Academic publishing and monopoly pricing

by Henry on January 16, 2004

Via “Cosma Shalizi”:http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/archives/000161.html, a very nice “article”:http://octavia.zoology.washington.edu/publishing/BergstromAndBergstrom04.pdf on the economics of academic publishing in the _Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences_. The authors provide compelling empirical evidence of a large differential between the price of commercial journals and the price of journals put out by professional societies and academic presses, which isn’t explained by journal quality. The graphs almost jump from the page – there are dramatically different relationships between price and number of citations, depending on whether you are looking at commercial or non-commercial journals. Furthermore, according to the authors, the differential between the two has increased over time. Commercial journals are lousy value for money – but they’re apparently hard to displace in the marketplace.

The authors’ wider argument is also interesting – and worrying. Increasingly, academic publishing is moving towards a model based on the licensing of electronic access to a bundle of journals to universities and other research institutions. The authors’ model suggests that site licensing of journals by commercial publishers will leave scholars worse off on average than if each scholar purchased individual licenses to the journals that she wanted to read. While site licences to larger groups are more efficient, these efficiency gains are more than absorbed by the sellers, if the sellers are profit maximizing firms.

Economists who are interested in new economy issues, like “Brad DeLong”:http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2004_archives/000033.html, usually focus on the massive productivity gains that we can expect from information technology. While these are important, so too are the distributional consequences – the ways in which new technologies affect who gets what. Even if new technologies, such as electronic publishing, are more efficient in some broad sense of the term, the efficiency gains may be distributed in ways that are difficult to justify.

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robin green 01.17.04 at 12:10 am

An alternative model is provided by the Journal of Biology. As the article notes, the journal grew from the open letter on open publishing published by the Public Library of Science.

In some cases, commercial journals charge at both ends – for publication and for subscription. And, of course, they retain exclusive publication rights[1]. Given all this, there is a question mark over whether they provide value for money, and whether academics might be able to do a more efficient job themselves – in every sense – by cutting out the middleman.

And if there is no profit motive involved, there is no need to keep copyright restrictions on papers after sufficient time has elapsed to recoup the costs of publishing. Indeed, you can even make some papers free straight away.

Free really might be cheaper in this context, after all.

[1] In theory – there is evidently a variable amount of leeway in terms of posting a paper on your homepage in the Internet age.

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