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We've failed: open access is winning and we must change our approach (wiley.com)
626 points by mathgenius 69 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 377 comments



The content distribution problem is capital-s Solved. The reason why publishers are floundering is because their product doesn't add value anymore.

As a group they have slowly been cutting out all the value-adds and buckling down on only one thing: distribution. Distribution is not valuable anymore because distribution has no marginal cost. This is classic rent-seeking. Cut your costs so far that your business does nothing, nothing except extract rent out of a pre-existing monopoly. This lasts exactly as long as it takes the market to make a competitor.

How do you win against free? Be better than free.


Agreed. My experience with academic publishing is in the humanities, not sciences, but over the last 15 years I've seen the quality of editorial work go way down at publishers I worked with, and increasing burden placed on the authors to do work that should be the publisher's job like exact typesetting and layout, as the publishers do anything they can to slash staff costs. A year or two ago I did an article with an Oxford University Press publication and the copy editor mistook a Latin book title for German and offered some nonsensical change based on that. It used to be that OUP staff had such a depth of linguistic knowledge that they themselves offered valuable feedback to authors. Now it appears to be a purely mechanical (and largely "offshored") process for them of pushing text through a pipeline to produce cash from captive markets (university libraries). As their prestige and monopolies wane, these publishers have to be able to offer authors some tangible benefit.


My experience in science has been the same. I used to look at high quality publications and made it a goal of mine to have my own. Recently I delivered a number of high-quality figures in a vector format for use in a publication. I made especially sure that the text and line widths were appropriate for the document. When I saw the final version of the paper I was quite upset. Not only was the main text riddled with typos and inconsistencies (thanks to having multiple authors), the figures were rendered at low resolution in both print and PDF versions. I mean literally visible pixels on a printed page. So my work was distributed in a lower quality than my own PhD thesis.

But the reason we still use these publishers is simple and we all know it. Many people are happy to complain about publishers but nobody is happy to take the hit on their own CV. You shouldn't use publishers for the above reasons, but did you see my latest Impact Factor XX paper in Journal You Have Heard Of?


Also sad is that recent republication of classic book titles and too much publication of new niche works is done print-on-demand, with poor quality paper, poor printing, and very flimsy binding. If I’m going to spend $100 for a new book, I want something that was printed on a real press, with real binding.

I tried buying a few reissued historical mathematics books published by Chelsea (now owned by the AMS) and I could have gotten a better output by taking the Internet Archive’s scan to my local copy shop. I quickly returned them and looked online for a used original.

It makes me also not want to buy recent editions of e.g. Springer mathematics books: the technical content may be great, but the binding falls off and the figures all look like crap. It’s a hard choice whether to buy a used 15 year old copy with various technical errors sprinkled throughout, or a poorly made recent edition with corrections and an extra chapter or two.


> Also sad is that recent republication of classic book titles and too much publication of new niche works is done print-on-demand, with poor quality paper, poor printing, and very flimsy binding. If I’m going to spend $100 for a new book, I want something that was printed on a real press, with real binding.

Producer prices for printing have long been increasing much quicker than general inflation for a long time, so either lower quality or higher prices for the end product is a natural consequence.


Any sources on this? What is driving costs?


Can you clarify? There are sites with print-your-own support and produce good binding on quality paper at good prices. Why cannot commercial publishers do this?


They don't provide “good prices” compared to traditional printing for any kind of volume, at best they provide good prices compared to common retail prices for traditionally printed work, but a publisher using them still has to amortize fixed non-printing costs across the print run, they can't just sell for the printing costs and even break even.

Those kind of services do make very small print runs possible at lower prices than would be the case for traditional printing at the same time (because they have lower fixed and higher per-unit costs than traditional printing), but they don't represent a reduction in overall printing costs.


Which sites offer this? Provide examples.


Last I saw was made on Lulu (letter size, hard cover). I wasn't the one paying for it, so not sure how much it was; I am sure they have pricing on the web.


There are several, easily found by googling "self publishing": https://tragicbooks.com/2017/01/02/my-experience-self-publis...


This link contains a sort-of market analysis.

Is it too much to ask to name actual services that meet the description given? That is:

> print-your-own support and produce good binding on quality paper at good prices

I know it's a bit subjective, but I want to know, which services do that?


So many new books on Amazon are bad quality reprints.

Certain subjects depend on quality, clear illustrations.

I just assumed a new book meant quality of the original, but I was wrong.

Years ago, when I was learning watch repair, I bought a new copy of The Watch Repairer's Manual, by Henry Fried. Published by the American Watchmaker's Press. It wasen't cheap then either.

As I was reading it, the diagrams seemed fuzzy. I thought it was just me though. I'm a first edition collector, and have a huge library. You would think I would have spotted a bad printing run.

Well, I happened to buy the same book off eBay, but was published in 1973. The pages, and illustrations were crisp, and clear.

I learned my lesson though. It's a clever way to sell a new book. My lesson was don't trust new book anywhere. Used, old print is fine by me.

New is not better when it comes to certain books. In the back of my mind, I wondered how anyone could offer a new copy of an obscure book. Well, it's by inferior printing.

There's a market for quality reprints of certain books. We like to think we made so much progress, but not when it comes to printing books. We have regressed. Pick up any magazine from the 40's through the 70's, and you will notice the quality difference. I'm not saying we need to go back to Linotype printing. Im just saying we have regressed in printing.

(My grandfather was a completely color blind printer. He went his whole career never telling anyone. He was laser focused on the print quality, or "tack sharp" as he used to say. Yes--completely color blind. He would ask his coworkers, customers if the colors looked right. He would then make color adjustments. His best advice to me was moderation in everything. This was coming from a 3 pack/day smoker, eight drink minimum, with a 1/2 hose feeding his lower extremities due to plaque. He lived until 80. Crazy?)


> So many new books on Amazon are bad quality reprints.

Is it possible that what you'd bought was a counterfeit? Amazon apparently has a problem with knock-offs being commingled with their publisher-supplied stock. Here's the founder of No Starch Press tweeting about Amazon selling counterfeit copies of Python For Kids. The diagrams were fuzzy & pixelated (and black and white), and the paper quality was significantly inferior:

https://twitter.com/billpollock/status/844030960333152256

There was an HN discussion about it 6 months ago:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13924546


> Certain subjects depend on quality, clear illustrations... the diagrams seemed fuzzy. I thought it was just me though. I'm a first edition collector, and have a huge library.

This is exactly the kind if situation where digital hi-res screens and zoomable vector diagrams as presentation formats are immensely superior to paper print. You're a collector and hence holding on to print editions because of nostalgia. We're however hobbled from evolving high quality modern documentation by being tired to "printability" like pdfs and Tex


The interface for reading on screens sucks. The hardware (e.g. iPads) is getting there but the software is still miserable.

Hard to browse, bookmark, annotate (either in place or separately), cross-reference, cut and paste (as with scissors). Doesn’t help that most books are not available in a carefully crafted digital-native format.

The people I know with the most effective research habits, even ones who get most of their material online, still make great use of note cards, white boards, marked-up printouts, and the like.

For now paper is definitely preferable for reading anything but pulp novels, newspapers, and ongoing discussions. But I can imagine that changing if some people put in work on the software side in the next couple decades. Biggest pain point at the moment is probably authoring tools.

If every basic textbook was filled with interactive (programmable?) diagrams, computer simulations, extra related media, links between text and video lectures, a wider variety of practice problems at varying difficulty with full listings of hints and solutions, in depth technical annotations and bibliographic links to primary sources (viewable in place) for every chapter, etc., learning from textbooks could be made much more reader-centered, with books becoming less a serial prose format and more like a tree/graph. But all that stuff takes massive amounts of work, and would require some kind of collective funding by a group laser-focused on the real-world effectiveness and quality of the output, rather than political bullshit or rent-seeking, as most current curriculum designers and textbook publishers are. Teams of volunteers like Wikipedia aren’t really able (at least that I’ve seen) to make a novice-friendly but still accurate explanation or a coherent narrative for a whole large subject.


Why should it take decades? I think you're conflating the UI issues with pedagogy and teaching-oriented publishing. GPs point seems to be that we already have the tools we need to start webifying the academic literature. There's no technical reason that we're stuck reading two-column PDF documents with no internal or external links.

Your other points I think are important, but really more related to teaching materials and textbooks than journal articles. Projects like nanohub are doing interesting work in this area imo.


Usable implementations shouldn’t take decades if people put the research and development work in, though the basic UI research probably needs at least 8–10 years of some top-class people thinking hard about it. I’m just speculating that it might happen within a few decades that that work gets done, but alternatively it might not and paper might remain superior.


So you want qualified expert content producers working on producing top quality learning and educational material? Well our great market tells us this is only possible at Pixar or HBO or Weta in the service of fantasy and nothing else. Khan Academy and Wikipedia type models are what is left to serve everything else.


Additional data point: affiliate-compensated reviews of high value consumer items, e.g. http://wirecutter.com (now owned by NY Times) and http://dpreview.com (digital cameras). These are not cross-media, but require expensive research and good summaries.


Literally why TeX exists. Donald Knuth couldn't tolerate the poor quality of digital typesetting.


that's not entirely correct. when linotype was dumped phototypesetting was introduced. and it seems it was not possible to reintroduce the typesetting of the linotype age. DEK wanted to have a digital typesetter reproducing the same quality of linotype. if the typesetting of that time and if it was digital at all was poor quality is unbeknownst to me


And don't forget all the really nasty political things going on in the backstage of big 3 journals (Nature, Science & Cell). Big PIs often reach agreements with editors before writing their papers.


I guess anything is possible but I doubt that those journals, who depend so much on their perception of quality would so easily compromise it. If this is confirmed it would be a business disaster for them.

What to me would sound less unlikely (and I am totally on the outside of all of this), if PIs take into account editor's interests and preferences -- that is, if you know that editor is interested in topic A (say, oxygen on exoplanets) you might lean in that direction with the paper you hope to publish there (e.g., in abstract / intro / conclusion stress how your research supports existence or lack thereof of oxygen). Also not impossible to know if an issue is dedicated to a specific grand theme, so articles on that have a significantly higher acceptance chance.

Whether this is 100% kosher or not can be debated, but this is far, far off from agreements that a journal will publish whatever a specific researcher writes.


By nature (ahem), editors of these journals are responsible for what goes in their pages. Decisions of what to run have some motive - you can call them "political," or "profit-driven." But this has always been there. If an editor thinks your research isn't in the cutting edge, it won't get published. There used to be an override mechanism (in PNAS, Academy members could recommend others' papers for review).

If you need anecdotal examples, I'm sure we can provide some :)


Say what? Could you elaborate?


Citations?


Well I can't cite anything, I'm just talking about my experience and things I've seen first hand many many times.

If you're a PI on a big project or heading a big group, it's routine business to meet journal editors, invite them to your lab and reach publication agreements before writing your paper.

Obviously the paper will still go to review. But even that is already a big hurdle you have bypassed. In the big 3 journals, it's equally tough to get to review than to pass reviews once there. Plus, with direct contact to the editor, it's easier to get your paper reviewed by friendlier peers and/or influence ultimate editorial decisions.


I've also seen this happen, where an article was designed in pre-consultation with a journal editor in my field. We submitted (what I felt was) a dubious paper initially. Reviews were very harsh, but the paper was not rejected. I was amazed we had four months to revise and resub. It was eventually published. I was an early grad student at the time, so I didn't know that this was unusual.


That would be scandalous headline news if true.


It's standard in human genetics, at least in the UK. The editors of Nature have a close relationship with influential PIs and their labs, are present at social events / parties, and the general direction and appropriateness/desirability of papers are certainly discussed with the editors early in the process. These are projects with large budgets that span several years. Of course, there is still peer review, and it is still rigorous.


I can't speak for the UK, but in the government-managed science programs of other countries this behavior would be landing people in prison, standard practice or not.


