Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Online Access and Academic Journals

The publisher of my own Journal of Economic Perspectives, the American Economic Association, decided earlier this year to make the journal freely available to all on-line--not only the most recent issues, but the archives going back 12 years or so. Thus, I read with particular interest the article draft report that Mark J. McCabe has done for the National Academy of Sciences: "Online Access and the Scientific Journal Market:
An Economist’s Perspective."   Here are some of his comments, although I have omitted citations for readability.

"Online access to the scientific literature has transformed the distribution of the scientific literature. This literature is now easier to search and read, especially for the producers of new articles: the scientist authors affiliated with research institutions. Unfortunately, the cost of supporting this enterprise has not declined. Ironically, the same technologies that enable immediate access for readers also facilitate bundling and pricing policies by the major commercial publishers that exacerbate rather than alleviate the inflationary pricing trends of the pre-internet era."

On the "journals crisis"
"Starting in at least as far back as the 1980s, and continuing to the present day, prices for these journals have increased at rates far exceeding general inflation rates, and faster than the growth in overall library budgets. This trend and its negative impact on institutional journal collections are often referred to as the “journals crisis.” With the emergence of low-cost internet-based distribution of content in the late 1990s, as well as open access journals, there was some hope in the library community that this crisis might abate, and access prices might even decline. However, prices continued to increase at or above economy-wide rates of inflation."

[I'd add that my own journal published one of the early papers documenting and discussing this subject in our Fall 2001 issue: "Free Labor for Costly Journals? by Theodore Bergstrom.]

How has the journal market evolved with on-line publication? 
"By 2000 or so, most of the changes wrought by the internet that are visible today were in
evidence. They include:
1. Current journal content is sold primarily as part of large publisher-specific journal bundles, or
“Big Deals,”and normally includes access to content back to the 1990s. Print
is still available for a surcharge.
2. Bundle prices are institution-specific; access is sold on an annual subscription basis.
(Contrast this with the absence of price discrimination in the print era, and the lack of bundling.)
3. The emergence of commercial and non-profit open access (OA) journals. OA journals can be
accessed online at no charge, and recover their costs through some combination of author fees
and grant monies and government funding. The Directory of Open Access Journals or DOAJ currently catalogues more than 6000 titles, many of which are peer-reviewed.
4. Publisher sell their electronic journal backfiles for a one-time charge; 3rd parties provide
electronic access to backfile content from multiple publishers on an annual subscription basis,
e.g. via Ebsco or JSTOR.
5. In addition to the open access working paper repositories mentioned earlier, dozens of major
research universities and funding organizations have adopted (open access) self-archiving
mandates. (go to for a list of the organizations and the repository
6. Google Scholar. This search tool was not introduced until late 2004 but has quickly emerged
as a powerful complement to the content available online."

How online access to journals has entrenched incumbent publishers
"The conceptual/theoretical analyses of journal bundling discussed earlier suggest that the adoption of Big Deal contracts are likely to deter new entry (and/or encourage exit), and enhance the market power of the largest incumbent firms. In other words, although online distribution did lower distribution costs it obviously did not change the basic demand conditions in this market; if anything this new technology augments their exploitation, since it has facilitated cost effective bundling and price discrimination. The annual 7% price increases should continue until those demand conditions change."

Do articles in open access journals get more citations?
"Although open access journals have begun to proliferate, perhaps in response to publisher bundling, their long-term viability in lieu of subsidized author fees remains uncertain. One of the chief benefits of OA is supposed to be greater readership and impact (and this assumption is important in providing the economic justification for the OA business model). However, the evidence in support of this claim remains uncertain. Although initial studies of this question revealed large positive benefits of online access (including open access), more recent papers on this subject have identified a series of data and econometric problems that when addressed eliminate most but not all of the presumed benefits."