Free Public Choice

by Henry Farrell on March 12, 2008

One of the more annoying aspects of academic publishing is that articles are usually behind a paywall and thus effectively unavailable to people without an institutional affiliation. I’ve felt this especially keenly with respect to the _Public Choice_ special issue on blogging that Dan Drezner and I co-edited. Unlike most things that I’ve been involved in putting out there, I suspect that there is a decent non-academic audience out there for this kind of work, who will never get to see it because of the largish fees that they would have to pay as non-subscribers. The good news, via my colleague Eric Lawrence, is that Springer Verlag are making _Public Choice_ available for free to everyone via the WWW until the end of April, as a promotional exercise. So if you want to read my or (more likely) the other contributors’ thoughts on blogging, click on “this link”: and click through to the January 2008 issue. For a limited time only, as they say in the business.

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03.18.08 at 5:58 am



Steve Laniel 03.12.08 at 6:18 pm

As a non-academic person with a decent interest in a lot of academic fields, I’ve felt the sting of this a lot. I keep wanting to read papers that are behind paywalls or in Jstor or ScienceDirect. As a last resort, I will email the authors and ask for PDFs; my batting average on that is 1.000, presumably because the authors are flattered to hear that anyone outside of their field wants to read their stuff.

What I don’t get is why professors put up with this. Correct me if I’m wrong, but academics don’t get paid to write these papers, and only receive modest royalties from the books. So what incentive do they have to limit their audience to paying customers?

For that matter, how are some academics able to put PDFs of their papers up on their websites?

The economics of this all confuse me.


Righteous Bubba 03.12.08 at 6:27 pm



harry b 03.12.08 at 6:55 pm

steve laniel’s question is a good one. Here’s an answer. We put up with it because we still believe that our careers will be affected more by the outlets in which we publish than the attention which our publications get (especially attention from non-academics). We have some reason to believe that, but I’m not sure that reason isn’t weakening. When I sit on review committees people look at the quality of outlet, but they also look at tenure letters etc. Maximising the impact of your work requires making it as readily available as possible, and impact includes impact on the quality of letters. I suspect that the internet is eroding the significance of journals for careers. That said, I have a fantastic paper in progress which I am trying to publish in the top journal, despite the fact that I believe that it would garner perfectly good attention without that effort…


Chris Williams 03.12.08 at 7:51 pm

There’s a tendency among in the UK for new academic journals to seriously consider a web-only open access approach.One good example is Surveillance and Society, here:

But. You’re only as good as your peer review, your indexers, and your copy-editors – this goes for paper-based journals behind paywalls as well of course. S&S _is_ this good, but the team of academics behind it have had to put a lot of work in, work which the publisher would usually be expected to do.

Interest to declare – I’m a member of the network which supports S&S, and might be submitting work there soon.


John Emerson 03.12.08 at 8:00 pm

Someone needs to do the economics of that. Who pays and who gets paid. My guess is that almost none of the money goes to content producers.

Besides the general public, those excluded would include academics between jobs or retired and academics in low-grade universities or overseas.


John Quiggin 03.12.08 at 8:18 pm

I put up PDFs but lately some of the commercial publishers have been sending emails to authors of newly published articles saying you can’t do this, though it’s still possible to put up earlier versions.

JSTOR is gradually opening up. Here’s a list of journals accessible to individuals without an institutional affiliation


Chris Williams 03.12.08 at 8:34 pm

It’s nice to see JMH on the JSTOR freebie list, courtesy of University of Chicago Press. It’s always pained me that the richly-deserved shoeing I gave to Joyce Lee Malcolm’s _Guns and Violence_ was stuck behind a paywall.


Orin Kerr 03.12.08 at 8:58 pm



jon weinberg 03.12.08 at 10:21 pm

For one answer to “who pays and who gets paid,” you might want to check out Jessica Litman’s paper The Economics of Open Access Law Publishing. (Disclaimer: Jessica’s my wife, but the paper’s worth reading for all that.)


Laban Tall 03.12.08 at 11:52 pm

I’m another one who wants to read stuff that’s behind JSTOR or similar – but the Athens gateway doesn’t accept subscriptions from individuals. What do I do ? As I’m interested in history, a lot of the authors are dead so I can’t mail them. Do I have to sign up to an OU course to get Athens ?

