There’s no such thing as a free article

Academic publishing is a world of subscription paywalls, high publication fees, and exorbitant subscription and/or pay-per-article charges. Combined with peer review (which is basically an academically sanctioned form of hazing), this traditional model of academic publishing can significantly delay the dissemination of knowledge.

In a recent Wired Magazine article, Dr. Michael Eisen (who co-founded the open access publisher Public Library of Science) wrote that among many factors, subscription-only publishing “retards scientific progress.” In the article comments, several readers mentioned the high publication fees charged by many journals (even the open-access ones). One reader responded:

Two words: fee-waiver.  Look it up on the PLoS website.  No-one should be unable to publish in PLoS for financial reasons, whatever their situation.

I wrote a reply—but since my comment is still “awaiting approval” after six hours (so much for open publication), I decided to paraphrase it here:

As the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Economist Milton Friedman famously titled his book with the old adage in 1975—one year before he won the Nobel Prize. In economics, this saying refers to hidden/distributed costs for things that are apparently free. Likewise, in academic publishing, there’s no such thing as a free article. Even if author fees are waived, publishing still isn’t free—whether or not a journal is open access. In a panel discussion titled Who Pays for Open Access? hosted by the Columbia University Scholarly Communication Program, Dr. Mike Rossner (Executive Director of the Rockefeller University Press) estimated that publishing one peer-reviewed online scientific article costs the journal $10,000.

If academic publishing needs reform, it’s not as simple as making everything free access. In a recent editorial Open Access—Pass the Buck (which is ironically behind a paywall), Dr. Maria Leptin sums things up quite nicely:

The economics of open access are crucial, but they should not dominate how we think about scientific publishing. We must protect the core principles of scientific publishing no matter what the model: the critical, independent scrutiny of scientific claims and long-term archiving of validated research.

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