Tag Archives: Coase cost

Github laudatio: negative Coase cost

This is a record of a mind changing experience I had with Github, one which will manifest in the months to come. (Well, it’s time to move on, to move further, new experiences await, I like to do this…)

Here is not more than what is in this ephemeral google+ post, but is enough to get the idea.

And it’s controversial, although obvious.

“I  just got hooked by github.io . Has everything, is a dream came true. Publishing? arXiv? pfff…. I know, everybody knows this already, let me enjoy the thought, for the moment. Then it will be some action.

Continuing with github and publishing, this is a worthy subject (although I believe that practically github already dwarfed legacy publishing, academia and arXiv). Here is an excerpt from a post from 2011
“- Publishing is central to Academia, but its publishing system is outclassed by what Open Source software developers have in GitHub- GitHub’s success is not just about openness, but also a prestige economy that rewards valuable content producers with credit and attention

-Open Science efforts like arXiv and PLoS ONE should follow GitHub’s lead and embrace the social web”

I am aware about the many efforts about publishing via github, I only wonder if that’s not like putting a horse in front of a rocket.

On the other side, there is so much to do, now that I feel I’ve seen rock solid proof that academia, publishing and all that jazz is walking dead, with the last drops of arterial blood splatting around from the headless body. ”

Negative Coase cost?


Democratic changes in OA can be only reactive. We need daring private initiatives

Democratic changes in OA can be only reactive. That means one step back with respect to active opposition to change, methodically pursued by interests of a small but powerful minority of big players in the publishing game (i.e. publishers themselves and their academic management friends, sometimes overlapping). And even more, one might say that democratic changes are even two steps back with respect to strategic decisions taken by the said big players. It’s only speculation, but for example the admirable DORA could throw us in the future into the arms of the newly acquired Mendeley.

By democratic changes I mean those which are agreed by a significant part of the research community.

So, what else? Privately supported changes. By this I mean support of any potentially viral solution for getting us out from this tarpit war. It’s clear that Gold OA is the immediate future change agreed by the big players, although it’s just as useless  as the actual research communication system based on traditional publication. Why waste another 10 years on this bad idea, only to repeat afterwards that it is already technically possible to disseminate knowledge without making the authors (or public funding agencies which support those) pay for nothing?

The advantage of a new dissemination system is already acknowledged, namely it is far more convenient, economically speaking, to profit from the outcomes of low Coase cost research collaborations, than to keep paying a hand of people who offer an obsolete service and don’t want to adapt to the new world of the net.

This point of view is stressed already in my Seven years forecast (i.e. until 2020), part 5:

In seven years all  successful changes of the process of dissemination of knowledge will turn out to be among those born from private initiatives,

Wish I have a crystal ball,  though I only have some hope.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, maybe the uber-library idea is not the right thing. Yes, everybody wishes for a world library at a click distance, but that’s not all. That’s like “what can we do with cars? Well, let’s make them like coaches, only without the horse. The rich guys will love them.” And boum! the car concept became a success from the moment they were mass-produced.

UPDATE 2: Maybe relevant for the idea from  the first update, Cameron Neylon’s post “The bravery of librarians” ends with the question:

What can we do to create a world where we need to rely less on the bravery of librarians and therefore benefit so much more from it?


Read also:

To comment or not to comment, that is the question?

Some comments  to Gowers post “Why I’ve also joined the good guys” make me write a third reaction note. I want to understand why there is so much discussion around the idea of  the utility of comments to articles “published” (i.e. selected from arxiv or other free OA repositories) in epijournals.

UPDATE: For epijournals see Episciences.org and also the blog post  Episciences: de quoi s’agit-il?.

UPDATE 2: Read “Comments in epijournals: we may learn from Wikipedia” for a constructive proposal concerning comments (and peer-reviews as well).

I take as examples the comments by Izabella Laba  and  Mike Taylor.  Here they are:

Izabella Laba, link to comment:

I would not submit a paper to a journal that would force me to have a mandatory comment page on every article. I have written several long posts already on this type of issues, so here I’ll only say that this is my well considered opinion based on my decades of experience in mathematics, several years of blogging, and following (and sometimes commenting on) blogs with comment sections of varying quality. No amount of talk about possible fixes etc. will make me change my mind.

