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January 22, 2010

The problem isn't going away: who pays for open publishing?

This isn't so much a specialized incentive-centered design story as a good example of a central problem in information economics: information may "want to be free" (Barlow 1996) but it isn't free to maintain or distribute. Who is going to pay?

The arXiv project was started in the 90s as an e-print archive for rapid (pre-journal publication) of research papers in high-energy physics. Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Los Alamos National Lab, started and maintained it for a number of years. It became a vital service for not just the original community, but for many other scholarly fields (including math, statistics and computer science). It currently houses about 600,000 articles, all freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Cornell University took responsibility for the project several years ago. The university librarian reports that Cornell spends about $400,000 a year to maintain and enhance this ever-growing resource, which benefits researchers across the world. It earns no direct revenue from the project. How long is that sustainable?

According to this posting in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cornell is now asking the 200 institutions whose researchers account for about 75% of the downloads to voluntarily pay $4000 a year to support the project. Not a lot perhaps (the cost of a handful of subscriptions to journals in the related fields), but a request for an ongoing commitment to a charitable contribution. How likely is that to work? How sustainable? National Public Radio in the US receives some government funding, and fully 23% of its budget from corporate advertising. (It is called "sponsorship" because the corporations only get "announcements" and not "advertisements", but as someone whose father made his living in a Madison Avenue advertising firm doing "corporate image advertising", this is advertising. Corporations spend the money to enhance their brand image and reputation, on the belief that this increases their sales.)

Posted by jmm at January 22, 2010 07:35 AM

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