The Pay-Twice Paradox

I’ve recently heard some conversation trying to sully or tarnish the idea of openness by associating it with socialism. (Of course, if there’s anything you don’t like in the US today the standard response is to label it “socialist,” despite the fact that many labelers can neither define nor spell the term properly.) However, from my perspective some of the most important forms of openness are simply about obeying one of the standard laws of capitalism: if I pay for a good or service, I am entitled to the good or service. Could the market (or society) survive if we didn’t obey this rule?

I wonder at what point the following progression of scenarios crosses from an area where my expectation is reasonable into an area where my expectation is unreasonable:

1. I walk into a restaurant and pay $5.99 for the day’s special. I expect to be served the food and to be able to eat the food.

2. Two friends and I pay $65 each for tickets to a professional basketball game. I expect to be allowed to sit in the seat listed on my ticket and to get to watch the entire game.

3. My family pays $250,000 for a home. I expect that my family and I will be able to live in the home.

4. My community implements a one-time tax to pay for a new playground, and I pay the tax. I expect that my family will be able to use the new playground.

5. My state government implements an ongoing tax part of which is used to build and maintain roads, and I pay the tax. I expect to be able to use the roads.

6. My national government implements an ongoing tax part of which is used to fund the conduct of research, and I pay the tax. I expect to be able to see and use the results of the research.

7. My national government implements an ongoing tax part of which is used to create educational materials, and I pay the tax. I expect to be able to use the educational materials.

In the current system there is a point around (6) where a change occurs and I am expected to pay twice for the same good or service. For example, say my taxes are used by NSF to fund research, and the results of this research are published in an expensive academic journal. After having paid once for the research to be conducted, now I’m supposed to pay again to subscribe to the journal to find out what the results were? It’s like paying for a pizza only to be told that the original fee was to have the pizza made and baked, put that I’ll have to pay again (and substantially more this time!) if I want to be able to eat the pizza.

Why is the pay-twice model ok for 6 and 7, but not acceptable for 1 or 2? It isn’t. If I pay for a good or service, I’m entitled to it. If taxpayers pay to support research or the creation of educational materials, we are entitled to use those results and resources.

7 thoughts on “The Pay-Twice Paradox”

  1. Trying to explain this is like descriptive grammarians trying to extricate logic from languages. A logical deconstruction of the situation would presume that there was any overarching logic involved in the design of the situation. There wasn’t, at least on the macro-level.

    At the micro level you have forces competing for money (producers), value (consumers) and power (government/corporations). As each will exert their influence when and how they see fit (and with varying degrees of foresight and success), the resulting model will – almost nomologically – not appear to make any sense at all.

    PS – There are times when even the more acceptable “reasonable” expectations of consumers are no longer accepted. The I-90 Thruway in New York was approved to be a toll-road only until its construction had been paid off – around 1996. It’s still tolled (with the proceeds supporting other state services) today and we hardly hear a complaint about it.

  2. David,

    I agree with your assessment – in steps 6 and 7 the results of the research and the educational materials should be freely available to taxpayers.

    Unfortunately, the funding mechanism in 6 and 7 isn’t amenable to this. Why? This comes down to the accounting notions of “direct” vs. “indirect” costs. Once upon a time, the NSF (for example) funded research and allowed for generous (sometimes overly-generous) indirect costs. Universities and other research organizations use these to cover the costs of the facilities in which the research occurs. You like working in a well-lit office with clean bathrooms? Paid for via indirect costs charged to your research grant. Networks, servers, and backup? Same (except those dedicated to the specific grant). In general, all the infrastructure of a university needs to take a “cut” from the grant in order for it to not be a loss-maker for the school.

    Over the past 10 years or so, the NSF has lowered indirect rates from a *multiple* (!) of the direct grant value to something in the 5-10% range. In addition, as a condition of the grant, they require a partnership with a private-sector firm that will take on the commercialization of the research results (or the publication of the educational materials). This is not as much the granting of a “royal patent” as much as it is a desire to see the research and educational materials put to good use. I think that the feds use it as a strategic funding filter – e.g., if no one sees a way to make money from this research maybe it isn’t important enough to fund?

