#openaccess #opendata Reclaiming our scholarship (II). Do we undervalue it?

I am organising my thoughts for my talk tomorrow in blog form. This helps me to organize my thoughts and also creates a record for those at the talk and those not at it. I won’t necessarily cover everything.

I’ve contended (/pmr/2012/11/14/openaccess-opendata-in-perth-au-my-talk-on-open-scholarship-i-we-must-reclaim-our-scholarship/ ) that about 300 BILLION USD is committed each year to the funding of public STM research. And that the revenue in scholarly publishing is about 15 BILLION USD and that part of that is for metadata. What do we get for our money? Is it good value?

I am not an economist, so this is simplistic, but I hope valuable. The funding of STM research is primarily (I think) to create valuable knowledge. (There are side benefits such as highly trained humans, better support for university and other infrastructure, but the rationale for funding is the creation of valuable knowledge.) So what *IS* the value and do we get the best value?

It is extremely difficult to measure the value of something when it is not directly traded. Universities do not generally sell the main part of their output, nor do they put themselves up for sale. (Occasionally public research establishments get sold, which may give a measure). Here’s an example of how we might address this.

What’s the value of a human life? Wikipedia summarises various authorities and a rough figure in the US is 5 MILLION USD. In other words if one can save a life by sending less than that it is good value for the country and the world (as well as for the particular human and their social environment). Sometimes the scholarly medical literature can save a human life directly. I have found several anecdotes where committed patients or their relatives have trawled through the medical literature and either/both diagnosed their condition and created and informed opinion about the appropriate treatment. Taking a figure of – say – 100 papers read and allowing for the costs of the medical infrastructure, physicians, etc it can certainly be claimed that each paper has contributed thousands of dollars’ worth of knowledge. And, of course, the papers can be reused by other patients and physicians.

The figures shouldn’t be quoted blindly but they should serve to show how valuable the scholarly literature is. There are many other areas where there is a fairly clear connection between knowledge and monetary value – here are a few:

  • Improving agriculture
  • Human safety
  • Predicting and preparing for natural disasters
  • Building social and physical infrastructures
  • Providing knowledge for new businesses
  • Avoiding costly decisions

I was recently asked by the UK government to estimate the value of allowing relaxation on restriction of using scholarly publications for contentmining (and I’ll be talking about some of this tomorrow). In my response (/pmr/2012/03/21/my-response-to-hargreaves-on-copyright-reform-i-request-the-removal-of-contractual-restrictions-and-independent-oversight/ ) I analysed chemistry worldwide and came up with an estimate of the lost value due to restrictions on contentmining as “low BILLIONS” (annually, chemistry, global). I looked at at:

  • Better and cheaper abstraction of the literature
  • A new generation of tools, vendors and information suppliers
  • Better decision-making (e.g in pharma)

When something is restricted (and has been for years) there is a major opportunity cost. People don’t do things because they can’t, so the type of innovation seen in Silicon Valley and Cambridge is impossible. Whole new communities of practice are possible through new knowledge.

The value of the knowledge produced from a piece of research must on average be more than the cost or it wouldn’t be worth funding. I use a figure of “a few” times, though I have no justification for this other than a few cases where Opening knowledge has been measured. It’s particularly difficult because the funders of the research may not be the direct beneficiaries. Thus work funded in the UK might directly benefit countries in the tropics or knowledge collected from them directly benefit the UK. In this sense publishing research into an electronically connected world is a valuable contribution towards everyone’s wellbeing and – although I cannot justify this – could be an effective form of “aid” – it is at least very cheap to deliver!

The major problem in disseminating this information is the current publishing system which is primarily designed to communicate only with rich universities (i.e. only those which can afford subscriptions). Even in the rich countries most publications can only be read (legally) by 1 percent of the population – those employed at universities or research establishments. Others have to pay 40 USD to read one article for one day and generally you have to read many before you find the one you want. In non-rich countries it’s obviously even worse. I call the disadvantaged “the scholarly poor”.

The problem is that the market is so broken we have no indication of cost or value – we only have price (and even then many of the prices are required to be confidential). Let me estimate some of these:

  • The price of a journal per year per institution can run into thousands of dollars. Given that there are tens of thousands of journals even rich universities can’t afford all of them. This is already a serious impediment.
  • The cost of processing an article is difficult to determine because publishers don’t make their costs public. Some iue nformal estimates put this at 250-500 USD. Acta Cryst E (which has built its own processing system has about 140 USD – the price is, I think, 160 USD). NaturePG has said it “costs 10000 dollars to publish an article”. It doesn’t. If anything this is the average revenue expected per published article (i.e. price).
  • The value of an article is also difficult to determine. I’ve tried to estimate the value to the world as “many thousands of dollars”. The value to the author and institutions can be even higher – it can make the difference between a career and a grant or none. (But this is no absolute value except in the plumage war market).

So the problem is that those to whom the absolute value comes – world citizens – have no say in the market. There are therefore no pressures on individual costs. Because of that we have a very inefficient process and one that often creates a low quality unimaginative uninnovative result.


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2 Responses to #openaccess #opendata Reclaiming our scholarship (II). Do we undervalue it?

  1. This is all good stuff. But for those that like their economics hard-boiled by an economist, Chapter 7 of Peter Suber’s recent book* treats on the economics of OA. It is perhaps unfortunate that the “defacto leader of the OA movement” has only seen fit to make his literary jewel open access in June 2013, but until that day, I guess I can take a few minutes to retype a few URLs…
    Suber points to the to the 2006 published studies by the Australian economist Houghton, though ironically some of the URLs cited are already dead…
    Anyway, Houghton seems to be indexing most of his work here:
    There was then debate about these studies, (e.g.
    Houghton’s response to that debate–which you will not find easily from his index page–is available here: http://www.cfses.com/EI-ASPM/Comments-on-Hall(Houghton&Oppenheim).pdf .
    Alma Swan repeated Houghton’s methods in the UK in Feb 2010:
    In summary, serious economists doing serious studies seem pretty clear that the economic benefits of open access to the research literature will be substantial, confirming our intuitions. Indeed, the major publishers have seen the writing on the wall since about 1995. They survive thanks to:
    a) the narrow-minded conservatism of the academic body, which has allowed them to continue to go on ramping up the serials crisis as though every year were their dying grasp; and
    b) the splitters and carpers in the OA movement, which would be much more effective if united.
    And one might also pose the question, while we’re visiting Cambridge, as to how much, for example, of Trinity college’s £334m equity holdings are invested in Informa, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.
    Ho hum!
    *Suber P. Open Access. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2012

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks very much. The info is very useful.
      I have no idea of Trinity’s investments but anyone can make an FOI request to Trinity – and this type of request has been made before and answered

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