Not so fast. On-line journals offer full benefits only to those whose institution has a subscription. If you don't have a subscription, you're out of luck. . .mostly. Thankfully, it is possible to buy PDFs of individual articles. Right?
Not so fast. It is indeed possible to buy PDFs of articles from most journals. . .if you can cough up the money to do so. Let's face it. PDFs are expensive. Ridiculously so. A three page note from Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology might cost nearly $30! A six page paper from Geology runs $25. [end of this post] Is it really worth it?
I won't pretend that journal sales don't support professional societies I care about. I won't pretend that publishers shouldn't get compensated for their services. I won't pretend that everything is going to turn open access tomorrow.
But, I'm not shy about saying that the current system stinks. No matter how you slice it, $30 for a PDF article is unaffordable for a typical consumer of paleontological publications. The new membership rates for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which include electronic access to Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, cost $115 for e-journal only. Assuming around 120 articles per year (a rough count for JVP in 2008), this works out to a little less than $1 per article (and remember that this assumes that 100 percent of membership dues go to the journal subscription - certainly not the case). Why is there a 3,000 percent markup for non-members? Wouldn't journals be able to get by with, perhaps, a 500 percent markup over the member rate? [IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not intending to single out JVP and SVP exclusively; nearly all journal publishers are guilty of this problem. . .it just so happens that JVP is the example most relevant to most readers here]
Let's put it another way. At the current costs of PDF articles, buying every single article in the journal would cost an individual around $3,600 per year.
And let's look at it from yet another angle. Institutional paper subscriptions to JVP are $270/year for US institutions (pre-Taylor & Francis switch; we don't yet know what the cost will be post-switch). This works out to an average of$2.25/article. . .for a format that is much more expensive to deliver than an electronic document!
And one last angle. . .the Mesozoic Birds: Above the Heads of Dinosaurs edited volume, which is a beautifully produced and scientifically important work, includes 20 articles, ships in hard cover and retails for $100 new. This works out to $5/article within the book. Contrast this with $30 or more for a single digital file.
Commenting in a recent thread here at the OSP, a librarian noted that libraries are paying between $2-$4 per PDF article when bought in bundles from for-profit publishers like Elsevier (which, incidentally, continues to post profits in the midst of the recession). Although it is certainly fair to have volume discounts (although the pricing schemes and the bundled journals are often rather dubious in practice), it is of dubious benefit to science to charge such a disproportionate rate to private individuals who are just trying to do some science.
Do these pricing schemes serve science? Do these pricing schemes serve the interests of the authors, who just want their work to be read?
Commonly Suggested "Solutions"
When the issue of paying for individual PDFs is brought up, there are often a number of "solutions" proposed. I put the word in quotes because, as explained below, none of these is fool-proof.
Why not write the author for a PDF?
In some cases, this is a good workaround. But it's never a perfect workaround. Sometimes authors are unresponsive, have changed email addresses, retired, or passed into the fossil record. In this case, the researcher in need of the paper is out of luck.
Why not post a PDF request to VRTPALEO or the DML?
In some cases, this is a workaround. . .one need only look at mailing list archives to see that this is a common strategy. But, PDF requests unfortunately carry a small annoyance factor for many list subscribers. Sometimes no one responds. Finally, PDF sharing by anyone other than the author is generally illegal in the eyes of the publishers and societies (but let's not pretend it doesn't happen).
Why not join the society, and then you get all of the articles as part of your membership?
Again, this is a solution in some cases. If you are a paleontological enthusiast or professional who loves (or needs) to follow every bit of the literature, you should probably join the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and/or the Palaeontological Association and/or the Paleontological Society.
But, let's be realistic. Nobody can afford to join every society to get access to all society publications. In some cases, it's just not necessary. Consider this hypothetical situation. You're a population biologist working for a small nature preserve who wants a little background on the evolutionary history of the coyote. You do a search on Google, and find a citation to Journal of American Paleontology with an abstract that details ecological shifts by coyotes during the Ice Age using isotopic analysis. You click on the link, and. . .paywall! The Society of American Paleontology wants $30 for a five page article. Is it really worth your time and money (as a population biologist) to join a society of paleontology, when you are already stretching your budget to cover dues for two more relevant societies? If the charter for the American Paleontological Society says that they are to promote and advance the science of paleontology, is the society really living up to this mandate? If the society wants to foster cross-discipline appreciation for the relevance of the field, is this happening if the research is not easily accessible? Are the authors who contribute to the journal being well-served by having their research so restricted?
