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Martin Paul Eve

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

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This week for our COPIM reading group we are reading Hartley, John, Jason Potts, Lucy Montgomery, Ellie Rennie, and Cameron Neylon, ‘Do We Need to Move from Communication Technology to User Community? A New Economic Model of the Journal as a Club’, Learned Publishing, 32.1 (2019), 27–35 <https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1228>. For many years, the heterogeneous open-access movement has had at least two different goals, although sometimes held concomitantly: the first, to obtain access to the scholarly record, free of charge, in order to improve the way that research is consumed; and the second, to lower costs for libraries who have seen unsustainable hyperinflationary rises in the prices of the journals to which they must subscribe.

Those with either of these goals have felt frustrated with the slow rate of progress. For Hartley et al., the ‘extent to which many of the hopeful predictions about OA have missed the mark or otherwise been frustrated is due, we believe, to a misunderstanding of the basic economics of scholarly journals’ (28). The misunderstanding to which they gesture lies in the history of OA, which is not rooted in ‘economic calculations’, but rather, they claim, in ‘user communities’ (28). The misunderstanding, for Hartley et al., is that a journal, in reality, ‘is a club’ (28).

What is a club? The theoretical explanation that the authors give is rooted in their earlier works: Potts, Jason, John Hartley, Lucy Montgomery, Cameron Neylon, and Ellie Rennie, ‘A Journal Is a Club: A New Economic Model for Scholarly Publishing’, Prometheus, 35.1 (2017), 75–92 <https://doi.org/10.1080/08109028.2017.1386949> and Hartley, John, ‘Public Intellectuals: La Lutte Continue?’, Media International Australia, 156.1 (2015), 108–22 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X1515600113>. Specifically, a ‘scholarly journal’, they write ‘is neither a private nor a public good; it is a “club good” because it is non-rivalrous (like a public good) and excludable (like a private good)’ (29). Clubs, for Hartley et al., also have optimal sizes that are determined by various bottlenecks. In terms of a concrete example, they note that ‘while the page count of an online-only journal may be, in principle, unlimited, there is congestion in access to the editorial processes, referees, decision-making, and production processes, which limits the economically sustainable size of a journal’ (29). In other words, the digital abundance of digital dissemination is underwriten and constrained by social scarcities. Perhaps most alarmingly, from the club theory, Hartley et al. argue that ‘large journals’ and ‘particularly those with a multidisciplinary focus, are expensive because they are not organized as clubs and are, in fact, operating beyond the optimal point of congestion’ (29).

I tend to think that parts of this categorisation of a club good are overly generous towards researchers and promotes a type of idealised thinking about scholarship. In diverting focus away from the economic side of various actors’ participation, I tend to think there is a danger of making scholarship into an imagined ideal. For example, Hartley et al. write that ‘[a]lthough there are undoubted individual rewards for admired scholarship, there is also an entirely impersonal (collective–cultural) reward accruing to the scholarly field and to scholarship as a whole’ (30). This is true. But that ‘although’ is doing a lot of work. I think that many of the motivations of scholars in their publishing habits are motivated by a prestige-driven economy of reward that translates, in Bourdieusian fashion, into material currency of employment and promotion and to underplay this economic logic can be misleading. (Though I am, perhaps, being unfair here. Hartley et al. do gesture to community membership as having ‘real value as a gateway to recognition, jobs, and funding’ (30) and they go on to discuss, as will I here, how prestige-driven titles create a different kind of market.)

What are some of the consequences of this way of thinking. One that leaped out at me was that the ‘club-theoretic model […] suggests that rapid growth leads to congestion in the collective good of community identity’ (31). Taking the example of PLOS ONE, Hartley et al. note this pattern there. For, ‘[f]irst, the rapid influx of authors after the concept was “proven” diluted the early sense of community among enthusiasts’ and ‘[s]econd, this increase led to congestion in terms of review times and, potentially, the quality assurance of editorial and review processes’ (31). Sadly, in Hartley et al.’s model, the way in which you can avoid this contraction is by imposing scarcity. ‘Managing growth by maintaining selectivity restricts the risk of sudden reversals’ (33). Such titles that manage prestige in this way, though, transform ‘knowledge clubs into a social network market’ (33).

Another example to which Hartley et al. turn is one closer to my heart: the defection of the editorial board of Elsevier’s journal Lingua to establish a new title at Ubiquity Press called Glossa, which is funded by my Open Library of Humanities. ‘Key to maintaining success’, they write, ‘will be to ensure that this community is not just built around a sense of being progressive or “sticking it to Elsevier” but that a sense of membership of a knowledge club is sustained’ (32). This presents an ongoing challenge for radical journal flips. It’s really easy, in the early days, to attract the radical crowd. I am as much a fan as anyone of sticking it to Elsevier. But this club of radicals becomes smaller and seeks the next venue with radical potential once an initiative is normalized. In other words, being the radical new kid on the block is a club with a limited shelf life.

There are three club-theoretic principles that Hartley et al. lay out for evaluation (32):

  1. What exactly is the collective good being created and made available to the membership?
  2. What is the contribution the membership makes to gain access to this good?
  3. How does congestion in access to this good change with scale?

Platforms can also be evaluated in the following terms, which Hartley et al. apply to preprint servers to work out whether they form a club threat to existing models (34):

  1. Are these platforms effective at community production (group formation)?
  2. Are they generating new institutions and clubs that act as substitutes in social production?

In all, for this group of authors, ‘the successful publisher (whether for-profit or OA) will be one that treats group formation and knowledge clubs as social production technologies in order to extend and defend the discovery process’ (34).

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash. And yes, I know. ‘Not that kind of club’.