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?

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journals + iTunes = ?

Finally got around to reading this tab I’ve had open for ages (sorry, can no longer remember whom to hat tip!) about a pessimistic take on Elsevier’s business model, and was struck by the following:

At the APE Conference in Berlin in January 2010 there were several presentations on article-level impact metrics — it is at least plausible to imagine a world in which the value of the franchise of each individual journal decreases and the value of the franchise of the individual articles increases.

This reminds me very much of the ongoing music-industry business-model freakout, some of which centers on the dissolution of the “album” as an important object in favor of more easily customized and remixed singles.[*] Surely I am far from the first person to have thought of this analogy, and there must be people who understand the business landscape for journals well enough to have thought through this analogy; anyone know where I would find them?

[*] I have to say, sometimes I feel little sorrows that the mix tapes I once spent so long making, and that were once made so carefully for me, may no longer be a meaningful genre. We put so much time into, not just the overall blend of the songs, but story arcs, and striking transitions. But this is only possible when the mix tape is a standalone object that gets played in a single order — it crashes to pieces on the shoals of iTunes.

Which is not to say I regret iTunes; I listen to more diverse music these days, and have a few really useful playlists, and I like the serendipity of shuffle. Just that — few goods are unmixed, and here’s the casualty of progress. (And how d mix tapes fit into the analogy?)