Open access journals and resources for economists

I made a new page here to keep a directory of open access journals and other resources in economics. What I’m hoping to keep track of in particular are outlets to which researchers in economics to submit their work, with no or minimal fees to them, so that if it selected for publication it will be freely available to anyone who wants to read it.

I’ve written about the rationale for open access in an academic paper (that’s a preprint since the published version is behind paywall(!) at Information Economics and Policy) and in a non-technical article. My contribution is to try to show that economic theory is quite clear that for-profit ownership of academic journal articles is not a good regime. The case for open access policies, or at very least ownership of research by non-profits, is not a case of morality versus economics. The stars here are very much aligned.

In short, I see three clear reasons to favor open access policies.

  1. Economic efficiency. Information is capable of generating big, far-reaching knowledge spillovers, which for-profit pricing cannot account for. As the costs of delivering information fall (thanks to the internet) the gap between for-profit pricing and the efficient price for information grows bigger and bigger. This is a fairly standard application of externality theory
  2. Less exploitation of labor. For-profit academic publishers make big profits. According to their own financial reports, in 2014 the research publishing arm of Reed Elsevier made around a 37% profit margin on revenues of around 3bn USD (here is the relevant VERY LARGE pdf, see p16-19). That profit relies on us writing, refereeing, and editing, typically for no or little explicit compensation. These are part of our “professional duties”; big money is being made on the back of these activities. For what reason?
  3. Justice and equality of access. The “missing consumers” of academic research are spread wide, but which consumers are they? They are those whose institutions can’t afford site licenses, often in less wealthy countries. Unequal access to knowledge is something that we should only tolerate with very good reason, and I don’t think we have one here.

It is absolutely not enough that for-profit publishers are now typically offering an open access “option” to researchers whose papers are accepted by one of their journals. This takes the form of a several thousand dollar charge: if the researcher pays, her article will be made freely available to all; if not, it will be behind a paywall.

This is not going to cut it for me. The rationale for such fees for a for-profit publisher is not likely to be an innocuous one of recouping their costs. They lose more than costs under open access: they also have their profit to recoup. I also smell a rat in that some institutions are beginning to promise to pay researchers’ open access fees in an attempt to encourage the practice. A nice idea in theory, but one that presents an obvious opportunity for the publisher.

For the directory I’m starting, then, I would prefer to avoid listing journals that have these kind of open access fee practices. I think it’s not in the spirit of the game. Obviously there may be gray areas here.

Economics is an odd case in many respects. We have a robust preprint culture where by one means or another papers are almost always available somewhere online before, and in many cases also after, publication. Searching those various somewheres has gotten a lot easier in the age of Google Scholar, too. A large number of papers are “shopped” at conferences and invited seminars before being submitted for publication—good for thoroughly vetting papers, good for making sure many of the most influential people never need to actually see the published version, and good for making sure that your potential referees know who you are and what you’ve done. (OK, that last one can sometimes make peer review smell a bit off!)

I’ve occasionally heard the argument that economics doesn’t need open access because of this culture. I’m not keen on that argument, beyond just the general rationale from earlier. First, I think there is still a meaningful difference between a freely available preprint and the final version in definitiveness, good indexing, and the it-factor of the stamp of approval. Second, this seems to admit that we have no practical use for for-profit academic publishers, and yet continue to allow them to make money from us anyway. Third, not all fields are like ours, and I think it’s appropriate that we join a general movement toward more reasonably priced academic research.

I appreciate that it’s not trivial to change the culture away from the legacy publishers. Network effects are one of the gnarliest things ever to happen to market structure. But the least we can do is know our options. If you know of anything that you think belongs on the list of resources, please let me know!

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