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Re: Monopolies

[trusting someone will tell me if this strays too far from the list's

On Mon, 07 Jun 2004 19:38:28 EDT
Jan Velterop <velterop@biomedcentral.com> wrote:

> Nobody *has* to drink Coca Cola; nobody *has* to go to Harvard. Anybody
> can choose to take another drink, it doesn't even have to be fizzy, or
> prefer another university.
> Scientist *do* have to have access to relevant papers in order to do their
> research properly. Papers are unique. They can't just read journal X
> because it's cheaper or more accessible than journal Y if the crucial
> paper they need happens to be in journal Y.

If I understand you, you're claiming each individual article is more like
H2O than a particular brand of soda.  You believe each individual article
is a vital resource, without which death (w/re to research) is assured.
Your argument, I believe, is based on the premise that authors have a) a
fundamental right to perform research in whatever field they wish, b)
deserve the opportunity to widely publish that research, and c) that no
article can reasonably be skipped over or bypassed in favor of similar
research in more accessible journals.

I hope I'm not reading more into your words than you intended.  I can't
speak to the last of the three items I list (my first impression would be
that it isn't true), but I argue that the first two items are a matter of
opinion, not a matter of fact.  At the very extreme end of the argument,
nothing forces a person to do research in a field which has such a narrow
interest that there is no space in the publishing world for more than
one publication.  Nothing forces a person to not publish, or forces them
to publish in the traditional sense. People may strongly desire to be
published in the traditional sense, but nobody is twisting their arms.
I'm sure you aren't arguing to that extreme, but I just want to make the
point that people do have a true free-market choice regarding payment
for resources in the scientific publishing world.

Now, let's say people do want to perform, and traditionally publish,
research in a particular field. Let's assume that they do not have enough
money to purchase all the leading research.  Are there ways for them to
gain access to the research without paying for the premium product? Are
there ways for them to pay reduced prices? Can they use Inter-library
loan, access the Library of Congress, pay $7.00 for pay-per-view, and so
forth?  Do you think it's incorrect to argue that those means represent
reasonable access?  I think there are many means available for accessing
current research, even if they are not as easy to use or as fast as the
more expensive products (e.g., making a handful of pay-per-view purchases
vs. buying a site-access bundle, or waiting for inter-library-loan vs.
instant online access).  I don't believe people are always locked into the
most expensive products. I do believe people desire the most expensive

If I remember my Econ-101 correctly, the theory behind free markets is
basically that people pay for resources which a) they able to afford and
b) they believe are sold at a worthwhile price (note I do not write "fair
price").  Unless pop-culture theory has corrupted my memory (strong
possibility), the theory of free markets also states that a monopoly
doesn't exist as long as others may reasonably enter the market, usually
with either reduced prices or a superior product in order to gain market
share.  I don't believe a monolithic monopoly exists right now. My
department works with many organizations who are not, as far as I can see,
price-gouging or stifling competition.  In fact, from my point of view,
there are very strong market forces at work, and have been for a long

The entire point behind Open Access (as you've certainly supported via
BMC) is to reduce the price to the consumer (readers) in an attempt to
gain market share (more readers), drawing that market away from the
current large publishers. The debate is whether or not the producers
(author + publishers) believe the model is worthwhile, and whether or not
two believe they can reach their desired goals (be it the dissemination of
the research or profit) and stay in business (performing research or
publishing it).

I think I'd agree with Mr. Esposito that the publishing industry should
not be viewed as somehow outside the world of free markets, but that it is
in fact a prime example of the free market, and that it should stay there.  
Simply because producers have not flocked to the OA model does not mean a
true free-market system is not in place already. I think it's clear that
market pressure has strongly influenced what authors and publishers have
been doing, and that readers are not locked into a monolithic monopoly
system.  I just don't see the logic behind arguments that governments
ought to regulate the price of scientific publishing, or arguments that
Open Access is somehow correcting a free-market flaw in the current

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James A. Robinson                       jim.robinson@stanford.edu
Stanford University HighWire Press      http://highwire.stanford.edu/
650-723-7294 (W) 650-725-9335 (F)