12 February 2008


Two seemingly unrelated items — combined with the ongoing WGA vote on ending the three-month-old writers' strike — help illuminate one of the real problems with the various parts of the entertainment industry. On the one hand, the Tolkein estate's suit against New Line cannot come as much of a surprise to anyone, particularly after the protracted Jackson/New Line matter over the same films. The film industry is not exactly a bastion of honest accounting; the question is really not whether New Line shortchanged the Tolkein estate, but how much it did so.

Then there's news from Harvard of a faculty vote to allow Harvard itself to place their work online for public access.1 The money quote (literally, in this instance):

The publishing industry, as well as some scholarly groups, have opposed some forms of open access, contending that free distribution of scholarly articles would ultimately eat away at journals’ value and wreck the existing business model. Such a development would in turn damage the quality of research, they argue, by allowing articles that have not gone through a rigorous process of peer review to be broadcast on the Internet as easily as a video clip of Britney Spears’s latest hairdo. It would also cut into subsidies that some journals provide for educational training and professional meetings, they say.

One of the virtually infallible signs of an economic rent is that the recipient then spends a great deal of time and effort justifying the rent with noneconomic arguments. Two unstated assumptions hiding behind this argument fall apart on even cursory inspection.

  • That peer review is critical, and can only be provided at great cost. First of all, peer review doesn't always work, as Professor Myers points out. There really isn't much reason to link payment for peer review to the quality of peer review; comparing, say, the lasting value of articles in the Supreme Court Review (a peer-reviewed journal) to the lasting value of articles on comparable topics in any of the top 10-15 student-edited journals calls this into question. This is the point of faculty colloquia and conferences. Which leads to the other assumption:
  • That those purported "subsidies" are both significant and the result of voluntary action by the journals. Without breaching any confidences acquired over the years, naaaaaaaaah.

Professor Patry notes that a similar program at NIH has not led to the collapse of biomedical journals (nor, for that matter, to any perceptible change in the speed, availability, or quality of peer review).2

To be honest, academic journals really provide only three services that are outside the ordinary scope of the ivory-tower (or ivory-laboratory) professor and his/her research group: consistent formatting and presentation, which is becoming less of an issue with the increasing sophistication and transparency of basic layout software; blind review, which is usually not all that blind anyway (it certainly isn't in chemistry and sport physiology!); and language editing. Let's be honest: Academics, as a group, don't write very well. (Neither, unfortunately, do peer reviewers...)

So, then, what is the connection here? Leaving aside the nontransparency of journal finance (some of them even charge the authors for publication... that is, they're vanity presses!), the connection here is the different — and incompatible, as between provider and exploiter — valuation systems for intellectual property. The distinction should sound familiar to anyone with a detailed knowledge of Renaissance economics.

To be continued... (hey, as of the moment I'm writing this, the WGA is still on strike, so a crappy cliffhanger is probably par for the course)

  1. The irony that the Harvard University Press and the various Harvard Law School journals have some of the most rapacious and confiscatory copyright policies in all of academia has apparently escaped the faculty.
  2. As a former denizen of the hard sciences and editor at an academic press, in my experience the technical term for most peer reviews is "thoroughly random."