Journal Wars: Higher and Higher Prices Fan the Flames of Freedom

OK, I admit that the title to this post engages in extreme excesses of alliteration. But, the alliterative power behind the words is quite real in the world of scientific publishing and the ridiculously high prices journals (the disseminators of new ideas in science) charge.

From Forbes:

If you are not a scientist or a lawyer, you might never guess which company is one of the world’s biggest in online revenue. Ebay will haul in only $1 billion this year. Amazon has $3.5 billion in revenue but is still, famously, losing money. Outperforming them both is Reed Elsevier, the London-based publishing company. Of its $8 billion in likely sales this year, $1.5 billion will come from online delivery of data, and its operating margin on the internet is a fabulous 22%.

Credit this accomplishment to two things. One is that Reed primarily sells not advertising or entertainment but the dry data used by lawyers, doctors, nurses, scientists and teachers. The other is its newfound marketing hustle: Its CEO since 1999 has been Crispin Davis, formerly a soap salesman.

But Davis will have to keep hustling to stay out of trouble. Reed Elsevier has fat margins and high prices in a business based on information – a commodity, and one that is cheaper than ever in the internet era. New technologies and increasingly universal access to free information make it vulnerable to attack from below. Today pirated music downloaded from the web ravages corporate profits in the music industry. Tomorrow could be the publishing industry’s turn.

Some customers accuse Reed Elsevier of price gouging. Daniel DeVito, a patent lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is a fan of Reed’s legal-search service, but he himself does free science searches on the Google site before paying for something like Reed’s ScienceDirect – and often finds what he’s looking for at no cost. Reed can ill afford to rest.

Thankfully there is a growing backlash and sites like arXiv and Pubmed for preprint, and free journals at the Public Library of Science, as well as Create Change, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and the Budapest Open Access Initiative.

(Hat Tip: John Baez)


3 Responses

  1. Don’t forget that we (as future professionals who will one day be producing this information that others get to profit from…) can also control thing somewhat by choosing which journal we publish our stuff in…

    ex animo-

  2. That’s a good point. John Baez goes further into that in his post on the subject.

    Scientists and Mathematicians have a lot of power if they band together against the Hippo-sized companies that currently control the situation. In the end, they don’t produce the product, we do!

  3. One more thing to note…

    “Today pirated music downloaded from the web ravages corporate profits in the music industry.”

    That is actually untrue- several studies have shown that corporate profits in the music industry are keeping pace with people’s incomes (i.e. remaining flat), but the record labels are certainly not *losing* money – no matter what the RIAA would like to claim.

    The MIAA seems to worry about illegal downloading of movies – but it too is not really a big problem. One reason I have never been tempted to download a movie (aside from the time it would take – not such a big deal if I let it run overnight), is that I can usually find the movies I am interested in owning on DVD for less than the cost of seeing the movie in the theater. Music, on the other hand, is far more expensive. Live shows run $40 to $250! CD’s are hovering at around $18-$20. That’s just too expensive. I could get two movies – which cost far more to make than a recording – for the price of one CD.

    \begin{leftist rant}
    Now- the RIAA likes to claim that any piece of downloaded music equals lost revenue since the ‘pirate’ didn’t purchase it, but that ignores a more complex series of events that actually occurs. I often download music to see if I am interested in purchasing it, or to find songs that are otherwise unavailable to me (i.e. that I cannot find to purchase). One good example of this is music by System of a Down. I first heard them on an ‘Anime Music Video’ (wherein a fan of a particular anime show takes clips of the show and puts it to music), then I downloaded a couple more of their songs – liked what I heard and then purchased three of their albums. Does the RIAA have a problem with *that*? If so, *why*?! I probably wouldn’t have taken the chance if it weren’t for several ‘copyright-infringing’ activities going on: copying scenes from a show, putting them to a copy of music, and then my downloading to check the band out. Without the first two of these, I might not have ever heard the band (I have heard exactly one song of theirs on the radio one time).

    While I do not think we should do away with intellectual property protection, we *do* need to take a look at why we have it and whose rights it should protect.

    For example- most copyrights are not owned by the person (or persons) who actually produced the work! They are owned by large companies who aggressively use the copyright to control what people do with said property. There are cases where the person who created the work is dead, yet the copyright (which was to encourage them to produce) is still in effect – moreover, the person died without seeing any money from their work.

    I say enough! We can (in many ways) put an end to the corporate theft of our intellectual property!

    \end{leftist rant}

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