    Therefore, under the current regime, the private partner has to generate a cash flow to the research team to replace the indirect costs previously billed to the grant. Where is the private partner going to recover this cash? From selling the research or materials – with the ultimate recipient “paying twice”.

    I think your pizza analogy is flawed. We’re paying once for someone to develop the recipe (ingredients and cooking instructions). We’re paying a second time for production of the pizzas and their marketing and the storefronts and drivers who deliver them.

    The real question that needs to be asked is whether the private partners are efficient and efficacious in disseminating the research and educational materials so the *taxpayers* get maximal benefit – and if they charge a markup, is it for a true value-add. I suspect your objection is that the old-line companies (research journals and educational publishers) do not add value commensurate with the costs they impose and they are not terribly efficient or effective.

    I suspect that there are plenty of emerging businesses (including Flat World Knowledge) that could do a far better job of adding value and distributing the paid results of our taxes. They lack one thing, however – and that is up-front capital. If a research group needs a cash flow now to make up for lost indirect billing, then the partner has to provide certain cash now in return for an uncertain return in the future. Even if the marginal costs approach zero through the use of internet-based technologies, you need some way to earn back the upfront expenditure. How will that happen?

    In the end, the government has to pay for all the costs if you want the results to be totally free – or you have to develop a model where “on average” the private partner has net positive revenue.

    Pointing the finger at the big, bad journal and educational publishers isn’t a solution – you could just as easily point the finger at the bloated costs of many research institutions or the miserly indirect billing allowances of the feds. What’s your proposed solution to rapid and efficient dissemination of results that funds the (unfunded) indirect costs of the research team without forcing private partners to be charities? It would be great to have a replicable model for doing this!

  3. Doug, you’re wrong about the NSF. While there are specific grant programs like SBIR that do require partners who will help with commercial spinoffs, the NSF generally speaking does not. The overwhelming majority of NSF-funded research is never commercialized. Your entire argument, built around the private partner, is flawed.

    • Hi David,

      Your criticism is fair – since I’m not party to every directorate from NSF. It’s possible that I’ve been working in areas other than the “overwhelming majority”.

      I was a developer on an NSF grant in 1989 where my employer had an indirect cost factor of 3.1. That is, they paid me $40K (plus benefits) as an employee and billed the NSF about $125K.

      In 2005 as a VP at an ed-tech publisher (and development shop) I had discussions with folks doing NSF-funded research that needed MOUs committing us to generating up-front cash and a royalty stream since the indirect cost factor was so low that the research team couldn’t operate solely on the grant.

      I apologize for implying that *all* Federal research requires a private partner; perhaps that’s simply the case in certain educational directorates.

      I also agree that all deliverables from Federal research should be freely available as is. If a company wants to further commercialize it (by packaging it or providing additional support services) that simply follows the model of many FOSS software projects.

      It’s still the case that the research should be free – but it might not be usable in that state. The sad thing about big players in the publishing industry is that they tend to shy away from anything where they can’t get exclusive and restrictive rights. I’d love to see models where a piece of revenue that’s generated by remixing the research is aimed back at the team doing the work. Is there a systematic way of doing this without it being either ad hoc charitable contributions or royalties enforced by a restrictive license?

      Hope this clarifies my original post…



    The double-pay objection is only partly correct. To the extent that both research funding and research library funding are paid by the tax-payer, there is indeed some double-paying — but the one who gets the free ride is the publisher, who gets to charge for access to material most of which was funded by the tax-payer.

    (But not so for peer review, which the publisher manages, though the reviewing is again actually being done for free by the peers. Nevertheless, an honest broker is needed to manage the peer review, or else it’s vanity press. The cost of managing peer review is much less than the cost of publishing, but it will be an invariant expense that needs to be paid no matter what.)

