A few years back I decided I needed some business training to pursue my administrative goals. A big piece of this education included financial materials. One problem involved valuing a business. Sure, you have the building and supplies and widgets, and usually some cash is on hand as well. However, businesses come with intangible assets. What is the name "Disney" worth, for example? How about "Enron," now versus 1998?
The only way to really find out the value of a business or other entity is to sell it. Like houses, they are worth whatever someone will pay.
In scientific publishing, someone has paid for the data before submission to the journal. What value does the journal add?
- Peer-review - Yes, I realize most of this is done by volunteers, but there is infrastructure to maintain.
- Editing - Do you put spaces on one or both sides of the "<" sign? Thanks to hired punctuation police, scientists do not have to think about this. Of course, most of us can get the message from the unedited manuscript (regardless of the quality of the grammar and kerning), so this function can be perceived as beautification with little true value.
- Distribution - Costs are lower via the internet, but not yet zero. Even publishers have to buy servers and pay electric bills. We also expect the information to be maintained in perpetuity, no matter how few people access it.
- Reputation - Each journal adds intangible value to the articles within, a value most difficult to quantify.
These are the things we pay for with subscriptions, page fees, and download prices. How do we judge what is fair? We can look to Open Access publications for an idea of the overall costs for the first three items. What we cannot learn as easily is the price of reputation. A publication in Nature may be worth $35 per download in perpetuity. Is a 5-year-old article in Pathophysiology (Impact Factor not available) really worth $22?
I am not certain what the solution will be. The internet has clearly disrupted publishing of all sorts, and scientific journals will not be exempt. Until that magical reputation factor drops lower in value, I doubt that the glamor rags will suffer.