Berkeley Electronic Press Closes up Journals

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I realize that this would be the second ‘scholarly publication access’ post of the day but as I was writing the other one I was directed to a paper by Mark McCabe and Chris Snyder (here is what used to be the link). It was a paper published in the BE Press journal Economic Analysis and Policy and it was a model of academic journal prices. To my surprise, I couldn’t access it. It was subscriber only. The reason: BE Press’s journals had been acquired by de Gruyter and obviously they had changed the policy.

Why was that a surprise? Well, 12 years ago, BE Press were set up to break normal frustrations with academic publishers. Here is what is still on their ‘about’ tab on their website:

When Robert Cooter, Herman Selvin Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, became a co-editor of The International Review of Law and Economics (IRLE) in 1987, he worked hard to revive the struggling journal. It wasn’t long before IRLE was acquired by a major publishing company, who promptly raised the price by 400 percent. Many libraries could no longer afford to subscribe, which meant that scholars were unable to access the journal’s articles.

Professor Cooter felt that what happened with IRLE represented a major crisis in scholarly communication. The publishers wanted to maximize profits; the editors wanted to maximize readership and share ideas. The two were at odds—but they didn’t have to be.

Motivated by what he viewed as a broken system, Professor Cooter approached fellow Berkeley professor Aaron S. Edlin, and together they launched a sustainable alternative: Berkeley Electronic Press.

The mission was simple. The new venture aimed to fix the problems plaguing academic journals: slow turnaround, limited access, and unreasonable prices. Professors Cooter and Edlin wanted to put control back into the hands of scholars and libraries.

Opting for an online-only model, the founders developed their own complete publishing system to allow authors, editors, and reviewers to interact directly with one another via the Internet. This new system, called EdiKit™, was specially designed by professors, for professors, to make scholarly publishing as easy and quick as possible.

With online publishing replacing traditional mediators and print expenses, scholars were finally able to achieve fast and rigorous peer review at a low cost. Thanks to Sustainable Production, bepress could offer journals at library-friendly prices and help support libraries during their toughest budget crises.

Now there were lots of innovations in BE Press. For instance, you could give referee time instead of submission fees. There was also an innovative tiered journal structure. And finally, there was an access policy. It was open access with a dolup of annoyance. Here is what that was about.

Guest access policy
The Berkeley Electronic Press has pioneered an innovative guest access policy for scholarly journals. This policy offers a middle ground between the existing poles of free open access and fee-based subscription access.

Guest access balances the need for cost recovery against authors’ and editors’ desire for maximum readership and distribution. Those without subscriptions can access any article by filling out a short form that allows us to inform their library of their interest in reading our journals. When libraries are convinced of sufficient interest in the journal, they subscribe. Afterwards, access for all faculty, staff, and students at that institution is immediate and there are no more forms to fill out.

I don’t know if that worked out but I do know that the University of Toronto (for one) did subscribe and still does. So at work I could still access these journals. But all of the links were broken. Nothing from Google Scholar redirected properly and when I was not at work, there was no access.

This is disappointing on a number of fronts. First, BE Press never informed us. They did send out a letter to paying subscribers but not to authors or to people who serve on their editorial boards; both of whom happen to describe me. So I found out because the links to BE Press journals on my website were now broken too (I’ve since repaired them to provide access again). So much for the great lasting value of online journals — the ability to preserve links.

Second, I had 8 papers published in BE Press over the past decade. One of the reasons I did that was that they had an open access policy. This is something I valued. (I wasn’t the only one. Mark McCabe whose article I was no longer able to freely access is still quoted on their site testifying to their innovativeness; I guess he also didn’t get the memo). In addition, I supported what Edlin and Cooter were trying to do. BE Press did not do much to the papers. Indeed, unlike other publishers, all of the formatting was done by authors. They were just DRM free pdfs. Great for sharing. The fact that somehow these could all be acquired by another firm represents a breach of, at the very least, an implicit agreement. And I must admit, I don’t recall signing a copyright agreement on any of these. (If there are others out there who can remember, please let me know).

What this tells us is that we have to be wary about new ventures in this space. In reality, you have to have affiliation with some established not for profit organisation to be assured that the whole concept won’t be sold from under you. The founders of BE Press may have had their reasons for doing this but I must admit I feel so very sad that this has occurred.


  1. I agree this is disappointing news…but progress is rarely linear. Hopefully you and others who served on the BE Press editorial boards can find out what worked / didn’t work with this experiment. Please don’t be too wary of such new ventures, as that seems like the best guarantee of the status quo.

  2. I guess open access isn’t a functional business model after all, huh? They had to sell their sinking ship to De Gruyter. It costs a lot of money to manage an online publication or even a “repository”; it isn’t all free and dandy.

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