What makes it illegal? I mean, what specific law would make it so? Where exactly?


This is true in my experience as well - most papers to these vanity journals are rejected without review by the editor ("desk reject"), and a prior relationship between a PI and the editor basically guarantees you will sail past that stage.


Hmm sounds similar to the prisoner's dilemma problem/tragedy of the commons.


Sorry about your experience. One thing I want to say is that the quality of material put out by University Press publishers is head and shoulders above anything you’d usually find in Barnes and Noble while not insanely expensive like the $125 books Springer Publishing sells.

University Press type publishers have always targeted upmarket since the 1970’s, when a wave of consolidation and focus on short-term profits squeezed those books out of regular publishing.

So many books are written by idiot business consultants with nothing to say. Think Randi Zuckerberg but maybe not as bad. University Presses, to my eternal gratitude, do not seem to have this problem yet and all their books say something worth saying.

Sorry to go on that rant, but just wanted to stick up a little bit forOxford University Press, which publishes the amazing “Very Short Introduction” series btw.

Also would like to say your point is still valid. I’ve heard the same thing about the music industry. When you go to a label, they expect you to already have a marketing plan...weird


This is an interesting perspective. For a few years, I've worked as a volunteer to process authors' PDF files for some larger conferences to place on our open access site. My job is to add a conference banner to the top of the first page, add PDF metadata, and re-stamp the page numbers at the bottom.

Having a dedicated editor would definitely improve the quality of the results. You wouldn't believe what authors do to their PDF files before submission. I've seen papers that center an 8x11" copy of their paper in the middle of an A4 canvas. I've seen papers where all the pages are just giant bitmaps that show the paper (presumably to avoid plagiarism). I've seen papers that have incorrectly-embedded fonts, so after our pipeline, we didn't notice that all the text in figures was replaced by Chinese characters (sorry!). I've seen papers that have permuted font maps, so even though the paper looks correct on the screen, the letters on the OCR layer don't match what you see, making the work impossible to find on Google.

Not to complain against the authors. We all have to break out our LaTeX tricks minutes before the submission deadline to fix that weird compile bug. My point is that it's important to have _some_ oversight. It's not enough to just zip up all the PDF files and call that "open access."


Be better than free? Exactly on point.

The reason I stopped pirating music wasn't because I thought there was anything wrong with it.

I stopped pirating music because services like spotify have so many value adds for such a low monthly cost that it makes sense to use their services rather than pirate.

Spotify offered something better than free.

It's time for industries that haven't caught up with the times to start rethinking their business model. Opinions on IP aside, piracy is going nowhere and trying to fight the pirates based on ethics is futile.


>I stopped pirating music because services like spotify have so many value adds for such a low monthly cost that it makes sense to use their services rather than pirate.

That's good and all, but we can imagine a volunteer-run service that's just as good or better than Spotify -- but it's based on piracy. We could also imagine it reaching the pinnacle or convenience, so nothing else could be added except marginal improvements.

Would that make using it OK -- that there's no other paid alternative that's more convenient?

In the end somebody got to pay the artists both for the production costs and for making a living on top of them. And I don't say every artist deserves money just because they are an artist -- but every artist that people actually listen to they work does deserve a cut for that.


Whether it's OK is the wrong question. The right question is what people do, which is largely unrelated.

You can talk about how artists need to be paid until the end of time, but that won't change people's behavior much.


>Whether it's OK is the wrong question. The right question is what people do, which is largely unrelated.

We don't ask that for many other moral dilemmas -- we consider certain things unacceptable and try to stomp them even if people "do them". Why should it be the relevant question for music distribution?


Here's a moral question put the other way round. Do you think libraries are a good thing?

We now have the technology to make available the great majority of human knowledge and culture to a vast amount of humanity for free. I'd call that a very positive state both for the people receiving it and the benefits it would bring to the world.

And the only thing stopping us is that certain people would like to be paid. It's the same argument with cheap generic drugs for the third world. At some point you have to incentivise research. But also, at some point you have to consider the benefits to the rest of society too.


Libraries pay the publisher (who in pays the author in turn) and are limited to giving out one copy at a time (even electronic copies are often limited in this way). Piracy doesn't result in any money going to the artist.


Sure it does, presumably the original person that ripped their CD paid for it. Libraries don't pay the publisher "per checkout", they merely buy the books.


> Libraries don't pay the publisher "per checkout"

That depends: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Lending_Right

"A Public Lending Right (PLR) programme, is a programme intended to either compensate authors for the potential loss of sales from their works being available in public libraries [...] Canada, the United Kingdom, all the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand currently have PLR programmes. [...] How amounts of payment are determined also varies from country to country. Some pay based on how many times a book has been taken out of a library, others use a simpler system of payment based simply on whether a library owns a book or not. [...] In the United Kingdom authors are paid on a per-loan basis calculated from a representative sample of libraries. The current rate is 7.82 pence per individual loan."

(I imagine that any occurrences of "authors are paid" should be replaced by "publishers are paid", but I don't know specifics.)


Libraries pay authors in most countries (such as the Public Lending Right payment in the UK).


Libraries only lend out the copies that they have purchased or access that they have subscribed to as previously mentioned. Libraries are a public good since they serve as a home for the local community and a benevolent institution for those who are very disadvantaged and might not even have access to the internet.


Book publishers have definitely tried to fight libraries before though, in the past couple hundred year history of libraries. Buying a book and then loaning it to _hundreds_ of people who would otherwise have bought it themselves was viewed as stealing from publisher/author profits. I think in some/many countries libraries still actually pay licensing fees to publishers? (similar to what/how radio stations do in the U.S.). The "first sale doctrine" that's part of copyright law in the U.S. says once you buy a book you have the right to loan that book out, give it away, resell it used, or even lease it out if you want -- but the first sale doctrine is particular to the US.


Music piracy groups mostly upload copies they have purchased or otherwise legally gained access to. Their torrents are a public good since they serve as a benevolent institution for those that are very disadvantaged and might not have the money to buy the content otherwise, allowing them to participate in modern culture.

For almost any kind of digital "piracy" you can make arguments that sound very similar to yours, because in the end libraries and piracy do something very similar: both buy content once and redistribute it for free. The only reason we treat libraries different is because of history and because libraries have a bunch of physical restrictions that seem silly in the digital world.


We do exactly that for every moral dilemma when the question is what companies need to do to survive.

There's nothing wrong when discussing the morality of piracy, but it's irrelevant when the topic at hand is what media distributors should do in order to make money.

Imagine a convenience store which experiences so much theft that it loses money, and they're trying to figure out what to change to save the store. Is it useful in that context to state that "theft is immoral"?


Copyright is not about morality. Nobody has a fundamental human right to prevent others from copying their work. Intellectual property is a legal fiction that we maintain as a means to encourage creative activities.

Copyright is basically a subsidy to content creators. Just like any other government subsidy, it should be adjusted periodically to balance its benefits against any drawbacks.

There is no question of morality here, only a question of effectiveness -- is a subsidy really needed, and if so, how much?


> Copyright is not about morality

That seems like a weirdly narrow definition of morality, maybe due to the long association with the Christianity and the faith's retreat from the public sphere.

I prefer the definition of morality as the set of shared rules and norms that we as a society decide are to our mutual benefit. In that case, laws and morality are absolutely closely intertwined.


If indeed there was broad consensus that copyright law as it exists in the United States right now is to everyone's benefit, there might be a moral obligation to follow that law.

But all I see is a bunch of interest groups trying to pretend that there is a consensus and painting anyone who disagrees as a modern day Jack Sparrow. It's easy to manufacture a consensus if all the opponents are criminals, isn't it?

I don't deny that there might be some kind of broad consensus on the issue of copyright. I just don't think that the content of it will be anywhere near what the law of the United States currently says.


I agree, yet to say that 'copyright law is is currently not moral' is a very different claim than 'copyright law and morality are unrelated'. Most of our discussions of whether something should be law or not imply morality at some level (e.g. 'copyright law is wrong because...', 'this law is evil', etc.)


I didn't say "copyright law and morality are unrelated." Everything is related to morality at some level, so I don't think it adds anything interesting to say that copyright is either related or unrelated to morality in that roundabout way.

I said "Copyright is not about morality." Copyright is about promoting creativity first and foremost. It has zero moral value apart from whatever starlight it might reflect from the more fundamental value of creativity when it's in the right point along its orbit (when it works effectively).

Suppose you're building a startup to help poor people. That's obviously about morality. But how about your choice of javascript framework? You just use whatever floats your MVP without torturing your devs too much. And as soon as it outlives its usefulness, you can throw it away without a second thought and there's nothing morality has to say about it.


I think where I depart from your analogy is that copyright law has been explicitly framed and discussed using the language of morality by both proponents and opponents.

E.g. copyright maximalists say that pirates are thieves, that they unjustly take from content creators what is rightfully theirs.

Copyright opponents will say that this is a cash grab by greedy corporations, that this will destroy the freedom of the web, etc.

Theft, destroying freedom -- these are explicitly moral claims.

You might be right that morality is not the appropriate framework with which to think about copyright, and I tend to agree, although that certainly hasn't stopped both sides from harnessing moral outrage to buttress their viewpoints.


There are different ways to relate something to morality.

The maximalists claim that copyright violation is identical to theft, whereas their opponents claim that copyright law is being used to make huge profits and destroy freedom. The former puts copyright at the center of the moral spotlight, but the latter pushes it aside and helps us see that justice and freedom are the true moral issues.


Don't we have an obligation to follow the laws of the land we live in? I see no more philosophical justification for physical property than for intellectual property.

In the same way that we have some folk intuitions about the validity of ownership of property, we have them about intellectual property. Namely, we (the citizen of the western world) have an intuition that creators of intellectual works should have some say in how their work is exploited.

When it comes to the abstraction required to create a system of property, the one that strikes me a the most bonkers is the concept that people can "own" a geographic section of the earth.


We don't really have those folk intuitions. That is just our cultural baggage. No form of property is universal. No form of intellectual property existed until the 17th century, and it took until the 20th century before it IP worked the way we think about it today and became commonplace in the majority of the world. Guam in the 16th century didn't have a concept of personal property, leading to Magellan to dub it the Island of Thieves. Ownership of land was also a non-existent concept in many societies, famously many Native American ones.

Laws and ideas about ownership and property don't exist as some Platonic Ideal, but they change and morph to fit the societies they exist in. IMHO, IP law today, especially but not exclusively in the United States, does not serve content creators but publishers, and it is my belief that it is time to adjust the laws to fit the society we want to live in.

With the obligation to follow the law comes the right to demand changes in the law.


> I see no more philosophical justification for physical property than for intellectual property.

TL;DR: physical property="who gets to have this", 'intellectual property laws'="who gets to make money from this".

Physical property isn't natural, but it's an answer to physical scarcity, which is natural.

You and your friend can build identical houses, they can't be both exactly at the same location. Physical property creates a non-volatile answer to the question "Who gets to build his house there?".

All working societies must address this problem (even societies in which money doesn't exist), hence "property" (which I don't claim is the only answer).

Texts, recordings, etc. are a completely different issue.

Original works might be rare, however, there's no scarcity in using them : you and your friend can both listen to your copy of a recording without interfering. So there's need to answer "who gets to listen to this recording?", as there's no scarcity, and thus, no conflict.

The conflict lies between distributors, because the only scarcity that remains, when works can be copied for free, is in the exploitation. For distributors, money is scarce, so question becomes: "who gets to make money from this recording?".

This is a very different question, which already presupposes the existence of money, and exploitation.


My point is that both of these problems, who gets to occupy a spot of land, who gets to exploit an intellectual creation, are solved through the abstraction of laws.

Arguments that the concept of intellectual property serves no purpose are refuted by the increasing role it plays I our economy.


well, in a very narrow sense, if you are a creator you are in the unique position at first to copy the the piece - or not. That's not just a fictive right. And indeed, industrial entities often enough choose to refrain from public publishing. And artists may choose to remain underground and cryptic lest they be copied and their ideas diluted.