If anyone can get me

The Spanish Armada and the Ottoman Porte
Edwarde Barton, Edwin Pears
The English Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 31 (Jul., 1893), pp. 439-466

I’d be most grateful. One can but ask.


Randolph Fritz 03.12.08 at 11:53 pm

At least in the Northwest, you can walk into a public university library and use their computers; it seems to me that, even with the paywalls, more journals are available to more people than ever before. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worthwhile to make them truly public, but the people who do the editorial and publishing work have to be paid somehow.


antirealist 03.13.08 at 3:33 am

AFAICT, that JSTOR list is not a list of free journals, just of journals that allow people without institutional affiliation to access articles for a fee.


Douglas Knight 03.13.08 at 4:52 am

Chris Williams,
have you studied the history of other web-only journals? I’ve heard of several that discovered that papers published in them didn’t count in the eyes of many deans, gave up and went to print (though still open-access, I think).


Randolph Fritz 03.13.08 at 7:01 am

Laban, at least in Seattle and Portland, we can walk into our public libraries, ask at the reference desks and get copies of most things that are available at the university libraries. Have you tried that?


Chris Williams 03.13.08 at 9:19 am

‘laban’, the answer is yes. Sign up to an OU course and you get the benefit of an exceptionally good set of subscriptions. £99 will buy you access to them for around five months. Search for course codes Y156-Y161. Who knows, you may even learn something: although in my experience people who encounter education (of any kind) looking for information to confirm their prejudices (of any kind) tend to not get as much out of it as they might.

NB – those courses are UK/BFPO only. Next best bet for the rest of you is probably one of the A17x courses, which last three months but cost £300 in Ireland, £325 elsewhere.

Interest to declare – I work for the OU.

Douglas Knight – no, I leave the systematic study of open access journals to any information studies specialists who want to do this. I’m just a user with enough to do already, so I only really notice journals in my field.


JJ 03.13.08 at 4:16 pm

I didn’t know PC was being held captive.


DHinMI 03.13.08 at 7:59 pm

From the article:

These hypotheses receive tentative support from an online survey conducted by the authors between September 2003 and January 2004, in which media employees were asked to provide information about the blogs that they read.

Really? This data got published as something other than an historical artifact?

I suppose someone could argue that nobody gets their news from the internet, and cite survey findings from 1983.

I also suspect that was the last time that co-author Daniel Drezner ever showed up in a list of most-read or most-cited bloggers.


Henry 03.13.08 at 8:32 pm

Really? This data got published as something other than an historical artifact?

Let’s just say that for a variety of reasons there was a wee bit of a delay between the gestation of the article (see “here”: for its first version, and “here”: for some nice words by Tyler) and its final publication …


Wobbler 03.13.08 at 11:02 pm

Reply to #5

On publishing economics and Open Access, I’ve found this post by Stevan Harnad to be very informative.

(To summarize)
(1) Peer-Reviewed Journal-Article Authors Give Journals Their Articles for Free: No Royalties.
(2) Peers Review for Free.
(3) Publisher Revenues from Institutional Subscriptions Are Currently Paying the Full Cost of Managing the Peer Review, Several Times Over.
(4) If Institutional Subscriptions Are Ever Cancelled, Peer Review Management Costs Will Be Paid Out of the Institutional Subscription Cancellation Savings.


David 03.15.08 at 1:01 am

Sadly, I must dispute Randolph Fritz’s rosy assessment of access in the Pacific NW. My masters thesis concerned Internet access for poor, homeless and otherwise economically marginalized people. To my distress, starting in about 2004 the UW library began to severely and quietly restrict non-student computer access in the libraries. Whereas before, anyone could walk in and use any library computer for full Internet and holdings access, there are now only a small handful of older machines available with highly restricted Internet access. Access to journals is still available from these machines but unless you are using a newer student/faculty only machine (UW NetID required) you can’t actually save, print or acquire articles. One of the reasons I’m clinging to my NetID as long as possible is for the off-campus computer access to the restricted databases.

As for the public libraries offering access to any meaningful range of journals, that sure is news to me. The SPL (Seattle Public Library system), a true city treasure in most respects, dropped the vast majority of its journal subscriptions starting at least a decade or more ago due to costs. There is simply no substitute for a major institution’s collection and access privileges. The only reason the UW library is as open as it is is because it is designated a Federal Repository Library. That is, we pay for it.


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