have historically been much more volatile than governments. They take more risks, and often lose. But perhaps they've also been much better at escaping accountability. When the US automakers needed to be bailed out after the banks needed to be bailed out, the US government was the steady hand on the rudder of the economy -- the politicians provided the firebreak that kept the whole house from burning to the ground. Yet, sane, steady political leadership is vulnerable to an insurgency from a businessman candidate of such questionable acumen and judgement that he is regularly regarded as a con man.

Governments are not businesses. Running them as businesses leaves a political gap, and certain important political work undone. Let businesses be businesses, and please, governments, get back to governing.

Brexit, Risk, and the Governance Problem

Again and again when you talk with non-profit leaders and employees, the problem of governance arises. While there are certainly incompetent, malicious, and corrupt boards, the main problem seems to center more around boards who are risk-averse and unwilling to take chances -- not realizing that there is no risk-free move available, as taking no obvious risk is still a risk.

"If the rate of change outside an organization exceeds the rate of change inside an organization, the end is near."

This famous Jack Welch quote misses the mark in one way -- there can be differential rates of change within the same organization. For non-profits, which are famous for having silos and many moving parts that move at different rates, governance often moves either the slowest or the most unpredictably. This creates friction, jerkiness, or breakdowns.

Brexit exhibits some of these traits, with the metropolitan centers of the UK moving more rapidly than the rural areas, changing faster, becoming more European -- with the breakdown occurring when the playing field was leveled through referendum. However, even calling for a referendum shows how out-of-touch and arrogant the PM and others had become.

The unpredictability of governance is often an underlying problem in nations and organizations.

In our world, some non-profits have presidents who rotate in on an annual basis, bringing with them initiatives that divert staff and resources, slowing and warping the organization. Others have board terms that are too short or too long. Some see activist boards micromanaging, which only causes strain and often bad decisions.

One innovative solution worth trying would be to have the board indicate to management where they would like the organization to be in three years, in general terms, and then step back, attending only to the most basic duties possible -- signing off on the audit, for instance. Three years hence, I would bet most organizations and boards would have a happy meeting to toast the success -- while the board would have to ask itself hard questions about what value it truly adds.

As the UK grapples with the Brexit outcome, perhaps this approach could work with both Parliament and the UK population in general -- simply state that in 5-10 years, it would be best for the UK to be more inclusive, more prosperous, and more influential. Then it will become clear that Brexit is not the path toward these future traits.

Money and Unity

Money is known technically as "fungible" -- that is, it can be exchanged for nearly anything. For instance, a few hundred years ago, prostitutes could exchange money for indulgences, essentially using sex to buy salvation. A criminal can use money gained by theft to pay for food for his or her child.

Not all transfers are this extreme, but as human inventions go, money is one of the most remarkable. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his excellent book, "Sapiens":

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don't know each other and don't trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

Debt is one expression of money. In recent times, debt has been demonized as unhealthy and worrisome. And, like all things, at a certain intensity or level, this is so. But at a modest or manageable level, it can be beneficial. Because it's money, debt aligns the interests of people who might otherwise not cooperate. With the musical "Hamilton" bringing the founder of the US banking system to the fore, it's worth remembering that one of the major steps in unifying the states was to make every state and every citizen responsible for a common federal debt. Not only did this allow the US to borrow at a much higher level than any state or individual could have alone, leading to the rapid emergence of a viable nation, but it aligned the interests of the states in a way no pledge or oath could have.

Trust is the fundamental reason that slip of printed paper in your pocket has value. We believe it to be so, and it is. There is no other reason. Currently, ninety percent of money is intangible, existing only in computers. But more importantly, even in its tangible form, its value is created in the same way as computerized money -- by agreement. If we all agree that a currency of a former Eurozone country has no value, it has no value.

This trust system is remarkable on many levels, but it also has a special two-step aspect to it -- it's not that you trust money, but you trust that the other person trusts money, which the other person also assumes, closing the trust loop.

Even events like the hacking of the SWIFT system supporting international banking do little to break this trust system. We distrust the computers and people using them -- everything points to a social engineering exploit here -- but not money. In fact, the millions stolen from the hack only reinforces the trust in money.

But Sci-Hub and its ilk break our trust in money. Suddenly, rather than a fluid economic system that pays for the work done in the past and for work upcoming, publishers, editors, and professionals supporting book and journal sales can no longer trust that other people will assume their work will be worth anything. While not a breach of trust in money per se, it is a breach of trust in value and a clear disdain for money. The Sci-Hub sympathizers don't believe that an economic transaction -- any economic transaction, even one that provides content for a few cents to users -- is defensible when it comes to whatever content or websites they hack.

The damage to the trust system of basic economic value in academic and scholarly publishing may be the most pernicious aspect of the Sci-Hub flap. Again and again, the expenses publishers incur -- billions of dollars per year -- to manage peer-review, pay editors, pay staff, pay vendors, pay for digital platforms, pay to support archives, and so forth, are pointed at as somehow illegitimate or unworthy of support.

At the same time, Sci-Hub itself has had to raise money to support its stolen cache of content, because of course it has computer, systems, bandwidth, and staff costs.

As I've written before, Sci-Hub is a dead end. It makes no economic contribution, and has no economic future. But it represents a fundamental threat to a major human achievement -- the ability through money to transform one thing into another. Sci-Hub represents the end of human alchemy. It represents economic death.

In our imaginings of the future, we often envision a world without money. Maybe that will come to pass somehow. But as long as we need to efficiently transform one thing into another through the exchange of common tokens of agreed upon but abstract value, and as long as we seek unity of economic purpose in a way that allows for personal diversity and choice, money in some form will be part of our culture. Those who try to undercut this reality are working against "the apogee of human tolerance."

Pragmatism in an Age of Ideology

We no longer live in a time in which ideologies are inherently distrusted. From identity politics to economic ideologies, it seems almost ignorant today to not have a badge of ideology of some sort. We also live in a media landscape in which labels travel well and are a strange source of unity amidst fragmentation. This same media landscape -- virtual, removed, asynchronous -- insulates purveyors of labels from the downsides of stereotyping and pigeonholing. This is a change worth contemplating.

A recent article in the New Yorker does an excellent job portraying some messiness around this trend at Oberlin College in Ohio. By encouraging diversity via labels so heavily, Oberlin has many "n of 1" situations, where a particular student feels she or he must represent all the gender, racial, cultural, or socioeconomic labels they possess, even to the point of undermining the university's role of resolving differences and moving them toward a level of common educational achievement. Instead of diversity being resolved, differences have become something to embellish and emphasize. From custom degrees to protests and outrage, it's a can of worms that's not easily closed.

