Transactional Culture and Publishing

The scholarly publishing community has been distracted of late with the drama surrounding various Big Deal negotiations/cancellations. These are cheered by some who see an inflection point in the move toward OA, while others are less sanguine if not downright concerned that this same inflection point may well represent the beginning of a deeper crisis for the profession and the people (authors, institutions, governments, students, and practitioners) it serves. Others still see these as just the occasional negotiating tactic taken public, and not as an inflection point at all.

At a higher level, this is a tempest in a teapot. Larger forces in the information economy are raging around us while we worry over the histrionics surfacing from relatively minor financial contract negotiations. Larger societal forces are at work, as well, including an increasingly short-term and transactional mindset among everyone from political leaders to parents.

How are these larger forces manifesting themselves?

Censorship continues to be a major and growing problem in the sciences and academia overall. The powerhouses of Facebook, Google, and Twitter continue to divide society along various economic and demographic lines while they line their pockets with ad dollars. Political dysfunction threatens alliances like NATO and the EU as leaders bargain for short-term gains. Science and scholarship are underfunded in many traditionally supportive nations, while education overall is so underfunded in the US that teachers have had to strike to get supplies and wages back up to normal levels. Governments are actively suppressing science facts in making policy decisions.

These larger forces aren't considered in contract negotiations, yet they have relevance. We scrap as if our world is insulated from these factors, as if a weakened or less reliable scientific publishing community is acceptable with these larger forces trying to foment discord, foster untruths, and suppress information and facts.

I've been in multiple editorial discussions recently, and in every one, editors and their readers want better and less information, not more sketchy information. This is at odds with the mechanisms of transactional publishing -- you pay, you play. 

In the subscription model, transactions occurred, but are forgiving. Not every article is explicitly paid for, so the editors and publishers can venture into territories that may or may not work, yet not suffer immediate negative (or positive) effects. This adds variety, diversity, and freedom to the publishing experience. The subscription model also creates incentives to attract and keep readers.

Transactional publishing creates incentives to attract and publish papers. It also makes quality and refinement harder to pursue, as the delays and rejections and revisions only frustrate the paying customer. The variety editors or publishers may want to foster often gets lost in the volume economics that take over when the transaction turnstiles have to keep turning.

Economics drive decisions, and anyone who has run an OA journal knows that there are few revenue options, with the only one that matters running through the editorial office (acceptance rate). 

Transactional publishing is less robust, refined, and reliable than subscription publishing, just as a transactional culture is about short-term or immediate benefits and retail illusions (no, that cashier doesn't like you really, he just is nice when taking your money). This creates a culture with fleeting value, weaker values, and less freedom of action.