There’s big money in science publishing — and there probably isn’t a reporter on a science-related beat who doesn’t wish that more peer-reviewed journal articles were freely available online.
On Apr. 19, The Guardian cited a new European Commission report (pdf) which found that scientific research funded by European taxpayers should be available to the world for free online. Right now, much of this content is cloistered in pricey journals (online and print).
This, understandably, is scary for major publishers of scientific journals such as Reed Elsevier and Springer. It also could threaten the existence of many scientific associations which rely on journal subscription fees as a key source of operating revenues.
This is a thorny issue. Science thrives on the free exchange of information, and personally I agree that the results of taxpayer-funded research should be freely available. That said, many scientific associations (obscure and otherwise) do excellent work, especially with coordinating the difficult and thankless peer-review process. Any scientist can produce a paper, but getting accepted into a top-notch peer-reviewed journal is a meaningful distinction. I’d hate to see associations folding simply due to lost journal subscriptions.
Personally, I think the journal publishers and scientific associations would have less to fear if they shifted to focus more on adding value rather than simply publishing papers. In particular, they could facilitate public discussion among scientists, increase transparency in paper selection and peer-review, and offer guidance to journalists, educators, policy staffers, and others charged with conveying dense scientific information for non-scientists. All of that would be well worth paying for — especially if the papers themselves (at least those from EU-funded research) become free.
(Thanks to SEJ executive director Beth Parke for alerting me to this development.)