It's the Business Model, Sweetcheeks!

All the well-intentioned discussions about whitelists, blacklists, Think/Check/Submit, ethical considerations, and so forth when it comes to predatory publishing dance around a fundamental point — the Gold OA business model has problems.

To play off the famous political bon mot about the economy, it’s the business model, sweetcheeks! (I was going to say, “stupid,” but that seemed unkind, so I’m using an alternative a friend possessing great charm taught me.)

Long ago, we weren’t allowed even to call OA a business model. That was anathema, as OA was a cause, a righteous endeavor, to liberate the world’s scientific information from the shackles of paywalls and the monopolies of licenses. Then, to become viable, a revenue stream had to be found, and Gold OA was born, giving OA a business model. Permission to refer to OA having a business model was granted by the language authorities. It was even acknowledged that Green OA and even free OA were business models (free, after all, is a price).

But the language police remained vigilant, so people sanded the edges by introducing a false equivalency by calling Gold OA “just another business model.” However, that’s hardly the case.

Gold OA is a business model with pernicious aspects all its own:

  • Gold OA created predatory publishers

  • Gold OA drives industry consolidation

  • Gold OA requires research institutions to carry more of the load of the publishing economy

  • Gold OA cuts against editorial selectivity and quality branding

  • Gold OA creates incentives to publish more articles, for authors and publishers

  • Gold OA disincentivizes customer-facing publishing innovation

These are some of the top-line consequences of the Gold OA business model. It is not “just another business model.” Business models can be viewed as a form of governance, reflecting decisions about priorities and philosophies of the world, and the Gold OA form of governance has particular traits all its own. These must be faced head on now, as some have proposed a “flip” to OA via Gold, where any pernicious aspects would gain a larger playing field.

To anticipate these new problems, we have to remember that OA emerged from an adaptation of Silicon Valley economic thinking, which was largely predicated on the free flow of information across platforms. Paying for this way of thinking about content in broader information businesses like news and entertainment has led to a multi-billion-dollar market based on highly targeted and intrusive advertising tech, which many have accused of manipulation and surveillance. It is astounding to see your Facebook feed change hours after visiting a web site, or to watch as your Twitter account re-sorts after clicking on a link. Our online activity is being monitored constantly via cookies and web beacons, processed in dark databases using black box algorithms, and shared with who knows.

A flip to OA would take the subscription and licensing models off the table, cratering the scholarly communications economy, which would then turn in desperation to the only proven model available — surveillance advertising.

The implications of this are profound. The need to create quality publications would be perverted, as quality would be more about clicks than about citations or user satisfaction. As we’ve seen, algorithms prefer things that trigger fear or anxiety, as these provoke clicks. A scientific or scholarly economy based on fear or anxiety is not one built to generate consensus around facts, patient care standards, or community standards. As we’ve seen with Silicon Valley’s dystopian effect on national and regional cultures, these algorithms tend to drive divides and keep them open and oozing.

Joe Esposito’s recent post on the Scholarly Kitchen is worth reading, and he deftly deploys some sophisticated vocabulary to soften an explosive point:

For traditional publishers editorial quality is the means to effect a sale, whereas for an OA service, that quality is epiphenomenal.

Because the goals and incentives of the OA business model are not focused on the reader’s satisfaction or on quality as that audience perceives it, quality is an accident, not a goal. This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Gold OA publishing. You can hear it reflected when some advocates argue that “there are some good articles in [OA journal of choice],” not realizing they are pointing out accidental quality, not intentional quality. The only intention of Gold OA publishers over time is quantity of publication.

The subscription model aligns the interests of the publisher with those of the audience, the readership. The readership becomes irrelevant with Gold OA.

In other industries, the subscription model is driving quality right and left, from HBO to Amazon streaming to Spotify. This week, Netflix premiered a movie at the Toronto Film Festival that many in attendance believe will seriously vie for the Best Picture Oscar in February 2019. Netflix may or may not release the film in theaters. I’ll bet they won’t. They are wagering that they will gain subscribers by giving people a high-quality film, on top of their high-quality serialized content.

Why is Netflix now a superpower of quality in the entertainment industry? It’s the business model, sweetcheeks!