Read This Academic Journal Article, but Prepare to Pay

Read This Academic Journal Article, but Prepare to Pay

Mar 14, 2011From The Atlantic

Julian Fisher, MD is a Boston-based neurologist and medical information entrepreneur.

Illnesses that public figures have are much in the news of late — Ronald Reagan and his Alzheimer’s disease the most noteworthy — and I recently came across a brief description in a neurology journal of a medical problem that Franklin D. Roosevelt began to experience as he looked toward his fourth term — brief episodes of confusion that presumably represented epilepsy.  These symptoms were thoughtfully explained in the article, written by a neurologist, Steven Lomazow, who has co-written a book on the subject.

But for any of you to read that article would cost you dearly. Why? The dirty little secret of scholarly publishing.

Let me explain how this obscure corner of publishing works (or doesn’t) and let you be the judge.  [Cautionary note to business school grads: The market has long been monopolized by mega-corporations making mega-bucks. But new business models abound. In the spirit of full disclosure, I started a not-for-profit to offer an alternative to the traditional models.]

You might argue that academic publishing affects only academics, but it does not.  Anyone with an interest in or question about health or art history or building a house or running a business — the list is endless — might want to learn the newest knowledge — something they might find in an academic article.  Unless you already had a subscription (might run into the tens of thousands of dollars) to that specialty journal or had special access through a college or university, you might well have to pay anywhere from $20 to $50 for limited access to that one article.  If you needed to look over several articles and were not sure which one would be of interest, the meter would tick up quite a toll and very quickly.


What are the costs in this new Internet age? As you might suspect, they have plummeted (an article I wrote several years ago here is helpful), to roughly 1/100 of what they were if you produce the article as an electronic document only rather than in print.  Print is no longer necessary or even desired.  Why, then, the $30-$50 financial firewall that you need to pay to see the article I want to show you?  In part, tradition.  In part, publishers keep doing what they do and the scholars do not complain much, since their subscriptions come through their grants or university libraries.  But the libraries complain, individuals like all of you reading this should complain, and everyone in the developing world complains.

There are some initiatives to change this situation.  The National Institutes of Health now insist that research they fund, when published, must be made available somewhere at no cost.  Some journals are made available online selectively to lesser developed nations.  But there is no mad dash to change the system, even with the open-source software that supports the online publishing process and even multi-site synchronized archiving.  The traditional publishers continue to make their traditional profits, and I still cannot show you the article.  But you can buy the book about FDR for 1/10 of the cost of the article.  Now isn’t that a great idea?

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