Opinion Piece by Fred Dylla in WSJ: A Defense for the High Cost Of Many Scientific Journals

On April 19 the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece from Fred Dylla, Executive Director Emeritus of the American Institute of Physics & AAP Board Member on page A12 of the print edition and online. The letter is a reaction to Richard Aslin's March 31 op-ed “The Science of the Tax-Dollar Double Dip”, which greatly mischaracterizes scholarly publishers.

A letter from AAP's Executive Director of Professional and Scholarly Publishing that the WSJ declined to run can be found here.

Below is the original piece submitted by Fred, which was slightly changed in both the online and print versions of the WSJ.


Richard Aslin's March 31 op-ed “The Science of the Tax-Dollar Double Dip” argued, as do most scientists (including me), for finding ways to provide free access to even the highest-quality scientific publications. But significant misconceptions must be rectified, starting with this: unless a raw manuscript placed online somehow constitutes the finished product of scientific publishing, “free” can never mean “costless.”

Aslin mainly targets for-profit scientific publishing, even though roughly half the $10 billion journal market involves more than 1000 nonprofit publishers, and commercial firms publish journals for more than 2000 nonprofit scientific societies. He condemns scientific publishing as a “racket” in which “journals charge taxpayers for the right to see the research their money paid for.” But in fact publishers, often employing Ph.D.-holding editors, add substantial value to raw manuscripts describing taxpayer-funded research. They orchestrate crucial, complex quality control via peer review, then do all the things necessary to transform the papers into vetted, searchable, and archived journal articles—all at a cost of up to $5000 apiece.

Yes, the highest-prestige journals have especially high expenses. Selectivity serves science by spotlighting important work, but huge submission volumes levy additional costs. And yes, journal subscription costs are high, but the average cost per title has declined in the last 15 years, and universities' library budgets have not kept pace with the rise in research budgets (or tuition fees) over the last 30 years.

In a rare Washington compromise, publishers and academics have worked with the federal government over the last three years to make copies of all articles reporting taxpayer-funded research available for free a year after publication. For readers needing faster access, publishers, rental services and authors provide access on a case-by-case basis.
H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director Emeritus, American institute of Physics
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