Finally, some journals just aren't sponsored by societies. There is no solution in this case, other than to pay a few hundred dollars per year.
Most of the other journals charge $30 for a PDF!
This is not a solution (or even a "solution"), but an excuse. During the business meeting for a scholarly society to which I belong, I raised a concern about the prices that the society's journal was charging for individual PDFs. Can you guess the answer that I received? I remember something my mother often said to me. . ."If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you too?" Exorbitant PDF costs may be the norm, but that doesn't mean it's the ethical thing to do (especially for a non-profit society whose stated mission includes phrases like "advance the science" and "serve the common interests").
What Needs to Change?
Science (yes, that's the reason why most research is published) is not being served by the current pricing schemes. Alleged solutions for those beyond the boundaries of the pay-wall are not comprehensive, and again do not serve the interests of science.
PDFs of individual articles need to cost less. There is no way to legitimize charging $25, $30, or more for something that costs less to produce than a printed journal, particularly when it prices out to up to a 3,000 percent markup. The current pricing scheme restricts the readership of articles and creates a hierarchy of have- and have-not researchers, in a time when the Internet is supposed to fix these problems for academia. Also, let's not forget that the research behind these articles is often heavily subsidized by public tax dollars. . .
I would suggest that $5, or maybe $10 in exceptional circumstances (e.g., a 50 page monograph) is a cost that I would be willing to pay for a PDF. I would also submit that many journals would see increased PDF sales (particularly for popular topics, such as dinosaurs) if the price was set at something mere mortals could afford to pay.
Is There a Solution?
Right now, it sounds like I'm doing a lot of complaining and not a lot of problem solving. Well. . .yes. This post is partly a rant. Unless people are aware of the problem, nothing will ever happen.
So what can we do? Here are a few suggestions:
- Ask journals and professional societies to consider the implications of pricing schemes for PDFs. Speak out to the people who matter. Let them know how you feel, and how it affects you.
- Don't pay the ridiculous charges. Find low-cost, legal alternatives (e.g., writing to the author or interlibrary loans) whenever possible.
- Submit your work only to journals with researcher-friendly publishing policies.
- If you are an author, do everything you (legally) can to get your work out there for free. If the journal allows you to post a PDF, do so. Respond promptly to PDF requests from other individuals.
Addendum 1: As if by magic, this post at The Scholarly Kitchen appeared at nearly the same instant as I hit the "publish" button on this post. I haven't followed up on the service (which essentially offers cheap rental access to articles from various scientific publishers), but will certainly be looking into it.
Addendum 2: Matt over at Protichnoctem has a nice post with more on the issue of buying PDFs. Go check it out!
The Journal List
The Anatomical Record (Wiley): $29.95
Bulletin of the Geological Society of America (GSA): $25 (GSA website)
Bulletin of the Geological Society of America (GSA): $32 (Geoscience World website)
Cretaceous Research (Elsevier): $31.50
Geology (GSA): $25 (GSA website)
Geology (GSA): $32 (Geoscience World website)
Ichnos (Taylor & Francis): $37
Journal of Experimental Biology (The Company of Biologists): $10
Journal of Morphology (Wiley): $29.95
Journal of Paleontology (Paleontological Society): $12 (BioOne website)
Journal of Paleontology (Paleontological Society): $15 (Geoscience World website)
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP): $30 (BioOne website)
Nature (Nature Publishing Group): $32
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (Elsevier): $31.50
Paleobiology (Paleontological Society): $12 (BioOne website)
Paleobiology (Paleontological Society): $15 (Geoscience World website)
Palaeontology (Wiley): $29.95
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NASUSA): $10 ($25/full journal access for seven days)
Science (AAAS): $15