Journal subscriptions are negotiated, but article processing charges are fixed prices

Scientific publishing is moving to open access. This means that it’s moving from a subscription, reader-pays, to an author-pays model (normally termed article processing charges, or APCs).

This will have a couple of impacts:

1. Institutions which publish more and read less lose to institutions which read more and publish less. Thus, research universities will probably lose out to the pharmaceutical industry (as I’m sure that the pharmaceutical industry is proportionally reading a lot of papers, but not publishing as much).

This is not a big deal, but I thought I would mention it. Some people seem to be very angry at pharmaceutical companies all the time for not paying their fair share, but it’s a tough business and part of the point of publicly funded research is to enable downstream users (like pharmaceuticals) to flourish. Moving to APCs seems to be another move in supporting pharma (probably smaller biotech upstarts being the biggest beneficiary). Teaching-focused universities will also benefit.

2. More importantly, though, the move to APC (article processing charges) instead of subscriptions is also a move from a product that is sold at a variable price to one that is bought a fixed price.

Variable pricing (or price discrimination) is a natural feature of many of the markets that look like subscriptions, where fixed costs are more important than marginal costs (in this case, the extra cost of allowing access to the journal once the journal is done is, basically, zero).

Plane tickets and hotel rooms are less extreme cases where the price will fluctuate to attempt to charge more to those willing to pay more (typically, the wealthier; but sometimes the people willing to pay more and those counting their pennies are the same people, just in different situations: sometimes I really want a specific flight, other times I don’t even care exactly where I am going).

So, in the subscription model, some institutions will pay more. Maybe it’s not fair, but hedge funds such as Harvard will get bilked, while poorer institutions will be able to negotiate down. In the APC model, everyone will pay roughly the same (there may be some discounts for bulk purchasing, but not the variation you have today and it may even be the large institutions which will negotiate down, while the smaller players will pay full price).

Many publishers have policies to favor publications from very poor countries, charging them lower APCs. Naturally this is a good policy, but it will not be fine-grained. Universities in Bulgaria (EU member-state with a GDP per capita of 7,350 USD) are considered as wealthy as private American research universities. They will be expected to pay the same for their PlOS Biology papers.

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On the Easterlin Paradox

Here is the difference between undergraduate calculus and graduate economics:

Undergraduate calculus

Let f be a function from the positive reals to a closed interval [a,b]. Prove that if f is monotonically increasing, its derivative goes to zero.

Graduate economics

Let f be a function from the positive reals to a closed interval [a,b]. Note that even when f is monotonically increasing, its derivative goes to zero. Create a whole body of literature based on this amazing fact.

For extra credit, detail the policy implications of this fact.

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(The Easterlin Paradox is the observation that when you ask people how happy they are on a scale from 1 to 10, this happiness value first grows fast with higher incomes, but then it plateaus. It doesn’t grow forever.)

Is Biology a Science?

Is Biology a Science?

When reading this polemic, I could not help but think of the genre of articles that compares economics to physical sciences to argue that economics is not a science.

It’s exactly the same of sort of argument: trying to make a disagreement in emphasis into a disagreement in substance (I mean, this isn’t even like the major fights in that other non-science, theoretical physics, where string theory is either the solution or a blind-alley).

At the end of the article, I still don’t understand the anti-selfish gene argument. I see two arguments in this article:

Differences in gene expression can account for large changes in phenotype. Well, duh. My hand is not like my liver even though the cells have the same genome.

The whole genome is a system and genes do not function individually. This is the part of the argument that most feels like the anti-efficient markets polemics I read after Eugene Fama won the Nobel Prize. It’s a complete straw-man. Even in the Selfish Gene book, Dawkins [1] stresses that (1) fitness of a gene is a function of the environment and (2) the most important environment for a gene is the genome in which it is inserted. Genes can be high-fitness by changing the expression of other genes, perhaps conditional on certain environmental cues. How else does gene expression change? It’s genes all the way down [2].

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Let me put it this way: the gene that codes for the light receptors in your eyes would be pretty useless in a species that lives in dark caves. The gene that regulates the expression of other genes would be pretty useless in the absence of those other genes. Even the light receptor gene is pretty useless if you species does not have a nervous system. Was this ever in doubt?

Also, yes, we are no longer trying to look for the gene for autism, the gene for homosexuality, or the gene for X. In as much as these are genetically mediated, these are multi-gene phenomena with complicated environmental interactions. But saying this just says that the gain in fitness of a specific gene is a complicated process, which depends on the whole context, and that is not easy for humans to apprehend it. It does not invalidate the idea of a gene as the basic element that gets selected (in the context of other genes). Only in a fuzzy, mood-affiliation, sense does the systems biology view contradict the selfish gene model. In a non-fuzzy sense, they’re 100% compatible.

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Maybe there is something I’m missing in the anti-selfish gene argument, but having read a few of these, it always feels that the author just does not like the word selfish in the metaphor as it celebrates the wrong kind of human behaviour (as if making a point about the evolution of insects had anything to do with how you should live your life: a locust is a grasshopper therefore you should visit your mother for Thanksgiving).

The author says towards the end:

It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome. It’s a social genome.

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Turns out that, just like Economics, Biology is not a science.

[1] I find myself in the unusual position of defending Dawkins, who I generally find a very shallow thinker.
[2] Dawkins says this in the piece. The author is taken by surprise (which just means that he never even understood the view that he’s criticizing) and replies with a non-answer quote. It’s like that old chestnut markets are not efficient because you cannot predict them (actually, the efficient market hypothesis is the idea that you cannot predict markets, so you’ve just argued that gravity is not true because things fall).