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.