Problems with limiting access to electronic reprints

E-Mail to Electronic Publication Implementation Committee (EPIC), Entomological Society of America (ESA), upon learning that the ESA Governing Board had voted to make authors pay per download for their electronic reprints. [slightly edited]

Thomas J. Walker, 21 July 1997

At its 20-22 June meeting, the GB voted to restrict access to ESA e-reprints to the number of hits the author pays for. As I understand it, if an authors buys *n* e-reprints, ESA turns off access to the author’s article after *n* downloads. E-reprints will be priced the same as paper reprints. For example, an author will pay $120 for 100 reprints of a 6 page article, whether they be paper or electronic. (I presume that an author who wants both will pay $240.)

Restriction of access to e-reprints has these disadvantages:

(1) It’s a poor deal for authors.

Anyone who wants to look at an e-reprinted article can download it with a click, glance at it, and surf elsewhere. In other words, the author has no assurance that the downloader will print the article or read any portion of the screen image. Paying $120 for 100 e-reprints of a 6-page article buys 100 downloads rather than 100 remotely printed copies of the article. The downloads may be inadvertent or even malicious. Hopefully, most will be for browsing or printing the article or some part of it, or for demonstrating e-reprints.

(2) It’s a bad deal for ESA revenue.

The cost of making and mounting e-reprints is so low that ESA will make approximately twice as much on e-reprints as on traditional reprints (approx. $18 per page rather than approx. $9 per page). Furthermore ESA may sell both types of reprints to some authors, thereby making approx. $27 per page. Restricted-access e-reprints will be much less attractive than free-access e-reprints. The fewer e-reprints sold, the smaller will be the growth of ESA’s reprint profits.

(3) ESA will be less likely to attract the best manuscripts and new members.

Authors/members will look at this modification of the 10 Dec 1996 e-reprint proposal as ESA wanting to make exorbitant profits by unnecessarily restricting access to ESA-published articles. On the other hand, the GB’s 11 Dec 1996 approval of e-reprints could be viewed as ESA taking a handsome profit in return for offering authors and their colleagues what they have always wanted but couldn’t afford—namely, easy access by all interested persons to refereed, published research results. Free-access e-reprints could attract manuscripts now being sent to commercially published journals. Limited-access e-reprints are less likely to help ESA attract new manuscripts and new members (or retain current members).

The only justification of the GB’s action that I have heard is that, if all or a large portion of articles should be e-reprinted with free access, subscription revenue might be lost. EPIC addressed this concern in its June 11 memo to the GB. Its recommendation was that “in ESA’s announcements and descriptions of e-reprints, statements to this effect be included: ‘Should e-reprints become exceedingly popular, library subscriptions, an important component of ESA revenue, may be threatened. If this happens, the terms of e-reprint sales will be re-evaluated.’”

Finally, I am disappointed that no mention was made to EPIC of the proposal to restrict access to e-reprints before members of the GB voted to do it. The GB should have had input from EPIC, who are the ESA members they designated to give such input.