Re: Should Publishers Offer Free-Access Services?

From: Marvin Margoshes <> <harnad_at_COGSCI.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Fri, 4 Sep 1998 13:06:08 -0400

The title of Walker's article (Free Internet Access ...) is misleading. It
is really about a proposal to reduce publishing costs to where they can be
covered by page charges, i.e., shifting costs from the reader to the author.

There is a tendency, especially in the U.S., to think of information from
libraries as a free commodity. Actually, every library has expenses that
must be paid, but they aren't normally charged to the users directly.
Public libraries and government agencies' libraries are supported largely by
taxes, corporate libraries by the company's overhead, and university
libraries by overhead included in grants, fees to students (that may be
included in the tuition), and various other sources.

We are accustomed to paying for other information sources, such as
newspapers and magazines. Some papers and magazines - including some that
are for scientists - are free to the reader because they don't pay a lot for
content and sell a lot of advertising. With few exceptions, the information
in those "free" publications is of lower quality than in the ones that we
must pay for.

Some subscriber-supported publications (including both scientific and
nonscientific publications) are now providing content online free, but they
don't intend to do that indefinitely. At the National Online meeting in New
York this year, a person in the New York Times booth told me that the paper
has invested $40 million so far on Web services; they are just beginning to
charge for some services. I attended an all-day seminar at that meeting on
how to price online information; the message is "nobody knows" in most
cases, but there are some established online services that run for profit.
One of the speakers was from Lexis, the legal information service.
Virtually every law firm and most individual practitioners pay for that

Walker believes that authors should pay for the online publication through
page charges. I say, "Been there; done that." Most scientific journals
used to have page charges, but they dropped them for good reasons that are
still valid. Too many authors had to pay out of their own pockets. It was
difficult to ask for page charges when an article was solicited. Editors
often solicit articles, sometimes but not always review articles. If we
forget that history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Another suggestion in this Forum was that the scientific societies should
provide the funds. I'm the Treasurer of the Society for Applied
Spectroscopy, and I'm certain that we can't afford to do that. Every member
gets "Applied Spectroscopy", but we rely heavily on advertising and paid
subscriptions; we spend more each year on the journal than the total of our
dues receipts. I presented our Executive Committee with an analysis of what
we would save if we stopped printing and distributed only online. Perhaps
it will come to that some day, but not now. Too many scientists, and
especially librarians, are unwilling to give up printed journals.
Advertising is another concern, in terms of the income it now brings to the
Society but also in other respects. Ads bring information to our readers.
The companies that advertise need to get their message out, and they meet an
important need for scientists; imagine if you had to make everything in your
laboratory yourself or, if you can't imagine, talk to a scientist from what
used to be the USSR about how hard it was for them to get equipment and
supplies of decent quality.

Another suggestion was government funds. What the government pays for it
will always regulate. Do we want that?

I'm in favor of continuing to charge the user of the information. The cost
may come down in some respects as the transition from mostly print to mostly
online takes place. It will also cost more in some ways as the online
journals provide more complex information. It is obviously more costly to
provide such things as rotatable 3D graphics than to convert a journal
article into a .pdf file. Yesterday, I took a look at the Internet Journal
of Chemistry (http:///, which is free for now but plans to
charge a fee in 1999, and I realized that my 90 MHz Pentium computer and
33.6 Kbaud modem aren't fast enough. It looks like I'll have to buy a new
computer soon. Or perhaps I'll go to the public library and use theirs.

Marvin Margoshes
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

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