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Cormac Ó Gráda: The Cost of Knowledge

14 November 2013

Cormac Ó Gráda MRIA is Professor of Economics in University College Dublin. His books range over a wide variety of subjects including: the Famine, Irish Jewry, economic panics and migration. Former editor of European Review of Economic History, he was the recipient of the 2010 Gold Medal of the Royal Irish Academy.

I have just been looking at the website of the Journal of Development Economics(JDE), a prominent field journal published by the Amsterdam-based publishing company Elsevier B.V. This journal’s most-cited paper, one of several studies by Robert Barro and Jong Wha Lee about educational attainment levels across the globe, was published in 2005. Even though the paper has been superseded by more recent work by its authors and others, reading it on Elsevier’s website would cost me $39.95. As it happens, the JDE is still carried by University College Dublin, so I could download the article free from the library website. The privilege comes at a huge cost to UCD and its academic community, however: Elsevier’s website tells me that the JDE would cost an institution the size of UCD and located in Ireland €2,800. The JDE is quite a prestigious journal but, if I were UCD’s librarian I would cancel the subscription at this price or anything near it.

The future of scholarship in the human sciences does not lie in the Elsevier direction. Indeed, much has been achieved in increasing opening access to scholarship in the field in recent years. In the case of Barro and Lee’s paper, versions of their database and publications are widely available free on the Internet. More generally, other more accessible and cheaper journals have been invading Elsevier’s patch. One of the first to do so was the Journal of the European Economic Association, which replaced Elsevier’s European Economic Review as the European Economic Association’s flagship in 2003. And Elsevier’s greed has led the long-established American Economic Association to create four new high-impact journals, and the highly regarded Annual Reviews of Economics operates in the same cover-your-costs spirit.

Competition helps. Economic historians are fortunate in that three of the four main journals in their field (the Journal of Economic History, the Economic History Review, and the European Review of Economic History) are published on a non-profit basis, which keeps the price of the fourth (Explorations in Economic History) within reasonable bounds. What a pity that the development economics community does not yet pose the same threat to the JDE.

A further blow against ‘rip-off’ publishers is The Cost of Knowledge campaign (, which supports an academic boycott against Elsevier journals. Those who back the boycott—and they now number nearly fourteen thousand researchers—undertake, at a minimum, not to do editorial work or to referee for Elsevier journals; some also promise not to submit papers to the same journals. So far over two hundred economists have signed one or other version of The Cost of Knowledge pledge.

Knowledge should be, if not free, as inexpensive as technologically possible. Happily, the academic world is moving, if slowly, in that direction.

About This Series

In Autumn 2013, the Academy ran an ‘Open Access’ online opinion series driven by contributions from MRIA and staff. Each piece offered a different personal perspective on the opportunities and challenges brought about by developments in open access to the practice of research and scholarship. The series ran from 13 November to 23 November.

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