I’ve written here a few times before about efforts by academic authors to make research results openly accessible on the Web. A faculty advisory committee to the Harvard University Library has recommended that all faculty members seek to move to open-access publications. There has also been a boycott, organized via the Web site thecostofknowledge.com, of the journals published by Reed Elsevier, which are particularly expensive; there are now more than 12,000 academics who have signed up to join the boycott.
A new article posted at Technology Review describes another move away from the traditional publishing model. A new open-access, peer-reviewed journal, PeerJ, covering medical and life sciences research, has been launched, and will operate on a membership model. There are several tiers of membership. The most basic level, which requires a one-time fee of $99, entitles an author to publish one article per year with PeerJ; the author must also agree to perform peer review on one article annually. Members also have access to all of the published material.
This strikes me as a potentially valuable development. Like many other content production businesses, the economics of publishing research have been fundamentally changed by the Internet. Traditional publishers will argue that they perform a “gatekeeper” function, by ensuring that research is refereed before it is published. There is a certain amount of truth to this; however, the argument is undercut by the fact that the peer review is usually performed, in many cases without compensation, by the same academic authors that write the papers in the first place. When digital publication reduces the marginal cost of additional copies to, effectively, zero, it is not reasonable to expect to continue collecting large economic rents just by virtue of owning a printing press.