Peace and prosperity may have something to do with this. Nathan Heller, the author of the piece, quotes Alexis de Tocqueville in an especially compelling section of the article:

Tocqueville thought [the French Revolution occurring in a time of prosperity] wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

This is an interesting tangent to our own world of ideologically-driven discontents, especially as these relate to public access, open access, free article sharing, and piracy. 

Expectations around the Internet were very high initially when it came to information businesses, with this best represented in the rallying cry, "Information wants to be free." The expectation which formed was one of unfettered access, and this soon came to mean unpaid access. Over the past 15 years, there has been a protracted campaign to find a way to make this come to pass. When the most viable solution (Gold OA) combined with embargoed Green OA for papers from particular government or philanthropic funders proved unsatisfactory to some, a more dramatic and illegal approach was created in Sci-Hub and implicit or explicit support of illegal piracy.

Ideologies can lead to an inability to cede ground in order to reach pragmatic solutions. In the case of Oberlin's identity politics, adding diversity has driven a lack of tolerance among the diverse -- they feel that unless their worldview is completely honored and respected, they have been done a disservice by the college and society in general. Some loud voices are unwilling or unable to accept that diversity and compromise can co-exist. They also find themselves trapped by their own identity politics. As one student activist says:

As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don't want to assimilate into middle-class values. I'm going home, back to the 'hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.

The fragmentation of experience and identification is clear -- there is nothing larger defining this person's world than her own differences, which she clings to in a cycle of self-absorption. And within self-absorption, pragmatism -- which requires balancing a number of competing and addressable factors -- is out of reach.

Building a better scientific and academic publishing world includes many possible pragmatic improvements and changes -- semantic engines, better editorial practices, more peer-review discipline, greater use of statisticians, tighter controls on study design, more insights into conflicts of interest, more refined interactions with the media, and more use of mixed media to explain findings. 

Yet, ideologies about access, now taken by some to an extreme with Sci-Hub, are drawing us away from pragmatic advances. Just as ideologies in American politics have distracted us from building better infrastructure, dealing with childhood poverty, and dealing with wage stagnation, ideologies in publishing are now causing some of the largest and best-funded to move from being content businesses to being technology businesses. while others depart certain markets too inflamed by ideology to be commercially viable.

About six years ago, there was a period of months during which many noticed a shift -- the excitement about the possibilities for online content dissipated, replaced with the notion that content was no longer viable except as a commodity. That trend has cemented itself, driven mainly by an ideology, not by pragmatism. 

In this ideology, content becomes a commodity -- undifferentiated, with volume-based pricing. This leaves little to no room for content pragmatists to flourish and grow. So they start looking for greener pastures with less ideological pollution.

What Sci-Hub represents is an ideology gone too far. It is so anti-pragmatic that it serves as an existential threat, and requires legal intervention. Even then, some ideologues argue that our laws themselves are invalid or wrong.

Pragmatism acknowledges constraints and boundaries. The problem with ideologies is that they know no bounds.

Questioning the Sci-Hub Data

Recently, more Sci-Hub IP data were shared (in a highly processed form) and discussed, and like the results in an article in Science, the results are cloudy at best.

Bastian Greshake received results of Sci-Hub matching its IPs associated with downloads with a public (and somewhat outdated) database of institutional IPs. The results suggest less than 8% of the downloads come from academic institutions.

The IP set used as a check against Sci-Hub's data is itself problematic. IP ranges change quite frequently, so a five-year-old set of publicly available IPs is likely a weak data set to use. It's akin to checking a lineup of NFL players against rosters from five years ago -- with the average NFL career running 3.3 years, you'd expect a low rate of matches. The career of an institutional IP address may be much shorter.

But there remains a more compelling explanation about why these data are flawed. When you combine this latest set of analyses with the Science maps of data nodes, the two findings start to suggest that Sci-Hub does not have actual IPs of downloads in their system, but rather "last user packet" IPs, which would obscure the location of users and substitute exchange nodes, or Internet exchange points. Publishers I've spoken with, who have done their own local analyses and spoken with their own IT experts, also believe this to be true.

So, once again, we are left with little idea of who is actually using Sci-Hub. The new data and new analysis only suggest weaknesses in Sci-Hub's usage data and in its ability to track originating requests, while pointing out a willingness to over-interpret these data. Greshake claims that these data demonstrate that:

". . . we can answer John Bohannon’s question on Who’s downloading pirated papers? with a resounding Academics do for sure!."

I disagree. We might have to accept that the data generated by Sci-Hub are too imprecise to use for interpretation at that level. The data seem to be imprecise or inaccurate (or both). But one set of facts remains clear -- Sci-Hub is a pirate that exploits taxpayers and everyday citizens by stifling growth and leaching away taxpayer-funded research's direct paybacks; Sci-Hub deceived academic institutions to divulge usernames and passwords that could make them vulnerable to hackers; and Sci-Hub leads nowhere.

The data about who is using it are of questionable quality and importance. What Sci-Hub represents changes not one whit either way.

Reflexive Responses and NatGeo

When the news broke last year about Rupert Murdoch's Fox Corp. gobbling up most of the assets of the National Geographic Society, including its vaunted publishing operations, the repulsion was reflexive by many in the academic and publishing community. This was not unreasonable, as the NatGeo cable network had dabbled in reality television that certainly deviated from the brand promise of the "gold box." How wicked could tuna be? How many hoarders or diggers could they profile?

A recent article in BusinessWeek sheds a brighter light on the story leading up to NatGeo's sale of its core assets to Fox, as well as what has transpired since. While much of the concern revolved around Rupert Murdoch's well-deserved reputation as a hard-nosed businessman and global warming skeptic, it turns out the NatGeo sale and subsequent management is falling to his son, James, who is both an ardent environmental and science champion. He and his wife run Quadrivium, which is devoted to science education and causes like preserving European fisheries and other natural resources.

He is quoted by a co-worker as saying:

I wish we could do more stories about why people don't believe science.

To reverse NatGeo's declining fortunes, James Murdoch has brought in a ton of media talent and begun to implement an HBO-like programming vision. As the leader of this effort, Courteney Monroe, who worked at HBO for years, described it:

Our strategy before was a volume play. It was a lot of low-cost hours. Quantity over quality. We're inverting that.

