Friday, March 26, 2010

The Future of Academic Publishing

Theoretical Economics is among the most prestigious journals specializing in economic theory, with a stellar editorial board and high quality submissions. It is also an open access journal: every published article may be viewed, downloaded and printed freely worldwide without subscription. And authors release their work under a creative commons license that allows users to "copy, distribute and transmit" the work provided that this is done with proper attribution, in the "manner specified by the author."
The founders of the journal clearly see this as a template for academic publishing more generally:
The advent of the web has made free dissemination of research feasible and financially viable. Because existing specialty journals obtain revenues from selling subscriptions, primarily to libraries, access to the research they publish is limited. The attractive revenue stream that such subscriptions provide makes it unlikely that these journals will convert to Open Access. Thus a need exists for new refereed Open Access journals to replace existing journals. We believe that the establishment of a major Open Access journal in economic theory will lead others to establish Open Access journals for other fields of economics, reclaiming full control for the profession of its research output. We hope that this will lead the profession to a new norm in which all research is freely available.
Under the open access format the size of the user pool (and the aggregate consumers' surplus) is maximized, but none of the benefits that accrue to readers can be appropriated by publishers. This would ordinarily make financial viability difficult. But in the case of journal articles there is very little value added by the publisher in any case: from the point of view of most readers, a working paper is usually a near perfect substitute for the typeset article. Hence the lion's share of the product's value is created by authors, referees and editors for little or no direct financial compensation. As a result, relatively modest fees for submission or  the processing of accepted papers can be enough to cover the costs of production and online dissemination.
The attractiveness of this business model has not escaped the attention of commercial publishers. Bentham Science, for instance, is already publishing more than 200 open access journals, including one in economics. The Hindawi Publishing Corporation (in collaboration with Sage Publications) also has a portfolio of comparable size, and has just launched Economics Research International. And such initiatives exist side by side with non-commercial ventures such as the e-journal Economics, which operates not only under open access but also uses an innovative public review process involving a large community of registered readers.
So far, the major academic publishers have managed to maintain their lucrative subscription based model, although they now allow articles to be accessed free of charge if the author pays an additional fee (the publisher typically retains copyright and imposes restrictions on redistribution). It is doubtful that this hybrid model can be sustained. For one thing, libraries will be increasingly reluctant to pay for bundled journal subscriptions when much of the content could be accessed freely in any case. More importantly, when given a choice, authors will surely prefer retention of copyright, avoidance of exorbitant fees, and the broadest possible dissemination of their work.
Accordingly, if some of the major economic societies and associations make the transition to open access, the floodgates will open. Traditional publishers will find themselves in a pincer like grip, with highly prestigious society journals weighing down upon them and new entrants nipping at their heels. The giants who currently dominate academic publishing and own vast numbers of important titles will then be faced with a choice. They could themselves fully adopt the open access format and continue to compete effectively (but with diminished profit margins), or watch the value of their holdings gradually decline. Either way, open access seems destined to be the future of academic publishing.
This would be a welcome development. In an earlier post, I claimed that the proliferation of blogs is leading to a democratization of discourse in economics, as non-specialists and autodidacts bring fresh perspectives to bear on theoretical disputes and policy questions. This process depends critically on the ability of outsiders to eavesdrop easily on conversations among economists. Unfettered access to academic research not only increases the visibility of ideas, it also increases the scrutiny to which they are subjected. And this should result in the development of better, more interesting, and more robust ideas in the long run.


Update (3/29).  Theoretical Economics is now an Econometric Society journal, so its status and survival are both secure. The Society has also launched a more empirically oriented counterpart, Quantitative Economics, that also has a first rate editorial board. I find it puzzling that the American Economic Association did not choose the open access format for its four new journals; this was a wonderful opportunity missed.

For anyone interested in the economics of academic publishing, Ted Bergstom's journal pricing page is a comprehensive source, featuring links to articles, news, comments and data. In an email to me, Ted points out that open access is not without its own problems:
Your mention of Bentham publishing reminds me that there is a "dark side" to open access publishing as well.  There are some slimy types who are trying to profit from open access publishing by spamming for authors and editors and publishing without any form of quality control. Bentham seems to be one of them. 
In support of his claims, Ted points to a couple of revealing interviews by the British journalist Richard Poynder (also discussed here) and an extraordinary post on the acceptance of a meaningless computer generated article by a Bentham journal. Separating the scam from the genuine article is clearly going to be a challenge in the early stages of this transition.