That statement is exceedingly difficult to square with a vaast body of law which preciscely and specifically claims that copyright is about moral rights.

See: Moral rights were first recognized in France and Germany,[4] before they were included in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1928.[5]:37 Canada recognizes moral rights (droits moraux) in its Copyright Act (Loi sur le droit d'auteur).[6] The United States became a signatory to the convention in 1989,[7] and incorporated a version of moral rights under its copyright law under Title 17 of the U.S. Code.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rights


The article you linked to says:

> Moral rights are distinct from any economic rights tied to copyrights.

I have a moral right to insist that I wrote something, and argue against people who say otherwise, even if I assigned the copyright away, renounced it, or let it expire. It's more about honor than property. A Picasso is a Picasso no matter who owns the painting now. It's an insult to Beethoven to say that he didn't compose his 9th even though all his copyright has long expired. The same would be true even if all copyright law was repealed tomorrow.


The claim was "Copyright is not about morality". The fact is that there is an extensive scope of copyright law, dating to the 18th century, which is specifically couched in language of morality.

Reegardless of how you feel about that scope of law (and I'm not declaring views one way or the other), the point remains that your initial assertion does not square with the stated foundations of law, in at least part. Regardless of how separable or inseparable those moral rights are from any other.

If the HN hivemind wants to declare its support for the counterfactual, so be it.


Most laws in the past were couched in the language of morality, or even better, divine commandment.

But just because people think all law is about morality doesn't make it so. It's the job of a philosopher to question people's assumptions and identify errors in them. This looks like a classic case of hasty generalization. Some laws are about morality. Other laws might not be.

I think copyright belongs in the non-moral category. You have not offered any reason to disagree with my statement other than a vague "But people in the 18th century believed otherwise!" Well, I'm not disputing your historical facts. The fact is that people in the 18th century believed a lot of things. Some were true, some were not.


My point is not that the law is moral. It's that, as you've just stated, it was coached in the language of morality.

Again, this is at odds with your initial statement. And again, for some quite large and significant aspects of copyright.


You're right, many laws were (and still are) couched in the language of morality. I'm not disputing the historical facts! But why should I care how they are couched? People can couch anything in any damn language they want, and the couchings are often misleading.


I think it was you who derailed this particular subthread by confusing the concepts of "moral rights" (being named as the author of something you have written) and "morality" (not being stolen from, or randomly killed).

This confusion was no doubt intended by those who coined the term "moral rights". But they are not the same thing. Copyright law is not needed to enforce moral rights, as you can very well see from the fact that we do acknowledge the creators of works that predate copyright by hundreds or thousands of years. We can freely copy Homer's works. And we do. Be we don't remove his name from them.


In practice we're talking about large, wealthy multinational corporations. I'm not convinced a moral argument is appropriate when one side of the transaction has no morals, in the traditional sense.


It might when creators stop creating - which, arguably, is already happening.

There aren't many people arguing that the 2010s have been a better decade for music than the 60s to 90s.

Of course, this assumes consumers and content distributors can join the dots - and so far there isn't much evidence they can.


Artists are labor for labels, if labels figured out how to get paid better, the vast majority of their artists would not be paid much better. The point of the label in a for profit system is to capture value by intermediating between producers and consumers. Musicians by themselves are often very poor at capturing economic value.

Since the producers are obligated to maximize profits for their shareholders under most corporate structures by supreme court decisions, their focus will be to reduce labor costs while maximizing total revenue from consumers.

There are no winners here except the distributors. Some kind of artist cooperative is a necessity. Then at least the smaller creators will get paid fairly.

It's also worth noting that part of the reason the UK has/had such a vibrant music scene is the dole. That is, they pay their artists to let them do their thing.

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/money-are-y...

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/art-and-design/role-of-th...


Creators haven't stopped creating at all. The reason that people look back on earlier decades as agolden age is that then there was comparatively so little music produced that various demographics could broadly agree on a canon of "great bands/albums". These days, there is so much music being produced that groups of people -- even if they share a similar background -- might have no overlap in what they are listening to.


On the contrary, this is a great time for music of all kinds.

Right now, I'm following maybe 10 or so artists on social media, youtube, bandcamp, etc.

I pay a handful of them $1-$10 a month via patreon in return for them releasing their music for free via youtube (I generally also get clean, high quality versions out of this).

There's another handful I follow who release albums on Bandcamp and I can listen, and if I like it I can pay $5-$10 to download and keep forever.

I don't use Spotify or similar services, but my friends who do tell me about a huge world of similar small artists and variety of tastes they discovered through that service.

The music industry no longer takes a few select artists and makes them superstars everyone has heard of, yes. But in return there's something for everyone, and lots of artists making ends meet rather than a few artists getting rich. I think this is a net positive.


> It might when creators stop creating - which, arguably, is already happening.

This is ok, perhaps even desirable. Ultimately, the market for music is already so oversaturated that more artists aren't really "needed" (that is to say, there is much more than enough music to service demand, not that more good art isn't valuable), and most non-elite artists would welcome reduced competition.

> There aren't many people arguing that the 2010s have been a better decade for music than the 60s to 90s.

Well either way that is a totally subjective argument that cannot ever be concluded definitively, there is so much more music produced today than in the 60s-90s that it'd be impossible to even make a fair subjective judgement regarding which decades produced "better" music. Certainly, I think everyone can agree that stronger economic incentives do not necessarily mean better work is produced and there are those who suggest that the opposite is true.


Stronger economic incentives may actually result in more bands/ artists being manufactured by labels, which generally produced worse music.

Costs of prediction are pretty low now, everything except the cheapest indy albums sounds great.


> There aren't many people arguing that the 2010s have been a better decade for music than the 60s to 90s.

That may be true for music, but simultaneously, we have another "golden age" of western TV series (both live-action and animated). What's the difference? From what I can see, TV series are just as heavily pirated as music is.


>What's the difference? From what I can see, TV series are just as heavily pirated as music is.

The difference is those series have still enough paid subscribers to make the production costs and handsome profits worth it.


But producing music these days is extremely cheap, it's not like decades ago where it required time in a million dollar studio to produce something that sounded decent. Meanwhile TV the opposite is true, budgets have soared with the increasing use of spectacular sets, CGI and special effects.


I agree that we as a society should make sure that artists can make a living. But I am honestly not sure an open-access approach to music would be any worse financially. Historically, the recording industry was one of the most exploitative. You can find a hundred stories of bands that sell a lot of records only to see barely-getting-by money in return. You can find a thousand stories of modest-selling bands getting totally screwed.

Things are now in a great turmoil, so we're still seeing where this goes. But I think it's no accident that Patreon was started by an independent musician. They expect to pay out $150m this year to artists. What do patrons get in exchange? Basically nothing. They just like supporting people doing good work.

I agree the morality of pure piracy is not so great. But the notion of piracy itself is rooted in a specific and entirely artificial theory of ownership, plus an industrial model built around that. The morality of that industrial model is in practice not so great either.

Things like Patreon and Wikipedia suggest that the morality of the commons is one that could work well in practice. It has its issues, but I don't think they're a priori greater than the historical alternative. Especially if it's supplemented with the sorts of things that Kevin Kelly describes as "better than free": http://kk.org/thetechnium/better-than-fre/


Maybe the Payment Request API will help? https://www.w3.org/TR/payment-request/


I'd start with why this is illegal in the first place.

In the US this comes from the copyright clause of the constitution.

"To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

The problem this was trying to solve was how do you incentivize people to create in order to 'promote the progress of science and useful arts' for the public's benefit. Limited time monopolies are the means to get to the overall goal of promoting the progress of science and useful art for the public's benefit.

Originally this limited time was 14 years with the ability to renew (once for 28 years max) - it also wasn't automatic and had to be registered. Today it's automatic and 75 years after the death of the creator (or 95 years for contract work) and even worse this change was retroactive. The retroactive change isn't within the original spirit of the law since people don't need to be incentivized to create something they've already created. You also can't opt out of it for works you've created, the best you can do is permissively license something (just stating 'this is public domain' doesn't do anything).

Not only does this lead to problems with orphan works, but massive amounts of culturally relevant material is now off limits for new people to create with - this inhibits new work except under the narrowly defined free use exceptions. Inhibiting progress of science and useful arts is the opposite of the original intent.

Copyright law today has mutated into protecting the profit of the rights holders and extending the length indefinitely, but only by a handful of years at a time so the supreme court can't rule it unconstitutional since it's technically a 'limited time'.

All of this was never intended to stop not for profit sharing of content and the law does a lot more bad than good - we want the minimum limited time restriction to encourage creation for the public benefit, not years after the death of the creator so the family and subsidiary companies can profit forever.

In the case of the journals it's even worse since they're exploiting the researcher's need for prestige and blocking access to publicly funded research. It's a corrupting influence on science and incentivizes scientists not to cooperate. These journals hold science back and offer no real benefit - maybe scihub will actually force them to provide value, but even if it kills them everyone will be better off.


You can look at this picture: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/Tom_Bell... to see what's going on with copyright. To me, this looks like clear abuse of the law - it can't be that you needed 25 years to promote progress of science in 19th century but you need 100 years now. It's clear rent-seeking, no wonder people fail to believe the moralistic preaching of the same people who buy the laws that are convenient to them.


I think part of the difficulty is that the copyright clause argument is more nuanced to fully explain. It's easier for rights holders to loudly argue that people are stealing content and ignore the original intent of the law.

This is further complicated by rights holders having enormous amounts of money they can use to influence legislation.

It typically all comes back to the campaign finance reform Lawrence Lessing talks about in Republic Lost. I think Copyright was one of the original issues that lead to his core argument of a corrupting influence on modern US politics. Specifically the issue with the journals was what drove Aaron Swartz to try and export them all (probably to make something like scihub, but he never got there).


The copyright law is absurd in the context of scientific publication. Here's why. The private property associated with the publication is created at the moment of publication, and is the association with the author's name. It is this association with publication which undergirds lifetime tenure, or reputation leading to employment, a cash flow which when discounted can be worth many millions of dollars. The investigator author knows this and the publisher knows this. The author gets permanent monopoly rights due to the association. It's remarkable. Unless the publication is proven wrong, the name association can last centuries. That's why I say many millions of dollars in the case of a significant publication, especially, pre-tenure.

Now the publisher knows this too, and tries to assert monopoly rights, using the skirts of copyright law, over a certain time frame, in the vending of images of the publication. It's ridiculous how little value he's added. And when you examine who paid for the research or work in question, it's a racket. Third world baksheesh is certainly less injurious to progress.


It also seems interesting to imagine a system or volunteer driven piracy that ends up giving artists a bigger cut than the Spotify model, which mostly gives them a pittance.

There's a huge crisis of compensation for "content creators", and Spotify does not seem like the hundred year solution. Especially seeing how it keeps maintaining an artificial distinction between producers and consumers and acts as a filter for what counts as music.


The Spotify model is arguably more successful _because_ they pay artists so little. I don't buy music much anymore. Pandora and Spotify satisfy most of my desire for it.


>The Spotify model is arguably more successful _because_ they pay artists so little.

That's a non sequitur.


I guess the meaning is that Spotify can offer low subscription price because it pays little to the authors. Seems quite logical to me.


That's not applicable to papers though, because the authors are either not paid by the journals or pay the publisher.

The questions Wiley are dancing around are "what does the publisher actually do" and "is anyone, author or reader, prepared to pay for that".


Have you heard of Pinkapp? This may seem unrelated, but it's a prostitution app. The founder seems to have a sense of design and an extremely healthy sense of keeping himself safe via Tor. I grilled him a bit on his opsec and it was clear he's competent. If he's even a he.

