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Have the will, have the data

Referees on strike, and a new "template" for academic electronic publishing; sound familiar? This time it's economists on the warpath, and they have figures to shoot with.

By | January 5, 2001

It will be called the Electronic Society for Social Scientists, and St Andrews University economist, Manfredi La Manna, thinks it could be manna to social scientists - and their librarians - the world over.

He's spent four of his six months' sabbatical granted by St Andrews University developing the ELSSS, which aims to publish a dozen high quality electronic journals to supplant existing, over-priced commercial printed publications.

According to La Manna, ELSSS journals will be under half the price of comparable commercially-produced journals, pay "substantial" fees to authors, referees and editors, will be available to all researchers, faculty, and students in the subscribing libraries, will be distributed free to all developing and ex-Eastern-block countries, and will be run on a non-profit-making basis for the benefit of the academic community.

Why pay referees? "Refereeing a paper is very time-intensive - you have to spend between two and four days to review a paper properly. You do it for the good of the profession. Publishers have exploited this."

Professor Ted Bergstrom, Professor of Economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who supports the ELSSS approach, is one of several economists who have gone on a referees' strike. "I just don't see why I should supply free refereeing services to those publishers that use monopoly pricing to gouge our university budgets," he says on his web page. "I have made a new millennial resolution to stop refereeing papers for journals that charge library subscription rates greater than $1000, and to exercise preference for journals that charge less than $300."

Bergstrom has also written a paper (see below), which details the costs and benefits of economics journals, and reveals enormous price differences between commercial and non-profit publishers. He calculates that a commercial publisher will charge, for example, $1500 for a subscription to a typical journal that really costs only $240 dollars to produce and distribute — a profit of over 500%. How can publishers do this? Essentially they are charging "rent" for a prestige property, Bergstrom argues, and the challenge is to create the prestige elsewhere.

La Manna hopes to do this through the ELSSS. He told BioMed Central, "Economists are prisoners of these publishers. You have the ridiculous situation that, for example, the Journal of Development Economics is so expensive that no developing country library can afford it."

"Elsevier were quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying they would limit price increases next year to 6.5%. But in what business would you consider that a good deal, when costs are actually going down? That is a definition of a monopoly … I want to make refereeing for Elsevier as unattractive as possible. There is a lot of — I would say — hatred for Elsevier."

"Every economist has been aware of the problem for the last few years, and also of the potential solution. But everyone has been expecting someone else to do it. So I finally decided to do my bit, and thanks to my university I was given some time to create the ELSSS," La Manna told BioMed Central.

His first objective is "to get our template for electronic publishing of journals absolutely right". For example, web versions of existing journals are often simply copies of the print versions, and make no use of the opportunity of the Internet to provide something different — such as links, databases or software. The ELSSS journals will use the Internet to the full, La Manna told BioMed Central.

He believes he will need £100 000 to get the ELSSS and its proposed first 12 journals going, principally to fund the work of a programmer, and to set up the society with its trustees and other officers. So far he has no academic board, but after 6000 e-mails to fellow social scientists a large number of people have "ticked the right box" and sent a mass of supporting correspondence. "It will be a few months before the ELSSS is created," he says, hinting that various "UK government agencies" may provide financial support. La Manna will also seek funding from charitable foundations.

"Once this is going, I hope other disciplines will follow us," said La Manna, "because there's nothing specific to economics here. Lots of people are already doing things in different areas." La Manna believes the UK government would be interested in a coordinated effort.

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