|A new electronic publishing venture has launched that is taking on
the scholarly publishing establishment. bepress.com (The Berkeley Electronic
Press) was started by three University of CaliforniaBerkeley professors
and a programmer from the Inktomi team. The upstart company has now developed
the technology and a uniquepublishing model, and has launched two new electronic
journals, The B.E. Journals in Macroeconomics and The B.E. Journals in
Economic Theory. Robert Cooter, bepress.com's CEO, is the Herman Selvin
Professor of Law at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley and a member
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I talked with Cooter about
how bepress is providingquality, peer-reviewed scholarly journals at a
cost significantly below current titles—and in record publishing time.
Q In addition to your teaching and writing, you
have also been the editor of a prestigious economics journal. Tell us how
and why you founded The Berkeley Electronic Press.
A I founded bepress out of frustration with the
situation I was in with respect to the major publishing companies. A colleague
and I took over a struggling law and economics journal and brought it to
a considerable level of success. It was then acquired by one of the major
publishing companies, which then raised the price 400 percent. In spite
of my best efforts to prevent that, they were quite entrenched on that
point. I have a particular interest in the developing countries, where
the libraries could not afford to subscribe. So, this was very frustrating
to me. I also felt that, as an academic, I was much more interested in
the development of my science and the dissemination of the knowledge we
were accumulating than I was in the small compensation I was receiving.
In fact, my goals and the goals of the publisher were quite at variance.
Q And, as someone who has published extensively
yourself, you must have experienced firsthand the frustrations and delays
in the existing publishing model for academic journals.
A Yes, in economics it usually takes about 3 years
to get an article published. An author submits an article to the highest-rated
general journal—which is from the American Economics Association—the American
Economic Review. Then you wait 6 months to a year and it gets rejected.
Then you submit it to another journal, possibly a field journal, where
it may or may not get published. Maybe you're successful on your third
try, but it means that over 2 years have passed, and then you still have
to go through the revision process, and then into production. This process
is not only frustrating for authors, but it slows the dissemination of
scientific developments. It's also an obstacle to people's careers, especially
for a non-tenured professor who is anxious to get something published.
In some of the social sciences the lag time to publication is better, but
economics is particularly bad.
Q What problem elements in this excruciating publishing
model does bepress.com address? You are billing bepress as a "revolution
in academic publishing."
A First, we promise a 10-week turnaround, from
submission to publication, not counting the time the author may spend revising
the paper. The reason we can accomplish this is twofold: We have a system
for getting our reviewers to respond quickly [and] the social contract
on reviewing is broken. What I mean by that is the same professors are
authors and reviewers. When you are reviewing someone else's paper, you
do it when you get around to it, but you want your own papers to be reviewed
immediately. This is not a good situation for anyone. We have tried to
We have something called the Authors & Reviewers' Bank. When you
submit an article, you get some reviews, so then you owe us some reviews.
Over a period of time, we'll ask you to clear those debits and supply us
with reviews. Reviews must be turned around very quickly, usually in about
3 weeks. We take a credit card number, and if the review isn't completed
in the time allotted, we bill the card. The amount is set by the journal
editors. In our two economic journals, the fee is $500, which might sound
high, but that's what it costs us to purchase a review from a good scholar
in a couple of days.
The other way we speed up the publication process is that we have established
our journals as a family that encompasses several journals at different
levels or tiers, similar to the journals I described earlier. So, when
an author submits to a bepress economics journal, the article is being
reviewed for any journal in the series. [See The bepress.com Quality-Rating
System sidebar—PJH.] The reviewers recommend which one it should
be published in. So, we collapse the process of reviewing for multiple
journals. The simultaneous submission, rather than sequential submissions,
makes the process much faster.
The use of the Authors & Reviewers' Bank and the journals in a series
are things that economists like. However, other people in other fields
may not like these mechanisms. For example, we have a law journal that
we're about to launch that will not be using either the Reviewers' Bank
or the series model. The editors prefer not to proceed in that way. Our
software is flexible. We can set the parameters for the specific journal
according to the preferences of the editor.
Q Tell us about this software. I understand it's
your proprietary system.
A Our old secretarial typing pools were replaced
by sophisticated word-processingsoftware. This was "disintermediation"—getting
rid of the intermediaries. The model of the old typing pool is unfortunately
the model of current academic scholarly publishing. You submit a paper
and it's passed around; marks are made on the paper. When it's finally
published by a publisher, the author has had very little control, and there
are frequently mistakes, particularly if there's math.
Our software aims to disintermediate—that is, it allows the author,
editor, and reviewers to interact directly with one another over the Internet,
rather than passing paper around. They have the software to power their
tasks, rather than assistants or a publishing company.
Q So, this is a complete, back-end technology system
that you've developed for publishing on the Net. I believe you call it
A Yes. We've released version 1.0 of EdiKit and
so far it's performing very well.
Q Have you had any interest from other publishing
groups in licensing the EdiKit software?
A Yes, we have. Our primary thrust is toward the
founding of new journals. We are also prepared to adapt the system for
use for working papers, which are unreviewed and simpler. Shortly, we will
have software for conference papers, where articles are submitted and reviewed.
These are relatively modest extensions of EdiKit. But, we are also prepared
to license the software to publishers of existing journals. We are in negotiations
for that right now.
Q That would, of course, bring in additional revenue.
Right now your revenue model is based on subscriptions—you have no ads,
I believe. And you claim your subscriptions are priced lower than comparable
journals in the field.
