Monday, May 21, 2007

Academic Journals Do Not Understand the Concept of Free Information

Recently I've been doing some research on passenger pigeons. My ancestors lived in northern Mississippi, one of the places where passenger pigeons were so populace until the 1880s that the sky would be dark for two days during their migration and tree branches would snap under their weight when they roosted. The ancestral "Big House", as we call it, was on Pigeon Roost Road.

Most people and organizations seem to get the spirit of the web - that information should be universally and freely available. The Mormons supply a treasure trove of genealogical information free on their web site. A variety of sites have made millions of out-of-copyright books available. Most newspaper material is freely available. Even magazines that have subscriptions often post articles after a couple of months have gone by. Individuals devote great amounts of time and effort updating free resources such as wikipedia. We freely offer up information in our web sites, blogs, comments, and reviews.

The sad realization whenever I research the web is that a major category that should be free isn't: academic articles.

Academic journals are not only frequently not free - they're beyond the price that most individuals would pay. They frequently charge $20 or $30 to read a single article, or hundreds of dollars a year to subscribe.

Think about it a minute. The academics who wrote the articles were not paid. Other academics donated time to peer review the article. In most cases the editor of the journal is an unpaid position. And that's not even considering the government grants these journals get. So how do they get off charging so much and effectively prohibiting access to all but a few?

No doubt they have their reasons - the cost of the print edition, for example. (I honestly can't think of another one.) They have all sorts of options beyond prohibitive per-article fees. They could host ads. They could charge for extra features like an index or newer articles. They could make articles free after a year.

The real problem is that they just don't get it - ideas and information should be freely available to everyone. It's not just an ideology; it's an ideology backed up by a business model. They lose on all fronts.


Tom Slee said...

I couldn't agree more. It's particularly ironic given that the web has its origins in academic science. I often (well, occasionally) wish I could keep track of some of the chemistry things I used to study, but it is entirely off limits to me. There is, but I find it unnavigable without knowing the current people to watch for.

There are occasional rumbles from within academia. Late last year the editorial board of Topology resigned en masse in protest at Elsevier's pricing, and they have set up a cheaper alternative. Ironically, the reports I can find on this are behind paywalls.

Tom Slee said...

Here's a link that works.