IFWA Sales: How Wide a Road?

(Posted to the September Forum, 8 June 2001)

Stevan Harnad recently identified six roads to free access to the journal literature. One of these roads could be named "IFWA sales", that is, sales by the publisher, to authors, of immediate [no delay], free [toll-free], Web access. Publishers would sell, to those authors willing to pay the price, complete freedom for their refereed, edited, formatted articles. This would include the publisher posting one or more electronic versions of the articles, toll-free, on one or more Web servers.

As Stevan has pointed out, the principal problem with this road is that of some 20,000 refereed journals maybe only the four published by the Entomological Society of America (ESA) currently offer the service.

Here are four reasons to believe that IFWA sales will remain a seldom trodden path:

(1) All publishers fear loss of subscription revenues above all else, and they perceive that selling IFWA may lead to universal free access for journal articles and to the loss of all subscription revenues.

(2) Commercial publishers, who publish most of the journals, will never sell IFWA because it would endanger the competitive advantage they gain from high-priced library subscriptions.

(3) Most authors are evidently satisfied with the status quo in journal publication.

(4) Authors who aren't satisfied are not interested in spending their research funds to make things better.

Here are eight reasons to believe that IFWA sales may become a superhighway to freely accessible journal literature:

(1) Publishers are under siege to make the electronic versions of refereed articles more accessible--for example, by the Public Library of Science initiative. Selling free access, at a profit, may seem the best way to survive.

(2) Researchers increasingly want their refereed, edited, formatted articles to be freely Web accessible. To illustrate, for the first four years that ESA was asked to sell IFWA, few if any members seemed to care, but by 1999, members were actively lobbying for such sales (Electronic publication of journals by the Entomological Society of America).

(3) Scholarly societies that publish journals can hardly refuse to offer their members a service that many members want and that needs no subsidy.

(4) If most society-based publishers begin to offer IFWA and most of their authors begin to buy it (as ESA authors have), commercial publishers will be forced to offer IFWA to avoid losing many of their authors.

(5) IFWA sales will be market-driven. Publishers need only sell at a profit a service that many or most of their authors want (and may demand). Authors need buy the service only if the benefits seem to justify the price. IFWA sales (or lack thereof) will depend on the price of the service and the value that authors and their sponsors place on it.

(6) Authors who have traditionally bought paper reprints will realize that switching to buying IFWA will save them the time and inconvenience of having to store and distribute paper reprints. (7) Authors who have been creating postprints by linking "corrigenda" files to their previously archived preprint files will enjoy the convenience of paying journal publishers to make their complete, formatted articles readily accessible to all. They also will anticipate that those interested in their articles will appreciate that the toll-free, complete, formatted versions of the articles are easily found. And they will be delighted when publishers make citation-links lead to the toll-free, complete versions of their refereed articles.

(8) Initial successes with IFWA sales, may create publicity that will make other publishers and their authors aware that such sales, at prices fair to both seller and buyer, may lead to universal free access with a maximum of convenience for authors and a minimum of disruption to publishers.

It is possible, but by no means certain, that IFWA sales will speed the transition to what Stevan has eloquently termed " all papers in all fields, systematically interconnected, effortlessly accessible and rationally navigable, from any researcher's desk, worldwide for free."

Tom Walker