I sort of feel like this blog has taken a negative turn as of late–I’ve been busier shooting down what I see as hype and impracticality lately than I have been at presenting positive suggestions. With that in mind, AJ Cann at the Science of the Invisible blog has given us the following homework assignment:

Compare and contrast Crotty’s “Magical Thinking” response to open content with Ellis’ attitudes to “(Selling) content in a networked age“. From the perspective of a contemporary observer, use these examples to illustrate the “content wars” of the early 21st century and explain how our present concept of ownership emerged.

So here’s my essay to complete the assignment. Hopefully this will be graded on a curve. Since I’m just auditing this course, I’m going to ignore the second half of the assignment on “content wars” (there’s a loaded phrase just waiting to inflame the passionate) and concentrate on comparing and contrasting the articles:

The two articles are philosophically similar. They share a common message, that giving away the fruits of one’s labors in a haphazard and thoughtless manner is not sustainable. Both argue that authors and publishers should see some reward for their work. Crotty’s essay is more limited, he’s merely pointing out the impracticalities of the “everything should be free” argument, while Ellis’ is more forward-thinking in suggesting ways that some material can be given away freely in order to generate even greater financial recompense for the author’s work. It should be pointed out that in other blog entries, Crotty, like Ellis, suggests that new business models and new ways of handling content should be experimented with. Crotty, in fact, runs a scientific journal that is performing a set of those experiments (discussed below).

Though Crotty’s piece is more limited, it does not suffer some of the weaknesses of Ellis’. Ellis’ essay is reminiscent of this piece in some ways, he’s describing a problem that’s fairly obvious, but doesn’t offer practical solutions other than to try a bunch of stuff and maybe some of it will work. That’s a common thread seen these days in the blogosphere and there’s not a whole lot that’s new offered by Ellis. Original thinking is needed here to invent new business models, and merely pointing out that experimentation is necessary is not terribly insightful. “Free PDFs/Paid books” is not a viable option for a scientific journal, where the lifeblood is the pdf itself. Ellis suggests that experiments need to take place in a manner where their results can be directly measured, but this is easier said than done, and again, no practical solutions are offered. Often it’s difficult to directly correlate a marketing activity with sales activity. For an example, at CSH Protocols, we make a portion of our articles freely available each month. These articles certainly see a higher readership than most (but not all) of our subscriber-only articles. But do they lead to increased institutional subscriptions? It’s hard to say. We’re certainly steadily increasing our subscriber base, but there’s no way to measure the direct effect of the free articles on this. I suppose we could eliminate the free articles for a period and look for a decrease in subscription uptake, but that seems like shooting ourselves in the foot just to prove a point (or to mix a metaphor).

So what are Crotty and colleagues at CSHL Press doing that’s a positive approach despite all of his negative articles on why other people are wrong? Let’s take a look at the journal he currently runs, Cold Spring Harbor Protocols. First off, the journal itself is an experiment, an attempt to move a 30-plus year scientific manual publishing program out of the print world and into the electronic world. CSHL Press has long been well-known for the high quality laboratory manuals published, but younger students are less likely to seek experimental methods on the lab’s bookshelf, they want to find them online. Hence, the journal was created in mid-2006. Taking advantage of the electronic medium, the protocols in the journal are regularly updated when needed, and all share a common database of cautions and recipes that are under constant revision.

CSH Protocols also experiments heavily with giving away content for free. Approximately 10% of the total journal content is made permanently freely available to all readers, suscribers and non-subscribers alike. Each month, two articles are chosen as “featured articles” by the editor and these are available to all. As noted above, it’s unclear how this has affected subscriptions, though it’s probably safe to say that it hasn’t hurt them. At the same time, it’s increased the size of our readership (the free articles are usually read more often than most subscription-only articles), increased the number of places linking to the journal (which helps for Google rankings), and increased the readership of subscription-only articles that are linked within the free articles (this is a good example, as the related articles linked within see high levels of activity). The increased readership is good for impressing potential advertisers, and it certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to sell the journal to librarians.

Further free distribution happens with the print version of CSH Protocols. A limited print run of copies of each issue are generated, and these are given away freely as promotional items at all Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meetings, and in the CSHL Press booth at other meetings.

The other big experiment happening with CSH Protocols is the revenue-sharing relationship between the publisher and the authors. Writing up experimental methods is not an immediate priority for most researchers. Data-driven papers reporting results are the heart and soul of an academic or industry career, and that’s always going to come first. In creating the journal, we were looking for ways to help motivate scientists to write up their methods for us. Our efforts have taken several different approaches. First, CSH Protocols has no page charges and no charges for the use of color. Authors do not have to pay to publish in the journal. Second, we offer an intense level of editorial support. Since the journal comes from our manual publishing program, we’re trying to maintain the same high standards of quality that built our reputation in our books. When you put together a lab manual, you want all the protocols to follow a common, easy-to-use format, and to be as complete and clear as possible. To keep things at this high level, all articles in CSH Protocols go through extensive developmental editing. We even go so far in some cases as to take an author’s rough step-by-step lab notes for doing a method and rework it into our article format for completion by the author. Both these things increase our editorial overhead, but we feel they lead to better quality submissions and better quality final articles. They’re the kinds of things a publisher can do to add value to an author’s work, the kinds of things that make paying a subscription worthwhile for the readers. When one is competing against free resources, quality is an area where one can certainly stand out from the alternatives.

But most importantly, CSH Protocols pays authors a royalty based on the usage of their articles. Each article has been tagged for the set of authors, and each year, a portion of subscription revenue similar to the royalty percentage paid a book author is set aside. This amount is divided based on each article’s percentage of total use on the site (full text access only, we don’t include abstract reads). Often this doesn’t amount to a huge royalty, we’ve paid some authors less than $10 for a year’s royalties (though to be fair, those articles are usually the ones published late in a calendar year so they don’t have time to accumulate reads). But for some authors, articles generate several hundred dollars per year. That may not seem like much to a high end PI, but for a graduate student living on a stipend, it’s a lovely thing. It’s not clear how much of a motivating factor the royalties are, but we have had quite a number of repeat authors. I’d be willing to bet the lack of page charges is more significant in authors agreeing to write for us, but the royalty check once a year is a nice reminder to think about other methods they could publish.

So, to wrap up this lengthy assay, the authors of both pieces seem to have much in common with their approaches to the future of publishing. While Crotty comes off as a naysaying curmudgeon, and Ellis offers positive thoughts about pathways into the future, Crotty is actually doing the experimentation that Ellis vaguely suggests, and is attempting to try innovative new ways of scholarly publishing. Or so he hopes. He’s gotten a little full of himself and is now referring to himself in the third person. AJ, this is your fault for assigning this essay, and I hope you can live with the consequences.