Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 3 — March 2001
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IT Interview • Introduces Innovative Scholarly Publishing Model
CEO Robert Cooter hopes The Berkeley Electronic Press will set a new standard 
by Paula J. Hane

A new electronic publishing venture has launched that is taking on the scholarly publishing establishment. (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,'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 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 solve this. 

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 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 EdiKit?

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; 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, doesn't it?

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 ( 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 (—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 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@

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