KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

There’s no such thing as a free journal

with 12 comments

Roving Bandit recently blogged with justifiable indignation about how Elsevier, a leading academic publisher (and publisher of the Lancet) had revoked their deal that offered free journal access to many in the developing world.

In an ideal world academic research would be free to everyone. Costs for access to research are an important barrier to access to knowledge in developing countries, but not only there. We are struggling with limited budgets ourselves to provide access to staff to the most valuable information sources and have to make hard choices about what we provide to staff and what we don’t. Many smaller organizations find this even more challenging than we do.

Journals are not “free” to produce of course. Producing them costs money, whether it’s to organize the peer review process, for editing, layout, printing, distribution, advertising, web design, subscription management and so on.

So the real question is who should pay if we want to broaden access? There are a few different options none of which are fully satisfactory:

1. Developed world pays and subsidizes free access for developing countries. This until recently was the Elsevier model. It’s not foolproof since i) there are rich organizations who can afford it in the South and poor ones who need it but can’t afford it in the North. Also I’m sure there are loopholes whereby people from the North access research via Southern institutions. And what stage can a country “afford” to pay itself and how much of a premium is the developed world willing to pay to provide access to the developing world.

2. Means tested – some other kind of benchmark around who pays and who doesn’t based on some perceived ability to pay. This is probably a non-starter since who would be able to define and monitor such a scheme to ensure it In practice publishers do provide discounts to certain organizations on a case by case basis but this is probably as much a result of negotiation as it is of merit.

3. Public funded – In his post Lee was advocating for the threat of nationalization to ensure open access (I’m presuming not seriously). There are notable public funded open access research databases such as Pubmed or consortia of organizations  such as PLOS (Public Library of Science). But Pubmed is limited to publicly funded research, and sometimes there is a delay before this is available. There is a limit to how much leverage government have with journal publishers, and a limit to how much research and publishing they are willing to fund themselves. Also with nationally run publishing operations there is always a perception (if not reality) of the review process being politicized rather than merit based as well as inefficient.

4. Philanthropically funded private provision. Maybe foundations and major philanthropists could agree to pay Elsevier and others for their research and then provide it for free. Providing free access to journals is probably not the top of the list of things  philanthropists want to be remembered for though. Another challenge would be setting the price – how much would global access to the Lancet be worth for example? Without payment, how can you work out which journals or articles are the most valuable. (The Lancet is expensive because people think it is good and are willing to pay a high price for it).

5. Advertising supported market provision – this is a model that I’m surprised has not been adopted more (maybe there’s some obvious reason – please let me know in the comments). Just as Google search or Facebook are free but supported by advertising, shouldn’t it be possible to provide free public access to academic journals or research articles supported by some form of advertising? Those journals or articles in greatest demand should attract the most advertising revenue, and so the greatest funding thus enabling their publishers to maintain their economic incentives while still providing access to knowledge for free to “consumers”. It might be possible to charge for premium features such as print  versions, company branded portals etc.

Something in me would like 5. to work. It would be great if there were a market oriented version that also provided public access. I suspect though that one of the biggest challenges is that of journal prestige. Everyone wants to get their work published by a prestigious (i.e. exclusive) journal as a sign of the quality of their work. This means it’s hard for newcomers to enter the market, and so it would be hard for a new journal with a different business model to get established and gain credibility to the extent that it could sustain itself economically.

Maybe what is needed is for a few major investors, philanthropists, governments and researchers to get together to say openly that the current publishing system isn’t serving the public interest and to support a few high-profile, high-quality pilot journals that are both public access and commercially viable that can break the current business mould.

Anyone up for the challenge?

(for another take on this issue – and the problems with the academic publishing “business” as a whole read this great post by Josef Scarantino – Africa needs an open publishing manifesto for academia…the time is NOW)

Update: Lee (Roving Bandit) has written a new blog post on this elaborating on his views (More Clarifications: On Academic Publishing) which is well worth checking out. I think we are agreed that research should be a public good – where we differ what might be the best model to deliver it. Whatever it is, I think it could only be good if more people started to make noise about this.


