Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a "keep out" sign on the gates.
You might resent Murdoch's paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50.
The other day I posted about a happy migration away from Elsevier by an intellectual history journal. Two years ago I had written to the editor of The History of European Ideas and requested that they consider taking this very step. I'm glad they did eventually, and I encourage you to look at my letter and take similar action with the journal Modern Theology, published by Wiley-Blackwell and one of the most well-read systematic theology journals today. Modern Theology charges U.S. libraries $824 for a yearly print and online subscription; libraries in the UK pay £498. The EU pays €633, the developing world pays $483, and all other parts of the world pay $1121. This is the most expensive English-language theology journal I'm aware of. The institutional subscription is more expensive than the Elsevier-published History of European Ideas. Bill Cavanaugh is one of the editors for Modern Theology, and not the sort that I would imagine as unreceptive to these sorts of concerns.
As I've stated in previous posts about the sustainability of academic publishing, these prices are dwarfed by science publications and are not the biggest contributors to the buckling of library budgets or the unavailability of literature to scholars. But this doesn't really matter if you're at a small seminary that doesn't subscribe to any chemistry journals. In such institutions, it's Modern Theology that's making your academic research needs unaffordable.
And it's not just the small institutions. Here at the University of Chicago, home of the new Mansueto Library and one of the world's great research library systems, we are dealing with budget issues that make subscriptions difficult. In June I mentioned that the Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon had ended its open access status earlier this year because they couldn't afford to keep it up. The BBKL now has an option for institutional subscription to the online version, and I recently emailed our bibliographer about the possibility of the University of Chicago getting such a subscription. Although I had received positive responses to all previous purchase requests that I had made over the past few years, this time she replied that, unfortunately, there is no new funding for electronic resources requiring ongoing payment. With a subscription of €300/year... much less than a year of Modern Theology... the online BBKL is still unavailable.
Library budgets will not only cut the most ridiculously expensive resources, or the least useful. Cuts like this always come in odd places, and they come alongside funds allocated to expansion projects elsewhere in the institution. This means that any number of resources are currently in danger for scholars- from the obscure journal subscription, to the small book series that isn't carried through the library's new vendor, to the 10-hour/week shelving job that pays your bills as a student, to the ILL book that can't be shipped to you without charge because funding for that program has limited the number of monthly requests you can make.
I am not opposed to various open access ventures, and I make use of them frequently enough. I am also glad that pdf's of articles flow more freely through personal channels amongst scholars than they do through publishers or libraries. But I'm not convinced that having a scholarly literature market is in itself the problem. It's not the publishers charging $40 for a hardback that make research inaccessible to people (either by personal acquisition or through local institutions), and if we could create a situation where publishers make a living off of doing what they do while libraries can do what they do within the means of their funding, the result is going to be much more fruitful than an entirely open access situation where everyone expects literature to be completely free... that is, where no one is willing to fund a common effort to edit, print, or curate scholarly work.
UPDATE: Since posting on this, at least two other blogs have weighed in on the article... New APPS and Savage Minds.