Instead, I want to mention a few additional points.

1) A new journal needs to develop a critical mass of authors. While having comment pages for articles may well attract some authors, making them mandatory pages will likely turn off just as many. In particular, the more senior and established authors are less likely to worry about the journal being accepted by promotion committees etc, but also less likely to have the time and inclination to manage and moderate discussion pages.

2) It is tempting to think that every paper would have a lively, engaging and productive comment page. In reality, I expect that this would only happen for a few articles. The majority of papers might get one or two lazy comments. The editors would have to spend time debating whether this or that lazy comment is negative enough or obnoxious enough to be removed, in response to the inevitable requests from the authors; but the point is that no greater good was achieved by having the comment page in the first place.

3) It is also tempting that such comment pages would contain at least a reasonably comprehensive summary of follow-up work (Theorem 1 was extended to a wider class of functions in [A], Conjecture 2 was proved in [B], and the range of exponents in Theorem 3 was proved to be sharp in [C]). But I don’t believe that this will happen. When I write an article, it is my job to explain clearly and informatively how my results relate to existing literature. It is *not* my job to also post explanations of that on multiple comment pages for cited articles, I certainly would not have the time to do that, and I’m not convinced that we could always could on the existence of interested and willing third parties.

A better solution would be to allow pingbacks (say, from the arXiv), so that the article’s journal page shows also the list of articles citing it. Alternatively, authors and editors might be allowed to add post-publication notes of this type (separate from the main article).

4) Related to this, but from a broader perspective: what is it that journals are supposed to accomplish, aside from providing a validation stamp? The old function of disseminating information has already been taken over by the internet. I believe that the most important thing that journals should be doing now is consolidating information, improving the quality of it, raising the signal to noise ratio.

I can see how this goal would be served by having a small number of discussion pages where the commenters are knowledgeable and engaged. In effect, these pages would serve as de facto expository papers in a different format. I do not think that having a large number of comment pages with one or two comments on them would have the same effect. It would not consolidate information – instead, it would diffuse it further.

On a related note, since I mentioned expository papers – it would be excellent to have a section for those. Right now, the journal market for expository papers is very thin: basically, it’s either the Monthly (limited range of topics) or the AMS Bulletin (very small number of papers, each one some sort of a “big deal”). But there is no venue, for instance, for the type of expository papers that researchers often write when they try to understand something themselves. (Except maybe for conference proceedings, but this is not a perfect solution, for many reasons.)

I will likely have more thoughts on it – if so, I’ll post a longer version of this on my own blog.

Mike Taylor, link to comment:

“I would not submit a paper to a journal that would force me to have a mandatory comment page on every article … No amount of talk about possible fixes etc. will make me change my mind.”

I am sorry to hear that. Without in the slighting expecting or intended to change you’re mind, I’ll say this: I can easily imagine that within a few more years, I will be refusing to submit to journals that do not have a comment page on my article. From my perspective, the principle purpose of publishing an article is to catalyse discussion and further work. I am loath to waste my work on venues that discourage this.

“It is tempting to think that every paper would have a lively, engaging and productive comment page. In reality, I expect that this would only happen for a few articles. The majority of papers might get one or two lazy comments.”

The solution to this is probably for us to write more interesting papers.

I totally agree with Mike Taylor and I am tempted to add that authors not willing to accept comments to their articles will deserve a future Darwin award for publication policies.  But surely is their right to lower the chances for their research to  produce descendants.

Say you are a film maker. What do you want?

  • a) to not allow your film to be seen because some of the critics may not appreciate it
  • b) to disseminate your film as much as possible and to learn from the critics and public about eventual weak points and good points of it

If the movie world would be alike to the actual academic world then most of the film makers would choose a), because it does not matter if the film is good or bad, only matters how many films you made and, among them, how many were supported by governmental grants.

