it’s time to abolish academic publishers

The Guardian reported that publishers like Springer, Elsevier and others make 42% profits. If you know anything about the business world, that’s amazing. And of course, commenters have been scandalized. In my view, there’s no crime in making a healthy profit by providing something that people willingly buy.

The high profit margins do point at a profound problem with academic publishing: the reliance on an archaic business format. In previous centuries, journal publishers used to provide a vital service. They took care of assembling and delivering a print version of scientific research. In the 20th century, publishers were indispensable. Without them, academics relied on mimeos and xeroxes.

Since academic journals were only bought by scholars and libraries, the system relied on a lot of volunteer labor. Authors, editors, and reviewers all worked for free because they got university pay checks. Only the production staff – managing editors, publishers, type setters, etc. – got paid.

As the university system grew and became wealthier, publishers learned you could charge quite a bit for journals. The demand was inelastic and the buyers became wealthier. Library budgets are in the millions  and some authors, such as in the biomedical fields, can even afford to pay for publication. Soon, thousand dollar subscriptions became routine. That’s normal when library administrators are told “you have to buy this.” Inefficiency abounds

As long as we replied on paper, we needed to live with this situation. High prices are normal in a system of inelastic demand, big bureaucratic budgets, and little competition (e.g., journals are not substitutes for each other). But that is no longer the case. It is now possible to go without the traditional publisher.

It’s called the Internet. Using modern software, it is now extremely easy to produce and distribute a journal. It can be done for a few thousand dollars a year. You need a proof reader, a type setter, and a web site manager. You’d also need to pay for an electronic submission website, but smaller journals could easily live with an email account that the managing editor uses. Rather than pay huge subscription fees, each author would pay for proof reading and type setting. Journals run by associations would simply be available for free at the association website. Any journal run by a department could be housed at the university website.

This is not a fantasy. As I noted in an earlier post, there is a journal called the “Public Library of Scince” or PLoS. The PLoS journals are free, peer reviewed, and open to the public. Already, they are publishing path breaking research that is having a wide impact. The only barrier to this model is the effort needed to band a bunch of people together to run the journal.

So the next time you see high journal prices, stop complaining. The solution is already here. The only question is what you will do to make it happen.

Written by fabiorojas

September 6, 2011 at 4:17 am

Posted in academia, economics, fabio

13 Responses

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  1. The Economic Sociology Section of ASA is considering starting an Econ Soc journal (as announced at this year’s business meeting). If the members made it clear that they preferred an open-access format, that might go a long way to influencing the council’s decisions. Also, it would in some sense further justify creating the journal: there are good outlets for econ soc, but very few (if any) are open access.

    As a follow-up, aside from PLoS, are there any good models for open-access journals, especially for smaller ones (e.g. run by a single university or section of a professional association, say)?


    Dan Hirschman

    September 6, 2011 at 4:24 am

  2. I’m doing some work on the economics of open access presently. I think it’s important to note that OA and commercial publishers are not at all separate: all of the major publishers have some OA journals, and “green OA” policies (i.e., whether you’re allowed to put a preprint on your website or ArXiv or whatever) vary field by field regardless of whether commercial or noncommercial publishers predominate. Basically, all OA means is that the author pays for publication (generally from a grant) and the library doesn’t, rather than vice versa.

    The social sciences are in much better shape than natural science, where journals often don’t allow authors to put working papers and the like online. Only something like 20% of new academic articles can be found ungated online today, versus something like 100% in economics and almost as much in sociology.

    There are many society-run OA journals. A good new one is Theoretical Economics run the society that publishes Econometrica.

    In subfields, a useful thing to look at is SPARC. Essentially, a subfield in physics really only publishes in six journals. A group has put together a coalition of labs and departments to essentially just pay the journal costs and then make everything free and OA. Another useful thing to look at is mandates. A number of universities and funders (the NIH, most prominently, which is the subject of my work) requires work to be placed in an OA repository (sometimes with an embargo) after publication. It might be useful for the ASA or the ASSA to set up standard “tags” for subjects and such a repository, allowing easy exploration of new research in the same way that PubMed does for medical studies.

    Ignoring the conflation between OA and commercial publishers, though, Fabio’s main point that universities are getting massively ripped off by publishers (particularly Elsevier) is well-taken. Why do societies continue to grant their imprimatur? There are ways out. The main European econ association disassociated with their commercially-published and highly-expensive journal (the EER) and now associate with the much less costly JEEA. It’s possible.