An example of this is an upcoming miniseries, Mars, which is being produced by Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, and Brian Grazer. 

In addition, management has taken a notoriously dysfunctional and siloed organization and put them on the same page. This means that for their upcoming miniseries on the Red Planet, the magazine will coordinate a package on Mars, the Web team will develop content to match, and the book division will publish a Mars book. In years prior, pulling off this kind of coordinated splash was not feasible.

This is not what people reflexively expected last year -- a Murdoch-led overhaul emphasizing quality and led by a family member devoted to science and environmental issues. 

Let's hope it works.

Sharing or Stagnating?

Sci-Hub continues to make waves, but it really represents a trend that's hidden in the modern economy -- some call it the "sharing economy." Sci-Hub merely represents an extreme -- sharing for no payment.

A recent article in BusinessWeek about Larry Summers' economic alarms shined a spotlight on a deeper problem within the sharing economy, even that part generating revenues for its participants. In this case, we're talking about familiar entities such as Airbnb, Uber, and Spotify. These and other of their ilk are weak economic participants for two reasons -- they use existing infrastructure (homes and apartments, cars, and wi-fi/music/devices), and they mainly work through software. As Peter Coy writes in BusinessWeek:

. . . the new economy is asset-lite: Companies such as Uber and Airbnb prosper by exploiting assets (cars and houses) that already exist. Software, which is pure information and doesn't require the construction of factories, accounts for a bigger share of the economy.

The snowball effect is that executives see little upside for big capital-spending projects (new factories, for instance), and keep their money in financial instruments and out of the working economy, further slowing growth. 

In music, the slowdown is made clear with studies showing that artists make more from vinyl sales than from digital sales. Software also allows for a lot of content leakage, and companies like Google/YouTube aren't motivated to stop this, as another story illustrates

In scholarly publishing, the value contribution in the UK alone is worth £4.4 billion. This includes jobs for parents, careers for professionals, and payments to academic institutions. Sci-Hub puts these contributions at risk, but on a scale which goes far beyond the UK alone. 

Making new things is vital to economic growth. By siphoning off revenues from artists, from publishers, from industries, from hotels, and so forth, we are taking the "low price" economy another notch down on our 40-year-long race to the bottom, a race that has left wages flat for 30 years in the US and led to the painful (and continuing) saga of 2007/08. As Summers argues compellingly, the only way out of this trap is to make major investments in new infrastructure -- roads, bridges, buildings, transportation systems -- while changing laws to counteract the consolidation of wealth among relatively few firms and individuals.

The recent news that one-third of cash in the US is held by five tech companies (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Oracle, and Cisco) underscores the stagnation of technology -- there is not enough to make for these companies to reinvest at high levels, so they sit on their cash. This is confirmed by their desire to stash nearly $1.2 trillion in earnings overseas, to avoid paying taxes -- if there were investments in research and development that would generate profits sufficient to justify repatriating the money, they'd do it.

That's the ultimate irony of the sharing economy -- we're sharing what our forebears put in place (homes, infrastructure, the auto industry, the music industry) using software from companies who take our money, then hide it away. No wonder we're stagnating -- the sharing stops there.

You Get What You Pay For

Schoolchildren in Canada are missing out on new, up-to-date textbooks because of changes in its copyright laws. These changes, designed to help school budgets in the short-term, are driving some venerable textbook publishers out of the business. In one case, Oxford University Press -- which has had a Canadian office and produced core textbooks for the Canadian market since 1904 -- has decided it no longer makes financial sense for it to continue.

The changes in copyright law created a loophole that has allowed organizations in Canada to stop paying into Access Copyright, the clearinghouse for copying fees. In one province, the court required the payments to continue, but at a fraction of their previous amounts. As covered in the Globe & Mail:

OUP Canada general manager Geoff Forguson says that, as a non-profit, the press is not permitted to take losses on the books it publishes and that Canadian school publishing has simply become too risky. Emond Publishing, an independent Canadian academic publisher that specializes in law texts for students and professionals, has also abandoned the secondary-school market. Paul Emond says that, as a businessman, he sees much better opportunities publishing material for lawyers than for high-school students.

It's rare to have examples of what is not produced when commercial incentives and copyright protections change, but the topic is of critical importance, especially as Sci-Hub is now not only stealing journal article PDFs but scholarly books and entire online sites, which they are mirroring. These actions could drive entire products from the market, or publishers from particular markets.

It's always been confusing to think that access barriers are portrayed as absolute when the request is merely for payment. As these examples show -- and others not seen are also out there -- when there is no financial incentive to support the publication of books, journals, and other materials, that publication will likely stop.

In a slightly related matter, the story of the Guardian's financial woes and the departure of their transformative but debt-inducing editorial and business leader is worth a mention. Here you have a similar ideology -- that readers need not pay for access to content -- leading to the newspaper losing US$65 million last year, continuing a string of annual revenue losses. As the New York Times wrote:

A central point of disagreement within The Guardian has been its refusal -- for Mr. Rusbridger, virtually an ideology -- to charge online subscribers, as news organizations like The Financial Times, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have come around to doing.

The common thread here is "ideology" -- the ideology creating loopholes in Canada's copyright laws, the ideology leading to the Sci-Hub thefts, and the ideology that will force the Guardian to lay off hundreds of employees. 

In Canada, teachers are turning to free resources to teach their students. These are often non-Canadian resources, and there are concerns about quality controls and accuracy of the information. Academic publishers are making moves to shift away from their content businesses and into measurements, data, and metrics. Newspapers have already suffered incredible losses, leading to poor local and national coverage of vital issues and events.

In the commercial world, free is a price with consequences. Some of those consequences are clearly coming home to roost. You get what you pay for. You don't get what you don't pay for -- including updated textbooks, flourishing scientific and scholarly journals, and well-paid journalists investigating societal problems and events. 

The Allure of Monopolies

If you observe discussions about scholarly and academic publishing long enough, you'll undoubtedly see the term "monopoly" or "monopolist" thrown around recklessly to describe publishers. Why reckless? It flies in the face where the definition meets reality -- there are hundreds of scholarly and academic publishers, and seemingly more every day. 

However, judging from behaviors and the embrace of some alternatives, you might find a deeper conflict at work -- the fact the users seem to find monopolies satisfying, even useful.

