The Economics of Free, Scholar-Produced E-Journals

While highly visible, large-scale STM open access publishing ventures such as BioMed Central loom large in the free e-journal scene, small-scale scholar-produced e-journals continue to quietly publish new scholarly articles as they have done for at least 18 years now.

I won’t detour into a lengthy history lesson for those readers who weren’t there. The short version of the story is that New Horizons in Adult Education is typically seen as the first scholarly e-journal published on the Internet (it was established in Fall 1987); however, it’s important to recognize that those were primitive times Internet-wise, when distribution of ASCII article files via list servers and FTP servers were cutting-edge ventures. So, as you would image, finding tools were informal and few and far between. ARL’s publication of the Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists in July 1991 was a landmark event that made the invisible visible.

For some reason, there was a mini-surge of activity in the 1989-1991 period, with the emergence of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, EJournal, Electronic Journal of Communication, Journal of the International Academy of Hospitality Research, Postmodern Culture, Psycoloquy, The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, Surfaces, and other journals. Several editors (myself, Stevan Harnad, and John Unsworth) rocked the house at the Association of Research Libraries’ 1992 Symposium on Scholarly Publishing on the Electronic Networks to the dismay of the assembled conventional publishers, who thought we were mad as hatters because we thought that: (a) e-journals were viable, (b) we could anoint ourselves as publishers, and (c) we were giving it away for free. My recollection is that, after the last speech, there was a stunned silence followed by a spattering of applause and a frenzy of generally hostile, astonished questions.

And, as they say, the rest is history. Peter Suber’s Timeline of the Open Access Movement is a good way to get a handle on subsequent events. Someday, I’ll write more about the early e-volution of e-journals.

So, onto the topic at hand. What are the economics of free, scholar-produced e-journals?

Let’s delimit the field a bit. We are not talking about journals produced by university presses or professional associations. Scholar-produced e-journals are generally labors of love, supported by a small group of scholars who serve without pay as editors, editorial board members, and journal production staff.

They often leverage existing technical infrastructure (e.g., Web servers) at the editors’ institutions. The volume of published papers is typically fairly modest, and the papers themselves are frequently not graphically complex. Editors or other volunteers manage the peer review process (usually via electronic means) as well as copy edit and format articles. HTML and PDF are the usual distribution formats, requiring HTML editors, Word, Acrobat, or similar low-cost or free programs. Increasingly, electronic journal management systems are used to automate editorial functions and simplify journal site creation and maintenance (a prime example is the free Open Journal Systems software). "Marketing" is often done by free electronic means: journal mailing lists, table of contents messages sent to targeted subject-related mailing lists, RSS alerts, etc. Since the content is free and electronic, there is no overhead for subscription/licensing management. Since no one gets paid, human resources functions are not needed. If authors retain copyright or content is under a Creative Commons or similar license, no permissions support is needed. Since existing facilities are used (at work or at home), there is no need to rent or purchase office space. Since no money is changing hands in any form, accounting support is unnecessary.

So, what are the economics of free, scholar produced journals? The glib answer is that there are none. But, the real answer is that the costs are so low and the functions so integral to scholarship that they are easily absorbed into ongoing operational costs of universities. Even if they weren’t and scholars had to do it all on their own, server hosting solutions are so ubiquitous and cheap, free open source software is so functional and pervasive, and commercial PC software is so powerful and cheap (especially at academic discounts) that these minor costs would act as no real barrier to the production of scholar-produced e-journals.

Of course, this is not to say that there are not issues associated with the viability and sustainability of these journals, the perpetual preservation of their contents, and other difficulties, but these are topics for another day.

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