I have been reading the prices newsletter for a year and a half and I would like to make some comments, especially to refute some of the more outrageous claims made by publishers.
I believe that I have an unusually broad perspective on the publishing business, having witnessed it from several angles. First and foremost, I have been an active researcher (in mathematics), having been author (or occasionally coauthor) of some 70 articles and coauthor of two books, one of which is about to go into its third edition. Second, I have been member and chair of the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) publications committee and have a clear idea of what its publishing costs actually are. Third, I am an editor or associate editor of two print journals, one published by a commercial publisher and one by a university press, as well as editor of two electronic journals, both distributed free. Finally, my daughter worked for two years around 1990 in the journals department of an academic publisher and I have had extensive discussions with her about her experiences and those of people she knows who are still in the field.
The CMS journals are not the cheapest journals published by a society but still beat any commercial journal by a factor of 2 to 5, according to the figures collected by Ron Kirby. There used to be page charges, but only about 30% of the authors paid them and they were eventually abandoned as more trouble than they were worth. Despite this, the CMS has a clear profit of perhaps $100,000/year, and this is a major source of income for the society (which has maybe 1000 members). This is real, not paper profit. What expenses do we skip by not being commercial? We have some typesetting costs but most of the articles now come already set in the mathematical typesetting system TeX that has rapidly become the standard for mathematical publication. But this is also true for the commercial journals. As a result, publishing costs have dropped substantially in recent years, although not as much as we were led to believe. Incidentally, twenty and thirty years ago, publishers claimed that the reason mathematics was so expensive to publish was the typesetting costs. Now that most manuscripts come in already typeset, they claim that typesetting was a negligible part of the cost. We have to pay for copy editing costs, printing, binding, mailing, etc. We do little advertising, but advertising is not a major item for established journals in any case. Once upon a time we got free office space, telephone and mailing privileges and even some secretarial services from the university where the editors were, but as university budgets have tightened, we have had to start paying for these just like any commercial journal. The one expense we clearly do not have is a stipend paid the editor-in-chief. I do not know how much that is, but it cannot be significant for a journal that costs $3000 a year and has a subscription base of 1000.
So where does all the money go? One answer was supplied by my daughter who informs me that her publisher had five levels of administrators who had no day-to-day contact with the actual publishing, but make decisions increasingly removed from reality and draw six or even seven figure salaries. No doubt, the higher executives travel first class, or perhaps by corporate jet. By contrast, the CMS journals are overseen by a publication committee, the executive committee and board of directors of the society and, ultimately, the membership, all of whom exercise a very light hand and operate gratis. Of course, if societies were to undertake to publish dozens of journals, this structure would no longer work. So one answer is surely that in academic journal publishing, there are few, if any, economies of scale and very serious diseconomies. In that case, the fact that publishing is falling into fewer and fewer hands is even more disturbing.
The electronic journal I help edit, Theory and Applications of Categories, is free and available to everyone with an internet connection. We have published only about a dozen papers a year, but that's ok; we want to establish a reputation and have it there if the other journals fold. I have announced publicly that I will neither referee for nor submit papers to high priced commercial journals. I quite recently refused to become an editor for a new journal that was to have been published by, I think, Birkhaeuser. Partly for that reason, the to-be editor decided to make it electronic instead. I should add that not all commercial publishers are high priced. There are a couple of small publishers that are publishing good journals at reasonable prices.
As an author, I am beginning to feel ill-used. I spend the time doing the research, writing it up and so on and the journals end up owning it. The quid pro quo is forty or fifty "free" reprints? They tell us that copyright acts are there to protect intellectual property, but they certainly don't protect mine. My interests are served by distribution as wide as possible and the publishers' by restricting distribution to the few that can still pay for it. For the last two papers published in a commercial journal, I altered the copyright form to retain the right to post electronically. The publisher accepted it, but would they if a large number of authors did it? I do know that one colleague of mine got a letter from a publisher's lawyer ordering him to remove one of his papers from his electronic archive. Actually, it is only in the last 15 or 20 years that I have been even asked to sign copyright documents; perhaps since the 1976 US copyright act. Before that, the issue never arose. The CMS journals and the electronic journal I edit ask only for a one-time licence.
When you ask what a publisher adds to a publication, there is copy editing, printing, binding, mailing, subscription servicing and maybe a tiny bit of publicity (once the journal is established). I think they also add an enormous amount of often useless overhead. When published electronically, only the copy-editing remains. Since our journal is published free, this is not done in any systematic way. It is left to the author and I, on one occasion, returned a paper to the author for serious TeX deficiencies. He had to hire someone to repair it since he refused to learn enough TeX to do it himself. That is unfortunate and I sympathize with him, but think of it as a form of page charge. As an editor, I do for free exactly what I do for the other two journals for free. The editor-in-chief (actually called managing editor) of the electronic journal does more. He spends 3-6 hours on each paper and, so long as we have only a dozen a year, he does not mind. But he and the other editors are aware that there is a serious problem brewing here and we do not know what to do about it. The obvious thing would be for the universities to take some part of their serials budget and simply subsidize these activities that have the potential of enormous savings in the long run. But how do you get there from here?
Although this would sap the library's budget, it should not result in loss of jobs in the library since exactly the same (or more) tasks of storage, archival and retrieval would exist. It would only sap the journal acquisitions budget. But what I don't see is how the universities could be made to share these costs in an equitable fashion. Some would subsidize these electronic journals and others would be tempted to sponge off those. This is a problem, but not I think an insuperable one.