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 24, 2011 at 2:54 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Excellent post Ian and great job on coming up with some very thoughtful alternatives. This is a topic very dear to my heart, as you know. I think each of those alternatives contains some strong pros and cons to be considered, and all of them quite interesting ideas in my opinion. It would be interesting to see some sort of ‘hybrid’ alternative publishing model for the developing world containing portions of these alternative models.

    Hopefully this subject can take on a new life and gain some traction in the academia publishing business.

    Also, thanks for the mention of my blog post at the end.


    January 24, 2011 at 3:15 pm

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Thorpe, Ian Thorpe and Josef Scarantino, knowledgetank. knowledgetank said: #KM #KMers There's no such thing as a free journal […]

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  4. […] Read this article: There's no such thing as a free journal « KM on a dollar a day […]

    • Ian mentions a number of scenarios in his post on how this can change, but I think one that perhaps we need to think about more is the CHOICE that the authors, researchers and academics have.

      Take the Lancet, for example (published by Elsevier, one of the publishers who opted out of HINARI). Why is the Lancet such a great journal — because of the content! I understand that prestige is an important part of publishing, but so is actual impact…and if only the rich can afford to access this research then impact is diminished.

      Authors’ of these articles have a choice on where to publish and many of the Open Access journals are beginning to gain more and more penetration into the market once dominated by the prohibitively expensive journals.

      Working so closely with this research in my own work (pulling together external research for the UN organization I work for), I have noticed some of the preeminent authors in health, nutrition, etc. are beginning to publish more in Open Access journals like Biomed Central and PLoS. Authors of this research need to do MORE of this, perhaps even commit to publishing exclusively in open access journals until the for-profit publishers reinstate free access for the most impoverished nations.

      If publishing in the Lancet or another subscription journal is the route an author wants to go, then perhaps negotiating a deal with the publisher/journal to make their article free would be an alternative. For example, the Lancet could still have a pay model for certain content online, but certain articles could be flagged as free or open access.

      As the authors of said research, we hold some of the cards here and need to take a stronger stand against publishers who want to ring out every dollar of profit off of the backs of institutions in the poorest places in the world that need this information the most.

      We can speak out against it and we can refuse to publish in the journals where the publishers are taking a hard line. The Lancet itself came out against its own publisher on this issue and for now Elsevier seems to have made some concessions on reinstating access (though it is still quite murky as to which countries they have done this for). More of this needs to be done by the content providers to ensure that vital research being done on development issues is actually accessible to the poor.

      Minnie O

      January 31, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  5. As a young/junior academic and someone who has written on some of the publication dilemmas before (, I think that criticising publishers is important, but that the role of how academia treats publications (especially those in peer-reviewed journals) needs to be addressed, too. Publishing an article in a top journal of your discipline can literally make the difference in a job interview-or even before when academics read your CV and discuss who to invite for an interview for a post-doc or assistant professor opening. And rather than being interested in the ‘impact’ or accessibility of your research, they are interested in the ‘impact factor’ of your article. This is partly because governments, evaluation agencies or other funders put a lot of pressure on universities to prove ‘impact’ and very little can be done to do it other than through quantifiable indicators. An article in a top journal may not only be your ‘meal ticket’ to your first job, but it may also help your department to secure funding in the next round of ‘quality assessment’. However, many departments tend to be very conservative in their hiring practices, too. Rather than taking a ‘risk’ with someone who has chosen an alternative way to share his/her research they will go with the safe bet-the top journal where their colleague for 25 years happens to be the editor or on the editorial board. That’s what makes publishers so powerful and makes many academics freightened to speak out against practices that exclude Southern or ‘poor’ audiences. It’s a vicious circle and attitudes in academia shouldn’t be underestimated when criticising the business models of academic publishers.


    January 31, 2011 at 5:42 pm

  6. Sadly #4 & #5 fall straight into the “media funnel” effect that Chomsky articulates.

    In the case of philanthropy, the publication that gets funded tends to support the beliefs and preferences of the donor – think Templeton, and areas of research that are not preferred or whose results are unpalatable to the major donors can expect flack or threat to funding.

