August 09, 2007

Echoes from the dance of the elephants

A few days ago, I learned that I'm co-author of a chapter in a book whose existence I had previously not suspected, and that as a result, a medium-sized European publishing conglomerate has paid a not-entirely-trivial sum of money to a much larger European publishing conglomerate. This makes me feel, in a small way, like an athlete who learns that he has been traded from one team to another. Except that I don't have to move.

Here's the relevant piece of the email:

Dear Steven Bird and Mark Liberman,

I am delighted to inform you that the 6-volume collection "Corpus Linguistics: Critical Concepts in Linguistics" edited by Wolfgang Teubert and Ramesh Krishnamurthy was published by Routledge in June this year. The publication contains the following article of yours: Steven Bird and Mark Liberman, ‘A formal framework for linguistic annotation’, Speech Communication, 33, 1-2, 2001, pp. 23-60.

In many cases, Routledge contacted only the previous publishers of the article with regard to copyright permission, and the editors are therefore aware that the authors did not receive any royalties from this. In this connection, the editors would just like to inform you that the original publisher of your article [i.e. Elsevier] received 646 pounds for the article from Routledge.

I guess it's fair enough that Taylor & Francis (who own Routledge) paid Elsevier (who own Speech Communication) rather than paying us, since Elsevier never paid us anything either, following the normal political economy of the scientific publishing industry: academics do the research, writing and editing, funded by universities and government research grants, and the publishing conglomerates hold the copyrights and collect the money. (That's in order to reward creativity and to ensure that the authors will remain motivated to dream up new things in the future, you understand.) To add to the fun, this arrived a few days later:

You will be happy to hear that we have managed to persuade Routledge to offer a discount of 40% to the authors of the articles in the 6-volume collection "Corpus Linguistics: Critical Concepts in Linguistics" edited by Wolfgang Teubert and Ramesh Krishnamurthy. You will need to order the collection through Routledge customer services team. The person to contact is Kerry Tobin at XXX@XXX. You need to state that they you were a contributor to The Corpus Linguistics: Critical Concepts set, and mention Simon Alexander (Senior Development Editor, Major Works) as having authorised the discount.

I believe this means that instead of paying $1,395 for this work, we're entitled to buy it for a mere $837. (Unless, of course, this is an odds ratio type of discount, in which case the price would be $1304.33 :-)... Before considering the offer further, though, I'll need to find out about taxes and shipping, since I can buy the same work from Amazon for $878.85 with free 2nd-day delivery.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in our article, you can read the 1999 technical report version for free (from various sites linked) here, and (depending on your subscription status) the 2001 Speech Communication version here, or (without let or hindrance) here.

This sort of publishing has become a strange ceremonial dance among business conglomerates, the libraries of research universities, and the governments who pay the library costs. It plays almost no role at all in actual scientific and scholarly communication, at least in the fields that I work in.

I doubt that more than a handful of individuals will buy this new Routledge six-volume collection -- if indeed there are any sales to individuals at all. Routledge is counting on the usual suspects, a couple of hundred research libraries worldwide, who feel compelled to buy such publications on behalf of their users. Thus the economic calculation for a publisher like Routledge must be, roughly, "it'll cost us about $50K to print and ship 300 copies of these sets, and we'll collect about $300K, of which we'll have to pay $50K in royalties to other publishers, leaving $200K net". My guess is that in this business, the break-even point is at around 100 copies; 300 copies is a success; and 500 copies is cause to break out the champagne. (All my numbers are invented, but I don't think they're off by more than a factor of two -- if you've got better estimates, tell me about them. )

But the sad thing about all this is that hardly anyone will ever read the printed volumes, which will sit gathering dust on the shelves until eventually they are shipped to off-site storage. That's not because no one is paying attention to the contents -- I can't answer for the rest of this particular publication, but the Bird & Liberman article that they're reprinting has been widely read and cited, and we continue to get interesting feedback from people who are reading it and thinking about it and trying to improve the ideas in it. However, I can't remember the last time that I went to the library to find the text of a recent article or book chapter in paper form -- everything that matters is available online. (That's not true, I hasten to add, for older works, for which I often do rely on the library; and I'm still a big fan of physical books, as a glance around my offices and living quarters will reveal.)

The libraries who buy these publications are mostly, in the end, funded by taxpayers. Certainly in the U.S., the budgets of university research libraries form part of the overhead that universities charge on government research grants (which of course also pay for much if not most of the research whose results are published or reprinted in these volumes). In general, research libraries are wonderful institutions, more than worth what they cost; but the process that we're talking about is driving their costs way up, with little benefit to anyone except the publishing conglomerates.

[Update -- as of 8:30 a.m., I've already gotten a few emails from people who have managed to remain unaware of the Open Acess phenomenon. If you're one of them, start here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 9, 2007 06:49 AM