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JILT 1996 (3) - Bruce Grant

Economics of Electronic Law Journals

Bruce Grant
Newcastle Law School
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


This paper examines the economics of electronic publication, considers possible funding models, and attempts to predict what the future may hold for electronic publication of law journals.

Keywords: electronic law journals, economics, esoteric publishing, funding, E-Lib.

1. Introduction
2. Esoteric v. trade publication
3. Libraries and electronic publishing
4. Economics of electronic publishing
5. Sources of Funding
5.1. Pay per view
5.2. Subscription schemes
5.3. Author page charges
5.4. Sponsorship
6. The future for electronic law journals
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Date of publication: 30 September 1996

Citation: Grant B (1996) 'Economics of Electronic Law Journals', BILETA '96 Conference Proceedings, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction

Two new refereed law journals in the space of 10 months is hardly remarkable in the UK law journals market, but when both are given away 'free' to anyone with access to World Wide Web, it's a departure which must be viewed with interest, whether you are student, academic, or publisher.

The journals are:

2. Esoteric v. trade publication

Both journals are examples of what has been termed 'esoteric scholarly publication' (Harnad S, Collected Papers). In this form of publication authors' principal incentive is to communicate their ideas to fellow scholars, and further their reputations, rather than to obtain direct financial reward from publication, and given the increasing specialisation of what is written, articles may attract a relatively small readership.

Whether or not they write for gain, authors always have an interest in furthering their reputations. The point is that esoteric scholarly authors have no direct interest in whether their work makes a profit or a loss, and esoteric scholarly publishing's value is not to be judged by readership figures. Its value lies in its 'quality' as perceived by other scholars [2]. To provide the assurance of quality it has to be externally validated by anonymous refereeing or open peer review.

For trade publishers, esoteric scholarly writing has become a dilemma. The core market for law journals in England and Wales consists of the 70 or so publicly funded law libraries in the Universities. IT has enabled publishers to operate extremely efficiently, but the picture across all subject areas is that as titles proliferate, and the overall costs rise, library budgets cannot sustain the market. 'Periodicals review' to a librarian means cancellation to a publisher. Sometimes libraries find a little nest egg to buy back-numbers to keep up their holdings. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 is likely to result in a further erosion of trade publishers' margins with the likely consequence of reduced print runs (Open University Library News, November 1995). Will publishers continue to warehouse back-numbers on the off-chance someone will eventually buy?

According to a recent survey (Clinch, 1995) the number of law journal titles being taken in University law libraries in England and Wales ranged from 27 to 4,500 with a median of 127 and a mean of 246 titles. The number of current subscriptions ranged from 28 to 797, with a median of 92 and mean of 116. Despite publishers' efficiency gains, and despite the possibility of sales in other jurisdictions, this looks like a hard place to make a living.

3. Libraries and electronic publishing

Official policy, following the Follett report (Follett B, 1993), is to provide incentives for trade publishers to make their existing titles available electronically whether in place of, or as well as their paper titles. The first target for migration is the scientific, medicine and technology sector, which has seen the greatest price inflation over recent years. The Follett-inspired developments include a pilot scheme for a national site licence for certain scientific journals, whereby the Funding Councils provide a guarantee to participating publishers and participating libraries get a discount on published prices.[3]

Distribution of journals by network is the most economically efficient model within the academic sector because the network is paid for centrally with no subsidiary accounting. This model of networking will expand rapidly to include FE colleges and schools. Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) for the World Wide Web has become the de facto standard for networked publication and browsing software is free to educational users. Trade publishers looking to network electronic versions of existing paper texts may prefer a portable document format, like Adobe Acrobat, also free for the reader version. There is a also a market for titles distributed by CD-ROM, possibly intended for local networking at licensed sites.

4. Economics of electronic publishing

Electronic journals offer savings on paper, printing, distribution, shelving, and archiving; as well as advantages such as short lead times and electronic searching. Not all of these costs vanish, some are passed to the end-users. When designing Web JCLI in 1994, the typical reader we had in mind had a slowish PC on a slowish network, or possibly an even slower modem connection. We assumed no reader would willingly read on-screen what could be read on paper, so we made files available for downloading to a local word processor and local printing.

It is hard to put a precise figure on the savings. Stevan Harnad's estimate for scientific journals is savings of 20% -30% over equivalent paper publishing in the case of trade publishers producing electronic versions of existing paper journals, rising to 70% or more if the sole goal is electronic publication. (S.Harnad, collected papers) The higher estimate has been challenged as 'unrealistic if present high standards of scientific publication are to be maintained'. (Boyce and Dalterio, 1996)

Web JCLI shows it is possible to launch an electronic journal with zero cash flow, at least if you have a co-operative local University computing service willing to provide a subsidy in the form of computer services. Eighty separate pieces have been published in the first six issues of Web JCLI. The entire electronic journal occupies just 7MB of disk storage on University equipment for all purposes, including the search database. Putting an actual figure on this is difficult, because it all depends on which server is used, recent machines being substantially cheaper than older ones. On modern equipment (1995) the cost for disk, server and local backup is 53p per MB. On the oldest machine still in service (1990) the equivalent figure is 400p per MB. Web JCLI's direct subsidy in the first year is somewhere between £3.71 and £28.00.

Questions of design, HTML, and all other technical matters which would have to be paid for by a trade publisher are subsumed in university salaries. Refereeing and general editorial processes are made through e-mail exchanges. The only outside support has been travelling expenses for editorial meetings from our associated paper publisher, Blackstone Press Ltd.

JILT is one of the Electronic Journal projects publicly funded by eLib, one of the programmes to emerge from the Follett report. The fact that JILT is funded means it can afford a less sparse approach than Web JCLI. It lists a project team of three, and records assistance from a member of staff and four undergraduates at the University of Coventry for the first issue in January 1996.