  1. "Unfettered access to academic research not only increases the visibility of ideas, it also increases the scrutiny to which they are subjected."

    Bad news for the freshwater crowd, as we've already seen.

  2. Other disciplines have had open access for many years, most notably PLOS. I don't see Nature, Science or any of the high tier journals in their fields declining.

    Perhaps there is some critical mass necessary to achieve a shift away from for profit publishing, but if so, we don't seem to be there yet.

  3. Alex, open access is perfectly consistent with for profit publishing. For instance, the new Hindawi journal ERI is open access, but has an article processing fee of about $400 for accepted manuscripts (there is no fee for submission as far as I can tell). Given the high rejection rates at most decent journals with submission fees, this is probably less than the average author currently pays per unit acceptance at the moment.

  4. I really appreciate hearing an economist support open access journals. They seem like a no-brainer to me. One pedantic thing I wanted to point out, I think "creative commons" (in the first paragraph) should be capitalized.

  5. Thanks Frank. You're right, I should have capitalized this... will do so in the future.

  6. Rajiv: That's interesting. I've always assumed those Hindawi journals are crap, because they keep sending me spam inviting me to submit to them. I've never otherwise ever heard about them in any way (before seeing your blog above).

  7. Hi Andrew, you might well be right about the Hindawi Journals but the editorial board for ERI has some pretty good names on it. I was invited to join but declined; aside from having no time, I was also unsure of the quality of submissions.

    What I find interesting about the Bentham and Hindawi journals is that they are commercial ventures, and show that at least some publishers think that there's money to be made with open access.

    Theoretical Economics by the way, really is first rate and is now an Econometric Society journal, so its future is secure.

  8. Rajiv,

    Thanks for yet another very interesting post. I too find open-access to be extremely appealing. I hope it catches on as a publishing model. I have two comments/questions regarding some of your points.

    1) Your comment regarding high rejection rates' potential to compensate for revenue lost raises an interesting question: Is there room in the open-access market for solid, yet second-tier, journals? Would their quest for survival necessitate really high publication fees, even lower rejection rates, and/or problematic incentives for referees?

    2) I was also wondering how hard it will be to get authors to actually limit their submissions to highly prestigious for-profit journals such as JET, GEB, etc. It would seem that the private incentive to get one's work recognized may be difficult to counterbalance, at least in the short to medium term.

  9. Stergios, I think that the highest quality journals (including top field journals) will easily be financially viable under open access, though probably not as profitable as they currently are. The fees for submission or article processing do not need to be much higher than authors currently pay in any case, and as long as standards are maintained there will be plenty of submissions.

    Regarding incentives for editors and referees, I don't really see a problem, as long as they continue to make decisions on manuscripts free of publisher interference.

    It's interesting that you mention JET and Games, these are the two most directly affected by TE. They could easily move to open access and continue to thrive, but I don't see the publisher allowing this because they are bundled with much weaker journals in library subscriptions.

  10. P.S. Regarding the 4 new econ journals not being open-source: Could this be an example of ideology (in this case, economists' devotion to price signals) trumping practicality?

  11. Andrew, I don't think it's ideology for two reasons.

    First, there are no meaningful price signals in the market for journals since publishers bundle titles of varying quality across multiple disciplines together at prices that libraries feel compelled to accept, because individual journals have exorbitant sticker prices that bear no relation to cost.

    Second, the economically efficient price for a product that can be reproduced at negligible cost is in fact zero, making open source the preferred choice from this perspective. As long as financial viability can be addressed, the ideology of efficiency leads inexorably to open source.

    This makes the AEA decision regarding the new journals all the more puzzling to me. Perhaps there were bureaucratic reasons linked to existing publishing agreements, or simply a failure of imagination, I really don't know. The Econometric Society, on the other hand, is ahead of the curve on this.

  12. Rajiv:

    By "ideology," I meant a more general feeling that economists might have nothing should be given out for free.

    But you're probably right that it's a bureaucratic issue. I've had horrible difficulties with the American Statistical Association: it's so hard to get such organizations to do anything new.

  13. I see your point, Rajiv. Don't know why I'm playing devil's advocate for the Evil Empire of academic publishing, but are there economies-of-scale issues that could pose a problem? I mention this b/c of your point regarding the bundling of many disparate journals.

