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Free Internet Access to Traditional Journals

Can scientists find ways to share published research without high cost? The experiences of one society suggest it can be done cheaply, even profitably

Thomas Walker

The verb "to publish" has special meaning in the scientific community. Scientific, medical and engineering research is paid for by the public, private industry or donors; the results, essential to the advancement of knowledge and the investigators' careers, are reviewed by peers and shared with the larger scientific community primarily through their publication as articles in journals. Once published (the copyrights having been signed over by the authors), journal articles become a commodity that can be sold by publishers to a nearly captive market: university libraries. In recent years this market has experienced, ironically, both a proliferation of product and a dramatic spiraling of prices—the prolonged "serials crisis" during which libraries have canceled subscriptions and forgone book purchases to pay for the most essential journals. In a world brimming with new knowledge and new ways to find it, there have appeared pockets of information poverty and local hardship.

Figure 1. Scientific literatureClick to Enlarge Image

Set against this backdrop has been the rapid development of the Internet and the World Wide Web (the interface that allows data files, graphics, pages, text and even movies to be "served" to personal computers around the world). These technological leaps make it likely that access to scientific knowledge will be revolutionized by "on-line" publishing, the questions now being "when?" and "how?" In a few years, in my view, current issues of all journals will indeed be available on the Web, and so will complete backfiles of all major journals. But I am concerned about how open and economical this new form of publishing will be. Will this vast Internet library—with holdings exceeding those of all but a few of the world's libraries—be surrounded by toll gates charging substantial fees for access to this knowledge? Is there not a way to provide open access to scientific knowledge to all, to make the Internet effectively an international public library for peer-reviewed research results?

On the Web, publishers are now beginning to charge for access to journal articles on-line through subscriptions, site licenses and "pay-per-view" plans. These toll-gate approaches are an extension of the current economic structure of scientific publishing and are being developed largely (though not exclusively) by the organizations that benefit most from that economic structure. Many of those who do the research and write the articles do not share these economic interests, nor do many of the disciplinary societies to which they belong. Those who pay for and do the research generally do not want the published results to become a commodity resold at high cost. In my view, societies have important alternative options for their journals during the transition to our collective digital future—options that can serve the research community, provide institutions some relief from the serials crisis, finance on-line publishing and make knowledge available to all. In this article I shall describe the experiences of one small scientific society that has ventured into low-budget electronic publishing (without putting up toll gates). Based on these experiences, I shall show that societies can pay for delayed free Internet access to all articles in their journals by selling immediate free access to those authors who want it. In addition, some societies currently finance publishing through per-page charges that are paid by authors or their grants or institutions. Such charges now help hold down subscription prices; in the future, similar charges might finance free access.

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