I think if people can develop Tinder + Buy It Now with no repercussions, questions like "is it okay?" cease being useful. The question of morality goes out the window.


> I think if people can develop Tinder + Buy It Now with no repercussions

That's a big if; repercussions for prostitution listing services, even with basically zero opsec, tend not to be immediate, and pinkapp hasn't gotten big yet.


From pinkapp.io:

> On top of this, we will allow shareholders to opt into hidden ownership to allow them to remain fully anonymous. In such cases, we can distribute profits via Monero or other methods.

Is this legal?


It's not, but the founder of Pinkapp believes they can operate outside of the legal system.

I hope their opsec is on point.


Moral/ethical issues of piracy aside, your final point of musicians earning a living just isn't a good analogy for academic publishing. None of the traditional or open access fees goes to the authors, so sci-hub or not, it makes no financial difference to the author. Mostly salaries come from the university and research grants, which in fact include money to pay for open access fees that the publishers are charging.


Popcorn time comes to mind. It's a quality service based on piracy. But personally I'd rather be legit and pay a bit more in effort or money.


yes, piracy is good.

if you think artists should be paid give them money directly, or go to shows and buy merch.

nearly all intellectual property barriers make no sense in a post-internet world. we effectively live in a world without intellectual property barriers (because piracy is easy and prolific) but for some reason people refuse to acknowledge the free and open flow of art and information as a good thing.


That's because there's no such thing as the free and open flow of art if there's little or no art - or at least high quality art - being made, because creators aren't being rewarded.

It's odd how rarely there's no apparent understanding that the flow needs to go both ways - and if it doesn't go both ways, there is no flow.


I have an unusual perspective on this because 90% of the music I listen to is remixes and 90% of the literature I read is fanfiction.

Which are works of art where a good fraction of the work is done by unpaid amateurs who are at risk of being sued by the "original artists" (or rather their labels/publishers).

The point is, from that perspective, copyright is an existential threat to a very large fraction of the art I consume.


If artists don't get paid directly by sales to consumers absolutely nothing bad will happen. Society will have an abundance of artistic output and artists will find ways to monetise their art anyway. Don't pretend otherwise.

Sure, some middle layers become obsolete, but the point of art wasn't to provide food for its one time symbiotic parasites.


>if you think artists should be paid give them money directly, or go to shows and buy merch.

Would you say that for your work too?

Or it's because conveniently it's not that easily copyable?


Can you please go down load my PyPi package? I need to negotiate a raise.


> In the end somebody got to pay the artists both for the production costs and for making a living on top of them.

"...they are all very poor people who follow as a trade, what other people pursue as a pastime."

http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN4.html#I.10.6


You ask would that make it OK? That would depend on your opinions on Intellectual Property (IP).

I personally think it's fine and expect you think differently.

I'd rather not hash out an entire thing on hacker news about why IP is a well intentioned but bad idea.

Instead I prefer to argue that piracy isn't going anywhere.

Regardless of your opinions on IP, piracy is here to stay. The real questions we need to ask, imo, is how do we progress those IP based industries that have yet to find solutions to piracy.

Music has found value add services, emphasis on live music and merch, as well as a revival in vinyl interest.

Games have found early access, emphasis on online gaming, and crowdfunding.

Video and artistic content creation has found crowd funding, ad revenue, and physical sales of brand products and exclusive value adds (meet a creator).

Software has found expert training, charging for use of apis or backend driven services, charging for additional functionality, often software as complex enough that charging outright for the software and support of it is very common place. Also software highlights that even if one spends countless hours of their lives doing something for free (open source) they can easily take advantage of demand in their technical and creative skills to make a very generous wage in the market.

In conclusion there are a lot of arguments for why we should be IP bound. A lot of these are really good arguments - even the if I voraciously disagree with them. But in the end I don't think IP will win. It's better that we encourage working with solution in a framework with limited or lacking IP.

Sry 4 bad spelling. I'm the lame guy who writes walls of text on hacker news with his phone.


We can imagine but it does not exist. These large companies still have the time and opportunity to provide a better product. If these corporations have so tilted the playing field that supporting organizations that pirate is the only way to encourage them to change, so be it.


> we can imagine a volunteer-run service that's just as good or better than Spotify -- but it's based on piracy. We could also imagine it reaching the pinnacle or convenience, so nothing else could be added except marginal improvements.

I can't.

The whole premise here is that volunteers can't reach every peak, that some endeavors require resources and those endeavors are how companies can be "better than free". Spotify has infrastructure, input streams, curation, and technical advances that I can't see any volunteer organization matching more than in slim part.


> That's good and all, but we can imagine a volunteer-run service that's just as good or better than Spotify -- but it's based on piracy.

That was what.cd. You could get things not found anywhere, the artists / album map was awesome to discover new artists and the forums were the best.


To be fair, spotify was able to thrive because the pirate-solution alternative got shut down (grooveshark).


Grooveshark is exactly the point though. The reason they were better than Spotify was because they had EVERYTHING at a time when other services had much smaller catalogues. Now the movie industry is headed down the same path. No Disney, having your own service isn't going to increase demand, it's going to drive people back to piracy.


I'm at this point already. The price for most video streaming services would be okay if it gave me access to all the content. But I'm never going to pay for Netflix and Amazon and Disney and YouTube Red and the list goes on when I just want to watch one show on each service.


YouTube red isn't even available in my country for some reason. According to advertisements I'd get it with my Google music subscription. Nope. Not available for some reason so enjoy the ads of course no access to their specific content. Back to Spotify and ublock I went.


I don't think most people were using grooveshark BECAUSE it was a pirate-solution. They had paid plans as well that allowed you to do more than the free ones. I don't think most people knew there was any real difference between grooveshark and spotify.


And Napster before that et al.

However, I would still rather use Spotify than go through the bother of downloading dodgy MP3s and synching them to all my devices. I think Spotify's model killed music piracy much more than legal action ever did.


Maybe I just downloaded different stuff, but I think I can count on one hand the number of 'dodgy' MP3 files I ever got from napster/limewire. Even to this day I have friends who say "oh, i never torrent anything today - I got sick of all the viruses I got from limewire whenever I tried to get mp3 files". What on earth were people doing (or searching for) to get viruses from mp3 files?

I do recall reading about some trend major publishers did, with seeding 'bad' versions of songs with the same titles as the 'real' ones, confusing people in to wasting bandwidth and resharing 'bad' files. Was that terribly effective?


> I do recall reading about some trend major publishers did, with seeding 'bad' versions of songs with the same titles as the 'real' ones, confusing people in to wasting bandwidth and resharing 'bad' files. Was that terribly effective?

I remember Madonna's "What the fuck do you think you're doing" mp3's. But it really didn't make me change my habits, or even really annoy me.

Actually, I still haven't changed my habits, as Spotify and Deezer don't have everything I want to listen to, and unlike Grooveshark, they don't allow me to add my own music.


yeah - I use spotify, but it doesn't have everything I always want - maybe... ~80%. live stuff, bootlegs, etc from various folks, they don't have. Not really their fault specifically, but it doesn't cover all my needs/wants.


They were being idiots and not paying attention to file types. GoodMusic.mp3.exe


Besides the convienience of streaming, I stick with spotify for their discovery features, and radios that are very targeted and generally produce good results. Their Discovery Weekly, Release Radar, and Daily Mix playlist offer far more value than any other music service has.

Even though I could through a minor effort, take my entire back catalogue of MP3’s (many were pirated and very clearly sorted and organized), pirate a bunch of new content, and upload it all to a streaming service like Google Play Music, I don’t because then I would be missing out on killer curation and discovery features music services offer today.


I've never used Spotify, but even I mostly stopped pirating too... other legal means are just too easy and cheap, and increasingly likely to actually support the artist.


true. happily paying netflix and spotify. if there were a better one to pay for a larger catalogue internationally, I'd be on that. if all you've left is handcuffing customers, your business is already dead.


Except Spotify doesn't pay artists. I'd be glad to pay them if they paid artists.


Of course they don't pay artists. That's not the people Spotify has contracts with. Spotify pays labels, and Spotify pays them a lot. That nothing emerges on the other side is not Spotify's fault.


Right but the label is the equivalent the publisher in this case aka the institution that adds no value.


They pay more than radio per listen.


The are serving songs on demand where radio is not, so what they pay shouldn't be compared with radio.


So instead of the record firm chosen top 50 and the nostalgia 200 it gives the long tail radio play payments too.


It isn't clear what this means. Are you saying that radio isn't as valuable because we can't be sure that anyone is listening? That isn't the way that radio sells its advertising: "We charge less for ads because much of the time nobody is listening!" Beside the study that GP presumably references [0] specifically controlled for audience size.

[0] http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/1155395/business-...


Radio isn't as valuable because you don't get to choose what you're listening to. Your favorite artist may never be on the radio.


No, I'm saying Spotify is more like owing the records -- you can play whatever you want, replay it as many times as you like, etc, than radio, which offers a lesser service.

So artists should get more from Spotify than they do for radio plays anyway.


Must-read article about the concept of "better than free":

http://kk.org/thetechnium/better-than-fre/

Kevin Kelly proposes "Eight Generatives Better Than Free": immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and findability.

This was written back in 2008—very prescient in light of the evolution of content distribution since then, and helpful in articulating what sorts of thing actually manage to add value in this way!


Thank you for this. Absolutely great read. Bookmarked!


> As a group they have slowly been cutting out all the value-adds and buckling down on only one thing: distribution.

What they really offer is filtering; being published in a particular journal is a signal of quality and impact of the work. The production and even distribution pieces are incidental to the value, but filtering is difficult to monetize in a normal market because it has high fixed and zero marginal cost. (The same is largely true of production, and as noted distribution is near zero marginal cost as well.)

Note that this doesn't mean there is no value add: you can have value without marginal cost, such that utility would be lost to customers if you stopped paying the fixed costs. OTOH, if the value produced by the fixed costs has no cost to scale and no practical barrier to people reproducing it once you've produced it, you can't monetize the value produced.


Reputation is built with journals, not publishers.

Publishers _do_ add value to _conferences_ by helping out with funding. Since most smaller interesting conferences aren't at all profitable, it's a "symbiotic" relationship between the conference and the publisher: the publisher effectively runs the conference in return for having exclusive distribution rights over the proceedings. Sucks for the profs and students though.

When a conference gets big enough to raise their own funding _and_ bold enough to shirk their publisher's exclusivity contract, in-house distribution begins to make sense.


Exactly. Academic publishers especially have slashed all the editorial work they traditionally did and now contribute nothing. Unless you want a shitty $150 printing of a book. They are utterly parasitic on other people's money: grants, libraries, university salaries (and the weight of a book publication in promotions)...

When I was in grad school I got a thousand dollars or so to copyedit and typeset a prof's book. He had to pay for it out of his grant. The publisher (Springer) literally did nothing.

This situation was neither inevitable or accidental. I forget a source, but a few decades ago some business types realized academic publishing was a captive market, so bought up a bunch of presses and started exploiting it more and more.


Same thing has happened in music. Record labels used to add a lot of value via scouting out raw talent and new forms of music and then pairing that talent with producers who could polish and refine it. Now they just churn out identical sounding autotuned junk and look for ways to add DRM.

Seems to be a natural tendency for troubled industries to lean into their obsolescence and actually kill their value adds in a futile quest for rent.


I know very little of the music industry, but to me your comment sounds like record labels were this benevolent and creative force and now they are not. That seems suspect to me because as far as I can tell, big name musicians have always complained about the draconian terms and poor treatment they got from their labels.


Take a look at the movie "The Wrecking Crew". It's about studio musicians who took raw material from the record labels' "artists" and turned it into slick, professional work.

If you're familiar at all with 1960's music, you'll recognize their work, it permeates popular music.

The artists themselves were often poor musicians and could not play their own music very well.

After watching the movie, I certainly concluded that the record label added a LOT of value.


