Scientific journals are a notorious racket: Because they are essential tools for the professions that use them, they can charge pretty much whatever they like. The late Robert Maxwell was the first person to understand this, and although he is remembered as a newspaper proprietor, he built his fortune on scientific publishing with Pergamon Press. University libraries, and even others that have any pretence to scholarship, now spend fortunes on learned journals. Elsevier, the leading publisher in the field, offered 1,749 journals last year at an average annual subscription price of nearly US$3,600 and each one is indispensable to specialists. Of course, the contributors are paid nothing.
The effect of this, as many disgruntled radicals have pointed out, is that the government pays universities to conduct research for the public benefit; the measure of this research is publication in peer-reviewed specialist journals; the peer review is done for free by academics employed and paid by universities. The results are then sold back to the universities who paid for the research in the first place.
This is bad value for governments. It’s also extremely bad for anyone outside a university who may want to learn, and that’s a situation the Web has made more tantalizing. Almost all these journals are indexed and references to them will be found on Google Scholar, PubMed Central and anywhere else you look beyond Wikipedia. So the truth is out there. But it will cost you. I just paid US$32 for a printout of one piece and this is by no means exceptional.
The big names in what you may call general science publishing — Nature and Science — are slightly less rapacious. You can get a day pass to read a Science article for US$10. That is still a lot to pay for something you are meant to read for only 24 hours. But an annual subscription to either magazine costs around US$200 and the access it gives to archives soon expires.
One answer to all this is to promote the growth of free scientific publishing, and also, increasingly, of free access to the immense quantities of data that lie behind most published papers. For those who just want to know what is going on, open access is unsatisfactory for two reasons. The first is that it is not yet widespread enough. There is no guarantee at all that the interesting work will emerge in open-access journals, which tend to be extremely specialized. The second is more philosophical, and deeper. It may never become as useful a resource as the paid-for generalized magazines, precisely because the open-access journals are written to be enjoyed within particular fields of expertise.
Nature and Science are not like that at all. Within any given issue, I would think that about three-quarters of the content is impenetrable to any given reader. If you are an astrophysicist, the biological papers will be hard to follow; conversely, a biologist could have difficulty with an astrophysics paper.
But the fact that they have been printed at all in a prestigious journal tells you that good judges think they are important, and there will often be a piece at the front of the magazine explaining in intelligent layman’s terms exactly what the paper says and why it matters. These things are worth paying for. But how are individuals, normal people, to pay?