A That's correct. We're working on the precise
wording of a pledge to that effect. We will soon be advertising how much
under the paper publishers we will be selling. In the initial phase, however,
our journals are being given away. We're not on subscription payments yet.
Q So, how are you making this work? Are you funded
by some venture capital?
A There are four founders of the company and some
outside investors as well. We've just completed our first round of financing,
which has gone quite well. We're rather pleased about it because the market
is a very difficult one right now.
Q Let's talk about what has happened with pricing
for academic journals. The sci-tech area, in particular, has some outrageous
journal prices, in my view. The SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic
Resources Coalition; http://www.arl.org/sparc)
initiative exists—as do several others—because of the problems in the STM
[scientific, technical, and medical] area. Is this primarily due to the
mega-mergers among companies in the scholarly publishing area?
A I think what has happened is fairly straightforward.
We now have a bimodal distribution of scholarly journals. There are journals
owned by the academic societies, like the American Economics Association,
which are quite modestly priced. However, the academic societies have been
very slow to expand to serve new areas as they emerge. So, as the sciences
have grown, there are new areas and specializations that have been mostly
served by commercial publishers. In that world, the major publishers came
to realize they could make a lot more money by charging very high prices
and selling a modest number of subscriptions. The reason they can do that
is the demand is very inelastic at the major research universities. Following
the lead of a few companies, all the paper publishers have pressed their
rates up to very high levels. They continue doing that until they reach
a point where the cutoff in subscriptions is sufficient for it to no longer
be profitable to raise rates. The point at which this happens is at a high
price—a price that cuts out the institutions that are not major research
centers. The libraries of the Third World, of course, are completely cut
out from this.
Q And there's been a backlash among the academic
libraries that have had to pay for these high-priced subscriptions. They
want to fight back against the major publishers and that gives you ammunition,
A That's right. One of the things that encouraged
me to start this enterprise was a meeting I attended for the California
Digital Library (http://www.cdlib.org).
They called a meeting of all the Berkeley professors who were editors of
journals to discuss the situation. The degree of anger and frustration
in the room was palpable. I realized I was not alone.
Q What are some of the differences you see between
the bepress model and what HighWire Press (http://highwire.stanford.edu)—a
company that is familiar to a lot of our readers—is doing? I know they
are working with existing publications and you are starting new ones.
A HighWire does not take any ownership in the journals
it creates. As a consequence, they are responding to the initiatives of
others. bepress, on the other hand, is interested in taking an ownership
stake in the journals. We are proactive in assessing underserved subjects
and disciplines. In starting new journals, we're not receiving a licensing
fee up front. We can go to a group of scholars and launch a new journal
for them at a very low price. Our software automates the whole process
and an awful lot of the work that's done in setting up a journal. This
proactivity separates our two initiatives. I regard them as friendly competitors,
rather than hostile competitors. There's plenty of room for both of us,
and we'll do complementary things.
For example, HighWire is heavy into the biology and medical areas where
there are a lot of funds to do costly HTML work. If you upload articles
in HTML you can make them look really beautiful, but it's also very expensive
to do that. Our particular concern is not with doing that kind of HTML
work. We publish our files in PDF, which is a simpler system. Any professor
can translate a word-processing file into PDF and upload it.
Q I believe you now have two full journal series
in economics, and that you recruited from some top institutions for your
editors. It sounds like you are garnering acceptance in the scholarly economics
community for your publishing model.
A Yes, we have two economics series that are launched
and we have a number of others that will be coming—and our editors are
from top universities. One of the reasons we can do this is that we save
a lot of money in transaction costs with our system because our professors
work with each other. We save a lot on labor costs. Part of our philosophy
is that our editors should receive a substantial compensation for their
work. I think it's safe to say that our editors receive compensation that
is another level of magnitude above that offered by the commercial publishers.
Our editors get a share of the profits.
Q And reaction from authors appears to be good
as well. I understand you have significant commitments for submitted papers.
A We did very well. We got over 40 commitments
from top authors in macroeconomics and in economic theory. I think they
recognize the potential advantages of this enterprise. I think they also
responded to the quality of our editorial board.
Q You talked about plans for growth. How many new
journals a year do you anticipate, and in what disciplines? Will you stay
within the social sciences?
A No, we definitely won't be staying in just the
social sciences. The software is completely indifferent to the subject
matter and it's even indifferent to the language. So, we see no reason
to constrain ourselves to economics, law, and business, which are the fields
of the three founding professors of bepress.
We're endeavoring to create a network of university associates who will
work with us in recruiting and developing journals—and of course they would
receive remuneration appropriate to their work. We're in discussions now
for a journal in theology and another in English literature. These are
not highly profitable fields—they would be niche journals—but with our
system, we can do that. I should also say that we're well along in the
process of establishing a political science journal with a major senior
political scientist at the University of California.
Q Have you plans to work more closely with other
initiatives, like SPARC? They seem to have similar objectives.
A We have been working with groups like SPARC,
like the California Digital Library, and so forth, to conform our journals
to their precepts. While SPARC's focus is primarily in the STM disciplines
at this point, they have been very supportive toward us. In fact, we just
received a nice testimonial from Rick Johnson, the SPARC director.
It's important for us to have the SPARCs of the world in our corner.
They provide independent validation that our model values the libraries
and the scholarly readers. We're willing and eager to work with these groups
that are trying to find a fix to the current situation.
[For more information about The Berkeley Electronic Press, visit http://www.bepress.com
or call 510/981-0910.]
Paula J. Hane, co-editor with Barbara Quint for NewsBreaks, is contributing
editor of Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a
longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is phane@