The "Tell" of Per-Article Logic

I’ve been in scholarly publishing for a long time, and until I participated in the launch of a major Gold OA journal, I’d only once or twice analyzed a publication’s health or future on a per-article basis. Nobody I knew did this kind of evaluation routinely. We talked about revenue per customer, per market segment, per country, per year, and so forth, but when we did talk about it per-article, it was a silly conversation because the subscription model drives quality, not volume. Looking at revenue per-article was irrelevant, because to pursue quality, we were loathe to publish articles that might depress the perceived quality of the journal and its brand.

Yet, with Gold OA and discussions of APCs, especially now that things like Plan S are upon the land, this is the parlance — the cost per paper, the revenues per article, and so forth.

In poker, there is what is known as the “tell” — the gesture, the unconscious giveaway that players who are observant can use to predict when an opponent is bluffing or has the goods. It may be a sniffle, a tilt of the head, a swallow, or something else.

The “tell” of per-paper logic is in the choice of currency — papers. It’s mainly funders and authors who think about transactions in terms of number of papers. Did my paper get published? Did our funding result in any papers? So, it’s no surprise that the model that would be driven by them would be based on revenues couched in terms of “per article” or “per paper.”

Publishers have customarily thought in marketplace terms — market penetration, customer acquisition, price tiers based on customer characteristics, renewal rates, and so forth. Their “tell” is the market and the customer focus the subscription model has inculcated in their parlance.

For the past 20 years, at some seemingly profound level, the market has been arguing about whether it is better to value research based on the number of papers produced or the satisfaction of readers served. And with institutional dollars drying up and funders leaning into the debate, the scales seem to be shifting toward a production economy, with the article as the commodity.

When a market becomes measured by how much it produces, and not how well its goods match retail market needs, it becomes a commodities market. The vaunted “flip” to OA would likely shift the retail point beyond publishers and to aggregators, discovery services, and so forth — the publishers and technology companies sitting on top of the papers commodity market.

Preprint servers represent a major shift toward the commodification of research papers, it bears mentioning. Notice that there is even a market developing to broker the trading of these commodities to publishers collecting Gold OA fees.

Research has repeatedly found that authors, when they adopt the role of reader, want fewer papers, better filtered to them in terms of relevance and quality. Funders also seem to appreciate the role of filtration and selection because getting something published in the right journal is far superior than having papers malingering in irrelevant, middling journals of peripheral relevance to the audience.

Per-article logic is contrary to the attitudes driving the consumption of research. It is all about the production and producers of scholarly and scientific outputs. And that unconscious focus tells us a great deal about why an economy driven by production is now viewed as superior — it means less rejection, less frustration, and more control by the producers.

The paradox is that when these same people look into the mirror, they will face themselves as readers. And then the per-article production mill’s waves of less-differentiated content may become a source of confusion and frustration.

Which brings to mind another poker maxim — if you have to ask who is the “dumb money” at the table (the person who will lose their money to every other player as the night wears on because they don’t play well), then it is probably you.

As we’ve seen again and again, OA moves are consistently playing into the hands of the larger publishers that many vocal proponents of OA wanted to diminish by moving to an OA model. Now, frustrated with the hybrid model, the RCUK debacle, and the pace of change, Plan S has been set up to accelerate things.

Nobody involved with “Plan S” can define what the “S” stands for. They consistently insert words they think are clever, but there is no clear meaning. What the “S” represents to me is “subsidy” — the plan to pay a set amount for every paper doesn’t mean that journals can’t charge more, just that publishers can bet on a set amount at least for every paper they publish.

Predatory publishers must be revising their spreadsheets even now to reflect this new and likely for them higher price. Traditional publishers will simply use the subsidy to increase their prices, as now some high percentage of the APC will be subsidized, allowing them to charge on top of that perhaps the same amount they charged before, so that a $2,500 APC becomes a $2,500 subsidized fee and a $2,500 APC, for a total of $5,000 per paper, a dramatic improvement in revenues.

Producers don’t know how markets work generally, especially if they lack retail experience. And that’s the biggest “tell” here — the way that OA planners keep walking into the fan blades of the retail market.

I think we know who is who at this particular poker table now . . . but who can tell?