Buying PDFs: Commentary

This post was originally a comment on Andy’s post “Buying PDFs: Truth and Consequences” at The Open Paleontologist blog. The text grew too long, so I’m devoting a full post to it, even though it’s a bit rough. The topic is how much we pay for PDFs of published articles, and why this is so disproportionate to physical copies.

People who know me already know what my suggested “solution” is, which is to share as many PDFs with as many people as possible in order to help the publishers reevaluate their prices, however…legality prevents me from supporting taking such action. This is modeled after the philosophy of Downhill Battle: in order to get radio stations to play music beyond the mainstream (paid for by the record companies), we need to bankrupt the record companies, essentially by quitting buying music, or at least music produced by the largest companies who pay the biggest bucks toward keeping their music on the air.

I’m not sure if Andy has a citation for his observation that publishers like Elsevier that continue “to post profits in the midst of the recession”? Having someone play with those numbers a bit would be interesting to do.

This ends up being like gas prices. I get that as a business you get to set your prices as the market will bear, but the strategy of moving more merchandise rather than more expensive merchandise should always be something to consider. How much research do these publishers do as far as sub-fields go? As you say, hospitals can pay top dollar for a single article, but more paleontologists will buy an article if it’s cheaper (especially if they are unaffiliated), will be able to do the research they want, and will be looking for a place to publish.

On that note, I hope people continue to vote with their feet when it comes to open-access vs. closed-access, or even if some journals have slightly lower per-PDF fees. I’ve had the discussion recently about what “high impact” means anymore: nothing. It used to mean that the physical journal was available in more libraries and hence better-read and better-cited, but since everything goes to PDF now, everything (new) is equally available to someone who can do a halfway decent job of searching. This gives us all the freedom to publish in journals with whose practices we agree, rather than who has a wider physical distribution.

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