Solutions to the supposed "monopoly power" of publishers -- which seems in some cases to stem from the unique content they product -- tend to be monopolistic in nature. Some argue that everything should be published on a single site, such as PubMed Central. Other examples of monopolistic models with surprising support include Sci-Hub (which seeks to monopolize the market with pirated articles), and ResearchGate and Academia (which are VC-funded in hopes they can monopolize the market).

Technology tends to drive consolidation to the point of de facto monopolies. Google dominates search. Facebook dominates social. Amazon dominates e-retail and e-books. Microsoft dominates desktop software. And so forth. 

But if technology were the only force at work, this wouldn't add up. After all, it takes users and customers to make markets, and markets around technology do seem to drift toward monopoly. Part of this is convenience, part of it is limited time for variety (which is mentally and physically taxing), and part of it is cost-consciousness. After all, consolidation usually brings short-term pricing advantages. However, once the consolidation has pushed aside competitors, prices rise swiftly, as we've recently seen in the US healthcare market. Monopolists know the game they're playing -- short-term sacrifices for long-term market dominance.

Despite these well-known downsides, monopolies continue to offer attractions -- uniform experience, one-stop shopping, and convenience. And so the pendulum swings.

The allure of monopolies -- which might be stated as a desire for uniformity, price advantages, and predictability -- can also be seen in standards, which deliver many of the same benefits but without commercial objections.

QWERTY is a good non-commercial example of users voting for a single standard for convenience. Even as we've moved from typewriters to keyboards to touchscreens, the QWERTY standard has monopolized our input market. Password hackers are able to leverage this to their advantage, as letters that are more naturally reached are more likely to be used in passwords. The inference depends on an assumption of QWERTY monopolizing our typing practices.

Standards help with myriad chores -- standard doors lead to standard furniture sizes; standard floor drains lead to standard toilet designs; and standard wireless protocols lead to standard routers. Interfaces need standards to work, whether for plumbing or wi-fi. 

Drive a Toyota, and you are likely going to use the same control cluster no matter the model, a fact that makes the automaker a favorite for predictability as well as more reliable -- after all, they have to support fewer standards and parts, and refine those they use so they're more durable. 

Ultimately, our desire for efficiency -- and our rational rejection of endless cognitive burdens -- comes with a tendency to embrace standards and tolerate monopolies. The allure of true monopolies in scholarly and academic publishing springs from a desire for one-stop shopping, a desire for convenience, and a desire for simplicity.

The problems with both standards and monopolies is that they eliminate options and alternatives. The breakup of AT&T unleashed a world of alternatives in communications technologies we're still exploring. New standards had to be developed, many standards were abandoned, and new businesses emerged. In fact, what we now call "AT&T" is a licensed usage of the name by a different company (SBC).

While monopolies may be alluring, they are also dangerous. Navigating a world of options may be more difficult, but ultimately a diverse commercial landscape leads to more innovation and more competition.

Interpreting Sci-Hub Data

The big challenge in data analysis is interpretation, as last week's release of Sci-Hub usage data showed. While the specific information about articles downloaded is most likely valid and accurate, the IP-level data may have problems, making skepticism our ally. 

The Science article containing the data hinges on the assumed co-location of the main IP bubbles and academic institutions. There has been hand-wringing and point-making aplenty on listservs and online conversations based on this assumed co-location. But if you look for what is not there, your perception of this assumed co-location changes. Major research institutions do not show up. The big bubbles might show something else entirely. For example, where is the University of Wisconsin-Madison? Where is the University of Washington? Where are the Washington, DC, universities (Georgetown, GWU, and American)? 

When you take into account the plumbing of the Internet, those bubbles make more sense. In fact, the IPs reported in Science may only be those contained in the last user packet, not the IPs of the end-user, which means they could be mainly from Internet exchange points, which serve as hubs for major ISPs. This might suggest more usage from the general public or people on commercial Internet subscriptions (Comcast, Verizon, etc.), than on campuses. It doesn't make interpretation a simple matter. 

To bolster this concern, it appears that some major exchange points correlate very well with the largest download "locations" on the map. The top download municipality in the US (Ashburn, VA) is a major Internet exchange point, operated by Equinix Internet Exchanges. Does it make sense that this little suburban city beats major population/academic centers like New York City or Palo Alto or Washington, DC, in downloads? There is also a major Internet exchange point in Detroit, Michigan, another source that looks bigger than it should if truly mapped to academic centers. Both of these exchange points are among the busiest in the world

Maybe we can't draw assumptions from this data set so easily.

There is also the major outlier of Iran, which accounts for more downloads than its population would explain. Why? Because after years of economic sanctions, storing things found online is good practice for people in Iran. 

Also, we don't have data after the major media coverage of Sci-Hub began in March. Did that drive a "hockey stick" of downloads? Change the complexion of the situation? These data in Science are mainly pre-awareness for the larger world of academics. What does that mean? What has changed? 

The Science article frames the downloads as correlated with academic institutions, but perhaps we need to be more skeptical. We don't know the correlation exists, based on these data. It's an enticing assumption, and it seems reasonable. But the data don't appear to support it. 

Swamped by Switching Costs

Most of the publishers in scientific and academic publishing can be considered small -- making less than $25 million in revenues annually. Because many of these are also non-profits, they have complex organizational forms that impose significant overheads in both direct costs and extended decision times.

When organizations were switching or adopting technology vendors every few years, it was possible to support these organizational overheads -- board members' travel plans, meetings and minutes, editorial retreats, and so forth. Every year, with new board members joining, new editors being trained, and new leadership rotating in at some level, a certain level of switching costs had to be maintained for the organization to function.

The move into the Digital Age has created another major overhead for these small organizations as vendor adoption and transitions now occur frequently. This introduces another set of switching costs that can be more difficult to support because they are often unknown at the outset, which usually translates into them being larger than expected.

The traditional switching costs aren't going away. In fact, they are increasing slightly and dovetailing with the newer switching costs, as boards and editors and leadership become more virtual and want to use technology more and more, and as some take on a more international aspect. Boards now want agendas for their tablets, Skype connections, and so forth. The administrative staffs have become small-scale technology contractors themselves.

At the organizational level, the demands for technology upgrades, adoption, and migration seem endless. New standards, customer expectations, buyer expectations, intriguing offerings, and new vendor practices are everywhere. A new DTD standard can mean a year of work and thousands of dollars in new expenses, only to see the new standard supplanted just as the dust is settling.

For larger organizations, the challenges are daunting enough, but for smaller organizations, mostly non-profits, the constant switching costs -- requiring consultants, staff time, IT resources, and management of multiple vendors -- are not being met with much in the way of new revenues. As a result, these organizations are treading waters that are becoming more turbulent with each passing year.

Such organizations are increasingly faced with some hard choices -- either pull back from the forefront of technology and truly bet on content; make some aggressive bets on technology in hopes that one hard push might tame the problem; or partner with a larger entity to take on the harder work of managing the technology, sales, and operational challenges of the Digital Age.

More non-profits are choosing this latter path, which may be wise. There is no winding back the clock. Also, the risks of this path are slight. It may feel shameful to give up some operational tasks, but the reality is that these operational tasks are usually not part of the mission. They are embedded now, but that is a recent trend. Printers used to provide editing, printing, and mailing services under one roof, leaving the editing as the source of independence. Is the digital equivalent really that difficult to contemplate? 

Playing current trends forward, it seems inevitable that there will be more small and non-profit publishers seeking shelter from the endless switching costs involved with the digital publishing. This is pragmatic, especially as technologies do tend to find more equilibrium over time. The pendulum may swing back to some new balance in the future, as technology becomes more of a commodity and online commerce becomes more normalized. Until then, heavy switching costs are not going away soon.

Economic Fantasies

Recently, a PhD economist who has since become a librarian produced an essay that probably won no fans in either professional tribe. In the essay, entitled, "Economic thought about 'gold' open access," the author (Jeffrey MacKie-Mason) ignores 15-20 years of evidence we have about how Gold OA works, who it benefits, and why this occurs.

This is clear from his opening claim:

Will gold OA further strengthen the monopoly scholarly publishing firms? No. In fact, it is likely the most realistic path towards reducing or eliminating their market power.

Evidence from the UK and elsewhere shows quite the opposite, with the large commercial publishers benefiting the most in terms of APC prices they can command and marketshare they can claim. In addition, the pricing caps and overheads Gold OA turmoil has placed on the institutional market for mid-tier non-profit publishers have forced a number of these into the waiting arms of the larger commercial publishers, creating an indirect benefit for these large commercial firms. Gold OA has improved the economic health of large commercial publishers, both through direct market benefits and via further consolidation of the mid-tier market under their auspices.

Industries do not become more diffuse with time and maturity -- they consolidate and become less diffuse. There is no reason to think that Gold OA, which is really just an approach to pre-payment not much different from the page charges of old, can work differently. More players in a market only make the market less efficient -- through duplication of efforts, transactional friction, and inefficient purchasing and sales practices.

MacKie-Mason also repeats disproven claims, such as authors imposing price competition on publishers. Authors are spending the company's money in most cases, and feel very little direct consequence if the price of an APC is US$3,500 or US$5,500. If APC price were a major author concern, eLife would have swept up all the papers in the Gold OA space almost immediately after debuting its no-cost publishing model, and PLOS' 11% APC price increase would not have been feasible.

But authors have non-monetary economic concerns that trump cost in most cases. The fact that MacKie-Mason misses the non-monetary economics of scholarly and scientific authorship probably leads to many of the mistaken arguments.

The rest of the essay is equally divorced from reality, with assertions like:

  • Will research-production-intensive institutions be made worse off? No.
  • Will gold OA hurt under-resourced institutions (such as those in the “global south”)? No.
  • Will flipping to gold OA take too long and cost too much? [Long rambling answer, but his major point is "No."]

Evidence shows that research-intensive organizations bear the brunt of Gold OA costs, and are not fans of the notion of subsidizing others; that under-resourced institutions can't afford many Gold OA payment levels, with many using waivers currently, which are not assured in a more Gold OA-intensive future; and the "flipping" to Gold OA has already taken 15 years, with the model still in the low percentages of the overall market by nearly any measure.

The real problems are clear -- university administrators are cutting the share of university budgets allocated to libraries; more papers are being published than ever, leading to more journals and larger existing journals that need to cover more costs; and digital publishing has not proven to be simpler or cheaper but more complex and more expensive than print. Realistic solutions to these problems are paramount.

Economic fantasies that ignore 15-20 years of evidence don't help move us forward.

How Much Disruption Can We Take?

As a culture, we've spent the last 20 years romanticizing the notion of "disruption" without adequately assessing the potential consequences. In the romanticized version, disruption is viewed as a positive Darwinian trend, a necessary clearing of the underbrush, a winnowing of the field as sluggish incumbents are swept aside by more nimble insurgents.

But what if "disruption" is occurring on a larger scale, involving major portions of the economy almost simultaneously? What if basic economic assumptions that guide governments and nations are themselves disrupted? What might be the human cost of such disruption? What institutions would need to change? How will those changes be adjudicated and implemented? Can the changes come fast enough?

Recently, we've seen some basic tenets of our economy turn upside-down -- housing was supposed to be a safe investment, yet it blew up in our faces; low interest rates are supposed to propel business investment and job growth, yet they haven't had this effect in many large economies -- Japan being the most noteworthy, Europe not being far behind, and the US exhibiting some of the same characteristics; low oil prices are supposed to lead to more consumer spending and a bullish stock market, yet recently the opposite has happened; high corporate profits are supposed to lead to more jobs and higher pay for employees, yet wages are stagnant and job growth, while incremental and steady in the US, is not at the levels you'd expect historically, and certainly not indicative of profits being spent with an eye toward growing them further.

There are clearly some underlying reasons for these strange trends, including lax regulatory oversight, weak executive and legislative leadership at the national level, tolerance of tax havens and other loopholes incentivizing the hoarding of wealth, and short-term corporate reward systems and attendant thinking.

But there may be another factor, as well.

A recent thought piece entitled, "Limits of Capitalism" by Albert Wenger posits that this upside-down world may actually be partially explained by the disruption of the digital economy as it comes home to roost. In fact, the lax regulatory approaches, bewildered national responses, and short-term cash-hoarding thinking of corporate leaders may be partially explained by an emerging economy that is poorly understood and viewed as highly volatile and risky.

And that is -- no matter how revolutionary your mindset -- not good news. Why? Because we haven't created alternatives, and because the digital economy is moving so fast that it might take over before we can learn to manage it.

Wenger's essay is a mixed bag, but raises some interesting aspects of the digital economy worth considering.

He begins by analyzing the lack of scarcity for digital goods, which leads to difficulty pricing them. Because marginal costs for digital goods approach zero, pricing them requires projecting demand against fixed or sunk costs. It also means dealing with piracy and non-payers, who can share in the benefits of a digital economy without paying for those benefits. This makes pricing more perilous, as pricing beyond a certain point invites non-paying abuse. But the lack of scarcity is the core problem, and there is no clear solution that capitalism, as an economic philosophy, naturally extends. This is an unsolved problem.

This leads directly to another unsolved, central problem of the digital economy: incredible uncertainty. Rare events are potentially more damaging in a networked world (just think of the rapid meltdown that occurred in 2007-08 when the lending system "broke the buck," or consider the "dark pool" trading centers that create advantages that are measured in milliseconds, with cases of algorithms destroying large tranches of wealth in the blink of an eye). Rather than having days for news to traverse human interactions, many things happen so quickly and, in some cases, automatically that it's hard to fathom the risk and reward that capitalism assumes can be evaluated by rational human actors working on human time scales. Black boxes can quickly breed black swans.

Then there is the rapid rate at which new knowledge or findings can change the game, adding to uncertainty and creating a vacuum for future planning. As Wenger writes, "There is no price right now for an immortality treatment. Or for quantum computing at scale. We do not have enough knowledge to do either. How much attention should humanity devote to these? There are no prices to guide that allocation."

While these are fanciful examples, a simpler example illustrates the point -- the likely emergence in the next 5-10 years of self-driving cars. Automakers, insurance companies, city planners, tax authorities, and technology providers will all be reeling from the widespread availability of self-driving cars -- parking space needs will shrink, insurance pools will collapse, tax bases will crater, and technology companies will move to dominate transportation in ways we've only tasted slightly so far. And it will probably happen quickly, as senior citizens, commuters, and teenagers immediately benefit from a rapid adoption of safer, more reliable, less demanding, and cheaper automotive technology.

What will a ride in an autonomous vehicle cost? More or less than Uber? (There is a compelling case to be made that Uber is unsustainable and full of hidden costs for its drivers, costs that autonomous companies will not be fooled into accepting, like depreciation.) Where will they park during big events? Will some people pay to have a priority in the fleet? Will some cars be dedicated to taking Aunt Mildred to the pharmacy no matter what?

The rapidity of a shift in automotive technology and its attendant economy leads to one of the most concerning aspects of the digital economy -- the emergence of power laws governing this economy. As Wenger writes:

. . . with digital technologies we are seeing a shift to power laws for many more situations. For instance, on Youtube the most watched video has been watched billions of times compared to the vast majority of videos which has been watched just a few times. Or in ecommerce, Amazon is an order of magnitude larger than most other retailers. The same goes for apps in the appstore. The leading apps have hundreds of millions (and some even billions) of users. But the vast majority of apps has just a few users. Digital technologies are driving these power laws because of network effects combined with zero marginal cost.

Google is positioning itself to dominate the self-driving market. Is there any doubt that they and perhaps one other firm (Tesla, possibly) will manage to do so? In the digital economy, there's a powerful trend toward power laws and duopolies.

Perhaps at this point it's worth introducing a problem Wenger illustrates nicely. When farming was a major economic driver, agrarianism was the focus of government policy and practice, and the farm lobby was powerful across nation-states. This endured even during the emergence of large capital markets, until the shift was clear. Then, we moved into capitalism, where capital -- its flows and preservation -- became the focus of governmental policies and practices. Agrarianism hung on for a time, and still has a powerful effect in some states that remain agrarian, but in general our government is now one focused on building and retaining capital.

As the technology economy emerges, there is likely going to be a continued reliance on capital and capitalism, with its assumptions and basic tenets used to guide economic policy and shape sources of power. It will quickly become outmoded, however, and is already showing signs of irrelevance. Amazon, Google, and Facebook seem to operate in a new economic zone -- digitalism, let's call it -- which scales differently and disrupts capitalism with dispatch. But we will be left wondering how to manage this economy -- politically, socially, economically. And that's disruption that will be both deep and wide.

Pipes, Faucets, and Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is interesting to contemplate in light of initiatives like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP. The animating spirit of Net Neutrality was that everybody using the Internet should have equal access to its bandwidth and reach, so that companies like Verizon and Comcast couldn't throttle access in order to extort money from content providers for faster speeds.

Yet, here we are, with two dominant internet companies positioning themselves relative to content providers in about the same way Verizon and Comcast were planning to do so. There are no objections this time, no mass movements, no protests. In fact, it seems the changes are barely registering, even as they echo those attempted by equally large companies just a few years ago. Only recently have some taken notice, such as the head of Drupal and the head of WordPress.

Perhaps the main difference is between hardware providers and software providers. After all, Facebook and Google aren't looking to change the way the major pipes provide information. They're just regulating the faucets. It doesn't seem like a system-wide change, until you realize that Facebook and Google are the Delta and Kohler of the internet -- they make a lot of the faucets we use every day.

They've built a faster internet, and content companies are being asked to cater to these giants in order to use it.

It's not as if the software of Google and Facebook and others haven't been shaping the internet in important ways for years. Companies have been scrambling to keep up with the search engine algorithms at Google to remain discoverable, which in another context might be interpreted as a hidden tax on content providers imposed by Google's dominance. Facebook has been less intrusive until Instant Articles, but apparently saw an opportunity its dominance created for what it is -- a chance to create a walled garden of content for itself.

The software (faucet) providers have their commercial interests at heart, and are not providing faster load times and more reliable delivery out of the goodness of their hearts. There are plenty of provisos about what can and cannot be displayed in content and ads, making Facebook yet again a player in potential censorship of ideas and speech, a perilous position for a communications platform.

Aside from this, there is the precedent this sets. While we may have addressed the problem of internet service providers wanting to be paid by both providers and consumers (in the case of Facebook and Google, as mainly advertising businesses, they are paid because they collect consumers for advertisers), we have equally dominant businesses positioning themselves to make a two-tier internet, as well. The playbook may have some different vocabulary and tactics, but the goal is the same -- drive growth by creating a faster tier of internet service for those willing to pay for it.

Should we be concerned? It's not as if Google always lives up to its "don't be evil" mantra, having apparently colluded with Apple to stifle fair hiring in Silicon Valley a few years ago. Facebook's controversies have merited a long, well-interlinked Wikipedia page called, "Criticism of Facebook." Memorable controversies include its manipulation of experiences for a study, a nasty anti-Google campaign, and aggressive tax-avoidance strategies. Both companies have major lobbying campaigns in DC, and both are as sophisticated as any multi-billion-dollar firm.

