There’s no such thing as a free journal
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.