Yeah it was amusing to learn how many of the bands whose records they recorded couldn't actually play all the music that got recorded when they toured. Even so, that music seems quite specific to that time and place. It's not as though there weren't any talented musicians in Southern California in the 1960s. It's just that many of the most talented musicians were still playing old-fashioned music, so in the interests of selling more records A&R execs decided to sign less virtuosic musicians and help them out.

So, in that case the record label was "adding value" but the Monkees or the Byrds or whoever didn't really receive that value. They didn't get paid much anyway, so they would have rather made less-polished records that were more authentically their own.


I don't know about the Byrds, but the Monkees weren't even musicians. (Well, one of them was.) They eventually did learn how to play. I bought their "authentic" CD, "Headquarters", and it is, to put it mildly, devoid of any interesting music.

The best thing that ever happened to the Monkees was to have Hollywood write and perform the songs for them, while they lipsynced, clowned around and looked good. The best songwriters in the business wrote their songs. How lucky could they get?

The Monkees were not ripped off in any way. The value they received was becoming famous, and that has enormous value they can use to make money off of anytime they please (and they have done so).


I'm rarely inclined to agree with you, but you're spot on here.


They've never been really great, but my point is that they added more value then than they do now.

One critical value they once provided was to discover and popularize new styles. They don't do that anymore at all. Last time they did in a big way was probably grunge in the early 90s. Since then any new movements have had to go around the major labels. They've retreated to endless retreads of copycat pop.


>>I know very little of the music industry, but to me your comment sounds like record labels were this benevolent and creative force and now they are not.

It's not that they were benevolent, but 25 years ago they held the keys to the castle and disrupting production, distribution, and marketing was nearly impossible. Today with the rise of CDbaby and other agencies handling piecemeal work via the Internet (and bandwidth opening up to serve media), they're dead.

But until recently, their services were quite necessary.


> Seems to be a natural tendency for troubled industries to lean into their obsolescence and actually kill their value adds in a futile quest for rent.

Yes. They seem to be more willing to spend $10X on lobbying to prolong their obsolete business model than $X to pivot to a new one.

I don't know if the number is actually 10, but it certainly appears to be greater than 1.


Zero marginal cost doesn't imply that the product or service in question has no value. Rather, it implies that producing has no value to the firm. But it can still have value to potential consumers.

As an example, take any market with natural monopolies. It costs nearly nothing to a company working with electric power distribution to serve an additional client in comparison to their fixed costs. But the client still wants their electricity.


Publishers don't have a natural monopoly, just a circumstantial monopoly. (Yes I just made that up.)

That produces a completely different implication: Zero marginal cost means that a competitor can come along at any time and charge a zero price. This is the power of advancing information technology: it empowers people with little to no capital & operational budget to have a proportionately huge effect on any information system that has zero marginal cost.


No it doesn't because there are still fixed costs. Even if it costs me the same to send out a software license to the 100th person as it does to the 101st person, I still have to pay to develop the software, pay the rent, the fixed subscription fee of whatever it is I'm using behind the scenes to develop it, host it, etc.


Sure, but do the fixed costs really justify the current pricing? The last paper I submitted, the gold open access fee was $3k... Forget it, we just put the preprint on arXiv, which has no problem hosting versioned preprints at no cost to the authors.


I was really only commenting on the statement "Zero marginal cost means that a competitor can come along at any time and charge a zero price." There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.


Can you think of a natural monopoly which isn't circumstantial? Is your model falsifiable?


Natural monopolies have some natural cause, not created by the monopoly or their customers. The classic example is utilities, where one natural cause of monopoly is the high cost of infrastructure discouraging new players (capex), and another is because nobody wants 5 separate power lines running to each house just so we have some competition (regulation).

When I made up "circumstantial monopolies" I was thinking of monopolies that only still exist via circumstances. Like there used to be some regulation or it used to be a natural monopoly causing it to be a true monopoly, but those external reasons have disappeared and they only remain a monopoly because of inertia.

Maybe "inertial monopolies" would have been a better term. It's certainly more amusing.

So my argument is that journals may have had a natural monopoly in the past, and have had an inertial monopoly since, but there's no inherent reason why they still have a monopoly today. Does that help explain?


That's helpful, yes, thank you.

I'm not sure it's convincing, but then I'm not settled on what is so generally. This is a question I've been thinking through heavily.

One model I'm working on is that monopolies are synonymous with economic rents, and derive from network structures, and/or control systems. These might be physical or logical, and would include political control systems, one of the typically sugested forms of "artificial monopolies". I'm not sure that particular distinction is meaningful. It also doesn't seem to be the one you're making.

In the case of extant structures vs. novel ones, which does seem to match your case, there's the question of why an apparrently better or more robust novel system doesn't displace an incumbent. Much of that is seen as a critical mass problem, though viewing it as a critical cohort problem might be more useful: Facebook overtook MySpace by starting and building from a high-appeal, high-value core (Harvard undergraduates). This overcame network effects by seeking individual nodes with a far greater value function both in social and advertiser appeal.

That pattern of overtaking seems repeated among other networks as well. Private jet charters vs. commercial 1st class, even Concorde-speed service, might be another.

For academic publishing, defection of fields, researchers, journals, or specific universities might be a similar mechanism.

Is this in any way along the lines of what you are thinking?


I'm sorry I'm having a hard time extracting a summary/thesis out of your comment.

You seem to trying to explain why it hasn't happened to journals before. The answer to which seems immediately obvious to me. So I'm probably misunderstanding you.


No, most of that was my trying to explain how I'm concieving of monopoly-tending industries and firms -- what characteristics they have. Somewhat inchoate, I'm well aware, though attempts to describe this may help me in formulating the concepts, if not you.

I'd not addressed why journals haven't already been disrupted. I did suggest how they might become disrupted, borrowing on the model of MySpace/Facebook. See also: Newspapers/radio, cinema/television, and radio/television. It's not that the old networks fail, per se, but a new network (that is, monopoly), which delivers on the same need (or want), and does so in ways which bypass the original.

But since you raise the question of why journals haven't been disrupted, part of the point is that they'd emerged as a blocking / gatekeeping mechanism only fairly recently. Peer-review is largely a post-1970 phenomenon, and really largely since 1980.

I'm not entirely sure when journal subscription costs became an issue, though I do recall hearing buzzes about it in the 1980s. The emergence of the Web as an alternate distribution mechanism was already suggesting academic journals were obsolete by the late 1990s, and I was part of early Open Access discussions at the time. I basically see that solution still developing, which suggests there simply hasn't been sufficient time.

Sci-Hub is doing a great deal on the time-sufficiency department.


"It costs nearly nothing to a company working with electric power distribution to serve an additional client in comparison to their fixed costs."

I beg to differ. The infrastructure is only part of the cost (the fixed part). The fuel needed to produce the electricity (or the electricity itself) is the variable part. As a consumer I pay much more for the variable part then for the fixed part, therefore what you say can't be correct.


Why do you say that you pay more for the variable part?


On the UK out bills are two parts. The standing charge, which is the infrastructure rental, and costs the same wherever you draw 100A or 100mA, and the per unit charge. The later makes up the bill of your bill.


If I'm not mistaken, the UK uses price-cap regulation in electricity distribution, which is one where government just sets a maximum per unit price for electricity. The standing charge only pays the cost of maintaining his own individual connection to the network, but the fixed cost of installing and maintaining the distribution network go into everything else in the bill. So an UK's consumer "variable" electricity costs are actually the firm's fixed costs.


At various points both of the large parties have proposed capping energy bills. Not happened yet (the Tories ridiculed labour for proposing it, then a year later proposed it themselves)

We do have a very mobile energy market, switching provider is easy.

There may be price caps on the monopoly parting the system - the connection to the grid - that's because it's a natural monopoly, moreso even that the last mile of fibre from the cabinet to your house.


When politicians mention "capping energy bills", that means trying to cap final consumer tariffs. What I mean by "price-cap" is a regulatory model which determines how governmental contracts for public utility might be written. It's also called the "RPI-X" regulation model.

It does not determine final consumer tariffs directly, but instead establishes a maximum revenue per KWh for the regulated firms. And this model has been in place in the UK's transmission and distribution sectors since 1990.

Also, you cannot choose who distributes energy to you. If you could, the sector wouldn't even need regulation. But you can choose who supplies that energy. These are two different sectors, and they're regulated in different ways. The distribution sector is a natural monopoly, while the energy generation sector isn't.


It costs money to maintain the distribution network to every additional client. But then they are regulated to (theoretically) cost just enough to ensure such goals. If the network is self-maintaining and already serves every client, then that business would be over, too.


It costs much more money to produce the electricity they use!


I think a root of this problem is traditional framing of business accounting, which focuses on revenues and costs. That has some utility, but when it's the only perspective, you miss things.

Imagine a hamburger shop. In the traditional frame when you want to make more money, you raise revenues (sell more! raise prices!) or cut costs (cheaper ingredients! minimize labor costs!). Using the traditional approach, it's easier to "optimize" by make your product worse and worse.

The Lean Manufacturing folks, on the other hand, look at business as an exercise in value creation for the customer. They split things into value generation vs waste. When they optimize, they look for ways to reduce waste and increase value for the customer.

That focus on value creation is necessary to start businesses; it's hard to build an audience if you're not providing value. It's a shame that it gets lost over time, with profit being the only focus.


> The content distribution problem is capital-s Solved. The reason why publishers are floundering is because their product doesn't add value anymore.

Yep. If you don't add value, don't expect laws to protect you forever.


side note : someone's positive value might just someone else's negative. Example : software patents.


You argue that publishers are being outcompeted because they don't provide value.

First, publishers do provide value.[1] Making copies is a trivial part of publishing; that's a straw man. Publishers add value in their role as gatekeepers and filters. They provide an objective, systematic evaluation of research that others can rely on. That evaluation is expensive. PLOS, a leading open access publisher, charges a $2,000 publication fee. Then consider that in closed journals, half the articles are never read.[2]

Second, publishers are not being outcompeted. Piracy is not an alternative to publishing, so it isn't a competitor. Rather, piracy destroys the market. An author or digital artist also couldn't "outcompete" a pirate. Without publishers, how should researchers keep updated on relevant papers; academic and grant committees triage applicants; the interested public distinguish science from pseudoscience?

Publishers should not bear all the responsibility for a complex ecosystem. We absolutely shouldn't wait to see what happens after the current system collapses. We need to collaboratively imagine and build a better system for communicating and evaluating science.

[1] http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/288447.html

[2] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/half-academic-studi...


> Publishers add value in their role as gatekeepers and filters.

And yet the peer review process relies on unpaid volunteers. Sure, there's some kudos. But the publishers are laughing all the way to the bank.

> They provide an objective, systematic evaluation of research

Publication bias is a thing. A hugely significant thing.

> Piracy is not an alternative to publishing, so it isn't a competitor

This is an odd semantic nitpick without any discernable meaning. I feel very certain that many who benefit from working within academic publication see piracy as a threat to their revenue streams, hence "competition".

> piracy destroys the market

No, the market has simply changed.

> We need to collaboratively imagine and build a better system for communicating and evaluating science

On this I completely agree.


You ignored the best argument: what does PLOS (a non-profit) do with those $2000 they charge the author?

Nobody is disputing that Elsevier et al make a profit that isn't entirely deserved. You don't have to argue that point.

But that glosses over the fact that their revenue is absolutely not pure profit. PLOS shows that there are costs associated with publishing, even if you get a lot of the work for free. Those $2000 are the value that publishers provide. Maybe they're charging $5000 for those $2000 right now, and that's morally suspect. But when that business model is destroyed, someone has to come up with a way to finance those $2000 of value by other means.

Also:

> Publication bias is a thing. A hugely significant thing.

"Publication bias" isn't the arbitrary injection of a publisher's opinions into articles or something like that. It just describes the fact that more surprising, or positive results are more likely to get published.

