Hulu, patron-driven article acquisition, academic samizdat; economic speculation

I’ve been speculating on what the academic publishing world would look like with a pay-per-article model. I wonder if we’re headed that way; cf. Eric Hellman’s thoughts on patron-driven acquisition; ebrary’s announcement of a patron-driven acquisition model for ebooks. And our remix culture is heading in that direction, anyway. We don’t consume journals or anthologies so much as we consume articles (blog posts, tweets…). We don’t necessarily encounter our articles bound, or even linked, into journal entities. If we consume at the article level, isn’t there pressure for us, eventually, to pay at the article level?

And that. Well. I can imagine a lot of economic efficiencies there, in the way that less discontinuous, more finely granular, functions always allow for efficiency to slide in. But putting on my imaginary-publisher hat…I couldn’t not start to notice which authors made me money, could I?

With articles bundled and sold in journal form, it makes sense for me as a publisher to look at the overall prestige (or profitability or what-have-you) of the journal, and leave article-level decisions to the editorial board. But if those article-level decisions become my bread and butter…what incentivizes me, as a publisher, not to guide them?

It reminds me of cable TV pricing, really. It’s obnoxious that cable subscriptions are always bundled and, as a consumer, I can’t pay for access to just the handful of channels — or, for that matter, the handful of shows — I care about.[*] But if we had that kind of granular control, would the edgy or niche channels even exist? Would the long tail rescue them, or would any sort of risky programming die before piloting?

There’s an argument to be made that academics exert a very different kind of demand than cable TV watchers, and perhaps edgy work is more rewarded in academe. But I’m skeptical. I’ve seen friend after friend in Ph.D. school get stuck within the boundaries of a discipline when their thinking crosses it, because there’s no mechanism for rewarding them for those kinds of thoughts. (Just ask the digital humanists.) Academics are hardly immune to social network effects. And even though science ought to be the pursuit of truth regardless of — indeed, especially in the face of — its conflicts with our preconceptions, scientists can be plenty dogmatic about challenges to received wisdom; just ask that guy who won the Nobel Prize for his work on ulcers, after decades of ostracism.

[*] As it is, admittedly, we no longer bother with cable, and I catch the things I want for free on Hulu, or cheaply enough on iTunes. Reminiscent of the market in academic samizdat, really. (A term I wish I’d thought of, but it’s Dorothea Salo’s.) But more advanced: Napster and LimeWire and torrents and so forth are the real samizdat; Hulu and iTunes are the legitimate channels that arose in response…what would legitimate academic samizdat channels look like?