    The double-pay objection is incorrect, however, when it is made from the standpoint of the subscriber institution. (Private universities’ journal budgets are not paid by tax-payers; and even public universities cover it partly out of student fees or other sources.) The institutional librarians who say “Our institution takes the trouble and expense to provide the research, gives it to publishers for free, only to have to buy it back for subscrption fees” are mistaken: An institution has its own research output: It’s buying in the research output of other institutions with its journal subscriptions. (So unless one thinks the same argument ought to be applied to books, there’s no valid double-pay objection here.)

    But, last, the real rationale for Open Access is not the fact that tax-payers feel a burning wish or need to read the peer-reviewed reports of the often highly specialized research they fund. It is that if the research they have funded is to provide the maximal benefits to the tax-payers who funded it, it should be accessible to all of its intended users: the researchers who are in the position to use, apply and build upon the scholarly or scientific findings, and not just those whose institutions can afford a subscription to the journal in which they happen to be punished.

    But the moral is the same: Both research funders and universities should mandate that all their peer-reviewed research articles are made freely accessible to all their potential users online (“Green OA”). If and when making all this peer-reviewed research freely available online makes journal subscriptions unsustainable as the way of recovering the costs of peer review, institutions can pay those true costs, by the outgoing article, out of just a fraction of their annual windfall savings from their subscription cancellations.

    Harnad, S. (2007) The “Double-Pay”/”Buy-Back” Argument for Open Access is Invalid. Open Access Archivangelism. Sep 9 2007

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. Technical Report, ECS, University of Southampton. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106.

    Harnad, S. (2009) The PostGutenberg Open Access Journal. In: Cope, B. & Phillips, A (Eds.) The Future of the Academic Journal. Chandos.

    Harnad, S., Brody, T., Vallieres, F., Carr, L., Hitchcock, S., Gingras, Y, Oppenheim, C., Stamerjohanns, H., & Hilf, E. (2004) The green and the gold roads to Open Access. Nature Web Focus.

  5. The debate on the NSF and other federally funded R&D and journals has been going on for longer then a decade and frankly I don’t understand why and I am a lobbyist in Washington -seven years of which was representing education R&D and utilization institutions –granted researchers focused on more applied research. Federally funded research and its deliverables if its funded primarily through federal funds should be publically accessible -that has I believe generally been a requirement in US Department of Education OERI and now IES funded R&D contracts and grants for some time -much of it in the ERIC Clearinghouse and available online at the grantee’s websites as well. Now granted the US Department of Education R&D budget is next to nothing compared to any other agency in the federal government.

    What I don’t necessarily agree with is should a journal article be what is public. It should be whatever the deliverable is spelled out in the grant, contract, or cooperative agreement. Maybe the deliverable requirements should include a summary of the findings, which could be a journal article submission or a different variation of synthesis of the research. That still leaves room and value added for journals as the journal could provide more enhanced information -vetted commentary on the submission, peer review, etc, and may go beyond the scope of the work of the federal award.

    I do think federal funds used under SBIR or designed as seed money for scaling up with non-federal matches or other investments could be handled differently.

    I think that is the middle ground compromise.

    A larger issue is whether journals are an effective dissemination vehicle and far more important how do you scale up that knowledge into the hands of practitioners, etc for practical uses. That’s been another issue that has been chewed on for a long time and not well digested. NSF does not have a particularly strong track record in this regard, though it’s my understanding they have been improving on it in recent years.

    As to your example #2, that actually may be an example of paying twice as most stadiums are paid for in part with public funds and also through higher ticket and concession prices. Some could argue its paying twice, others might say everyone pays part of it now (its good for the city as a whole) and then users pay the balance later on a use basis.

    As always David I enjoy your blog!

  6. While I am in agreement with you conceptually, it should be understood that the logic in this argument is tantamount to a rejection of user fees, insurance deductibles, bus fares, highway tolls, sales tax, property tax, and a whole host of ‘second’ charges that apply to a good or service originally bought and paid for in its entirety.

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