Doing away with publishers won't have any effect on this mechanism. Any sort of ranking or discovery mechanism will ultimately prefer the more spectacular result, because that's what people are looking for. In the specific case of pharmacology, mandatory pre-registration of trials, and all-encompassing meta-analysis of those is a good strategy, and it's completely orthogonal to the process of publishing the paper.


> piracy as a threat to their revenue streams, hence "competition"

By your logic, I can "compete" with GM by stealing all of their car inventory and blowing up all their factories in Detroit. I don't think that makes sense.

> the market has simply changed

Strongly disagree. What exactly is the new market? Selling journal t-shirts?

> yet the peer review process relies on unpaid volunteers

> Publication bias is a thing

I say that publishers add much more value than pirates. Sure, publishers aren't perfect and others add value too. So what?


Pirates definitely add more value per dollar charged.


An author is defined as someone that authors something and not someone that makes money out of something.

When the market can't compensate authorship per copy this does not mean the author cannot exist, but that authors will be compensated differently.

Do you seriously think that people would stop making music because they can't become millionaires? There's tons of people making a living playing on YouTube, filling the niche, and living off endorsments and side-selling of merch or lessons.


Sure, artists can now sell lessons, but that's not necessarily better than the publisher model.

How do you think your analogy would apply to scientific publishing?


do publishers provide more value than the peer reviewers and the authors? because the subscription & access fees charged by journals disproportionately favor the publishers by a huge margin. a fixed publication fee, peer review and editing should cost some affordable amount to the authors. online distribution should be open and free.

want it printed on dead trees? then sure, pay for a hard copy.


No, and you don't understand the current scientific ecosystem. Researchers are paid for their work through salaries and grants, and therefore benefit from open access. Publishers are not. That's why PLOS must charge authors a fee.


> Researchers are paid for their work through salaries and grants

researchers work 40+ hour weeks for months or years. the majority of the work in publishing is reviewing that research, which is outsourced to peers for free. the actual publication is a tiny part (time-investment wise) of the total value.


By all means, compensate the peer reviewers in addition. But you trivialize what publishers do. The role of the impartial gatekeeper is crucial in our current system. Publishers select the reviewers, analyze the reviews, and accept or reject. Orchestrating all this, by itself, is expensive! That $2000 figure for PLOS would be even higher if they paid reviewers.

Further, peer reviewers review for free because they can afford to--they are being paid by government and industry. Publishers cannot survive without being paid.


> Publishers select the reviewers, analyze the reviews, and accept or reject. Orchestrating all this, by itself, is expensive.

If academics can peer review, they can do the analysing of reviews and accepting/rejecting, too. Even for-profit publishers often put all that work on an unpaid editorial board.

Also, the costs do not have to be so high that they make Wiley or Springer-type for-profit journals the only way of publishing scholarship. In my own field, the most respected journals are printed by learned societies founded on the basis of an endowment or national academies of science. Since the labour and coordination is already done for free here by academics -- just like with many for-profit journals -- the only additional costs are typesetting and coordination with the printer/distributor, and it turns out that these costs are not so high that you have to lock your content down. These journals do not even have to charge submission fees like other journals in the "open access" movement claim is necessary; it just all doesn't cost that much.


You argue that publishing does not need to be as expensive as $2000. Fair enough. I would be happy if we can agree that publishers do something, and that piracy is not an alternative. That point seems to be lost on the majority of commenters here.


Well, I’m afraid that you’re not going to get any agreement from me. The whole point of my post is that, because the vast majority of the journal production process is carried out through the labour of unpaid academics – the only added value from publishers (coordination with printer/distributor) is insignificant and certainly isn’t worth locking this knowledge down.

So, piracy is a great solution in the short term, and in the long run there should be a return of journals to learned societies. After all, that is where many of them were originally published anyway before the for-profits bought them up (promising to save on labour and ensure better quality, but in fact unpaid labour is still used and the quality of editing and typesetting has dropped drastically now that for-profit publishers often demand camera-ready copy with no quality inventions of their own).


> Publishers select the reviewers, analyze the reviews, and accept or reject.

all this tells me is that there's a serious lack of adequate tools or some common, open platform to facilitate this. it was hard [expensive] to collaborate on sourcecode before Github; now it isnt. it was difficult to research prior art for patents, now it isnt via patents.stackexchange.


I agree, editorial committees based on a software workflow could be a real competitor to the current publishers. I'd caution that (1) everything sounds easy from a high level view, when we don't see the complexity, and (2) that the hardest problems are not technical, but social.


In my discipline, publishers simply agree to publish a journal with a given editor. The idea they are selecting the editor is wrong - they wouldn't know how. They do no scientific work at all. Usually, they benefit from the status quo: a famous journal is with a given publisher, and to publish there we have to pay them a fee.


Ok, maybe we can replace the lot of them with a website. But the way I see it, collaboration platforms like Wikipedia, Facebook, and GitHub are valuable, and someone has to maintain the website. I wouldn't agree that this problem is "capital-s Solved", and it certainly isn't solved by piracy.


> Publishers add value in their role as gatekeepers and filters. They provide an objective, systematic evaluation of research that others can rely on. That evaluation is expensive.

Except it needn't be. Reddit-like voting and commenting site for scientists would work just as well to vet papers and provide valuable feedback to authors with nearly zero overhead.


>Reddit-like voting and commenting site for scientists would work just as well to vet papers

Probably not. There's a well-known essay that explains why karma/votes/likes work very well for easy tidbits like cat photos, gifs, and puns. (The stuff that takes less than 5 seconds to evaluate and requires near-zero effort to judge whether one "likes" it or not.) Unfortunately, I don't have a cite because I forgot who the author was.

Longer topics such as a 20000 word dense research paper with supporting data that requires at least 2 hours of study by a reader/reviewer doesn't work for a karma points system. The effort is too high to contribute significant # of votes. It's the same difficulty for other long form content such as manuscripts for novels/books.

Instead of karma voting, these works require curation that passes the "signal of approval" from one person to the next. With book manuscripts, curation is first done by the literary agents and then the acquisition editors. With scholarly papers, it's a somewhat analogous process (committee 1st pass then forwards to the peer reviewers). Each "approver" has a reputation which signals to the next person that it's ok to invest the hours into studying the work. This social signaling mechanism is also similar for startup entrepreneurs' business plans and VCs. VCs would rather be exposed to your business idea from a referral rather than an unsolicited cold email. All 3 domain examples of book manuscripts, academic research, and business plans share the same theme: people have limited time to wade through a vast sea of poor quality content.

I think people can conclude that flipping through 100 cat photos is different than slogging through 100 dense papers. Another example of this dynamic is the Stackoverflow voting system. There have been several meta discussions lamenting the fact that the "easy" questions attracts a high volume of activity (answers + votes) but the "hard" questions languishes with little attention. That's because the easy questions are more analogous to the low-effort cat photos.

Another commenter in the thread mentioned that github solved workflow for programmers and the same could be done for peer reviewing academic papers. This is misunderstanding the underlying issue.

Evaluating dense papers is not an "information technology workflow problem" that's waiting for collaboration software to solve. The bottleneck is human effort to properly read papers to judge its correctness and significance. In 1687, a human would read Newton's Principia Mathematica at ~200 words-per-minute and after several hours, maybe he'd conclude that "yes, F=ma looks reasonable here". It's 300 years later and we're still the same slow humans reading papers at ~200 wpm. It's worse now because there's a larger glut of bad papers to wade through than before.

Peer review of novels, scientific papers, business plans, is not solvable by a Github/Sharepoint/DropBox. The bottleneck isn't the copying of pdf or LaTeX files from one person to the next. It's the hours of human effort to judge the papers and signal to the next person to also expend hours of human effort.

The issue about publishers isn't the filtering. The real issue is that they they charge too much money for filtering. The high profits is misleading some people to think it's an easy problem solved by github or a reddit-like voting system.


> I think people can conclude that flipping through 100 cat photos is different than slogging through 100 dense papers.

You're attacking a straw man. I said reddit-like, not reddit-clone. There are plenty of obvious problems with reddit's voting system. So what?

What is scientific consensus if not a vote among some random sampling of scientists studying a field. What's left is to formalize this process in an open system so we're not beholden to the publishers and other parties with perverse incentives.

> Evaluating dense papers is not an "information technology workflow problem" that's waiting for collaboration software to solve. The bottleneck is human effort to properly read papers to judge its correctness and significance.

You're wrong. Firstly, it's often impossible to judge the significance of a result even soon after publishing.

Secondly, reviewers already donate their time to review papers, so the human effort is already there. What's needed is a well-recognized system encoding a publishing process, whereby some random selection of scientists obtain access to early drafts with a way to provide commentary and ratings on various metrics, with final publication after some quality consensus is reached among the random selection of reviewers (as a rough idea).

This is exactly an information technology problem.


> I said reddit-like, not reddit-clone.

Yes, and that's what I understood you to mean and a reddit-like voting system for papers is what I was talking about. (I even wrote "reddit-like voting system" as my last sentence in the post you replied to.)

>You're wrong. Firstly, it's often impossible to judge the significance of a result even soon after publishing.

I'm not talking about "significance" in relation to the whole of human history. I mean "significance" in the sense of a threshold for requesting other people to invest their time & effort to study the paper and also the subsequent subscribers to read.

>, reviewers already donate their time to review papers, so the human effort is already there.

Yes, but the key you're missing is that they donate their time because a respectable _somebody_ requested them to do so. The triggers for motivating that donated effort matters.

If I'm a working scientist working 50 hours a week, I'm not logging into a reddit-like voting system and investing hours to read (mostly bad) papers that have 0 votes so I can submit my 1 vote. No, somebody I respect (e.g. a journal editor) needs to ping me and say, "hey, this paper looks interesting, can you review it?" After I peer review it, I may get some quid-pro-quo such as free access to the journal's other papers and/or when it's my turn to submit a paper, the editor will consider forwarding it. So yes, I'm not "paid in cash" but I'm paid "in kind" with some intangibles.

That social dynamic is not replicable in a reddit-like voting system.

Therefore your following scenario of:

>whereby some random selection of scientists obtain access to early drafts

... is not realistic because scientists do not want to be part of random pool to be assigned random papers. That's contrary to basic human nature! Scientists want papers referred to them by another human and not an algorithm. It's not a technology problem, it's a human problem.

All the software suggestions to solve this from programmers including ideas such as a reddit-like system, or a github-like system, or a blockchain type system, etc ... they all misunderstand the culture and psychological motivations of publishing.

>What is scientific consensus if not a vote among some random sampling of scientists studying a field.

Yes, I can see that if you reduce the problem to the simple abstraction of "votes", it seems like building a software platform to formally capture votes is The Solution.

What your simplification leaves out is all the human signaling required before people render their votes. That's the human dynamic that collaboration software doesn't solve.

(In any case, an accepted published paper isn't "consensus" per se; it's just another piece of evidence for people to weigh. The paper just passed through enough human curation filters that may be worthwhile to read.)


> All the software suggestions to solve this from programmers

I agree with you that it is difficult to improve on the peer review process. At the same time, several researchers have pointed out that publishers aren't really involved in the peer review process. It should be possible to coordinate journal publication through a software platform, replacing the publishers without affecting the peer reviewers or editors.


>, several researchers have pointed out that publishers aren't really involved in the peer review process.

Yes, I agree employees at Elsevier aren't doing the actual peer review. However, they do critical filtering work before the any journal editors see the paper. See example from Elsevier employee Angela Kerr.[1]

The programmers who think they can revolutionize academic publishing by developing a new peer-review collaboration platform don't even realize that people like Angela Kerr exist. (See repeated disgust in this thread about "peer reviewers are unpaid". That's true but it also makes Ms Kerr's paid work invisible.)

