Economic Research Wants to Be Free

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Here’s a test of basic economic literacy: What is the socially optimal price of online access to economics journal articles?

If my students learn only one thing, it’s this: Price equals marginal cost. And the marginal cost of accessing a journal article is pretty much zero. The research has been written, the type has been set, and the salaries have already been paid — usually thanks to a university, think tank, or government grant. So the socially optimal price is: free.  Every time we charge a price higher than this, we risk pricing out someone who might benefit from the insights of an academic scribbler.

The Brookings Papers on Economic Activity — the journal that David Romer and I edit — has decided to take this piece of economic wisdom seriously. The Brookings Papers are now entirely open access. Yep, we’re charging zero; nada; nothing; zip.

Folks in the ivory tower have always had access to the archives through JSTOR, but now you’ll also have access to the most recent volumes. Going open access though is really about providing access to many of the folks who read this blog. Previously, congressional staffers, journalists, think-tankers, private-sector economists, or any variety of policy wonk — or even just folks for whom keeping up with economic debates is a passion, but not a profession — had limited access to academic research. Now, it’s online, and free.

And the archives — which are online here — are full of great stuff, much of which is incredibly relevant to today’s circumstances.  For instance, you can look up Jim Hamilton’s most recent piece on the macroeconomic effects of high oil prices; or, as the debate on No Child Left Behind is about to get hot, take a look at Tom Dee and Brian Jacob’s recent research. Or just browse any of the papers from our most recent conference.

Look through the archives and you’ll find some of the classics: Blanchard and Katz on adjustments across regional labor markets; Akerlof, Dickens, and Perry on the constraints macroeconomic policy makers face when inflation is low; Barro and Sala-i-Martin on convergence between countries and regions; Sachs and Warner on global integration; or you can also see much of the work that won Peter Diamond his recent Nobel Prize.

Here’s a challenge to my friends editing other economic journals, or who run working paper series which still charge (yes, NBER and CEPR, I’m thinking of you!): Take a close look at whether charging for access really generates much revenue.  I’m willing to bet that you’ll soon figure out that the public interest is going to be a lot better served by joining us in moving to open access.  Economics research want to be free.  Set it free!


So how do you cover costs? There must be at least some expenses. How do most journals fund themselves?

I'm genuinely curious.


All research wants to be free. I believe the bigger academic publishers charge a lot of money because they can, not because they need to. The difference in cost between the well-known and lesser-known journals in my field is far bigger than the difference in the quality of articles. I suspect that in some cases, the high online fees are subsidizing print versions of the journals, and I think we'd all be better off if we just gave up on print versions.


I'd like to see a test if free papers get cited more than ones that are blocked (with obvious controls). I know in some of my research on google books I cite books that I can read online but not ones that I can't.

Phil Davis

We conducted a series of experiments in which we randomly assigned a journal article to either free access or subscription access. Our results show that free access articles receive many more downloads, yet show no more citations within 3-years. see:


Ah, yes the classics, I remember just yesterday I sat down to read my kid the story of regional labor markets and the evil witch of inflation. It did serve as a very efficient bedtime story in that they fell asleep quite quickly.

Mike B

How can so many journals get away with charging for article access? I do not believe that those who are published receive any royalties and even if they did the amount would probably be nothing compared to the career benefits of being more widely read and cited. To journals have some sort of exclusivity agreement where anyone submitting articles are barred from distributing them via other means? Why isn't the government cracking down and requiring that any research conducted with public money be available to the public for free?

Poor man

I have always thought about it. The guys promote such ideas and all of their archives (except certain books) are freely accesible. I like their arguement which goes something like this, "an online pdf document can be downloaded over and over again by millions of users without each additional user diminishing the welfare of existing users."

Of course websites must be maintained to provide easy and up to date services. For that purpose the specific institution can request donations (like the Wikipedia does) so that we visitors can contribute according to our financial capacity.

Anyways this is a great move which will have tremendous benefits to millions of users worldwide.

I got this news from Mrginal Revolution blog and I will be your frequent visitor!

Thank you guys!!


"If my students learn only one thing, it’s this: Price equals marginal cost."
Really?? Then why do Amazon Kindle books cost $9.99 and up???


Exactly. And this argument:

"Every time we charge a price higher than this, we risk pricing out someone who might benefit from the insights of an academic scribbler."

can be made about many things, yet they aren't priced in this manner? Why would that be?


Because the market for ebooks (or most things, as you have noted) is not perfectly competitive. price=MC only in the long run as other firms have the opportunity to enter and leave the market.

Trish Groves

Here's how it works for medical research - at least at the BMJ, BMJ Open, and our sister journals from BMJ Group:

Accessible medical research
Trish Groves
BMJ 342:doi:10.1136/bmj.d1190 (Published 23 February 2011)

[free full text at]

(Conflict of interest: I'm deputy editor of BMJ, and editor-in-chief of BMJ Open)


Seems the P=MC applies only i a competitive market. The market for Economic Journals is an Oligopoly at best.


To me I think Jstor is a very recommendable database because that is where I get most of my PhD. content for replication. Other archives will only permit members to pay before consent, while in Jstor, one will not have to pay for the content without consent. Another source of these contents is to get them from forums such as these: