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.