    September 6, 2011 at 5:01 am

  3. The PLoS journals are free, peer reviewed, and open to the public. Already, they are publishing path breaking research that is having a wide impact. The only barrier to this model is the effort needed to band a bunch of people together to run the journal.

    It’s not really just a bunch of people rolling up their sleeves. My understanding of the PLoS model is that it has only been viable because of *many* millions of dollars of Foundation support.



    September 6, 2011 at 6:33 am

  4. Could it also help to get support from some “big names” too? Like, get a famous scholar who’s also known as a good editor to accept the editorship at a new online journal?



    September 6, 2011 at 6:56 am

  5. One problem that I don’t think gets enough attention is the backfile issue. You can replace the current publication system for new articles, and you can get the pre-1923 issues for journals that go back that far (though the free sites such as Hathitrust and Google Books still have gaps), but what about everything published in between? That’s basically locked up and much of it is still quite necessary for current research, especially in the more historically-inclined fields. Plus, there’s real value in the article-level cataloging/indexing that has gone into those sites, which would take a fair amount of work to replace.

    [Unrelatedly, I wonder if I should add an initial to my name here. I’ve been around for a while, but mostly not-commenting; “Andrew” comments a lot more than I do. The perils of a common name + cross-site logins, I guess.]



    September 6, 2011 at 9:14 am

  6. @Jeremy: It’s true that PLoS is a big time venture. But there is no reason that everyone has to do it that way. I can give you a list of online journals that are low tech affairs and that have readerships, The Journal of Social Structure and the Journal of Simulated Societies both work fine. Among people who do curator studies, Museum and Society went online and it seems to be doing fine. Econ Journal Watch, which publishes peer reviewed commentary from libertarian economists, is another venue that is free and online.

    Each takes time and money, but actually it *is* a matter of rolling up your sleeves. You need only small budget – not millions.

    @dan: I would love to see the Econ Soc section make an all digital journal. I’d be happy to lend a hand if anyone wants my help.



    September 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  7. Evil twin Peter Klein posted about Mario Rizzo’s recent book on Facebook:

    Peter G. Klein
    I’d like to have Mario Rizzo’s law and economics reader. But $740??? Elgar, really?
    Edward Elgar Publishing
    Academic independent international publisher specialising in economics, law, business and management and public policy.

    I suppose the publishers know they can extract the money from libraries. On a related note: I’m not very happy about the price of textbooks either.


    David Hoopes

    September 6, 2011 at 6:47 pm

  8. Its such a important article.

    Personal experience – even being associated with a one of the India’s best business school. I find that it is very difficult to have access to the many journals. My library do not subscribe. They simply site the reason that it is too costly. And We always think , that Authors (main content generators) , editors don’t get paid for their work. Then why the hell are prices so high. As you indicated it is monopoly of publishers and non-substitute condition – which is making them quiet arrogant.

    So making it internet based (I can see some respectable efforts in OB/HR area), free of charge will actually contribute to research dissemination. And it will be really worth to make efforts in this direction.



    September 7, 2011 at 4:06 am

  9. Mind experiment: how much resources would the ASA need to open-access any of its top three journals?

    My guess: it would take a dedicated team of approx. 15 people, working full time.

    It’s a captive market as it is.



    September 7, 2011 at 9:23 am

  10. A great post! Some comments:

    The real question is – should we focus on green OA to break the monopoly of for-profit publishers and then pick up the pieces with gold OA not-for-profit publishing entities or promote both gold and green OA at the same time? I’m not sure about the answer.

    @afinetheorem: I wouldn’t say that the social sciences are in a much better situation – maybe some of the disciplines (sociology and economics) as you mentioned are, but most journals in psychology for example aren’t gold OA, and many don’t support green OA. Check out here for a discussion of OA in psychology:

    Another social science that doesn’t have it peachy when it comes to OA is anthropology. According to Jason Baird Jackson, only 27% of the ranking anthropology journals are published by not for-profit publishers. See here:


    Ivan (@ivanflis)

    September 7, 2011 at 12:25 pm

  11. Great post. Thanks. Here is also an interesting read I stumbled upon earlier today:
    OA Rhetoric, Economics, and the Definition of “Research”


    Aalam Wassef

    September 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm

  12. Eric F. Van de Velde

    September 15, 2011 at 11:18 am

  13. hey really nice post ..



    October 23, 2011 at 10:04 am

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