In addition to basic copy-editing, she prevents crackpot articles such as "Darwin's Theory of Evolution is proven wrong by Trump" from reaching the journal editors and wasting their time. (She may inadvertently forward some bad articles but she has enough education to reject many of them outright to minimize the effort by the journal's scientists.)

Administrative people like her cost money. One would have to replicate her duties somehow in the new software platform. That's because the journal editors (scientists) are busy and they absolutely will not want to log into a new collaboration platform and stare at a long queue of unfiltered papers that everybody uploaded. Even though Angela doesn't do the "peer review" per se, the journals still want her to make a first pass cut. None of the ideas I've seen from programmers integrate her function into their model of what peer-review software should do.

With something like Stackoverflow, you have volunteers scrolling through the queue of questions and deleting/editing bad ones so their highly valued experts don't have to waste time with them. That's workable for "programming questions" because they are typically less than 100 words. Even with smaller workload of not reading 20000-word research papers, volunteers still get burned out and quit.

For highly prestigious papers like Nature and Cell that would attract a high volume of uploaded papers, it's very doubtful you'd have volunteers like Stackoverflow to slog through all the junk. Therefore, you'd have to staff up some copy editors and pay them money to do unpleasant work.

The problem is that Elsevier charges an insane amount of money for subscriptions (~$800 million in profits with 36% profit margin). Yes, a new system can charge much less money and be more efficient but you still have to do the work that Elsevier does. The journal editors don't want to do it. The potential software model of synthesizing ideas from reddit+github+dropbox+bittorrent+Sharepoint+blockchain ... don't account for Angela Kerr. Programmers think only in terms of distributing files like pdf and LaTeX. That's why they think academic publishing is a solved software problem and not a human effort problem.

>It should be possible to coordinate journal publication through a software platform, replacing the publishers without affecting the peer reviewers or editors.

The software platform can replace Elsevier in particular, but it can't replace the fundamental "work activity of a publisher". Angela Kerr (or whoever employs her) wants to be paid to do the unpleasant work that journal scientists don't want to do. And she doesn't want to be paid in reddit-like "karma votes" or github-like "stars". The new system can pay Ms Kerr less money than Elsevier (and hopefully pass those savings on to subscribing libraries) but let's be clear that the journal scientists absolutely do not want a new software platform without her.

[1] https://www.elsevier.com/connect/confessions-of-a-managing-e...


That's a great link, thanks. Journal editors should hire technical editors themselves. This is easier than it sounds since they can just contract with a well-known company at competitive prices. The workflow: first, subject editors filter and revise submissions, and then scientists judge the merits.

There is great need for a software nonprofit to enable scientists and editors to collaborate with minimal overhead, because even $2000/paper is too painful. The true marginal cost should be under $200/paper for scientific editing,[1] and at that price point, open access will overwhelmingly win. If we can build such a platform, I believe that Elsevier will find it very difficult to retain their journal editors.

[1] http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/pricing.html


True, and putting it that way makes it seem painfully obvious. Yet countless companies led by seemingly rational adults somehow came to the opposite conclusion. Pretty fascinating, and I think it's a mistake to use our 20/20 hindsight to dismiss them as mere dinosaurs/idiots. I'm guessing here, but it seems like it must happen incrementally -- frog-in-the-pot-of-water style. Like they react correctly to each small change considered in isolation, but then either don't see or don't accept, and therefore can't react to, the bigger underlying paradigm shift in progress, that unites and explains all the small incremental changes. At the end of a certain interval of time, it's obvious they've failed, yet with each small decision they probably thought they were reacting appropriately. And everybody around them affirmed that. Couple books' worth of interesting material there.

So if you want to have any hope of seeing things coming, you almost have to think in un-utterable heresies... and bam, I just realized I'm repeating a Paul Graham essay. Ah well. This paragraph's over!


What do you mean by "floundering"? Not providing a lot of value? If so, I could agree, but otherwise, they're doing really well, and have about managed to co-opt the open access movement to ensure they maintain their ridiculous profit margins.


By 'better than free', are you referring to this[1] by Kevin Kelly. To quote from it:When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied. And goes ahead to list 8 qualities of what can be sellable once distribution is no longer the value-getter. [1] http://kk.org/thetechnium/better-than-fre/


The best example is Steam.

Pirate a game? Hard to find, lot of chances to get viruses and you have to update your fixed .exe every patch.

Buy it? 2 clicks, one download, done. If you can wait a little you get those at half price during sales. You have user reviews and forums to check before you buy instead of paid-for "professional" reviews.


There still needs to be some kind of repositories though and someone will need cash to operate those. We could also use a discovery method to find the repositories and a common payment protocol. Then there's reviews and trust to consider.

I agree that internet for distribution is the way to go but I wouldn't put a capital-s on solved just yet.


This applies to all media. I work for s major media company and they have been cutting editorial hugely. And yet they worry about readership - why would readers increase if the quality decreases?


The repeated use of the word "pirate" here is absurd. From a moral standpoint, the argument against piracy is that it deprives creators of their livelihood. In scientific publishing, creators (and even reviewers!) are not compensated by publishers, and "piracy" actually helps their careers (this is why scientists are, in general, so strongly in favor of Sci-hub). But by abusing emotionally laden language and false comparisons with the music industry, the author hopes to win sympathy for an industry that, honestly, needs to radically change or die.


A few years ago, I wanted to switch my CS specialty from computer vision to bioinformatics and biology simulation. I have always been intrested in optimization, often wrote GPU code, found biology much more rewarding than augmented reality.

A good researcher in the field was generous enough to guide me through the process and gave me a list of basic and also cutting edge articles that I should understand to be useful in the field. Coming from CS, I expected the literature to be basically free to download from researchers webpages. Boy was I wrong.

The guy sent me a few copies, I was at the time also working close to a uni so I leeched a few from their library access, but this was a new field for me: every article rests on well-known conclusions explained in another article so I needed a ton of references, each bringing other references. Exactly like when you start reading an article in wikipedia on a subject you don't know.

At one point I just felt ashamed of asking articles after articles and my library (that was not specialized in biology) only had half the articles I needed. I considered paying for them, but I needed probably at least 200 references and each was in 30 dollars range.

I quit. I am still doing computer vision. I was ready to earn less to do research in a critical field for society, but I abandoned mostly because of this stupid barrier, that said that not only should I be ready to earn less, but also pay a huge rent to people I know to be parasites in order to be allowed to help research.

Fuck that.


This also highlights another effect: imagine you would have stuck around, and not have bundled access to all required papers because, as you said, it's outside of your main department (which also, obviously, encourages that expertise stays in its own little silos) . You'd have to be selective with which articles you give a try. And which ones will that be? In this age if Google Scholar, more often than not the ones with a lot of citations already, I bet.

So the already existing effect of people sticking to the commonly accepted truth is amplified. But science works at the edge of our knowledge, where what is already known breaks down and different and/or less commonly known ideas and solutions are needed.


Was this before Sci-Hub existed?


Yes. There was a newsgroup (or already a subreddit?) where people asked for articles and got answered with copies but these were usually students or researchers stuck by a specific article they could not get. Not someone like me who would have to ask 20 references at a time.


Well, that suggests that now is a good time to at least explore things again. Bioarxiv also exists now


Off topic, would you be able to share the list of the articles given to you by your colleague?


I concur fuck it. Im in a similar place right now. You'll figure it out.


Also: piracy in music is more bounded because distributors have adapted to add value for users, at a reasonable price, sharing some revenue with the creators. (I'm thinking Spotify, YouTube, etc)


Sci-hub has been a total game changer. Plug in a DOI, get a paper. No accounts/tracking, no payment, no looking up the journal and their access model. Just research. The simplicity of use and ease of access is unparalleled.

I'm not a working scientist - I have no paid-for University access to a variety of journals or other such connections, nor do I know the intricate details of how research is published. What I do know is that I'm a citizen helping to fund much of this work, and access to primary literature is critically important to make informed decisions about our future. The academics are paid a salary to produce findings, not to sell individual copies (unlike the music industry comparisons). While I'm willing to pay something, I can't be expected to pay the huge costs to access individual papers that are demanded today. Open access journals like PLOS are fantastic, but it's an unfortunate reality that much of the quality research is published on platforms that charge $30 for a paper. Until this changes, sci-hub is my answer.


> I'm a citizen helping to fund much of this work

This is where my issue is. I have personally seen government-funded studies whose authors did not publish the full datasets of their findings (they were 'inconvenient' to the conclusion they were attempting to come to), and it was only discovered in emails unearthed in discovery when a company spent over a million dollars suing the government over the decisions made based upon the study.

Long story short, if my taxes pay for a study, I want full access to everything, supplementary data included. But sadly, that may not heaven even been enough for this particular cover-up.


Wow, now you got me curious about that case... Dare elaborate?



This a climate change conspiracy conspiracy.


You and me both. I could have written that. Kind of did my own:

What the academic publishing industry calls "theft" the world calls "research": Why Sci-Hub is so popular

https://www.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/4p2rwk/what_th...


> Sci-hub has been a total game changer. Plug in a DOI, get a paper. No accounts/tracking, no payment, no looking up the journal and their access model. Just research. The simplicity of use and ease of access is unparalleled.

Here's the funny thing: this is exactly what the Web was invented for. This is how this was supposed to work! You get an URI (DOI is a form of URI), and you use that URI to get to the content. Just linking, no bullshit.

It's no surprise SciHub is popular. It makes things work the way they always should have.


It costs some money to get a DOI. Publishers can still be content aggregators and indexers, or curators. Sci-hub is merely an archive.


Paying $30 to merely look at a paper that may or may not be valuable is ridiculous no matter how you slice it.


You aren't meant to pay the $30, you're meant to be inside the firewall at an institution.


And that excludes 99% of taxpayers.


Correct, but I think people are getting hung up on the price and rent-seeking aspect. The price is a farce. Really, what's happening is the restriction of knowledge to the ivory towers (and their VPNs).


But why is the price a farce? Why not make it some nominal amount? Universities will still buy subscriptions.


> It costs some money to get a DOI

Can't be too much, seeing as I can put a semi-unlimited number of PDFs up on Figshare and get DOIs for them for free.


IIRC it's about a dollar a piece.


A number that points to a URL costs a dollar.

At 4k per DOI, you can store 1/4 million of them per GB. They are basically MAC addresses for documents.


I agree there is value added by curation. But today, academic publishing is an industry worth over $10b, and they don't actually pay for the original access or license of the content or the editing and peer-review. Publishers do add value but not to the extent of the cost that's passed on to the public today.


> content aggregators and indexers, or curators

This is an active Machine Learning task in a lab at my university. Given the kind of progress they are making, I don't see publishers finding much monetary value in this task in the future.


I'm not entirely sure about that. But luckily there is an easy way to find out.

All we need to do is give Sci-hub free reign to publish scientific articles, and see what happens.


If anyone is confused like I was:

"Gold open access": publish paper in a publicly accessible academic journal.

"Green open access": self-publish. For instance, throw it on a website, and allow it to be indexed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access


""" In gold open access, you write a paper and pay a big company lots of money to give it away for free. For some reason this isn't catching on.

In green open access, you publish your paper with a big company. They charge people to read it – but you make another version available for free. This has not caught on except in math and physics.

In diamond open access, you publish your paper with a journal that's free for you and free for the people who read it. This has also not caught on, because most "prestigious" journals – the ones you need to publish in to get a job – are run by companies who don't do stuff for free.

In black open access, people illegally download millions of papers and books from big companies and make them available to everyone for free. This is working great. """ - John Baez post on google-plus.



Thank you. It was an embarrassingly badly written article, not to even define the basic terms.


The author is allowed to expect a certain domain knowledge. For example, an article about an advanced physics topic is not expected to explain Newton's laws.


Agreed. I should have been more clear on my criticism. If the author had the goal of convincing people beyond their existing audience then explaining their terms would have helped significantly.


