Field of Science

Subscription-supported journals are like the qwerty keyboard

Tomorrow afternoon I'm participating with several other faculty in a panel on open access/scholarly communication. It's being organized by our research librarians, who hope this will help them make the best use of their meager resources. I have 10-15 minutes to talk, as do the others, and then we'll be 'participating in discussion groups about these topics with other faculty/librarians'. My theme will be "Why subscription-supported journals are like the qwerty keyboard."

As you probably know, the arrangement of letters on the 'qwerty' keyboard that all our computers come with is far from optimal for efficient typing. The original mechanical typewriters had the keys arranged alphabetically. But this caused levers to jam up if their letters were typed in rapid succession, so a key arrangement was devised that interspersed the commonly used letters with uncommon letters, and split up commonly-used sequences of letters. This was a good solution: although it slowed down the speed at which a skilled typist could hit the keys, it eliminated the time they would otherwise have to spend unjamming the levers. You can read all about this on Wikipedia.

The jammed-levers problem became no longer an issue with the invention of roller-ball typewriters such as the IBM Selectric, but by then the qwerty keyboard had become standard and there was no market for a more-optimal keyboard. Now everyone uses computers - these of course have no levers to jam, and can quite easily be switched to, for example, the Dvorak simplified keyboard.

But switching the users is a lot harder. We're used to doing our typing the hard way, and unlearning one keyboard and learning another seems so daunting that very few of us ever even try.

Using reader subscriptions to support the cost of scientific publishing is a lot like the qwerty keyboard. The first scientists disseminated their results by sending letters to their colleagues. The cost of disseminating the research (paper, ink and postage) was seen as part of the cost of doing the research.

Later the desire to reach more readers, and to reach readers not known to the author, led to the first scientific journals, published by scientific societies or for-profit publishers and supported by subscription fees paid by the readers. (The formal peer-review component was added later.) A large part of the cost of publishing a journal was physical, and required specialized facilities that only a professional publisher could afford. Because the cost of producing and mailing a paper copy for each subscriber was rightly borne by the person or institution receiving it, it made sense that they should also bear the cost of the editorial process.

As subscription costs rose, university libraries spent more and more of their budgets on journal subscriptions. If a journal's readership was large enough, some of the cost could be paid by advertisers, but the more specialized journals had to cover their full costs from subscriptions. As the publication costs got higher, some journals, especially those that wanted to remain independent of advertisers, introduced 'page charges' to the authors. As subscription fees rose higher and higher, fewer and fewer people could afford them, so publishers began charging individuals much less than the supposedly deep-pocketed institutional libraries. Publisher profits got higher and higher, because there was no competition to hold them in check.

Like the qwerty keyboard, subscription-supported scientific publishing was a solution to a technical problem that no longer exists - how to distribute research to an audience. Now that journals can be published online, the costs of producing and mailing paper copies are gone, and there is no need for massive printing presses. In principle we should be able to go back to the original state, where the dissemination costs are considered part of the cost of doing the research, rather than a price the reader pays for the privilege of access. Instead of paper, ink and postage, these costs are now those of administering peer review, copy editing, and web-site maintenance. But the principle is the same.

But we're tied down by history. Our reputations depend on rankings of the journals we can get our papers into, so we're very reluctant to shift to new ones of dubious reputation. The cost of journal subscriptions (now often electronic rather than paper) is entrenched in university budgets, and we don't want to spend our tight research funds on publication charges just so people we've never met can read our papers.

Are there solutions? One reason for optimism is that changing how we pay the costs of disseminating research is not an all-or-nothing change like switching from qwerty to Dvorak keyboards. Some new open-access journals are very prestigious. Granting agencies are giving strong 'in-principle' support to open access publishing, and my last grant proposal's budget included a hefty amount for open-access publication charges. And libraries are looking for ways to escape the burden of subscription charges.


  1. Copy-editing and filtering of the best research are the value-added services provided by publishers today, but increasingly, they're also becoming the defacto archive of published work, instead of the libraries. I recently had a lively discussion with a guy who's creating a TinyURL-like service for citations of online research, and I'd love to know what the librarians you speak with think about the archiving role being shifted onto publishers from libraries.

  2. The librarians said that they don't trust the publishers to do the archiving. "What if BioMed Central goes bust? Will their servers still be maintained?"

    So librarians think that a major part of their job is establishing repositories to make sure the published work is preserved.

  3. Why not stick with a reader payment setup, instead of a researcher payment one, but simply make it extremely cheap to subscribe to the online edition?
    This would allow all existing journals to shift over, and save money to institutions at the same time, without, at least right away, requiring the larger paradigm shift of moving to researcher based payment.

  4. One other issue we and the librarians talked about is the surprisingly high cost of publishing a paper in online-only open-access journals.

    The PLoS journals are non-profit, unlike BioMed Central. But a paper in PLoS One costs $1250 US, and a paper in one of the other PLoS journals costs between $2100 and $2750.

    If these charges reflect the true costs of online-only publishing (and PLoS says their fees are only a contribution to the costs), a commercial journal would still need to charge its readers a high subscription fee for online access.


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- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS