An article titled The Economics of Ecology Journals by Bergstrom & Bergstrom (Front Ecol Environ 2006; 4(9):488-495) was recently brought to my attention. The authors analyzed price data and citations from 92 regularly published primary research ecology journals and, in a nutshell, determined that for-profit journals are approximately five times as expensive as their non-profit counterparts. Even when page charges, common with both non-profit and jointly published journals, are factored in, total revenue is approximately three times higher for the for-profit journals. This price difference exists despite the fact that the higher-priced journals do not have corresponding higher quality, as measured by citation rates.
Bergstrom & Bergstrom go on to note the trends of increasing library expenditures on serials (doubling since 1986) as well as the increased proportion of expensive for-profit publications. This trend is especially puzzling given the relatively recent transition to online access, which has come at a generally low cost to publishers. The authors next ask why these price differences persist and then present their answer in game theory terms. Basically, scientists will publish where other top-scientists publish and a shift to lower-cost, non-profit journals (with greater distribution and higher citation rates!) will require a coordinated shift within the scholarly community. They conclude:
Finally, from the broader community perspective, the scientific community as a whole would benefit if over-priced journals were displaced by journals priced at or near average cost. The fraction of library budgets that is currently going to the shareholders of large commercial publishers could instead by used to provide services of genuine value to the academic community. Professional societies and university presses could help by expanding their existing journals or starting new ones. Individual scholars could advance this process in many ways: by contributing their time and efforts to the expansion of these non-profit journals, by refusing to do unpaid referee work for overpriced commercial publications, by self-archiving their papers in preprint archives or institutional repositories, and by favoring reasonably priced journals with their submissions.
As a side, it is interesting to note that only three of the 107 ecology journals listed in the 2005 Journal Citation Reports were open-access journals, with all of their content freely available on the web. This category of course, includes Ecology & Society (www.ecologyandsociety) which was highlighted in another article recently by Kueffer et al. (Towards a Publication Culture in Transdisciplinary Research, GAIA 16/1 (2007):22-26) for its contribution to transdisciplinary research publishing.