They weren't trying to convince people beyond their existing audience. They're talking to the academic publishing audience, for whom these terms are quite standard.

Because when it comes down to it, "Hacker News thinks this is swell" doesn't actually matter.


There's even more distinctions: is there an embargo or not, is it gratis or libre, pay-to-publish or not, and is the full journal open? Here's an overview: https://medium.com/flockademic/how-open-can-open-access-be-c...


That was confusing, thanks. I thought "Gold" meant "Put up a paywall and charge lots of money," "Green" meant "Put up a paywall and charge moderate amounts of money," and "Black" meant "Hoist the Jolly Roger and don't charge anything at all."


Gold means the author pays the cost of publishing, potentially several thousand dollars.

Green means "arxiv": the author uploads a "preprint" version to a website. The "official" version is in a conventional reader-pays journal.

"Black" does indeed mean sci-hub piracy.


It's not that complicated. The author seems to think that academic journals were somehow high-quality products that were co-opted by privacy. The music industry also, once upon a time, thought that offering disks in record stores was a high-quality offering.

Music pirates forced the music industry to realize that they were charging too much for user-hostile formats. Publishing pirates ought to force the publishing industry to realize that they are charging too much for user-hostile formats, too.

The music industry started to win back market-share from pirates when they understood that they had to compete with pirate offerings and offer a better, higher-quality product. The results were iTunes, then Spotify and similar competitors (Google Music etc.). The publishing industry ought to be no exception.


I'm not sure the academic publishing industry is going to get what little goodwill the music industry has. With iTunes and so on, there's at least the idea that some small fraction of the money spent is going back to the artists.

That doesn't seem to be the case with academic publishing, where you have these purely rent-seeking corporations. Why would I want to give Elsevier my money, when the authors of the paper don't get any of it?

That's the problem academic publishing has, making it hard to recognize sci-hub as illegitimate.

(One of my happiest academic publishing experiences was when I wrote a paper while working for the US government, which meant there was no copyright for the publisher to insist on stealing from me.)


I would prefer to see the reviewers of a paper getting paid than the authors.

I was a founder of a startup in the 80s that was part funded by Elsevier. I spent a fair bit of time discussing the possible impact of computer networks and graphical displays on their business model with their then CTO.


Please go on. Your anecdote stopped before any of the interesting parts. Did the then-CTO not see any of this coming, or did he/she just think that they couldn't change anything one way or the other?


Some people might disagree but I also believe that piracy has played a huge role in leading to those better and higher-quality results such as iTunes, (and especially) Spotify.

I can clearly remember that the cost of a single album on CD was (and still is) equal to the amount of money I pay to Spotify each month for completely unlimited use. Since Spotify (and other similar services) are still alive, I think you can still make some decent amount of money without being too much greedy.


Regarding your last sentence: Spotify may still be alive, but it's losing massive amounts of money. One example article about this: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-15/spotify-l...


"they understood that they had to compete with pirate offerings and offer a better, higher-quality product."

They (music industry) 'understood' once Jobs had used all of his negotiating skills to convince labels to join iTunes and they saw the money the service raked in. There was zero innovation coming from the publishers. The first response to napster was not to develop a better distribution method but to go to courts and add DRM to their music CD:s by injecting a rootkit to the users computer! Oh the shitstorm the Sony's audio CD DRM raised...

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_BMG_copy_protection_roo...


> The author seems to think that academic journals were somehow high-quality products that were co-opted by privacy.

Indeed. And indeed, academic journals used to be high-quality products, that were run on a not-for-profit (or nearly so) basis. Then they were co-opted by rent-seeking corporations. Who have been gutting substance -- careful peer review, editing, proofreading, typesetting, and quality printing -- and focused on over-the-top squeezing of the academic sector. It's arguable that they are the pirates. Or maybe slavers.


I think you are almost right. Today they aren't a high quality product, however 30 years ago they were. The journals just did rent-seeking behavior, cutting staff that made the journals high quality. Piracy didn't ruin them though I agree there.


The author is asking how we'd be able to make Open Access happen through legal means - and yes, that's complicated [1], otherwise it'd been solved already.

[1] https://medium.com/flockademic/the-vicious-cycle-of-scholarl...


"Music pirates forced the music industry to realize that they were charging too much for user-hostile formats. "

No, it's simply a matter of people being able to take something for free and not pay for it.

'Any cost' is too much if someone can grab it for free.

The format was never the issue in terms of price, given IP protections. But the 'new' format implied weak IP protections, ergo a new price point of zero.

The music industry is not winning back market share, they're just adapting to other forms of revenue - and it has nothing to do with a 'higher quality product' - at least not in terms of the file/audio formats themselves.


In my opinion, at the root of a lot of these problems is the fact that copyright has moved from being something designed to have a very limited duration and then expire, to something that lasts far more than a lifetime.

If copyright still expired in 14 or 28 years, we'd have a rich public domain from which to draw from. Think about all of the "fan fiction" that could be commercialized, or the textbooks which could be freely modified and redistributed by students and the academic community.

Because the public domain has been cheated out of such wealth (in no small part due to lobbying by Disney and other IP-based corporations) it really doesn't surprise me that piracy is so popular.


What wealth? We already have plenty of public domain works, and they get bundled 50 to 100 movies in a set for ten dollars. We already have plenty of things you can make fan fiction of an monetize, but very little public domain stuff gets that. There was a spate of this in comics, with people attempting to do that with The Shadow or Green Hornet, or other lapsed properties.

What people really want to do is make money by piggybacking off established brands that spend a lot of money to remain relevant. They don't want public domain in general, they want disney to be stripped of copyright protections so they can milk them dry through parasitical works.

But they don't get that once that happens, the works because worthless precisely because no one is willing to spend more than the bare minimum on something they can't protect. It just winds up on youtube for free; who cares about spending money restoring or advertising for it?


You're telling me star wars would have never been made if Lucas only had 28 years of exclusive rights to the franchise? Please.

Here's some public domain characters that have ended up in works that have given a lot of people entertainment: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Dolittle... that Mickey Mouse and C3PO haven't joined this list is only because of relatively recent extension of copyright terms, which have amounted to a transfer of wealth towards those who didn't need more of it to be artistically creative...


Information economics seem to be playing out exactly as expected. The price of a good is reverting to its cost of production--near $0 for copying bytes. You can't stop the rock.

In Information Rules, Shapiro & Varian argue that if you're selling an information product, all that you can charge for is the value that you add on top of the information, such as convenience, freshness, etc. It's best to assume the information itself is free.


> The price of a good is reverting to its cost of production--near $0 for copying bytes.

That needs the word "marginal" inserted just before the word "cost".


Thanks, and good catch. I agree that high fixed costs underlie the very first production unit, followed by cheap distribution and low marginal costs.


Can you explain why?


When you're making a new movie, the production of the master copy can cost millions of dollars. Same thing with software products, songs, and digital photos. However, making a digital copy after that is very cheap.

Therefore, it's better to say that the marginal production cost moves towards zero instead of the total production cost, which would include the master copy cost.


Marginal economics seems to be rather popular, but I'm still a stickler for classical ideas of value personally.


Well then, the price of a good is nowhere near reverting to its cost of production, which is obviously far higher than the cost of the Nth copy of that good.


Huh? If you're selling an information product, then you can charge for the information. I.e. if the information you produced/collected is better, better organized or more convenient than what you and I can find searching hours on the internet. That has value, a lot of value, and you can, and should charge for it.

The problem with academic publishers is that they don't do any of the above. The information isn't even really theirs! That's why their product is essentially worthless...


This argument proves too much. Music and app stores seem to be doing fine selling files for more than the cost of copying the bytes. Also, consider Bitcoin.


Most music can be found for free on pirate sites and YouTube (but I repeat myself). The Music and app stores are providing convenience, not the actual bits.


Bingo. You know what I never pirate? Music and games, because of Google Music and Steam.


And promising to pay the artist. A lot of people actually want to financially support the creators of things they enjoy.


I imagine many would also like to show support towards the author of the paper. But the money paid for the paper pretty much only goes to the publisher.

Weirdly, sometimes the author has to pay the publisher to get published. And then the publisher again gets money from people buying the paper! All in the name of getting published in a 'respectable' journal.


Yep. It's trivial to download the preview files on Bandcamp - view source, look for the URLs starting popplers5.bandcamp.com - but nobody does, because you'd have to be a bit of a dick. And Bandcamp takes only 15% at most, the rest is passed straight to the artist/label.


Paying the middleman in the hope that they in turn will pay the artist is a little naive though.


That is actually solved separately with things like Patreon, etc.


Pretty much all markets sell convenience. Buying something at one place and time and selling it in another that's more convenient to the buyer is what traders do.

And yes, alternatives exist. But companies are selling the bits for more than the cost of production and millions of people are buying it, despite cheaper competition. This seems to be sustainable. So the original argument about economics and what markets will bear is false.


And the point is that using a free search engine is cheaper AND more convenient than reading through a journal. Like, would you subscribe to a poorly curated version of HN and Reddit instead of just going to the source?


The argument was that this is inevitable due to basic economics 101 ideas about perfect competition. A specific argument was made about prices needing to be set near the cost of distribution.

The point of bringing up video, movies, and books is to show that it's not that inevitable and markets don't have to work that way. Netflix subscriptions pay for a lot more than download bandwidth. Similarly with Kindle.

So it depends on the specifics of the market. Currently, academic publishers are not meeting that community's needs very well (understatement), so it's ripe for disruption. Competing with Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify is a lot harder.

My guess is that eventually a better service will come along, colleges will be willing to fund it (at far cheaper than today's prices for journals), and many people will stop using SciHub. But, as with the music industry, that may take a while; it doesn't happen automatically.


I think video and music are only good examples to the first approximation. Video for example requires a vast infrastructure to deliver. That's not something that each filmmaker can do on their own. Music is a little easier, but discoverability is still a problem, and if your song becomes popular, good look keeping your host from dying as everyone streams it. Besides, music is a little more difficult to index than papers.

Scientific papers are far easier. The demand even for the most popular ones is likely a lot less than the demand for a semi popular song. It's is easy to self host them. It's also easy to categorize and tag them. And that makes them easy to index. I am going to venture a guess that all scientific papers ever written (stuff that would be published in a journal, not necessarily all the accompanying data), could probably fit on your phone's storage. A kick ass engine to search it could be an app you download. Oh and for the most part there are no licenses to negotiate. You just publish.

So while the only way to get a new scientific paper in front of a large audience of your peers was to print 10k copies of it in a journal and mail the journals, publishers provided value. Now they do not.

Oh and Spotify is not a counter example. If you could have access to app scientific papers in the world ever published as soon as they are published, but it cost you $10/month we wouldn't be talking about this. It's still too expensive, but in relative terms cheap enough that nobody would give a crap. Subscribing to multiple publications to get a small subset is silly. Imagine if instead of Spotify you had to subscribe to each label's streaming service. Would you?


I think we actually agree that it depends on the specifics of the market. Otherwise you wouldn't be bringing up all these additional facts about how academic publishing works compared to other markets. The specifics matter - that's my point.


Rereading your comment, yes I think we do agree.


Don't people tend to prefer services where the marginal cost of digital goods is ~0, or perhaps somewhere around the value of an ad impression? I.e. Patreon, spotify premium or netflix, but also free services like youtube and soundcloud or free apps with ads.

The value of bitcoin is actually that high above its production/maintenance cost because of the growing value of cryptographically-guaranteed currency - that said, I gather the act of copying bytes across the congested bitcoin network is particularly costly.


Were publisher really adding zero value ? honest question.

Did they help people finding books, or organized events, helped authors in any albeit indirect way ?


Well, the idea was that they sorted the wheat from the chaff, published only the good stuff, and therefore saved you time. I'm not sure how effective they currently are at providing this service, though.


They are not providing that service. The reviewers are other scientists working for free. All the publisher is doing is coordinating the work.

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