I just finished reading John Willinsky's wonderful new book, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press, 2006[yes, this book is so new it isn't even supposed to be published yet!]). As a professor at the University of British Columbia, Willinsky has become a leading advocate of opening up scholarly journals to free access on the internet.
In readable and lively prose, Willinsky reveals a great deal about the recent history of the academic journal publishing industry. He explains how mergers have resulted in market concentration, and how that market power has resulted in an exponential increase in journal prices--far outpacing inflation--that has crippled university library budgets everywhere. With telling anecdotes and hard data, he makes his case that for-profit publishing with controlled access is becoming increasingly absurd and inefficient in the internet age. For example, he cites a study (Bergstrom 2001) in the discipline of economics (an apt choice!), which found that commercially published academic journals averaged $1,660 per year in subscription costs while nonprofit academic journals averaged only $180. (So much for efficiency and "consumer benefits" from private markets!) Yet those nonprofit journals occupied the top six positions in the index of most influential journals in economics, and 15 of the top 20. Willinsky asks: "[H]ow can a market bear such price differences between commercial and association titles that are so unrelated to quality? How, in this world of consumer savvy, can you sell a product that is more than nine times as expensive as an equally good if not better alternative?" (p. 20)
How, indeed! This insanity is reminiscent of so many arenas these days, which are being wrecked by supposedly well-educated elites, drunk on the hard liquor of privatization, trusting everything to "market forces" (even when the enormous power wielded by large corporations distorts such a concept beyond recognition), and the commodification of everything in sight. One thinks, for example, of the new wave of "free trade"--the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and its supporters (such as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative)--whose perverse logic is that foreign private companies should be able to run (read: U.S. companies can out-compete poorer countries in running) just about everything in society: schools, libraries, water systems, health care, etc. Forget whether any of these sectors actually function at all like "free market", or whether they are essential components of a free, democratic society. Or basic human needs. (Hey, if you can't find the money to pay higher prices for water, or education, or health care, maybe that means you don't really "need" it!) Or whether governments want to be able to regulate them at some point in the future. Okay, enough of my side rant, now back to the book...
So what exactly do commercial academic journal publishers--and here, let me name names: the big three are Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and Springer--do to justify these outrageous journal prices? Almost all of the substantive work to produce academic journals is done by scholars themselves: most of all, researching and writing the articles, but also refereeing them, serving on the editorial board, and editing the journal itself. Besides printing costs (which the internet is calling into question), Willinsky concludes that the only thing the private companies really provide is "marketing" (do academic journals need "marketing"?)
Oh, but what about quality control: copy-editing, proof-reading, etc.? Don't the publishing companies provide some kind of expertise in these areas? Please, spare me that one. I speak from personal experience here. I have published two academic articles now, in journals owned by two of the "big three" listed above. In both cases, the scholarly editorial people were great and the commercial publishers were terrible. I was quite aware that I would be responsible for making sure my manuscripts were printed correctly. Exactly as one of Willinsky's informants points out is often the case, not only did I receive little real help in correcting mistakes in my text, but I actually had to expend significant effort to keep the publishing companies from introducing new errors! In one case, despite all my efforts, the publisher managed to misprint one of the footnotes (we in the academic world live and die citing sources, you know!) and the journal had to issue a correction in the next issue. In the second case, the publisher did so many terrible things to my text--"correcting" punctuation and stylistic usage inside quotations from historical sources (scholars agree that is a bad thing to do!), changing my narrative text to reflect scientific abbreviations ("5 min" instead of "five minutes", etc.--that we had to take the manuscript through an extra set of page proofs, thus delaying the publication and causing me--and them!--lots of extra work. So much for the efficiency and quality control offered by commercial publishers.
I shouldn't leave a misleading impression of Willinsky's book, however. It is less a diatribe against commercial publishers, and more an extended argument for the possibilities that internet publication offers for making scholarly results available to the public. To be sure, he justifiably excoriates publishers for increasing journal costs so much that libraries have to cancel subscriptions (thus setting in motion a viscious cycle), a phenomenon to which universities in poorer countries are especially vulnerable. (He opens the book with the poignant story of the Kenya Medical Research Institute, which had to cut its journal subscriptions down to five--yes, FIVE!--in the recent past.) Yet he also manages to maintain a measured tone and even praises the huge publishing houses for instances when they have opened up their journals to public access. His overriding goal is to push for open, public access to scholarship, however that is achieved.
It is a curious thing that academic journals are so hard to obtain outside of universities and research institutes, considering how widely they are available on the internet. Yet shouldn't we want to circulate our scholarship to anyone in the public who is interested? (For many public institutions, it is part of their mandate!) I remember running into this problem personally, when I wanted to share an academic article I'd read with a person outside of academia. But I couldn't just send a link to a website, because no one without institutional access could read it! We have effectively allowed a wall to be put up between academics who can read scholarly journals, and everyone else who has to either pay for the privilege or travel to a state university library in person (that is, if that state university library hasn't had to cancel the subscription due to escalating journal prices!)
But how, you may wonder, will journals pay for themselves if everyone can read them free on-line? Willinsky discusses many different possibilities, and you really should read the book if you want to find out more (this posting has gone on long enough already!). One possibility I found attractive was that research university libraries would fund a cooperative venture (possibly a free rider problem there, but wouldn't peer pressure take care of that?) to place scholarly journals on-line with free access to the whole world. Willinksy himself has been involved with team efforts to create software that will allow authors, referees, and editors to communicate with one another one-line without all the overhead of a physical editorial office.
I really do think that everyone in the academic world (and many more besides) would benefit from reading this book. It is about issues that cut to the heart of the scholarly life. If nothing else, you can learn about where JSTOR came from, how self-archiving works, and numerous other nuts and bolts details that touch all of us who are, or want to be, publishing academics. At the most practical level, this book can teach you things that will help your academic reputation: did you know, for example, that people who publish in open-access journals have their work cited--by academics, not just members of the public--more often than people who publish work in journals of equal quality that are closed access?
For members of the general public, Willinsky's book might prompt such outraged questions as: "You mean, public money pays for this research, and then we have to pay some huge commercial publisher to read the results?" I hope that Willinsky's book encourages both scholars and members of the public to re-examine the relationship between scholarly publication and democracy in the internet age.