A second argument for allowing comments to be made is Wikipedia.  It is clear to (almost) anybody that Wikipedia would not be what it is if it were only based on the 500-1000 regular editors (see the wiki page on Aaron Swartz and Wikipedia). Why is then impossible to imagine that we can make comments to the article a very useful feature of epijournals? Simply by importing some of the well proven rules from wikipedia concerning contributors!

On the reasons of such reactions which disregard the reality, another time. I shall just point to the fact that is still difficult to accept models of thinking based not on pyramidal bureaucratic organizational structures but on massive networked collaboration.   Pre-internet, the pyramidal organization was the most efficient. Post internet it makes no sense because the cost of organizing (Coase cost) went to almost nil.

But thought reflexes are still alive, because we are only humans.

Coase cost and web 2.0 (explained by Cory Doctorow)

For the win” (2010), by Cory Doctorow, was an eye opener for me! I just love his explanation concerning the Coase cost and its relevance for the effects we see  today due to the mass communication device which is the web 2.0.

For the license terms see here.  You can find this starting from the page 103 in the book (page numbering from the pdf file version). I’ve added several  links in the text.

“Whether you’re a revolutionary, a factory owner, or a little-league hockey organizer, there’s one factor you can’t afford to ignore: the CoaseCost.

Ronald Coase was an American economist who changed everything with a paper he published in 1937 called “The Theory of the Firm.” Coase’s paper argued that the real business of *any* organization was getting people organized. A religion is a system for organizing people to pray and give money to build churches and pay priests or ministers or rabbis; a shoe factory is a system for organizing people to make shoes. A revolutionary conspiracy is a system for organizing people to overthrow the government.

Organizing is a kind of tax on human activity. For every minute you spend *doing stuff*, you have to spend a few seconds making sure that you’re not getting ahead or behind or to one side of the other people you’re doing stuff with. The seconds you tithe to an organization is the CoaseCost, the tax on your work that you pay for the fact that we’re human beings and not ants or bees or some other species that manages to all march in unison by sheer instinct.

Oh, you can beat the CoaseCost: just stick to doing projects that you don’t need anyone else’s help with. Like, um…Tying your shoes? (Nope, not unless you’re braiding your own shoelaces). Toasting your own sandwich (not unless you gathered the wood for the fire and the wheat for the bread and the milk for the cheese on your own).

The fact is, everything you do is collaborative — somewhere out there, someone else had a hand in it. And part of the cost of what you’re doing is spent on making sure that you’re coordinating right, that the cheese gets to your fridge and that the electricity hums through its wires.

You can’t eliminate Coase costs, but you can lower it. There’s two ways of doing this: get better organizational techniques (say, “double-entry book-keeping,” an Earth-shattering 13th-century invention that is at the heart of every money-making organization in the world, from churches to corporations to governments), or get better technology.

Take going out to the movies. It’s Friday night, and you’re thinking of seeing a movie, but you don’t want to go alone. Imagine that the year was 1950 — how would you solve this problem?

Well, you’d have to find a newspaper and see what’s playing. Then you’d have to call all your friends’ houses (no cellular phones, remember!) and leave messages for them. Then you’d have to wait for some or all of them to call you back and report on their movie preferences. Then you’d have to call them back in ones and twos and see if you could convince a critical mass of them to see the same movie. Then you’d have to get to the theater and locate each other and hope that the show wasn’t sold out.

How much does this cost? Well, first, let’s see how much the movie is worth: one way to do that is to look at how much someone would have to pay you to convince you to give up on going to the movies. Another is to raise the price of the tickets steadily until you decide not to see a movie after all.

Once you have that number, you can calculate your CoaseCost: you could ask how much it would cost you to pay someone else to make the arrangements for you, or how much you could earn at an after-school job if you weren’t playing phone tag with your friends.

You end up with an equation that looks like this:

[Value of the movie] – [Cost of getting your friends together to see it] = [Net value of an evening out]

That’s why you’ll do something less fun (stay in and watch TV) but simple, rather than going out and doing something more fun but more complicated. It’s not that movies aren’t fun — but if it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get your friends out to see them, then the number of movies you go to see goes way down.

