First, I feel I must start with a disclaimer: despite the title, I am not an economist. I am a Latin Americanist. I share many of the opinions of the bloggers so far, that material should be free and available to access online. Behind this lies the question of money. The questions I want to reflect on are: who already funds much of the costs of publishing and who will do so in the future?
In response to the first question, I want to give two (fairly) recent examples of my experiences with publishers. In February 2012, a resource came to my attention: a database of classic Mexican film. The publishers were offering a free trial to encourage scholars and institutions to subscribe to their service. There is no doubt that the service is excellent and it took many hours of labour to produce this material. In a blog I wrote about it I asked why something that is freely available in Mexico City, if you walk into the archives, can be monetised online by a privately owned company? In June 2012, I received an email from the acquisitions editor of the archive providing me with good reasons why the archive should be paid for:
“While I realise that scholars benefit from free access to primary sources, someone needs to pay the bill for organising and managing a project like this, securing all permissions, selecting the materials to be included (with help of a paid specialist editor), digitising the magazines, creating metadata, building a platform, and making librarians and scholars aware of its existence through advertisements, mailings, etc. From idea to publication, this project has taken more than four years. Increasingly, governments are cutting funds for digitisation projects.”
I quoted his email in its entirety (with his permission) here. He is asking a key question: if funding is in crisis everywhere, particularly in the university sector, which has cut back on archives and often cannot provide sufficient resources (time or money) for staff, who pays the bill?
The second example is a recent conversation I had with an academic publishing house. It is specialist and relatively small scale. I spoke to an editor about the possibility of selecting a number of articles from a journal I co-edited in order to turn it into an edited book. The transformation from one to the other may seem strange, so I shall explain the journal. It was a peer-reviewed journal that we decided to publish ourselves. It began in 2001, which was before online publication was on the cards and, subsequently, my fellow editors put up resistance to it being converted into an online journal because of the lack of prestige (up to very recently) of such a model. We published 5 issues and struggled with distribution. This was difficult and demoralising. For other reasons, we have decided to call it a day, but to try and get a wider readership for a selection of the articles. This is where I found myself speaking to an editor about this book. She was open to the possibility, gave me some advice on what appeals to her editorial, and spoke about a possible market. She also had some reservations and said that it would probably need a €2,000-3,000 subvention. Each time we printed the journal it cost us €500-600. Therefore, presumably, the editorial oversight and distribution costs the remainder. This is not the only editorial we are going to contact, nor is this sum a fait accompli, however, it is an interesting amount and brings me back to: who pays the bill for all of this and, further, what are we paying for?
It takes time, expertise and money to publish commercially. It also relies on much free academic labour, or put differently, labour that is subsidized by the current patronage of the universities. What can the new model look like so that it is open, democratic and fairly remunerated for those whose knowledge and skills are required at different stages of the process?