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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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After last week’s post on APCs, some further musings. Following Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s work on generous thinking and the importance of community for the academy, I was advocating for the importance of the mission-driven nature of the publishers that we choose infrastructurally to support.

Imagine a scenario, though: a for-profit publisher makes 37% profit. However, it is enormous and so can negotiate (read: almost force) unit-cost suppliers (typesetters, copyeditors, proofreaders) to yield lower rates in exchange for guaranteed volume. It also has economies of scale of staffing, although this comes with some management overheads.

By contrast, imagine a small not-for-profit, charitable publisher (education is deemed a special, charitable activity, so academic publication can fall under such a remit) that makes a 10% surplus that it uses for operational safety.

Imagine that the charitable publisher is more expensive than the for-profit publisher on a unit-level basis, although it consumes far fewer library resources in absolute terms and is affordable for most libraries, unlike the gross percentage increases of the for-profits, which vastly outstrip inflation.

Market logic says that we should go with the for-profits. The problem is that no new entity can emerge in the field that can compete on price with the mega-corporations, who can simply “do an Uber” and starve out the competition. The other problem is that the scholarly communications space is actively designed to frustrate market-based decision-making (no price sensitivity from academics, no comparable goods). Common sense and self preservation, then, says that we should go with the not-for-profits and take the short-term hit. At a time of global pressure on research and library budgets, though, this is also a tough sell. Of course, being not-for-profit/a charity is not always a straightforward indicator of shared values.

My hypothesis: different people will have different views on this. Some will be conflicted – those who hate Elsevier’s profit-mongering but want to use market logic to drive down costs, for instance. They might argue that without those profit margins, the charitable versions will be cheaper. But in the short term, and when not at scale, I am not sure that they will.