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Abolish academic copyright = social benefits + save University funds!

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A Harvard blog shares a paper with an intriguing title Should Copyright of Academic Works Be Abolished and some dodgy numbers that make no economic sense to me.

Professor of Law and Economics Steven Shavell argues that it would be socially beneficial  to abolish Copyright of academic works, but that the actual cost of publishing has to be paid by someone other than private publishing companies upfront, by universities he suggests, and that such costs are quite high:

The Costs of Learned Journal and Book Publishing, A Benchmarking Study for ALPSP, Dryburgh Assoc., Ltd, September, 2002, at 17, reports from a survey that the total first copy cost of an academic book is £7,391 (54% of which is for copyediting and typesetting) … at 62 that “the upfront costs for publishing a monograph are . . . from about $20,000 on the low end to many multiples of that . . . .” in Sanford G. Thatcher, From the University Presses – The Hidden Digital Revolution in Scholarly Publishing: POD, SRDP, the “Long Tail,” and Open Access, Against the Grain, April 2009, http://www.against-the-grain.com (last visited June 30, 2009). Harvard University Press suggested in a conversation that the average first-copy cost per page is about $50, implying a first copy cost of $15,000 for a book of 300 pages. Telephone interview with personnel, Harvard University Press, in Cambridge, MA. (May 28, 2009). Also, it is reported that the copy editing costs of a page of an article average $85 – see page 258, Table 51, Tenopir and King supra note 5 – suggesting that copy editing costs of a book of 300 pages would be over $20,000.

How about we don’t do that at all (use university funds to pay for publishing). First, i don’t believe these numbers are true, they actually make no economic sense at all. For example, Garry Hall states that average monograph in humanities, applies to social science as well as far as i know, sells 200-600 copies (i’ll take 450 here as median). If this was true, and if each sold copy was £30 (middle between £50 hardbacks and £20 softbacks), and publisher got half of it (amazon takes 50%), we are left with average gross of £15 x 450 = 6750. Why would then private publishers care to publish academic monographs  if returns are so low, and if profit hardly can be made? These numbers make no sense, at least not in social sciences and humanities. They either sell more on average, or the initial costs are lower. I’m inclined to believe that the initial costs are lower.  Or, perhaps the median sales numbers in other academic fields are higher.

It’s a paper well covered by lot of other research, so let’s say my quick and dirty calculation is mistaken and number do add up and apply universally across most of academia, Shavell makes the most intriguing economic argument of the paper:

On the whole, the amount that universities would save could exceed
the amount they would pay in publication fees, for the subscription and new book prices now paid cover publisher costs and profits, whereas the publication fees would cover only publisher costs. That is, university expenditures on publication fees could be less in a world without copyright than their expenditures today on subscriptions and book purchases, because universities would no longer be financing publisher profits from academic works.

In the final section, author suggests that Open Access is facing difficulties (reputable journals and publishers refusing to embrace OA, and overall it is spreading too slow) that might not be overcome. His suggestions is introduction of a new law that abolishes copyright for academic works. He goes on to suggest how to identify an academic work. He also believes that OA journals are currently of low quality, but he explains it with the lack of time to develop stating that quality difference is expected to be reduced over time.

It’s a long paper with claims densely backed up with other research, hence a much more detailed reading is required. Anyhow, exciting research. It’s also a pointer how more of better economically backed up research is required for Open Access arguments for monographs to be stronger. Research that crucially includes the overall picture, which, like this paper does, must include library budgets.

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Written by Toni Prug

21 July 2009 at 22:54

Posted in Quick Research

2 Responses

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  1. I only read the abstract, but what didn’t make sense to me is why the author thought there would be more benefit to abolishing copyright than to publishing everything under a Creative Commons licence. Did that makes sense to you?

    Benjamin Geer

    22 July 2009 at 08:35

  2. Publishing it all under CC licence would effectively be full Open Access. But author believes OA is spreading too slow and major journals and book publishers are refusing it. Add to that his belief that OA journals are of lower quality, and the logic of his suggestion for abolishing copyright for academic works by a new law becomes clearer (See updates last parts of blog post). Not that i agree with him – his solution seems harder and more expensive to me for us, producers of knowledge and for the funders. However, his key argument is library funds. With no copyright, we would save so much money in libraries that we could easily pay upfront costs of publishing. I would say we need to change the processes of publishing. And we need participation of editors and sub-editors to do that. Only they, the actual key workers in this process, know the real story. And it’s not the story we can see from numbers (costs), we need to see internals of it i.e. editing and all other small steps of publishing need to become more transparent. Once we see the source code (processes and tasks) of it clearly, we’ll be able to change it to suit us, producers, and our funders, and not private publishers.

    Toni Prug

    22 July 2009 at 09:56


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