Thursday, December 16, 2004

The academic publishing goose

Slate has an interesting piece on attempts to make research from leading medical journals available for free online.
[S]ome physicians and members of Congress have pointed out that much of the best literature, published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, is not immediately available for free to the public, and they have begun to argue that it should be.

To the consternation of journal publishers, many of them not-for-profit associations that rely heavily on journal subscription fees for their revenue, the National Institutes of Health has thrown its considerable weight behind the notion of free access to biomedical research....As the NIH considers final guidelines, a vitriolic debate has erupted in the scientific community: How best to balance the needs of journal publishers against those of scientists, students, and members of the general public who would benefit from unfettered access?

It's an interesting problem. Both suppliers and consumers of academic research benefit if the research is freely available. Furthermore, neither writers nor referees are paid by the journals. In my view, the "needs" of journal publishers should get very little weight, except to the degree that it is necessary to give them the proper incentives. The aim should be to make the research available as widely as possible, while somehow preserving the services journals provide as certifiers of and archivers of quality research.

The "market" for academic journals is a strange and interesting one. Economist Ted Bergstrom has written several papers on the topic which you can find at his webpage devoted to the issue. In economics, the top few journals are run by non-profit organizations such as the American Economic Association and the Econometric Society. However, about 2/3 of the total journals, including a few very good ones, are published by for-profit companies, especially the Dutch publisher Elsevier. Despite being cited much less frequently than the top journals, the for-profit journals are far more expensive, and their prices have increased much faster than the prices of most non-profit journals over the past decades. This interesting powerpoint presentation gives lots of details.

Elsevier's business has been very lucrative. But there are several stories on the sidebar at Bergstrom's site that make me wonder if they may be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It appears that lots of university libraries are getting tough with Elsevier. For example, Cornell apparently announced plans "to cancel several hundred Elsevier journals for 2004." In some cases, journal editorial boards have resigned en masse to start new, non-profit journals because of their unhappiness with Elsevier's pricing.

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