Every couple of years, it seems, there's an uproar over the cost of scientific journals. This time it's the University of California system objecting to a rate hike for access to journals from the Nature Publishing Group. In the past, it was people objecting to paying for articles in medical journals when the research was funded by the government. The papers are written by scientists and peer reviewers are volunteers, they'll say, so why should we pay for access? And aren't there lots of journals that are open access, free to everyone? Why can't they all be like that?
I can't really say whether the U.C. rate hike is too much or if they're getting a fair deal, but I can at least make one statement: scientific journals can't be free.
I'm not being mean or elitist. I'm just being frank. I've worked for a medical journal run by a non-profit publisher and for a scientific organization that publishes a number of journals, so I can tell you that there's a lot more to publishing a paper in a scientific journal (especially in a journal like Science or Nature) than meets the eye.
Yes, the raw material is free, and peer reviewers are volunteers. But this ignores every other part of the publishing process. Simply going through the submissions to determine what is appropriate to send on to peer review requires paid employees. Internet-based systems for submission and managing peer review cost money to develop and maintain. Editors at some journals do extensive editing to ensure their papers are comprehensible and nothing important has been missed. Copyeditors focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar in the text, often fixing the really embarrassing errors (like leaving the "l" out of "public health"). If the journal is printed, art and production staff are needed. Web staff get everything online and make sure it stays there. And if there's a news section to a journal, there are reporters and editors to pay.
If we want a system in which science is peer reviewed and papers are understandable, we need all of these extra bits. Open access journals aren't an exception: while free to read, they are not free to produce. The cost is simply shifted to researchers who pay money up front to publish (which may impede young researchers and scientists in developing countries from publishing in these journals), money that came out of grants that may have been funded by taxpayer dollars.
Unlike mass media publishing, scientific journals only get a small amount, if anything, from selling advertising space in their pages or on their web sites. Journals have a small readership compared with, say, the New York Times, which means fewer ad dollars. And they have to contend with the issue of bias: For example, how trustworthy would a medical journal be if it was funded primarily by pharmaceutical ad money? This means that the cost of producing these papers gets passed on to a tiny number of readers who, thus, each have to pay a lot more for a subscription than they do for their daily newspaper.
"Information wants to be free" has become a slogan of our Internet Age, but we're forgetting the second half of the quotation: "Information also wants to be expensive." We've gotten so used to having instant, free access to information that we've forgotten that high quality information comes with a price. If we want that quality, we have to pay for it.