Charles Basenga Kiyanda

Of science and music

After my last post, I had a comment by Alex, who didn’t believe one could compare science publications with musical records. I’ll give him right that there are many differences between the two, although I still think there’s one important parallel that can be drawn between the two.

First, here’s how it works when you publish a paper. Once your paper is accepted, you have to sign a form, transferring your rights to the journal. (I’m assuming the more common “traditional” journal. There are open-access journals, where you retain the copyright, but typically you have to give them away.) Editorial edits (grammar) are finished and the journal sends you a bunch of preprints to give to colleagues and to impress your mom. To be serious, I don’t think it really matters nowadays. You just end-up sending them the pdf with the proper citation information. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t but their library probably subscribes anyway. It’s just easier this way than telling people to go click through twelve web pages just to get to your article. I guess you could send a link. Anyway, you get the idea. People get an electronic version of your paper and you end up with a pile of dust-gathering preprints (minus the one you sent to your mother). Once that’s done, to get access to your paper (technically), you’re supposed to go onto the journal website. Technically, if you’ve signed away your rights, you’re supposed to ask for permission before reusing a figure from your paper as well. Some journals (in fact, I would guess/hope most, but I haven’t done an exhaustive study) have “rules” in place so that people can re-use material for a certain purpose or the authors can reuse material if it’s in a publication owned by the same organization/company.

In any case, the point is that you sign away your rights and the journal then sells access to your paper to people, including to you. You, as a scientist, don’t get a dime from it. But you probably know that already.

Now my understanding of how the music industry currently works is that artists sign away certain rights to the label in exchange of financial support to produce one or more albums. These albums get sold, debts get repaid and, in the end, the artist really gets very little from the sale of the CD (or vinyls if you’re radiohead). The money artists make really comes from putting shows together, selling t-shirts, appearing in magazines, endorsing products in ads, etc. At least, that’s my understanding of it. I may be slightly wrong. Some artists may make more money from CD sales than I think. Still, I don’t think artists without 1 billion fans (and let’s face it, of all artists trying to make a living, superstars are a minority) really make much from every CD you sell. I don’t have hard data at this point, this is from reading journal articles left and right and meeting several artists (none of them superstars, mind you, so I can’t compare).

In any case, my point is that you have artists who produce music and labels who profit from the distribution of the actual music in album form.

This is where I see the similarity. In, both, the world of science and the world of music, we have people who make actual content (scientists write scientific papers and musicians record music) and people who wrap that content up in plastic and ship it to you to make money. In both cases, content distributors (scientific journals and record labels) profit from distributing the content, while content producers (the scientists and the artists) profit in some other derivative way.

This is where Alex’s criticism comes in. ”

Business chases profit, scientists chase prestige. Profit means you hoard as much as possible, releasing carefully controlled product to people for as much money as possible, build barriers for competitors, etc. Prestige means you try to distribute as widely as possible, collaborate with the best people possible, have the best and coolest ideas possible, etc. They lead to totally opposite outcomes.”

I disagree. Artists (and I’m not implying record labels here, but really artists) are after both profit and prestige. They want to win a Juno award, or a grammy award, or get one of those platinum records. That’s not money, that’s “prestige”. Let’s call it recognition. Artists want to be told by others that they’re good. They want people to write books about them that say they created a whole new genre and revolutionized the world of music. Artists also want money. Who wouldn’t want a million dollars? Do artists (in general, if there’s such a thing) want money more than fame? I don’t know. I don’t quite care. Both money and fame are “profit” in a loose sense. You start out with goals, you do something, you get to your goals. You’ve profited from what you’ve done. Important to note is, as I’ve said up there, the money artists make (presumably) doesn’t come primarily from record sales, but through other means. Even more important to note is that people get to like an artist by listening to their music. This is what leads to the blog post I quoted the last time. As an artist, you want to get your music out there, by any means possible. You want everyone to get to listen to it. The most efficient way to do this used to be to sign to a label. They had huge distribution channels. They could get your albums sold in China and Europe while you were enjoying a beer in Canada. Labels still have huge distribution channels. But they’re no longer the biggest. Now, if your goal is to get your music out there to as many people as possible, you put it up for free on the internet. THAT gets you listeners.

Now in all this, the business model of the artist hasn’t changed. First, you find a way to get your music listened to by people, then you sell them concert tickets. The business model of the record labels changes, though. They’re less and less valuable to artists.

Now, just as equally as artists are after both monetary profit and recognition, so are scientists. Hold on, are you so sure? Yes. Nobody has any trouble recognizing that scientists want recognition. We all would like a nobel prize, or a medal from a mathematical society. Scientists also want money. Seriously. Some more than others I’m sure. Still, when applying for a research/teaching position, everybody negotiates the best deal. So you’re not doing this out of the kindness of your own heart. You’re not going to tell your kids you’ll never be able to take them to disneyworld because you have a greater goal to achieve. Some want millions and whole building for them and their graduate students. Some just want to be able to afford a decent living and do interesting stuff. Some may not want money at all really and would be fine living in the basement of the school. It’s irrelevant to the discussion. Both are ways of “profiting”. You start out with goals, you do something, you end up closer to your goal. You’ve gotten something out of it, whether money or fame, that’s your profit.

Now, the business model of the scientist hasn’t really changed. You do research. You write out papers. You get the papers out there. You get more research contracts/medals/students/book deals/newspaper articles/biography/office space/lab space/money from your employer so you don’t end up at another university (pick as many as you’d like). It used to be that scientific journals were the best way to get your stuff out there. They’d bundle the papers together and they were quite good at shipping these bundles around the world. Not so anymore. The internet can get your stuff out there (once it’s written) faster than any scientific journal can. So the business model of scientists hasn’t changed. The business model of scientific journals, though… well… hasn’t changed yet.

One small detail remains in favour of the traditional scientific journals. Peer-review. Somehow we still believe that these journals are just better than anybody else at getting stuff peer-reviewed. Now, there is something which doesn’t happen in the music world. That’s where I say, the stage is just ripe for a new paradigm. A system which allows you, even a single person (or more realistically a group of a few people) a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Or a non-peer-reviewed journal if you’d so like. A framework which lets you also know, as a reader, what you might be interested to read.

More on that later.

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