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What do science journals charge for, anyway?

Here’s some of good news (a bit old now): A boycott by scientists made Elsevier (publishers of many science journals) back off its support of the evil Research Works Act.

From the article:

The boycott targets Elsevier, the publisher of popular journals like Cell and The Lancet,  for its aggressive business practices, but opposition was electrified by Elsevier’s backing of a Congressional bill titled the Research Works Act (RWA). Though lesser known than the other high-profile, privacy-related bills SOPA and PIPA, the act was slated to reverse the Open Access Policy enacted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008 that granted the public free access to any article derived from NIH-funded research. Now, only a month after SOPA and PIPA were defeated thanks to the wave of online protests, the boycotting researchers can chalk up their first win: Elsevier has withdrawn its support of the RWA, although the company downplayed the role of the boycott in its decision, and the oversight committee killed it right away..

In another life I’m a medical writer, and while some medical journals provide all or some of their articles for free, others only make them available to subscribers, or charge ridiculous amounts for every article. And yes, Elsevier is the big villain here–when you see the Elsevier logo, you know that you’re not getting access to anything except the abstract.

Well, you might say, so what? Elsevier is a business; one couldn’t demand that Time or the New Yorker provide content for free (although in real life they do), so why demand it of Elsevier or other science publishers? If the New Yorker decided to charge thirty bucks for 24 hours of access to a single article, who would we be to say that it shouldn’t?

The answer, obviously, is that Time and the New Yorker pay for their content. In science, researchers provide their research for free, and reviewers review for free.

Yes, journals do editorial work (although less than they used to in my experience grumble grumble), and yes, science journals still print hard copies. But on the other hand, they also make money from ads. And, these articles can literally mean the difference between life and death. And these days, without science journals scientists would still find ways to get their results out (in fact, they are doing that very thing now, hence the possibility of a boycott).

So really, although science journals once served a function, now they simply sit between creators and consumers of their product, paying the creators nothing and charging monopoly prices from their consumers. (Sort of like the music companies, come to think of it.)

So here’s hoping that the boycott continues, and that scientific content, at least, becomes free.

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