Nature, the pinnacle of prestige in biology, is going free access, meaning anyone can read their articles for free. This is definitely an improvement over me not being able to read their articles (mostly produced and paid for with tax dollars) for free, but it’s not the victory it might look like. Michael Eisen details how they’re still protecting their subscription model, but the more insidious problem is that they still charge for “reprints”, in which they print out the article and mail it to you like some sort of medieval peasant.
“Why would that matter?”, you say quietly to yourself “I mean, I could see how that was an issue back when articles had to be chiseled onto dinosaur skins, but doesn’t everyone just read them online now?” First, reprint costs were an issue slightly more recently than that. When I started college in 2002 a professor loaded me up on articles, and then asked me to please bring back the ones I wasn’t interested in because they were expensive to produce. These were for articles he wrote, but he still had to pay the publishing journal to hand out copies to freshmen.
Admittedly, that particular problem had already been solved by the time I graduated. Anyone on campus could read almost anything they wanted, for free. But the more insidious issue is the people who want to pay for reprints. Specifically, companies wishing to demonstrate how awesome their product (often but not exclusively a new pharmaceutical drug) is will buy reprints of articles supporting their case. I admire their uprightness in paying for each copy, rather than buying one and giving an intern some alone time with the copier, but what I don’t understand is why they buy so many copies. More than they could possibly distribute unless they started throwing them out of helicopters. It’s like they enjoy giving the publishers money for some reason.
What this means is that people with money don’t just influence science by funding the studies they want done and then writing the articles about them, or by buying advertising in scientific journals (which we can at least detect is happening). They reward journals for publishing articles favorable to them by buying reprints. [Source: Bad Pharma, by Ben Goldacre]. And Nature has left that revenue stream wide open.