Dominance is dominance, whether that's achieved through hardware or software, pipes or faucets. It seems that Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP are two software providers' attempt to create a two-tier internet which will make it harder for new entrants to succeed, helpt the two companies to be even more dominant over content providers and their speech, and ultimately threaten the Open Web.

Or maybe Silicon Valley companies get a pass when it comes to breaking Net Neutrality with their business practices and software. After all, they have promised "don't be evil."

Contemplating the "Pay Wall" Metaphor

The rhetoric of access in academic publishing is full of metaphors (open, toll, barrier), including the notion of "access" itself, which is actually a metaphor for acquisition. "Open access" is stated less metaphorically as "free acquisition." After all, acquisition of content is not the same as content access. Literacy (three kinds here -- functional, domain-specific, and contextual -- that is, a physician from 1920 would be lost in a specialist medical journal article today) is a key component of access. An engineer acquiring a geology paper may find the content quite inaccessible on an intellectual level. "Access" is a metaphor for "acquisition" in this case, and not a metaphor for "comprehension" or "understanding." Yet often the metaphor of "access" is loosened to feel inclusive of comprehension or understanding, as this serves rhetorical purposes. For instance, "public access" is used as a metaphor for making research content free for non-specialists to acquire.

One metaphor that has persisted for years is that of the "pay wall," normally written as "paywall" but separated here for clarity. The "pay wall" is a metaphor worth contemplating, as exaggeration of the impassibility of payment systems via this metaphor has led to all sorts of strange behaviors, accusations, and social complaints.

The "pay wall" metaphor is almost unique to online content purveyance and normal commercial transactions. There are many other transaction points put in front of acquiring something which we don't refer to as a "pay wall":

  • a toll booth on a state road
  • a parking meter
  • a cover charge at a bar
  • a ticket to a movie
  • a shopping cart in an online store
  • a service charge for a concert ticket
  • a subscription requirement for Netflix or other streaming services
  • a postage stamp

None of these is considered a "pay wall." Examples of payment points after you seem to have acquired what you came for -- a checkout line at a supermarket, a bill at a restaurant -- aren't considered pay walls, either. In fact, like the others, avoiding these is usually viewed dimly, and some carry fines or threat of arrest.

Why these are considered normal transactions in a demand-driven economy with fiat currency and not "pay walls" remains elusive. The purveyor has taken the risk of putting together something of potential value, and then asks others to pay for the privilege of using these materials, services, or spaces. There was a decade during which the mantra "information wants to be free" was prevalent, and only some correction to embrace the entire quote drove this from the field of play.

Yet, when it comes to online content -- mostly newspapers, magazines, and academic journals -- we see the metaphor of a "wall" used to describe the transaction request. The metaphor is extended to include a "gate" at some point, and sometimes a "meter" if the gate adds counting as part of how it solves the "gating" activity within the "wall." But the "wall" aspect is so ingrained that even metered transaction systems are referred to as "soft pay walls." I imagine an inflatable wall, which makes for a very poor metaphor.

As others have pointed out, Gold OA itself does not do away with the notion of a transaction barrier, but merely moves this transaction barrier to the author and to the point of acceptance, rather than to the reader and at the point of content acquisition. Nevertheless, this transaction point is not itself referred to as a "wall" of any sort. It is given the more technocratic and obscure label of "APC." There is no metaphor at all, so the term is neutered rhetorically. It can't inflame anger or a sense of injustice as it is currently positioned.

The metaphor also fails often since most online content in newspapers, magazines, and journals is acquired through licenses or subscriptions. The "pay wall" is usually invoked when someone encounters content for which they or their employer have not established a license or subscription.

Metaphors work well when they inform, poorly when they mislead. The best metaphors allow you to anticipate how things might work based on what you know about the associations created by the metaphor. For example, calling someone "boiling mad" is a way to let others know that there is a simmering rage that might spill over if the person is pushed. You can anticipate, and plan accordingly. The same for "wooden faced," which lets you anticipate that someone is perhaps hiding their true feelings, and may require more consideration or care during interactions, as they don't show their reactions easily.

Calling transaction points for content "pay walls" isn't a helpful metaphor, as it suggests only a few alternatives -- bashing through the transaction point, scaling over the transaction point, or turning away from the transaction point. It suggests there is actually no clear passage through the transaction point, which may be why the metaphor has gained popularity among those who feel it is illicit for content companies to ask for payments. In academic publishing, this has been a particularly fraught area, as the notions of taxpayer-funding and moral rights make the metaphor of a "pay wall" inherently inflammatory to some.

Of course, a subscription or license remains a viable and often inexpensive alternative, but the emotional payoff of using the "pay wall" metaphor remains tempting to those seeking to make a point.

Publishers have not done an especially elegant job of constructing their transaction points. One mistake has been to put the per-article (or pay-per-view) charge front-and-center in many cases, rather than cheaper and attractively packaged subscription options. These clumsy transaction points come off as tone-deaf at best, arrogant at worst, and certainly can provoke a negative emotional response. It's like there's a simple turnstile with a person standing in your way, scowling and arms folded. The path should be clearer.

New approaches to content transaction points hold some promise. Metered paywalls (again, the metaphor persists) have many more elegant options than traditional binary transaction points, including softer messaging as the meter increments, better interaction models, and more sophisticated modals and interstitials that can be contextual and smart.

This may be the path forward -- breaking down the "pay wall" into a "pay path." There is plenty of evidence that if you provide people with a reasonable and pleasant way to pay for what they want, it works. The challenge for academic publishers is to adopt these practices quickly enough so that the metaphor changes sooner rather than later. We don't have time for more walls to be built.

Incentives and Micro-attribution

You have to hand it to academics -- they have strangely sophisticated imaginations, which tend to produce overly complicated dreams of how systems and people can or will work.

One of the newest I've heard is the idea of "micro-attribution" within papers. The idea is that if an individual contributed a table or analysis or paragraph, each contribution could be tagged in such a way that their individual contributions could be identifiable piecemeal and attributed accordingly.

There are some obvious problems with this, however.

