A Journal-Access Mini-Bubble?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Derek Lowe, writing at In the Pipeline, discusses the state of scientific publishing, taking the Sci-Hub web site as his point of departure. I agree that, as Lowe says, "the current model of science publishing is Not Good," but I disagree that copyright law is the primary culprit, mainly because I am not so sure that current length of copyright protection is too far out of whack. (I do think it ought to be somewhat shorter.) Rather, I strongly suspect that government funding of higher education is to blame.

Where am I getting that? Lowe notes the following:

[T]he pricing for reading individual articles often seems downright rapacious. The model for many years has been We Have It And You Don't, and many publishers have made squeezing their library customers their entire business model...
Many, if not most of these libraries are college and university libraries.

As Michael Hurd explains in "The College Education Bubble," the seemingly inexhaustible source of easy government money is driving up education costs:
It's the same dynamic in education [as it was with the real estate bubble]. Government "does everything possible to ensure every young American gets a college education." What could be wrong with that? In practice, it means government does everything possible to make it easier for people to get college educations, thereby driving up demand relative to the limited supply. This inevitably breeds inflation. The more you try to make something free or cheap, the more demand you will create for it. The result will either be shortages or inflation. There's no getting around it!
I strongly suspect that what college libraries have been willing and able to pay for journal subscriptions has risen right along with college costs generally. With that in mind, I think that if the copyright term were a bit shorter, releasing more scientific work into the public domain, the immediate effect would be an increase in the price of more recent articles. This would occur because the journals, already used to a high revenue stream, would seek to recover all or part of it. Since I see no end in sight for the government's educational gravy train, I see continued upward pressure on journal access prices and more misguided and opportunistic attacks on the intellectual property rights of all involved.

-- CAV


Today: Added a sentence to clarify why I think journal charges would go up if copyright terms were shortened.

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