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April 18, 2011

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It's off the subject, but I'd like to say a word of thanks to Berkeley Electronic Press for permitting free downloads--though I'd quibble that the need to register each time is a deterrent and the fact that the registration doesn't contemplate an individual might want to read it is a further deterrent. (The solution is to treat yourself as a non-profit and "other," but everything about their registration form seems to ignore an individual unaffiliated reader.)

BE Press's generous approach to downloads is in marked contrast to most academic publication sites, where downloads can cost anything from $5 to $32 or more for each article. One can't help wondering why. The academics who write the articles aren't paid for them--other than by their employers, of course, since scholarship and writing are considered part of the job description. There's no cost of printing or mailing or distribution for online articles. So what's left? Server costs? Minimal, and I'm sure universities could host these academic journals without charge. Costs of the editorial staff? How significant can such costs be? How many paid staff does it take to produce an academic journal, and how many of such people could be replaced by unpaid academics who one would expect to treat the time needed to produce a journal as as much a part of their commitment to scholarship as their own writing and commenting and peer review?

To the extent that there are modest costs of online distribution of articles, why shouldn't these be assumed by the universities who presumably feel the scholarship represented by academic writing is a positive good--otherwise they wouldn't already be subsidizing the writing of the articles, which is much the greater expense? And btw, the universities are paying the costs of these things one way or another--in my suggested system, by giving server use and paying modest staff costs of the journals, and in the present system, by paying for the subscriptions that pay for the journals.

The bottom line consequence of the prevailing charges for online distribution of academic articles is to make them available only to other academics, whose institutions pay for their subscriptions, and in the case of some publications, to journalists, who are given free access. But interested individuals are out of luck. That seems odd and unfortunate--though for many academic authors, maybe limiting the audience isn't a bug, it's a feature.

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