  1. There's no incentive to adopt it, because everybody loses. Right now, if you're listed as an author on a paper, you get full credit (with the first author getting 110%, but that's another matter). Micro-attribution makes everyone involved with a paper a fractional contributor, meaning everyone involved will have contributed less than 100%. In other words, everyone loses some proportion of perceived or possible contribution. On an incentive level, why would academics embrace this?
  2. It can't differentiate between quantity vs. quality. We've all experienced this -- someone, with a suggestion, critique, or edit, quickly makes new insights possible, heads off disaster, or suggests powerful new avenues of inquiry. This may be a single word, a symbol ("!" or "?") scrawled in the margins of a review, or a calculation done right. Yet this person may contribute nothing more, and nothing really identifiable in the final paper. How do you count their contribution in a micro-attribution environment?
  3. It would be expensive to implement. Tagging articles and identifying who contributed what throughout submission and review and revision processes would be expensive, costing time, creating confusion, and requiring systems and tagging experts. In a publishing environment where any added cost is heavily scrutinized, there seems little chance of these expenses being widely adopted or embraced.
  4. It's unclear where it ends. As a former copyeditor and substantive editor, I know there are plenty of occasions when a copyeditor or line editor makes suggestions or clarifications or recalculations that can cause major revisions to a paper. Layout and graphical artists often contribute materials or improvements, as well. Statisticians catch errors or make authors beef up their analyses. Are all of these people now "micro-authors" or "micro-contributors"? What about reviewers who have a similar effect? Are they now contributors? (Even if they're anonymous?) What about a reader whose suggestion later causes a correction?

In short, micro-attribution seems to have upside-down incentives and payoffs. Nobody gets more from doing more work, and everyone sacrifices something. Where is the benefit of this again?

Puncturing the Legend of Sci-Hub

"The Legend of Sci-Hub" sounds like a mediocre video game for the Atari console, but is in fact an evolving story in scholarly and academic publishing. In some circles, Sci-Hub has seemingly gained the status of a cause or movement. According to this very recently formulated legend, Sci-Hub has the power to redistribute wealth, right social injustices, and cripple illicit industries built on the backs of hardworking taxpayers and academics.

Like most legends, it's based on comfortable falsehoods -- in this case, at least a half dozen.

Started a few years ago by a Russian neuroscientist, Sci-Hub recently leaped into the spotlight thanks to a lawsuit from Elsevier, a PR-savvy response from its founder, and lurking resentment of publishers in some circles. Major media coverage has veered from the naive and insipid to the professional and thoughtful. Industry responses have been all over the map, with the most notable aspect being how quiet the publishers themselves have been.

In the noisy part of the realm, there are a few key pieces of misinformation that need to be corrected:

Falsehood #1 -- Sci-Hub provides a superior user interface and user experience. If you've actually tried it, you know this is not true. The technology stack is unreliable, their use of Captcha is incredibly annoying, and the UI is cobbled together from Google Scholar and a few other available systems. Use it, and you'll likely encounter errors, recursive Captcha loops, or broken links. It is not a superior system or experience.

Falsehood #2 -- Sci-Hub provides a better way to find articles. Apparently the people who believe this have never tried entering a DOI into Google or Google Scholar. If you do that, you are brought immediately to the article you're looking for -- no Captcha required, no clumsy interface, no broken technology. Many publisher sites also support this use case. As for keyword or citation or author searches, I've found nothing superior to what you find in standard search engines. In fact, Sci-Hub strikes me as weak in this regard. Sci-Hub is mostly PDFs, so searchability is informed by PDFs.

Falsehood #3 -- Sci-Hub's mission is charitable, like Robin Hood's. First, most publishers have already adopted the role of Robin Hood by granting free access to low-income countries, participating in HINARI, PatientINFORM, and similar initiatives. Sci-Hub is indiscriminate in its approach. It is not "robbing from the rich to give to the poor." It is "robbing from the academic publishing economy in order to destroy it." That's not charitable; that's anarchist.

Falsehood #4 -- Sci-Hub is not stealing, but doing righteous work. Sci-Hub is stealing -- from institutions through phishing scams and other means; from non-profit publishers who can't afford the decreases in usage Sci-Hub portends; and from publishers run by and for scientists. There is nothing righteous here. There is no "higher good" because their approach defeats itself -- if Sci-Hub does manage to destroy the scholarly publishing economy, it offers no alternative but collapse. Sci-Hub is simply destructive, and not constructive. It has no future.

Falsehood #5 -- Publishers deserve this, because they are exploiting academia. This is perhaps the most fundamental lie. The fact is that publishers are an extension of academia, and a necessary one. Not only is publication necessary for researchers -- publishing research findings makes them theirs (rivalrous) and gives the researchers priority, so an independent system of publication priority and placement is necessary, no matter what we call the entities doing it -- it is necessary for research to move beyond commercial, proprietary, and power boundaries. Today, the organizations that do the work of making research public in an organized manner and maintaining much of the scientific record are what we call "publishers." Tomorrow, we might call them "selectors." Or "arbiters." No matter the label, academic centers and research facilities need the role to exist somewhere. Some of them do it themselves through independent presses. Overall, at a cost of 0.6% to the overall research endeavor, publishers aren't exactly taking an exploitative share, and the field is open for those who wish to provide the services more cheaply. But Sci-Hub again offers no vision of the future, only the short con of a thief.

Falsehood #6 -- Sci-Hub itself does not exploit taxpayers or academics. If you believe that publishers exploit taxpayers and academics (which are both a questionable beliefs, at best), then you have to accept that Sci-Hub also exploits taxpayers and academics. How? It also takes advantage of the so-called "unpaid labor" of academics and "taxpayer-funded research." However, it does this in order to undermine organizations -- non-profit publishers, commercial publishers, and academic libraries -- that hire people who pay taxes, many of whom are academics themselves. This has the potential to reduce revenues available to local and national governments slightly, increasing budgetary controls, which often fall on research budgets. Russia, where Sci-Hub's founder resides, spends less than 10% of what the US spends on scientific research each year, and is itself much more secretive about its research agenda and results than most Western societies, with increasing totalitarian attitudes adding to concerns. If publishers are hurt by Sci-Hub and have to lay off staff or close offices, a possible net effect is lower tax revenues, which could lead to slightly less research funding from the major Western governments supporting discovery or clinical research. The alternative is more taxes paid by non-publishers. Sci-Hub's piracy not only exploits taxpayers and academics, but it undermines taxpaying and academic career options (publishing, editing) while hurting government funding in the economies that support the lion's share of worldwide scientific research. It can be interpreted to some degree as another echo of Cold War political tensions, but is also, again, anarchist, not charitable or sustainable.

We continue to see emotions winning the day when issues of access arise. Empirical evidence of Sci-Hub's inadequate user interface and search facilities, economic implications, destructive purpose, and unnecessary role should not be ignored. Otherwise, we're back in a world of myth and legend.