October 27, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Academic Publishing System?

Attention conservation notice: About 600 words of ranting about the state of academic publishing. Meanwhile, a bunch of delusional incompetents, drunk on their own power and certainty, are perilously close to being voted in to control of the country. In the last four years they have, among other horrid wounds to the Republic, managed to disrupt its finances, force it into a massive strategic mistake on the basis of lies, degrade its civil liberties and destroy its moral authority in the world. You might prefer to spend your time helping throw the bastards out, rather than fretting about the price of scholarly tomes.

I am reading Robert Solow's Learning from "Learning by Doing": Lessons for Economic Growth. The book is mostly based on the Kenneth Arrow lectures Solow delivered at Stanford in 1992, which consisted of Solow's commentary on one of Arrow's classic papers, "Learning by Doing" [Review of Economic Studies 29 (1962): 155--173; JSTOR]. This starts with a really insightful explication of the paper, followed by using its insights to go in all kinds of fascinating new directions. Like everything else I've read by Solow, it is marvellous (at least for a macroeconomic theory value of "marvellous"), and it's clear from the outset that one is in the hands of a master. I am enjoying this a great deal, but I'm not going to say anything substantive about the book, at least not today.

Learning from "Learning by Doing" has 92 pages. I am reading a hardback copy I checked out of the UM library. Stanford University Press will sell this to you for $45, and the paperback for $17.95, which comes to either 48.9 or 19.5 cents per page. (At the moment, Labyrinth Books is selling remaindered hardbacks for $9.98, but of course that won't last.) At prices like this, it's just not worth it for most people who'd like to read the book, i.e., people like me, to buy it. So instead our university libraries buy one copy for a lot of us to share. But there are large economies of scale in book publishing, so the marginal cost of producing a small number of copies is higher than that of producing a large number of copies, while the elasticity of demand is low (the libraries pretty much have to buy it), and pretty soon we've got a nice vicious spiral going.

In addition to Solow's book, I have on my desk Peter Grünwald and Paul Vitányi's excellent review of "Shannon Information and Kolmogorov Complexity", which I downloaded from arXiv.org (cs.IT/0410002) and printed out myself. It's 54 pages, but if it was typeset like Learning from "Learning by Doing", it'd easily be twice that length, i.e., as long as Solow's book.

Suppose that, in 1997, arXiv had had an economics section, or that there had been a functional equivalent of it for economics. (There still isn't, so far as I can tell, but I can't see why; arXiv began in 1991.) What would have happened if Solow (or, to be more realistic, his secretary) has just posted it? It defies belief that it would have reached a smaller audience. Its readers would not have had nicely bound copies, but they would have had immensely cheaper ones (effective cost: paper, ink/toner, Internet connectivity). It's true that the manuscript would not have been gone over by professional editors at a university press, but I don't think I'm denigrating the work of such people if I say that it's usually doesn't add, say, ten dollars worth of value to such a manuscript. (For instance, Solow actually gets the citation for Arrow's paper wrong, giving the volume number as 28 rather than 29.) It is true that a hiring or tenure committee in an economics department would probably not be as impressed with an arXiv posting as with a published book, but Solow is above such concerns, and anyway there's no reason for such a preference.

So: with the arXiv-style system, Solow would be no worse off, and his readers would be better off. Why then do we persist in having an academic publishing system where we produce ninety-page books which we sell for twenty dollars? I wish I knew.

Learned Folly

Posted by crshalizi at October 27, 2004 12:56 | permanent link

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