Now think of an evening out at the movies these days. It’s 6:45PM on a Friday night and the movies are going to all start in the next 20-50 minutes. You pull out your phone and google the listings, sorted by proximity to you. Then you send out a broadcast text-message to your friends — if your phone’s very smart, you can send it to just those friends who are in the neighborhood — listing the movies and the films. They reply-all to one another, and after a couple volleys, you’ve found a bunch of people to see a flick with. You buy your tickets on the phone.

But then you get there and discover that the crowds are so huge you can’t find each other. So you call one another and arrange to meet by the snack bar and moments later, you’re in your seats, eating popcorn.

So what? Why should anyone care how much it costs to get stuff done? Because the CoaseCost is the price of being *superhuman*.

Back in the old days — the very, very old days — your ancestors were solitary monkeys. They worked in singles or couples to do everything a monkey needed, from gathering food to taking care of kids to watching for predators to building nests. This had its limitations: if you’re babysitting the kids, you can’t gather food. If you’re gathering food, you might miss the tiger — and lose the kids.

Enter the tribe: a group of monkeys that work together, dividing up the labor. Now they’re not just solitary monkeys, they’re groups of monkeys, and they can do more than a single monkey could do. They have transcended monkeyness. They are *supermonkeys*.

Being a supermonkey isn’t easy. If you’re an individual supermonkey, there are two ways to prosper: you can play along with all your monkey pals to get the kids fed and keep an eye out for tigers, or you can hide in the bushes and nap, pretending to work, only showing up at mealtimes.

From an individual perspective, it makes sense to be the lazy-jerk-monkey. In a big tribe of monkeys, one or two goof-offs aren’t going to bankrupt the group. If you can get away with napping instead of working, and still get fed, why not do it?

But if *everyone* does it, so much for supermonkeys. Now no one’s getting the fruit, no one’s taking care of the kids, and damn, I thought *you* were looking out for the tigers! Too many lazy monkeys plus tigers equals lunch.

So monkeys — and their hairless descendants like you — need some specialized hardware to detect cheaters and punish them before the idea catches on and the tigers show up. That specialized hardware is a layer of tissue wrapped around the top of your brain called the neo-cortex — the “new bark.” The neo-cortex is in charge of keeping track of the monkeys. It’s the part of your brain that organizes people, checks in on them, falls in love with them, establishes enmity with them. It’s the part of your brain that gets thoroughly lit up when you play with Facebook or other social networking sites, and it’s the part of your brain that houses the local copies of the people in your life. It’s where the voice of your mother telling you to brush your teeth emanates from.

The neocortex is the CoaseCost as applied to the brain. Every sip of air you breathe, every calorie you ingest, every lubdub of your heart goes to feed this new bark that keeps track of the other people in your group and what they’re doing, whether they’re in line or off the reservation.

The CoaseCost is the limit of your ability to be superhuman. If the CoaseCost of some activity is lower than the value that you’d get out of it, you can get some friends together and *do it*, transcend the limitations that nature has set on lone hairless monkeys and *become a superhuman*.

So it follows that high Coase costs make you less powerful and low Coase costs make you more powerful. What’s more, big institutions with a lot of money and power can overcome high Coase costs: a government can put 10,000 soldiers onto the battlefield with tanks and food and medics; you and your buddies cannot. So high Coase costs can limit *your* ability to be superhuman while leaving the rich and powerful in possession of super-powers that you could never attain.

And that’s the real reason the powerful fear open systems and networks. If anyone can set up a free voicecall to anyone else in the world, using the net, then we can all communicate with the same ease that’s standard for the high and mighty. If anyone can create and sell virtual wealth in a game, then we’re all in the same economic shoes as the multinational megacorps that start the games.

And if any worker, anywhere, can communicate with any other worker, anywhere, for free, instantaneously, without her boss’s permission, then, brother, look out, because the CoaseCost of demanding better pay, better working conditions and a slice of the pie just got a *lot* cheaper. And the people who have the power aren’t going to sit still and let a bunch of grunts take it away from them.”

Beautiful! Please let me know if I trespassed any rights.