Re: Should Publishers Offer Free-Access Services?

From: Thomas J. Walker <tjw_at_GNV.IFAS.UFL.EDU>
Date: Fri, 15 Sep 2000 08:26:30 -0400

IIn an earlier posting, I explained how the transition to universal free
access to journal articles could become market-driven if publishers would
only sell Immediate Free Web Access (IFWA) to authors who want it. The
publishers would deliver IFWA by posting freely accessible PDF files of
articles concurrent with publication. The price of this service would be
very low at first, but would increase as paper copies on library shelves
(and site licenses to electronic versions) became superfluous. Publishers
would replace revenues from libraries with revenues from authors and their
supporting institutions, but only to the extent that authors and their
institutions wanted this to happen. (See "An IFWA transition" in the
archives of this forum at See also

Later I reported that the Entomological Society of America (ESA) was
offering IFWA to its authors for 75% of the cost of 100 paper reprints.
. (See "Should Publishers Offer Free-Access Services?" at

Here I report that the initial results of selling IFWA suggest that the
transition to universal free access may indeed be speeded and smoothed by
such sales.

First some background: ESA, like many other scientific societies, partly
depends on revenues from its journals to pay for other member
services. Because of this, and because publishing high-quality refereed
journals is expensive, ESA has been reluctant to provide free Web access to
the articles in its journals. For example, in 1997, when ESA began to
offer its authors "PDF reprints," it chose to sell them by the download and
to charge the same price for downloads as for traditional reprints. [PDF
reprints were created by making PDF files of the articles and posting the
files on ESA's server with a counter to track the number of times the files
were downloaded.] In 1998, ESA sold PDF reprints for 8% of the 690
articles published in its four principal journals. In 1999, sales dropped
to 5% of 618 articles. Evidently, most authors did not think that
counter-limited PDF reprints were worth the price that ESA was charging.

In December 1999, ESA's Governing Board voted to sell IFWA in the form of
"unlimited PDF reprints" and set the price for that service at 75% of the
price of 100 paper reprints. For example, for $90, the PDF file of a
7-page article would be immediately freely available on the Web and could
be downloaded without limits. Furthermore the author could post the PDF
file of the article on any server and could print copies of the articles
from the PDF file to satisfy needs for paper reprints. During the first
six months (Jan. to June), authors bought IFWA for 14% of the articles
published in the society's four journals [58 of 405 articles]. During July
and August 2000 (the most recent bimonthly issues), authors bought IFWA for
35% of the articles (44 of 127). This rapid increase in the sale of
unlimited free electronic access to articles suggests that ESA's authors
consider the current price a fair one.

Previous sales of paper reprints suggest why unlimited PDF reprints are
selling well. More than 90% of ESA authors have traditionally bought at
least 100 paper reprints of their articles. ESA authors who are willing to
forego "official" reprints can save money. Authors who don't buy paper
reprints can print near equivalents from the freely accessible PDF files
and can avoid storing paper reprints and fulfilling reprint requests by
mail. [Currently about 60% of those who buy IFWA buy paper reprints as
well, but I predict that such purchases will quickly decline.]

As far as I can determine, high rates of purchase of paper reprints are
characteristic of all journals in the biological and biomedical
sciences. Therefore, I would expect members of societies in those areas to
lobby for their societies to offer IFWA at a price no greater than 100
paper reprints. Because the societies as well as their authors would
benefit from such sales, their leaders should have no basis for refusing to
initiate such sales.

Andrew Olyzko has recently pointed out that growth rates rather than
absolute numbers are the best indicators of the e-publication future ("The
rapid evolution of scholarly communication" at On this basis, sales of
IFWA may be more important in the transition to universal free access than
many have previously thought.

Tom Walker

Thomas J. Walker
Department of Entomology & Nematology
University of Florida, PO Box 110620, Gainesville, FL 32611-0620
E-mail: FAX: (352)392-0190
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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