24 October 2019

How academic publishing is like a really nice bra

In my jackdaw meanderings around the internet, I stumbled on this thread from Cora Harrington.

Sometimes I like to look at lace prices on sites like Sophie Hallette. It’s good for giving perspective on how, even if the cost of lingerie was just fabrics (and it’s not because people should be paid for their labor), many items would still be expensive.

She gives many examples, of which I will show just one (emphasis added):

The Chloris reembroidered lace is around $1600/meter.

And that isn’t the most expensive one. Cora concludes:

When someone says “There’s no way x could cost that much,” keep in mind that there are fabrics - literally just the fabrics - that can cost 4 figures per meter.

And the labor - the expertise - involved in knowing how to handle these fabrics is worth many, many times more.

This made me think a lot about academic publishing. Because I am always fascinated by people who say something like undergraduate textbooks or journal subscriptions or article processing fees for open access publishing costs “too much.” When someone says something costs “Too much,” that means they have some notion in their head of what the “right” price is.

But as this example shows, people don’t always have a clear conception of the costs involved. And people complaining about costs sometimes tend to assume that the labour involved is simple, quick, and not worth paying a decent wage for.

This is not to say prices can’t be too high. But at least as far as academic publishing goes, I’ve only seen one attempt to work out what costs are. That is, apart from publishers themselves, who have conflicts of interest in calculating and disclosing costs.

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