Paying for Open Access

Ideas are public goods so open access publishing is theoretically ideal but how to pay for it? The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the flagship journal of the National Academy of Sciences is trying an experiment. If you can’t charge the readers how about charging the authors? PNAS authors may now opt to pay $1000 to make their articles available for free immediately upon publication.

It’s an interesting idea – authors do receive benefits from publishing papers but in truth it’s more important that the paper be published than read. At $1000, I think the benefits are overpriced especially since some readers do pay for the journal and can read the articles from day one. Also PNAS opens access after 6 months in anycase.

Authors might pay $1000 if a combination of charity, peer-pressure and noblesse-oblige establishes a norm of payment. But therein lies a dilemma. The more authors that are willing to pay for open-access the less readers will be willing to pay for selective access. If every author pays who will buy the journal?

Can $1000 per author support a publication with no paying readers? The American Economic Review publishes about 100 articles a year and has costs in excess of one million dollars – so the economics don’t look good. True, those costs support a print journal and open-access would be electronic online so that makes the equation somewhat easier to balance but it’s still touch and go at best.

Even though I am somewhat skeptical I applaud the Academy for this experiment and I hope that other journals will be equally creative.

Thanks to Monique van Hoek for the pointer.