Postcommercial scholarly publication
Frank Quinn
Virginia Tech

The next decade is likely to bring major changes in scholarly publication; indeed there have been forcasts of the demise of journals as we know them. These may be exaggerated, but we can expect a major shakeout and that in ten years a substantial fraction of the literature will not be in traditional commercial journals. This note reviews some of the reasons. It was written as an appendex to A digital archive for mathematics, so draws primarily from articles on publication in mathematics [1], [2], [3], and [4].

Are journals overpriced?

Journals add far less value than they used to. Before Xerox, mimeograph, etc. we had to publish in a journal just to get more than two or three copies of a manuscript. In addition they offered typesetting and wide, relatively rapid distribution. Now we can typeset our own papers, get as many copies as we want, and distribute the contents widely and instantly on networks. Journals still offer quality control and certification. These are important, but they are clearly less valuable than the total old package. If journals make themselves unattractive in other ways, e.g. copyright restrictions and expensive electronic functionality, then authors and readers will be attracted to other outlets. Another reason journals may be overpriced has to do with resources. Math journals are primarily supported by library subscriptions. Therefore the average amount available to pay for an article is the total subscription budget divided by the number of articles that deserve publication. Budgets are declining and article numbers are increasing, so the scholarly community really needs more efficiency in the process, i.e. lower-priced journals. Some efficiency is being enforced by libraries, through subscription cuts and interlibrary loans. Publishers do not see this as a symptom of a larger problem, but as unfriendly and unfair action to be combated by copyright enforcement. They may be able to chill interlibrary loans, but they cannot enlarge library budgets. Unless they can develop new sources of revenue (see the next section), and probably in any case, journals will be squeezed out as cuts continue. Capacity will decline, and worthy articles will not be published, at least not in commercial journals. It is essentially impossible for publishers to respond to this price/value/need imbalance. Libraries try to base cuts on "quality", and this gives the journal market a strange inelasticity: subscription rates are not responsive to price, and a price cut will not help retain market share. Further, it is still possible to eat someone else's lunch by launching a new journal with a prestigious editorial board and a lot of fanfare. These factors are likely to keep journals locked into current practices until they become insolvent. So a shakeout is coming.

Research by the drink?

Journal articles are available to nonsubscibers through document delivery services, including one offered through Math Reviews. This is expensive and inconvenient, but valuable as a last resort. It is not much used, so is only a minor source of revenue for journals. It will soon be much more convenient: activating a network link will bring up a dialog box: "Access to this article will cost $10.75. May we charge your credit card?" Commercial material is unlikely to be less expensive, since for reasons discussed above, publishers will be looking to this for income to support database costs and replace declining subscription revenue. What will be the effect of all this? The first point is that it represents a serious philosophical change. Most of us like to think of scholarly research as eventually for the public good, and at the moment it is funded that way. My University, a public institution, has the creation of knowledge as one of its missions, and spends a lot on it. Scholarly publication is largely funded through subscriptions by publically supported libraries. In contrast, by-the-hit charges shift costs to the researchers. The implication that it is researchers that benefit from publication, and accordingly they should pay for it. There have been previous attempts to shift costs: page charges represent the idea that it is authors or their institutions that benefit and should pay the bill. This did not go over well, and has largely been abandoned. Readers are the next target. How many papers are worth $10.75? People voting with their credit cards are not likely to elect many. This will have several consequences. First the journals with the worst subscription problems will not have them solved by access fees, so we still expect a lot of failures. Second it changes the product from journals to articles. Currently editors ask "will this article support the general impression of quality that attracts subscriptions?" Soon they may have to ask "will this individual article attract enough hits to turn a profit?" Mathematics has a particular problem in that it has a lot of sparsely populated areas [5]. In such areas there are few potential customers, and many of these will have the preprint. Consequently a large number of currently publishable papers will be unattractive to publishers and editors simply because of the limited market. This may enhance some elite commercial journals: a paper must be really good if the publisher believes they can make a profit on it. But a large segment of the literature may have to find new outlets.

The Pendulum Swings

Sixty years ago nearly all scholarly journals were non-commercial. Now they are nearly all commercial, and even most "nonprofits" (for instance AMS and university press journals) are expected to produce revenue. Ann Okerson [6] credits Robert Maxwell with "inventing" the economic model for the modern scientific journal only 40 years ago. This trend has reached its high-water mark and will receed back toward the historical norm. Viewed this way there is nothing unnatural about this, but there are new problems. The recession is likely to involve failures of commercial journals, so some sort of safety net would be a good thing. The new non-commercial journals will be quite different from the ones sixty years ago: probably more like the free electronic journals or the Ginsparg model. Development of postcommercial forms of publication is a challenge for the scholarly community. Support in the form of archiving and access is a challenge for the library community. Both communities must rise to these challenges for the transition to be fully successful.


  1. Odlyzko, Andrew Tragic loss or good riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals Notices AMS 42 (1995) 49--53.
  2. Odlyzko, Andrew On the road to electronic publishing preprint 1996.
  3. Quinn, Frank Roadkill on the electronic highway: The threat to the mathematical literature Notices of the American Math Society 42 (1995) 53-56, expanded version in Publishing Research Quarterly 11 (Summer 1995) 20-28.
  4. Okerson and O'Donnell ed., Scholarly Publication at the Crossroads: a Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing Association of Research Libraries, Washington DC 1995.
  5. Quinn, Frank Cultural adaptation in mathematics and physics preprint 1996.
  6. Ann Okerson is the past Director of Scientific and Academic Publishing, Association of Research Libraries, and is now with the library at Yale University. See Whose article is it anyway? Notices of the AMS 43 (1996) 8-12.