Monday, March 31, 2014

Creative Problems

The open-access requirement for Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs) should be a no-brainer. At virtually every university in the world, there is a centuries-old public component to the doctoral-degree requirement. With digital technology, that public component is implemented more efficiently and effectively. Yet, a small number of faculty fight the idea of Open Access for ETDs. The latest salvo came from Jennifer Sinor, an associate professor of English at Utah State University.
[One Size Doesn't Fit All, Jennifer Sinor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 24, 2014]

According to Sinor, Creative Writing departments are different and should be exempted from open-access requirements. She illustrates her objection to Open Access ETDs with an example of a student who submitted a novel as his masters thesis. He was shocked when he found out his work was for sale online by a third party. Furthermore, according to Sinor, the mere existence of the open-access thesis makes it impossible for that student to pursue a conventional publishing deal.

Sinor offers a solution to these problems, which she calls a middle path: Theses should continue to be printed, stored in libraries, accessible through interlibrary loan, and never digitized without the author's approval. Does anyone really think it is a common-sense middle path of moderation and reasonableness to pretend that the digital revolution never happened?

Our response could be brief. We could just observe that it does not matter whether or not Sinor's Luddite approach is tenable, and it does not matter whether or not her arguments hold water. Society will not stop changing because a small group of people pretend reality does not apply to them. Reality will, eventually, take over. Nevertheless, let us examine her arguments.

Multiyear embargoes are a routine part of Open Access policies for ETDs. I do not know of a single exception. After a web search that took less than a minute, I found the ETD policy of Sinor's own institution. The second and third sentence of USU's ETD policy reads as follows [ETD Forms and Policy,]:
“However, USU recognizes that in some rare situations, release of a dissertation/thesis may need to be delayed. For these situations, USU provides the option of embargoing (i.e. delaying release) of a dissertation or thesis for five years after graduation, with an option to extend indefinitely.”
How much clearer can this policy be?

The student in question expressly allowed for third parties to sell his work by leaving a checkbox unchecked in a web form. Sinor excuses the student for his naïveté. However, anyone who hopes to make a living of creative writing in a web-connected world should have advanced knowledge of the business of selling one's works, of copyright law, and of publishing agreements. Does Sinor imply that a masters-level student in her department never had any exposure to these issues? If so, that is an inexcusable oversight in the department's curriculum.

This leads us to Sinor's final argument: that conventional publishers will not consider works that are also available as an Open Access ETDs. This has been thoroughly studied and debunked. See:
"Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities?" Marisa L. Ramirez, Joan T. Dalton, Gail McMillan, Max Read, and Nan Seamans. College & Research Libraries, July 2013, 74:368-380.

This should put to rest the most pressing issues. Yet, for those who cannot shake the feeling that Open Access robs students from an opportunity to monetize their work, there is another way out of the quandary. It is within the power of any Creative Writing department to solve the issue once and for all.

All university departments have two distinct missions: to teach a craft and to advance scholarship in their discipline. As a rule of thumb, the teaching of craft dominates up to the masters-degree level. The advancement of scholarship, which goes beyond accepted craft and into the new and experimental, takes over at the doctoral level.

When submitting a novel (or a play, a script, or a collection of poetry) as a thesis, the student exhibits his or her mastery of craft. This is appropriate for a masters thesis. However, when Creative Writing departments accept novels as doctoral theses, they put craft ahead of scholarship. It is difficult to see how any novel by itself advances the scholarship of Creative Writing.

The writer of an experimental masterpiece should have some original insights into his or her craft. Isn't it the role of universities to reward those insights? Wouldn't it make sense to award the PhD, not based on a writing sample, but based on a companion work that advances the scholarship of Creative Writing? Such a thesis would fit naturally within the open-access ecosystem of other scholarly disciplines without compromising the work itself in any way.

This is analogous to any number of scientific disciplines, where students develop equipment or software or a new chemical compound. The thesis is a description of the work and the ideas behind it. After a reasonable embargo to allow for patent applications, any such thesis may be made Open Access without compromising the commercial value of the work at the heart of the research.

A policy that is successful for most may fail for some. Some disciplines may be so fundamentally different that they need special processes. Yet, Open Access is merely the logical extension of long-held traditional academic values. If this small step presents such a big problem for one department and not for others, it may be time to re-examine existing practices at that department. Perhaps, the Open Access challenge is an opportunity to change for the better.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Textbook Economics

The impact of royalties on a book's price, and its sales, is greater than you think. Lower royalties often end up better for the author. That was the publisher's pitch when I asked him about the details of the proposed publishing contract. Then, he explained how he prices textbooks.

It was the early 1990s, I had been teaching a course on Concurrent Scientific Computing, a hot topic then, and several publishers had approached me about writing a textbook. This was an opportunity to structure a pile of course notes. Eventually, I would sign on with a different publisher, a choice that had nothing to do with royalties or book prices. [Concurrent Scientific Computing, Van de Velde E., Springer-Verlag New York, Inc., New York, NY, 1994.]

He explained that a royalty of 10% increases the price by more than 10%. To be mathematical about it: With a royalty rate r, a target revenue per book C, and a retail price P, we have that C = P-rP (retail price minus royalties). Therefore, P = C/(1-r). With a target revenue per book of $100, royalties of 10%, 15%, and 20% lead to retail prices of $111.11, $117.65, and $125.00, respectively.

In a moment of candor, he also revealed something far more interesting: how he sets the target revenue C. Say the first printing of 5000 copies requires an up-front investment of $100,000. (All numbers are for illustrative purposes only.) This includes the cost of editing, copy-editing, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, and administrative overhead. Estimating library sales at 1000 copies, this publisher would set C at $100,000/1,000 = $100. In other words, he recovered his up-front investment from libraries. Retail sales were pure profit.

The details are, no doubt, more complicated. Yet, even without relying on a recollection of an old conversation, it is safe to assume that publishers use the captive library market to reduce their business risk. In spite of increasingly recurrent crises, library budgets remain fairly predictable, both in size and in how the money is spent. Any major publisher has reliable advance estimates of library sales for any given book, particularly if published as part of a well-known series. It is just good business to exploit that predictability.

The market should be vastly different now, but textbooks have remained stuck in the paper era longer than other publications. Moreover, the first stage of the move towards digital, predictably, consists of replicating the paper world. This is what all constituents want: Librarians want to keep lending books. Researchers and students like getting free access to quality books. Textbook publishers do not want to lose the risk-reducing revenue stream from libraries. As a result, everyone implements the status quo in digital form. Publishers produce digital books and rent their collections to libraries through site licenses. Libraries intermediate electronic-lending transactions. Users get the paper experience in digital form. Universities pay for site licenses and the maintenance of the digital-lending platforms.

After the disaster of site licenses for scholarly journals, repeating the same mistake with books seems silly. Once again, take-it-or-leave-it bundles force institutions into a false choice between buying too much for everyone or nothing at all. Once again, site licenses eliminate the unlimited flexibility of digital information. Forget about putting together a personal collection tailored to your own requirements. Forget about pricing per series, per book, per chapter, unlimited in time, one-day access, one-hour access, readable on any device, or tied to a particular device. All of these options are eliminated to maintain the business models and the intermediaries of the paper era.

Just by buying/renting books as soon as they are published, libraries indirectly pay for a significant fraction of the initial investment of producing textbooks. If libraries made that initial investment explicitly and directly, they could produce those same books and set them free. Instead of renting digital books (and their multimedia successors), libraries could fund authors to write books and contract with publishers to publish those manuscripts as open-access works. Authors would be compensated. Publishers would compete for library funds as service providers. Publishers would be free to pursue the conventional pay-for-access publishing model, just not with library dollars. Prospective authors would have a choice: compete for library funding to produce an open-access work or compete for a publishing contract to produce a pay-for-access work.

The Carnegie model of libraries fused together two distinct objectives: subsidize information and disseminate information by distributing books to many different locations. In web-connected communities, spending precious resources on dissemination is a waste. Inserting libraries in digital-lending transactions only makes those transactions more inconvenient. Moreover, it requires expensive-to-develop-and-maintain technology. By reallocating these resources towards subsidizing information, libraries could set information free without spending part of their budget on reducing publishers' business risk. The fundamental budget questions that remain are: Which information should be subsidized? What is the most effective way to subsidize information?

Libraries need not suddenly stop site licensing books tomorrow. In fact, they should take a gradual approach, test the concept, make mistakes, and learn from them. A library does not become a grant sponsor and/or publisher overnight. Several models are already available: from grant competition to crowd-funded ungluing. [ for Libraries] By phasing out site licenses, any library can create budgetary space for sponsoring open-access works.

Libraries have a digital future with almost unlimited opportunities. Yet, they will miss out if they just rebuild themselves as a digital copy of the paper era.