Why do we publish in journals at all? In fact, all my papers in the last ten years have been distributed electronically and are old hat by the time they are published. We all know the answer. For promotions and tenure (no longer an issue for me) and research grants (I still have a good one and would like to keep it). Thus the only real problem is that of certification. And acceptance of electronic publication is growing. Note that we did not name our journal "Electronic journal .." We decided it would be like naming it "The A4 journal of.." In the end, I think there will be good and poor electronic journals just as there are good and poor print journals. For the time being, however, I am not recommending electronic publication for young researchers.
A recent writer to this newsletter made the fatuous suggestion that free electronic journals might be violating the anti-trust laws. An elephant cannot sue a mouse for anti-trust violations. The anti-trust laws are not there to guarantee a business success; they are there to protect consumers from price gouging by a monopolist. If an airline is sued over low prices, it is not the low prices that are the ultimate problem but the likelihood that, once the competitor is driven out of the market, the price will be raised to a much higher level. The history of People's Air shows that this is not just a theory. Much as I would like to see some of the commercial publishers driven out of business, I know this is not likely to happen. Even if it did, the publishers of electronic journals could not raise prices the way paper journals have since the barriers to starting new ones are so low.
Since anti-trust was mentioned, it is a wonder to me that some state attorneys-general haven't decided that the journals are running a monopolistic business and are engaged in price gouging. After all, a significant part of the state universities' budgets are going to these publishers. The fact that, as recently pointed out in these pages, a few private universities can still afford these journals is irrelevant.
But let us engage in some speculation by supposing that it is illegal to do work gratis. Then the most guilty are the researchers who do the work in the first place and give it away to the publishers. Perhaps the publishers ought to be required to pay serious money for the rights to publish. It was one thing when the major journals were non-profit and were performing a service to the profession just by existing. But now it is a big business; why should they not pay for their raw materials. Then there is the free editorial work. I believe the editors-in-chief do get a significant "honorarium." But the remaining editors do not usually get so much as a postage stamp. At least, I never have. The authors and editors at least get some recognition for their work. What about the anonymous referees? Honest refereeing is hard work and there is no payoff, either in money or honor. Yet without it the whole system would come crashing down. It was done free for the good of the profession in the old days, since the journals themselves were non-profit. When commercial journals came along (which started, at least in a big way, in the 1960s), we just went along with free refereeing since it was what we were accustomed to. What would have happened if the referees had insisted on being paid? I, for one, have just made a personal decision to do no more unpaid refereeing for commercially published journals. No decision I have ever made in my professional career has been less painful. If more of us adopted such a policy, the whole enterprise would collapse. Moreover, it would cost us individually nothing since only the editors would know. As an editor, I will still ask people to referee papers, but if they all refuse, the journal will disappear.
One new feature on the publishing scene is that several of the old line journals that used to be published by mathematical societies, especially in Europe, have been taken over by commercial houses. I assume that the societies sell them for a tidy sum. The price usually stays low for a few years and then starts rising often to stratospheric heights. My department is likely to stop subscribing to the oldest mathematical journal in the world, of which we have a complete set. It will be a painful decision, but the journal is very expensive and no longer of much importance.
I have not mentioned the actual disparity of costs. I recently calculated the cost per page, for each of the nearly one hundred journals we had a paid subscription to in 1996 (we also have a substantial number of exchange subscriptions, all non-commercial). I realize that this is a crude measure, since not all pages are the same size. But at least it is better than just looking at subscription cost. The costs per page ranged from $.04 to $4.86. If you remove the top and bottom ten, the range is $.18 to $1.37, a factor of over 7. The journal at $.18 happens to be on anybody's list of the top 5 mathematics journals in the world. So does the eighth most expensive, which costs $1.51. There is no correlation between price and quality. There was one commercial journal at $.38 and one society published journal at $.75 and they were the respective extremes. But every journal that cost more than $.75 (a couple of Russian translations excepted) was commercially published and everyone below $.38 was published by a society or a university. The figures show that some of the top journals in the world are among the cheapest. Unfortunately, a couple of the top journals are among the most expensive and this will be our most difficult decision as we have to cut about 10% from our budget, while prices are estimated to rise 13% besides (part of that due to exchange rate fluctuations).
Statements of fact and opinion appearing in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues are made on the responsibility of the authors alone, and do not imply the endorsement of the editor, the editorial board, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Readers of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues are encouraged to share the information in the newsletter by electronic or paper methods. We would appreciate credit if you quote from the newsletter.
The Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues (ISSN: 1046-3410) is published by the editor through Academic Technology and Networks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as news is available. Editor: Marcia Tuttle, Internet: email@example.com; Telephone: 919 929-3513; Fax: 919 960-0847. Editorial Board: Keith Courtney (Taylor and Francis Ltd), Fred Friend (University College, London), Birdie MacLennan (University of Vermont), Michael Markwith (Swets Subscription Services, Inc.), James Mouw (University of Chicago), Heather Steele (Blackwell's Periodicals Division), David Stern (Yale University), and Scott Wicks (Cornell University).
To subscribe to the newsletter send a message to LISTPROC@UNC.EDU saying SUBSCRIBE PRICES [YOUR NAME]. Be sure to send that message to the listserver and not to Prices. You must include your name. To unsubscribe (no name required in message), you must send the message from the e-mail address by which you are subscribed. If you have problems, please contact the editor.
Back issues of the Newsletter are archived on 2 World Wide Web sites. At
UNC-Chapel Hill the url is: http://www.lib.unc.edu/prices/. At Grenoble the url is: http://www-mathdoc.ujf-grenoble.fr/NSPI/NSPI.html.