A senior colleague from my ecology days wrote to me with a request for a PDF reprint of an article I published in 1991. The article came out in Ecology, the flagship journal of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). When I published it, Ecology was an independent journal produced by the ESA. But when my colleague wanted to obtain an electronic reprint he ended up on the website of Wiley and Sons, a for-profit publisher of more than 1500 scientific journals, and was asked to purchase the reprint.
I searched for the title of my paper and also ended up on Wiley’s site, and also found that I would have to pay $36 for a PDF of my article. To say that I was speechless is to say nothing. Not only I am the author of the article, my university subscribes to Ecology and I personally paid Ecology subscription for many years, including 1991 (that was before I switched to cliodynamics and cultural evolution). I still have those 1991 issues gathering dust on a shelf in my lab. So naturally I refused to pay, and asked my office assistant to make a scan from a reprint that I found on another dusty shelf. The quality of the PDF, of course, is not as good as when it is directly printed from the source file.
Later on, however, I figured out how to get a good quality PDF. My university also subscribes to JSTOR, and you can get old issues of Ecology through this great resource, and so I did.
This is the beginning of the article in question. I was doing pretty abstruse things at the time.
But why did the ESA sell out to a for-profit publisher? It seems to go so much against the spirit of the Society that I remember when I was still a member. Googling, I discovered that it’s a very recent change, which happened only in 2015.
I have no idea why the ESA leadership did it, and I think it’s a very poor decision.
The landscape of scientific publishing has been changing very dramatically in the last few years, and more changes are coming. I’ve blogged about it before, so I won’t repeat it here:
Naturally, it will take yet some years for the greedy for-profit scientific publishers to go the way of the dinosaurs. The problem is the scientists themselves, or rather the majority who are still all too willing to work for free to enrich wily publishers (pun intended).
But the writing is on the wall. Thirty years ago scientific publishers could rely to sell 5,000 subscriptions to university libraries. They could afford to keep the subscription costs reasonable, since they made money in bulk.
Then two things happened. The publishers started increasing the cost of institutional subscriptions. Meanwhile library budgets started declining, so libraries started dropping subscriptions. Publishers increased the costs even more, to make up for reduced volume, and libraries responded by dropping more subscriptions. We are nearing the point when this whole business model is going to collapse. Which is why I have invested my effort into open-source publishing, and started Cliodynamics in 2010.
It seems crazy to me that an academic society would want to sell their journals to a for-profit publisher, especially such highly respected and successful journal as Ecology. Perhaps one of my ecological colleagues will get in touch and explain.