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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!