02 February 2015

Unseparated Link Sausages

What? There was a football game going on between the commercials yesterday? Actually quite a good one, ultimately decided by a brain freeze on the sidelines (and they happen at least three or four times every game... it's just that the consequences were particularly obvious this time).

  • The academic periodical publishing industry isn't like the other twelve. It has a combination of a captive audience and a captive, restricted supply chain that already distinguishes it; then there's the failure to pay authors, with the arrogant assumption that "academic authors are paid for their work by their universities, and we benefit them by validating them for tenure and promotion." Which goes some way toward explaining why the oligopolist commercial academic periodical publishers (Wiley and Elsevier as named in the article, plus Springer and Pearson which for no good reason aren't) are so profitable...

    And I have to refute one bit of bad law-and-economics in the article — rather ironically, as the set-piece for the article is Thomas Piketty's book (as published by an academic book-length publisher), which explicitly denies this assertion:

    Yet the scholarly journals of the world are doing fine: they remain a multibillion-dollar industry. “Their publishers are doing what they are supposed to do,” [Stuart Shieber, Director of the Office for Scholarly Communications at Harvard] explains. “The big ones are large, publicly traded companies with a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits. They happen to be operating in a market that is dysfunctional in a way that publishers can take advantage of, to the detriment of the social good—and that’s a problem. Access to journal articles takes place in a monopolistic market. Economically, markets are supposed to generate efficiency in the allocation of goods,” he continues. “I’m a big fan of markets—I’m a capitalist at heart.” But “If you want to read something in Cell, for example, you have to pay Elsevier, which owns Cell—and if you don’t like their price, you’re out of luck.”

    (emphasis added, fake paragraphing removed for clarity) Umm, no. A publicly traded company (even a non-US company) does not have a fiduciary duty to "maximize profits." Any duty regarding profits is a prudential — not fiduciary — requirement, that is subordinate to both (a) the cramped, unrealistic, inapplicable-to-publishing definition of "profit" and (b) the actual fiduciary duty to grow the corporation's overall value consistent with the stated mission of the corporation. This latter can include acquiring assets at a low price that will, themselves, grow in value without ever generating a "profit" — they may serve as collateral for capital loans at favorable rates, such as the classic real-estate investment trust of the 1970s and 1980s. Failing to secure enough (especially short-term) profit may piss off some shareholders and result in replacement of board members... but it's not a breach of fiduciary duty unless it results from other misconduct that is a breach of fiduciary duty.

    Note that this extended tangent is, ultimately, the real point of the article: That academic periodical publishing is not like commercial publishing, even when done by commercial entities... and that's quite probably a good thing, if only because the market is not a perfect filtering mechanism for everything. We'll leave aside for the moment that the article itself also demonstrates that academic periodical publishing isn't even in the same industry as academic book publishing! As I've remarked before in a slightly different (but actually quite related) context, the academic/commercial distinction reflects the economic rent for the First Amendment that nobody acknowledges paying, let alone accounts for.

  • In light of the preceding, ponder the forthcoming fracas over Amazon and the BBC while recognizing that the BBC's own corporate charter makes it more like an academic periodical publisher than a commercial press...
  • ... and, conversely, treatment of archly commercial fiction by downstream exploiters. n.b. I note this for the controversy itself, not for the particular facts in this particular iteration of the controversy — if only because the facts are incredibly unclear and contested (and there appears to be plenty of legal malpractice to go around on all sides of this one).
  • Meanwhile, it's going to become harder for speculative fiction readers to find new stuff in San Francisco, in light of the impending closure of the only specialist speculative fiction store in the city. I should also remark that the excuse of "mid-to-long-term increased labor costs" is at most a minor factor here: There are other, deeper-seated problems, beginning with an utter lack of parking. I have bad memories of schlepping heavy bags of books from Foyle's home on public transportation in London — and that definitely led to fewer purchases at Foyle's (by me, anyway). Then there's the unsuitability of the space itself for browsing (some architectural, some internal)... In short, blaming it on raising minimum wage for employees is at best somewhat deceptive, particularly as a reasonable percentage of the clientele (especially the younger set) has its own compensation based on the prevailing minimum wage.

    Just like management to blame labor for its woes.

  • Then there's one of my favorite little problems, which — if one thinks about it carefully — relates to all of the above: How do we select judges? Judges are more conservative than the bar as a whole, which can be a real problem (witness the intransigence of Southern judges — even federal judges — on racial matters, and more-recently on same-sex marriage). And things get worse with an elected judiciary that is unwilling to discipline the elected law-enforcement community.

    Frankly, there's no excuse for electing any person who has substantial discretionary authority over particular instances of justice, at least when that discretion is exercised prior to any verdict: Not judges, not prosecutors, not sheriffs or police commissioners. It leads to an invidious "just hang the guilty bastards, who are almost always to be found among the usual suspects" culture that pervades the entire system. This is one of those times that something calling itself "democracy" is not the superior alternative. Appointed officials must be ultimately accountable to the elected ones, but only in an ultimate sense and only concerning actual misconduct — not policy-level disagreements that almost always result from reification of prior-generation property dispositions.