    In any case, it would be wonderful to see JET, GEB and other top Elsevier journals go it alone and adopt the TE model. This may be even more important for applied journals where there is a more direct real-world relevance to the papers.

    It's truly unfortunate that interested people (outside of academic institutions that can pay exorbitant publishing fees) don't have access to many research articles. I recall a friend of mine who worked in industry who'd be e-mailing me so I could download an article and then forward it to him.

  14. Stergios, titles like JET and GEB are owned by the publisher, so the editors are powerless in deciding on pricing or access policy. The European Economic Review used to be the official journal of the EEA, but the association did not own the name and had to found a new journal, JEEA, when they quit Elsevier. (The EEA continues publishing as a non-association journal.)

    There are a number of non-academic readers of this blog whose feedback I value greatly. Whenever I link to an article I never know whether such readers will be able to access it. This stifles open discourse, prevents the free flow of ideas, and bothers me immensely. If the authors of the articles were getting a share of publisher revenues I might feel differently, but they are not.

  15. Rajiv,

    Your article provides a brilliant example for the relevance of blogging in the dissemination of academic ideas. If this kind of blogging didn't exist one would hope to read applied insights uncomfortably stuffed among pedantic academic arguments or to occasionally be lucky enough to hear them of-the-record in discussions among peers.

    I would like to remark that academic publishing seems to follow similar patterns with its non-academic counterpart. There is relatively little value added to the process by the publishers in comparison to the value of the labor of the author and the editors, albeit the publishers earn the lion's share out of the product's nominal value. In a sense, the publishers function as low-scale venture capitalists, who are willing to undertake the fixed costs of a wide-range of enterprises, distributing this way the risk of their capital among a number of investments. Besides, they master the relevant technical know-how and maintain a developed entrepreneurial network with roots expanding deep into the market. Thus, they start their contracting negotiations with authors from a good bargaining position. The label of a journal, as the label of a publishing house, could be conceived a signal that conveys information in regards to the expected quality of the intellectual product to the uninformed readers. A working paper as well as a self-published author lack this external ,though most useful for the dissemination of the work, evaluation.

    I believe that the traditional model of in profit-publishing will be contested with time and the reasons are very similar to the ones that your forwarded in regards to the potential movement towards free access online journals. Academics, in contrast to most authors today, can distribute their articles freely on-line, if they submit their papers to the right journals and they pay a fixed amount of money. New printing technologies allow publishing houses to print day by day on the basis of demand, diminishing a great deal the fixed costs required to undertake a publication. Characteristically, publishers employing conventional technologies have to commit to a minimum number of prints for a publication. In addition, e-book technologies serve a very similar function reducing the fixed cost of a publication to editing and marketing. Moreover, online markets curtail the costs and importance of marketing in general. Thus, I believe that in the presence of new printing and consuming technologies there is room for a new-age structure of publishing firms which would provide limited editing, technical and marketing services while allowing to the authors to choose the level in which they want to be involved to the entrepreneurial activities and risks emanating from their intellectual product. For a predecessor of the possible future structure of the publishing business, you can have to have a look at

  16. New-age publishing houses can suppress significantly the fixed costs related to the publication of hard copy editions and the costs of marketing . Thus, a new-age publisher can take advantage of the lower functioning costs to offer better terms to potential authors ,who would be very eager capture a larger part of surplus generated from their intellectual efforts. A new-age house would be better standing in attracting good authors over an old-school one of similar reputation, something that in the long run will improve both the reputation and the profits of the first. Similarly, with the academia the profits per publication of a new-age publisher would decline. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the total profits of such firms would be poor , since increased flexibility , lower transaction costs and decentralized decision mechanisms would allow to contract and curate more authors than before. When the first publishing houses following this new model turn successful we would expect a snowball effect to lead the unadapted publishers out of the market. This chain of events is very similar with the one that you envisage to happen in academic publishing. Fortunately, in the case of the academic market the public is already familiar with the electronic form of the intellectual product.

    A question that arises is how long the envisaged transitions will need to take place. Already established reputation for example may keep the publishing institutions stranded in the less efficient form for quite some time. I believe that as in communicating vessels the future developments in book publishing may trigger changes in academic publishing. Vice versa, academic publishing could delineate a lucrative path for aspiring non-academic publishers. In the future, I would be thrilled to read an article that would scrutinize the economic functions of journals, taking into consideration alternative possible organizations of the processes of review and dissemination of academic ideas, better adapted to the current technological reality.