Web JCLI is not unusual in having no visible means of support. A recent eLib funded survey (Hitchcock, Carr and Hall, 1990-95) of electronic science, technology and medicine journals revealed that of the electronic-only journals, 'just under half had no officially stated way of raising funds'. Journals can be launched on a burst of enthusiasm, or on an eLib grant, but how long can they be sustained if they generate no income? Is it enough if esoteric law journals exist in an academic cocoon, or should we be looking to assure our independence by obtaining external funding?

5. Sources of Funding

5.1 Pay per view

It is technically feasible to record usage, whether on the basis of the number of accesses [4] or the period of access, or the amount of information transferred. The theory is if you can count it, you can charge for it. The assumption is that unit charges would be very low, which predicates a technical solution to automatic debiting or else the transaction costs of recovery would be disproportionate. Assuming the institution or a research body would pay, virtual funds for on-line research could be bid for. But what then? If assigned funds run out just as research is getting interesting, does everything stop? The pay per view model is unattractive to researchers, and to academic institutions because of the difficulty of budgeting for use. On the other hand, academics are not the only users of electronic law journals, and pay per view charges might be levied eventually on commercial users.

5.2 Subscription schemes

Assuming institutions pay on behalf of readers, subscription schemes seem more likely. Subscription per journal is possible with existing technology, using passwords, but unattractive if it incurs significant transaction costs in collection. That suggests wide area licensing, or national site licensing under which participating Universities acquire unlimited rights to copy. It is interesting to note this is the model which has been pursued in the UK under Funding Council initiatives to bring existing scientific journals on-screen.

5.3 Author page charges

Author page charges have been suggested as a possible means of funding publication, although typically the source might be a research grant which includes the cost of publication. Author page charges provide an intriguing set of economic incentives, notably in favour of brevity, but the practice is rare. (Hitchcock, Carr and Hall, ibid) An economic model with distinct potential is one where authors are not charged if they submit articles which comply exactly with publisher's style requirements and HTML standards, but those whose submissions require copy-editing are charged for the extra costs thereby incurred.

5.4 Sponsorship

Sponsorship (including advertising) is a possible source of funding. Sponsorship could be per page, per piece, per issue, or per journal. Sponsorship and advertising may be an attractive option where an electronic journal is associated with a trade publisher, but there is no reason why it should be so restricted. Given the very low costs associated with electronic publication this method of funding may offer considerable potential. It would be interesting to see which firms might wish to be associated with an esoteric electronic law journal. FindLaw, the Stanford Digital Libraries Project which provided the first successful all journals digital index in February 1996 is sponsored (By Verity Inc.).

6. The future for electronic law journals

Could electronic law journals be economic failures? Networks will get faster, hardware and software [5] will improve. Esoteric authors will continue to need an outlet for their work, which will be available at low or no cost to readers. Trade publishers face a period of anxiety. A lot will depend on the fortunes of the science journals, destined for electronic distribution in 1996 and 1997. For some time, high-reputation journals will continue in print, but especially as Universities continue to invest in technology, the core library market is going to be looking for the savings electronic products will bring. A growing proportion of their readers will expect it too. The welcome relaxation of the rules on electronic reproduction of certain Crown Copyright material in a value added context [6] opens new possibilities. Can paper and electronic publishing be sustained side by side? Will electronic publishing alone produce acceptable returns for trade publishers?

The fact that electronic publishing offers scope for many innovative forms, including all sorts of multimedia techniques: sound, animation, video and so on, leads observers to suppose that electronic and paper editions must inevitably diverge. [7] Interactivity between authors and readers is an obvious development for electronic journals. JILT's aims expressly include the formation of 'a journal environment ... providing a forum for constant, continuing dialogue for law'. Web JCLI has provided a e-mail list ( for its readers.

The key to success will be to demonstrate that electronic journals can reach the accepted standards of paper publishing. That means more than just effective peer review. It includes close attention to detail, not only in copy-editing, but also compliance with HTML standards, not least to enable effective searching, and archiving to ensure the stability of electronic sources. (Boyce and Dalterio, 1996)


Boyce and Dalterio, 'Electronic Publishing of Scientific Journals' Physics Today January 1996 and on-line at

Clinch, 'Law Libraries and Legal Education in the United Kingdom' in Legal Studies Special Issue 'A Library for the Modern Law School' (December 1995) p 118.

S. Harnad, collected papers

Hitchcock, Carr and Hall, 'A survey of STM online journals 1990-95: the calm before the storm'

Hitchcock, Carr and Hall, ibid

Open University Library News November 1995

Joint Funding Council's Libraries Review Group ( Follett Report) Ch 3 para 57 (December 1993)


[1] I hope I am not neglecting others. Sweet & Maxwell Ltd. has a site which provides a free on-line document delivery (in pdf format) of some of their paper titles.

[2] The RAE96 statement of Assessment Criteria for Law uses the expression 'professionally informed judgement'

[3] Institute of Physics Publishing and Academic Press's Ideal project. Project Muse at John's Hopkins University also provides a system of site licensing to Universities. There is a standard pricing formula for a collection of Journals. The electronic version is priced at 90% of the print version and subscription to both formats is 130% of print alone.

[4] Web JCLI publishes a machine-generated visitor counter for each issue. A plateau has been reached around 3,700 visitors per issue. It is not claimed every visitor is a 'reader'.

[5] But not necessarily in the same direction. The competition between Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer with the prospect of Java 'applets' technology licensed from Sun Microsystems Inc is taking both browsers outside the framework of the HTML protocols.

[6] Statement of Roger Freeman MP, Minister for Public Service 9 February 1996

[7] See Hyperjournal Forum mailbase lists discussions 'Online journals: Clues to the Future'

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