Academic research is inherently a “public good”, which means that once a professor does all the research work and writes the paper, the social marginal cost of another reader is ZERO! If the research is useful, then it could be useful to additional readers at no extra cost whatsoever. Any charge for reading it would discourage those who could benefit while imposing no social cost whatever. Thus, the optimal price to charge per reader is zero.
But that’s not what journals charge. Non-profit associations might charge very little to subscribe to their journals, basically enough to cover their printing cost and mailing cost. Now, however, any research paper can be provided even more cheaply on a website. One useful purpose of an academic journal, still, is for the editor and reviewers to pass judgment on whether the research is good enough to be published, and to make further suggestions for improvement before publication. So, each paper to be published has some cost to review it and some cost to post it on the web. Even then, the social marginal cost of one additional person to read it is still zero!
How can a non-profit journal cover the cost of editing and reviewing the paper, and still provide free access? Just as for many kinds of “public good”, the nonprofit organization might need donations!
Even worse is the still-huge number of academic journals that are published not by a non-profit research association or by a university press, but by a private for-profit company. Those private publishers own the copyrights, and so they can charge a high enough price to make money, above and beyond their costs. And even worse than most private for-profit publishers is Elsevier.
Elsevier had a good idea, years ago, when they founded a large number of field journals in economics and in other disciplines. Elsevier now owns about 90% of the private for-profit academic journals, a virtual monopoly, so they charge huge prices and make huge profits. Those journals have become prestigious, and so authors want to publish in them. In order to “get in good” with the editors, those potential authors are willing to review other submitted papers for free. Elsevier uses all this free help from university professors who are reviewers, to improve the quality of the product that they sell, in order to make even higher profits.
I don’t blame Elsevier, a private company, for trying to make money. They have done a good job of it. But as university professors, we do NOT need to provide free help to them! I highly recommend reading a paper by Ted Bergstrom called “Free Labor for Costly Journals” in which he points out that we academic researchers at non-profit or state-run universities are helping private publishers make profits. I would also recommend a new blog by Prof. Jacob Vigdor of Duke University.
Mathematicians are forming a boycott of Elsevier. For another example, the nonprofit “Association of Environmental and Resource Economists” (AERE) are discussing whether to break away from Elsevier and start a new non-profit journal (read about all the difficulties in an article starting on page 23 of the AERE Newsletter). Finally, Ted Bergstrom has lots of info on his website.
We are stuck in a “bad equilibrium.” University researchers want to publish in the prestigious journals, which are often journals of private publishers like Elsevier. So those researchers review for free, for Elsevier, and they want their university to subscribe to those good journals of Elsevier. And profits are made, by Elsevier. We’d all be better off if we could “leap” to the “good equilibrium” where only non-profit associations and universities publish academic journals, at cost. Then when we review papers for free for those journals, and when the universities subscribe to those journals, we are all contributing to a public purpose, the provision of a public good.