Pay to Play

WEEK IN REVIEW / by Evan Lerner /

With the New York Times announcing that it will start charging for its website, an examination of why scientific and journalistic publishing seem to be headed in opposite directions.

Illustration: Shipra Gupta

The New York Times dropped a bombshell this week: Beginning in 2011, the Gray Lady will begin charging non-subscribers for access to articles on its website.

That the world’s most famous newspaper would try to monetize its website (again) wasn’t a total shock, and the question of paywall efficacy has been recently hashed out over at the Time’s competitor, The Wall Street Journal. Still, it was a wake-up call to the blogosphere: Sometime in the near future, an important organism in the online informational ecosystem will radically change its behavior. Readers relying on it for intellectual sustenance will have to expend more resources hunting it down, or look elsewhere. 

The skeptics were the first into the fray. Slate’s Jack Shafer was quick to point out the many ways the Times’ paywall could fail, mostly through the machinations of the technologically inclined. And Felix Salmon felt that his own Reuters would stand to reap the benefit of the Times’ blunder, as online writers would rather link to the former rather than risk running readers into a wall with the latter. As he says,  “Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to build ‘active communities’ behind a paywall.” 

Questions about how the paywall would actually affect the link economy aside, this statement must be missing a word or hiding a whole lot behind that “almost,” as pretty much every communal activity requires a buy-in of some sort. Whether you’re paying dues to a bowling league or a church, shelling out cash for a World of Warcraft membership or a box set of The Wire so you can talk about it with your coworkers, the content has a price tag attached. We all pay to play at one point or another.

And sometimes we pay to work. Scientific publishing certainly operates this way. There are test cases for the journalistic world —The New Scientist has recently erected a prototype of how the New York Times’ paywall might operate—but the real model is in academia, where paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for journal subscriptions is just the price of doing business. 

Take the article I linked to last week from Nature Reviews Neuroscience (the one about how neuroscientists should endeavor to communicate as widely and freely as possible). It would cost $32 to read if you were to buy it a la carte. The Times hasn’t indicated a price range for their paywall yet, but a good guess would put the cost of a year’s worth of New York Times’ content right about even with that one article. A digital subscription to Nature Reviews Neuroscience for a year costs about nine times that.

Science and journalism are both in the knowledge-production business, and people on both sides realize that keeping money flowing to those on the production line is the best way to ensure its continued existence.  But scientific publishing exists within a funding ecosystem that newspapers can only dream about.

The vast majority of scientific publishing consists of user-generated content: scholarly articles. The users/contributors are paid, but not by the journals in which their content appears. Rather, they’re indirectly compensated by the institutions—governmental academic, and industrial—which benefit from having widely published scientists on staff. And those same institutions are the ones funneling money back into journals, through both subscriptions and advertising.   

One response to problems associated with this kind of feedback loop is the open access movement. At the forefront, the Public Library of Science turns the fiduciary relationship between authors and journals inside out, charging authors $2900 an article for the privilege of publication.

Dave Winer, the new media pioneer and now NYU guest professor of journalism, has an idea that could put this concept to work for popular publishing: Let people pay to have their content—or a link to it—appear on the Times’ website as a kind of contextual advertising. Bill Gates could buy a content ad to run next to the announcement of the Apple Tablet, or as Winer says “I would definitely pay for a spot next to every cockamamie piece David Carr writes explaining the realities of the news business.”

Whether Winer is willing to part with several thousand dollars (or perhaps considerably more) for every Carr column is another matter entirely. Plummeting advertising rates may be at the heart of the discussion of online journalism’s business model, but it’s doubtful they will sink low enough for individuals (aside from the inordinately well-heeled) to buy on a regular basis.   

H.L. Mencken famously quipped that freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. And while the internet may have balanced the scales in that regard, there’s little it can do to prevent people from putting their thumbs on them with an infusion of cash.

This is more or less what the Supreme Court decided on Thursday, overturning campaign finance laws that limit the amount of money corporate donors may contribute to candidates. The line between money and the “free speech” that money can buy is increasingly blurred.

And this is where the differences between scientific and journalistic publishing become painfully clear. There is a well-established refereeing system in the former that ostensibly separates the wheat from the chaff. While peer review has its flaws, the only time a fat bankroll trumps solid science is when someone is on the take.

Sad as it is to say, popular publishing has no such tradition or mechanism. Accuracy is not an inherent value-add. If journalism as a whole is moving in the opposite direction of scientific publishing, becoming more closed as the latter becomes more open, this is one of the reasons.   

Which is deeply troubling, considering that while the business of running science involves access to information about new research, the business of running our societies involves access to information about the public interest.  If the future of publishing means that we’re all going to pay to play, we’re going to need a new way of minding the register.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published January 22, 2010

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