Freeing digitised journal archives
May 31, 2012
1. Publishing economics 101
Although publishing journal articles is now much less costly than it used to be (thanks to machine-readable submissions, paperless electronic distribution, etc.) it still costs some money to get a research paper from manuscript to its published form. So publishers — unless supported by grants, by government agencies or similar — need a revenue stream.
There are, roughly, two ways for academic journal publishers to make money. The traditional way is to lock up the papers and prohibit access to them unless a fee is paid. (I will not now recapitulate all the reasons why this is a terrible idea.) The other way — known as “Gold Open Access” — is for the author, or his project, department or funding body — to pay the publisher a one-off fee, after which the publisher releases the final version of the article to the world.
So those are the two choices: pay for access, or pay to publish.
2. How this works for old papers
To my mind, it’s morally unjustifiable to lock up new research behind paywalls, and we’re working on making sure that stops happening. But publishers do more than just publishing new papers. They also digitise old ones. For example, Elsevier has scans of Cretaceous Research going all the way back to 1980, long predating the current digital publication pipeline. So they must have scanned the old issues — a non-trivial process when done well, and one that will have cost them something to do.
Of course, I want all those archives to be open, just like the new papers, and for the usual reason: locking them away impedes the progress of science. But how can the publisher recover the costs of scanning? The problem here is that there is no model analogous to Gold Open Access: the authors are not now, years after the event, going to pay for their works to be made OA.
Does that mean the dreaded paywall is the only option?
3. A possible solution
It occurred to me, in a tweet earlier today, that it might be possible to crowd-source a one-off payment to copyright holders, in exchange for which they would release a journal’s archives into the public domain (or as CC BY):
I thought I’d been very clever and inventive, until Ross Mounce pointed out that a very similar initiative already exists — one that was launched only a fortnight ago!
I feel particularly stupid about not having spotted this similarity because I (slightly) know Eric Hellman, the founder of Unglue.it, and I read his blog Go To Hellman pretty consistently. So I’ve actually known about Unglue.it ever since the idea was first floated, long before it was called Unglue.it. So, it turns out I am a doofus.
4. Can it work?
This is not quite on-mission for Unglue.it, which allows you to “pledge toward creating ebooks that will be legally free, worldwide”. But it’s obviously in the same spirit. I don’t yet know whether Unglue.it would accept a campaign to free the archives of a journal, but even if it won’t, Kickstarter presumably will. So there are mechanisms that can be used.
One obvious roadblock would be if the publishers demanded silly money. One could imaging, for example, Elsevier starting from the price of their Sponsored Article option, $3000 per article. Then volume 19 (1998) of Cretaceous Research has 41 articles spread across six issues, so they could conceivably try to set a price of 41 × $3000 = $123,000. If that volume were representative (I have no idea whether it is), then the price for the whole run from 1980 till 2011 would be 32 times as much, which is $5M. And clearly no-one’s going to pay that.
But I assume that publishers have people with a reasonable notion of the true commercial value of a title. Finance people presumably know how much Elsevier make from Cretaceous Research historical archives in a year, and would be satisfied to sell the property for an up-front payment of, say, ten years’ worth. It would be interesting to know what such a price would come to … and unfortunately (I bet) very, very difficult to find out.
I’m not sure whether to try to pursue this. Eric, can you comment whether this seems Unglue.it-friendly to you? Can anyone who works for a publishers give a ballpark estimate — even order-of-magnitude — of what kinds of price you imagine might be acceptable? Can anyone else volunteer an educated guess?