    The commercial support side is even more sensitive to bias from the advertiser and funders, and again research will be channeled into topics that are preferred and have outcomes that are desirable to the donors. Publishing a piece that is critical of a product that the major advertiser or donor sells becomes problematic.

    I doubt that there is an elegant solution, since as you say, it costs money to fund something like The Lancet, but PLoS is surviving and perhaps at least one model worth pursuing, as is making all academic and government-funded research part of public domain.

    The bigger challenge however, I do not think lies with access to the primary-tier journals since the general public doesn’t read Lancet or the BMJ or NEJM even when they are free at the local library.

    The problem is that there is a terminology and knowledge burden set as an entry requirement – to most people the tier-1 journal is as inscrutable as if it were written in a foreign language for which no translation existed.

    For example, there are plentiful texts available for free on evolution, but in many countries where such access is plentiful, a rudimentary level of understanding is far below 50% of the population.

    This isn’t an access issue, but a problem of both palatability and usability


    March 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    • I think you are right about the risks of 4. and 5. being subject to the biases of advertiser preferences.

      In #5. One way to potentially reduce this risk is if rather than using traditional advertising methods of paid placements something akin to google adwords where people pay for words in an auction with the more popular ones going for the highest bid. This way just because something doesn’t get picked, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t get published (assuming enough revenue comes from the more popular words or themes). This or some other way would certainly be needed to put some kind of firewall between advertisers and writers so that getting your article approved is based on quality not on having a commercial sponsor. I guess some hybrid of public and private support will be needed to ensure as wide an access as possible since I don’t think full public provision is a realistic option either.

      On the issue of sharing the knowledge contained more widely, my blog was primarily concerned with giving access to those who had the ability to use it, but not the financial means to access it. You raise a very important, but separate point on whether the knowledge contained is understandable beyond a small technically trained elite. Usability is very important, and many journal articles are not written for easy comprehension even by those with the requisite training. Maybe I’ll write a future blog on this 🙂 but a few quick thoughts come to mind

      i) better writing and editing of journal articles for readability, and better focus on presentation skills of academics would certainly be of great value.
      ii) that said maybe the role of journal articles isn’t to communicate to a broad audience – this might be more something for science journalists and bloggers to do, as well as educators i.e. to digest and transform the research into more everyday language and to make int interesting and relevant for the broader public, or for that matter to policy makers and managers. (This has its own challenges see this excellent blog from Ed Yong )
      iii) the fact that journal articles are often stuck behind paywalls reduces the incentives for authors to pay more attention to readability since most people will never see the original article anyway, only what someone else wrote about it. If more people could see it, there might be more pressure on them to write in a more accessible way.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm

  7. Ian, firewalling the authors from the advertisers/donors certainly would help, but there would still be an overall effect of selection at the publication level – the editors and authors would be very aware of the subject choice favoured by the advertisers/donors and as a result there would be both self-selection as well as positive selection by editors who would tend to not want to risk the income.

    This means that some topics will simply get less time in the sun that others

    I agree that a hybrid in which all the forms of funding are available probably covers pretty much as large a cloth as we are ever going to get, so we should push them all in that hope.

    Once we drop into the topic of palatability and understandability however, I really don’t know what the answer might be.
    Science education has a very finite limit and humans simply aren’t perfectable when it comes to understanding science – we remain at birth a very slightly modified neolithic hominid with very definite limits to how digestible ideas and information can be made.

    As we cascade the information from tier-1 journals down to popular tabloids, the messages become adulterated, mutated, and attenuated. The writers sharpen, flatten, and contextualize in ways that defies fixing.


    March 2, 2011 at 9:43 am

  8. […] of course (e.g. ‘There’s no such thing as a free journ…).There are probably other examples and ideas out […]

  9. […] papers (let alone the data sets on which they were built) are not. One day more of these will be available for free, but not […]

  10. […] we find other funding to cover journals, and if not, what do we make of suggested business models for open access and whether they would work for […]

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