the high cost of academic journals

Publishers of academic journals have a sweet deal going. The content is written by researchers. The publisher hires a few academics to edit the journal. The editors then identify reviewers in the academic community. The reviewers cull the wheat from the chaff and make suggestions to help turn the later into the former. For the papers that are finally selected, the researchers/authors sign over the copyright to the publisher, so they now own the intellectual property. The publisher solicits ads and then prints the whole thing. Once printed, the publisher sells the journal to everyone involved and their schools.

The cost to buy a journal is extremely high. For an individual, it could be $15 – $20 per issue. For a university, the cost can be several thousand dollars a year per journal. As a researcher, it’s important to have access to the key journals in your field. It’s also important to publish in these key journals. Because of this dependence on peer reviewed journals, academics often feel locked into this cycle and have to pressure their university to buy the journals. Publishers are the middle-men raking in the money.

For a long time, this situation has been getting worse. However, the Internet may be finally bringing things to a head. If the physical costs of publishing go to zero, then it’s hard to justify the middle men. This question of what is it that the publishers add that’s worth the prices they charge seems to be what caused the entire editorial board of the mathematics journal Topology to announce their resignation effective the end of the year.

Hopefully their resignation will result in either the recognition by the publisher that they can’t keep raising their rates; or the broader recognition by the academic community that the services of the publishers is not worth their costs and that with the Internet, we no longer need the publishers. If that doesn’t happen, then universities are going to have to start making hard choices about which journals they’ll subscribe to and which they won’t.

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