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The shock of the new
For centuries now, academics have bound their lives to the journals in which they publish their research -- periodicals such as Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine. While in university, I was shocked to discover how much it cost to subscribe to those journals. A subscription to a single publication can cost $15,000 (U.S. funds) per year. (Martha Stewart Living looks pretty cheap then, doesn't it?)
As with so many other things, the Internet is changing it all, as the article "For Medical Journals, A New World Online" in the March 20 New York Times (free registration required) reveals. Every medical journal must now deal with a new reality: in the fast-moving and high-priority world of life and death, the speed, efficiency, and low cost of publishing on the Internet is eating into their business. And people worldwide seem unwilling to put medical journals' business models ahead of human health.
Some, such as the British Medical Journal, have responded by making their content available online for free. Others, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, are resisting any such move, to protect their millions in annual revenue -- and, they argue, the quality and integrity that revenue guarantees.
But with talk of high-profile researchers boycotting journals that refuse to publish cheaply or free online, universities (especially in the developing world) rebelling against high subscription prices, and governments making vast archives available online at no charge, journals will have to adapt. If that makes it easier for doctors in sub-Saharan Africa to give their millions of AIDS patients the latest treatments, can we possibly complain?