Scientific content should be free


A recurring topic on slashdot ( and in the scientific community is open journals: peer reviewed scientific journals that make their articles available for free. Today, slashdot commented on the ideas of the IEEE to maybe open their vast electronic library to the public. I am a big proponent of this and sincerely hope that they will do this. However I am very critical of the discussions about the cost. These discussions appear to be influenced heavily by publishers who continuously try to make it appear that these costs have to be very high. They propose that authors cover the cost of 3000$ (!!!!) per article.

This is where I disagree because as far as I can see these costs don’t really exist (or rather have to exist). I used to be a Ph. D. student. I wrote articles, submitted them to conferences and journals. I also peer reviewed articles for journals and conferences. I never received a single dollar for this work from the publishers and worse now have to pay to get access to my own articles (well I cheated by saving a copy).

My point is: all the relevant work in the publishing process is done by volunteers like me. Worldwide, scientists write articles for free and review other scientist’s articles for free. The only scientists who receive money from publishers are editors who, in some cases, get a modest compensation for their precious time from a publisher who makes a lot of money. I’m convinced there would be plenty of people willing to donate their time to do this. I’m one of those people. This work mostly consists of taking decisions what to publish and what to reject, organizing and coordinating the review process, etc.

Historically we needed publishers to distribute the peer reviewed articles to libraries and this is why publishers have enjoyed an enormous revenue stream for centuries now. The profits made by publishers are huge (billions of dollars). They continue to be huge because scientists need to publish in their journals because of the journal rankings (which are based on references to articles).

Now that we have the internet, this is no longer true.

Well not entirely. Of course you still have some hosting costs, site maintainance and maybe a bunch of people coordinating the whole review distribution process, content management & site maintainance. My point is: the per article cost of the whole process is extremely low. It’s nowhere near the amount of dollars named in the article. I’d be surprised and shocked if it were more than a few dollars. An organization like the IEEE should be able to fund this using sponsoring, advertising & volunteer contributions.

Of course they’d have to reorganize how they work. A journal is a periodic bundle of articles intended for paper distribution. Electronic publishing is instant (not periodic) and essentially free of cost. Beyond organizing the process and hosting there is virtually no cost. The process which is currently optimized for paper distribution is therefore obsolete. You need volunteer authors, volunteer reviewers, volunteer editorial boards for specific scientific audiences, supporting staff and hosting (here are some real costs) and a means to establish article and editorial board rankings (this is mostly a technical problem).

Editorial boards consist of key members of a research community who invite other scientists to contribute articles and do peer reviews. The output of an editorial board consists of peer reviewed articles. Not for profit organizations like the IEEE can take care of the editing and hosting. This will require some funding. Funding is available from sponsoring, advertisements, research funds, universities, society memberships etc.

Considering the amounts that are saved by taking publishers out of the equation, this should be no problem. Universities would save millions if the whole scientific publishing community would adopt this model.

So, IEEE, ACM and other not for profit scientific organizations: do your members and the scientific community a favour (and isn’t this what you exist for in the first place?) by making content available freely. There’s no shortage of scientists willing to do the writing and reviewing for you (I’m one of those people). The rest of the process can and should be optimized for online hosting. The costs involved with the latter part should be very modest. The benefits are enormous.