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Open access, social norms and publication choice


The aim of this paper is to shed light on scholarly communication and its current trajectories by examining academics’ perception of Open Access, while also providing a reference case for studying social norm change. In this respect, the issue of publication choice and the role of Open Access journals casts light on the changes affecting the scientific community and its institutional arrangements for validating and circulating new research. The empirical investigation conducted also offers a useful vantage point for gauging the importance of localised social norms in guiding and constraining behaviour.

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    Members of the group thus conform to the norm in the expectation that others will do the same, and this creates a feedback loop from which it is difficult to escape (Young 2008).

  2. 2.

    One could argue that this is linked to reputation. However this assertion does not contradict the preceding argument, since reputation is nothing but the outcome of social norms: it is a product of social interactions, and a system of social control. From the epistemic point of view, reputation can directly determine how a scholar is evaluated, and of course in science it can be used as a way to sidestep individual responsibility in taking decisions. In this respect, despite the appearances, striving to publish in a certain academic journal has little to do with the goal of scientific communication, but is rather a matter of complying with the social norms that govern the academic community (and securing the attendant benefits). For an in-depth discussion of this see Origgi (2010).

  3. 3.

    See for example the US Code Title 17, Chapter 1, § 102 which states that “Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device”. Some scholars, challenging the standard legal definition found in nearly all national and international copyright laws, instead endorse a system that would make explicit the very complex web of contributions that go into a scientific paper. While certain disciplines such as the life sciences do have elaborate systems in place for listing contributors’ names that disclose to the community the role of each author in the research, in other disciplines this is totally non-existent (Casati et al. 2011).

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    On the industrial structure of academic publishing see Ramello (2010), while on the role of exclusivity in endogenously driving the market structure see Nicita and Ramello (2007).

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    Bundling and discrimination (in the form of the Big Deal) increases market power and has the effect of squeezing libraries’ budgets and creating barriers to entry for small competitors (as incumbents have catalogues listing thousands of titles against just one or a few titles for newcomers) (Edlin and Rubinfeld 2004).

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    It is worth noting that these two goals do not necessarily coincide. For example, in economics some of the top titles are published by societies–such as American Economic Review–and have a reasonably low pricing compared to other, much less relevant titles published by commercial publishers. However the latter generally enhance their market value and opportunities for extracting surplus by adopting the previously mentioned bundling strategies. See also the preceding note.

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    Recently, the OA practice has also spread to theses, scholarly monographs and book chapters. However here we will refer mainly to journals.

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    For an in-depth discussion, see Anderson and Gabszewicz (2006).

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    Many universities, for example, sponsor journals by funding the editors’ work, costs, etc. This can be a useful way to promote a school and boost the reputation or even the power of its faculty members within the academic community, by making them become gatekeepers of the circulation of scientific knowledge.

  10. 10.

    Of course the current stylisation, in line with a large body of literature (McCabe and Snyder 2005), assumes that quality remains the same and that OA provides a cost effective solution for increasing circulation of ideas.

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    Such a solution has been adopted, for instance, by a number of universities that give their researchers specific incentives for publishing their works in the university’s own newly created journals.

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  13. 13.

    Other fields such as architecture and engineering were not included because the university does not offer those subjects.

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    This assertion is robustly confirmed by the recent statistics reported by the Italian National Agency for Evaluation of University Research (ANVUR; These give the median of publications over the past decade as books (column “libri”), articles or contributions to edited books (column “articoli su rivista e capitoli di libri”) and first-tier journal articles (“articoli in riviste di fascia A”). Though there is wide variance between disciplines, so that the articles and contribution column for many already includes international publications, the ‘first-tier journal articles’ column chiefly comprises well known international journals. Law is sector 12, and we can easily see that books are important. However the second column includes mainly Italian journals, while the first-tier journals column is entirely absent. This confirms the irrelevance of international journals to the Italian legal community. Of course this fact has prompted some criticisms (see for instance Very recently an A list for legal journals have been proposed and while it is unclear whether it will be used because of the many critics, it is interesting to see that more than the 40% of journals are in Italian and a minority in English.

  15. 15.

    Migheli and Ramello (2013), in a different investigation that focused on the international economics community, showed that geographical location affects publication choice, with OA considered more valuable everywhere except in Anglo-Saxon countries.

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    The business model here is author pays. See

  17. 17.

    PLoS Medicine journals was in 2011 ranked fifth out of 153 journals in the ISI Thompson ranking for internal and general medicine. Ref.

  18. 18.

    By way of example, see the Duke Law School’s well-known journal Law & Contemporary Problems ( or the Cornell Law School’s Cornell Law Review ( and the newly launched Harvard Law School Journal of Legal Analysis (OA though printed by Oxford University Press;

  19. 19.

    According to the data provided by ANVUR (see note 14), associate professors already have substantial publication records. Hence to improve their ‘market value’ it is much more important to increase the marginal value of their latest publication, rather than simply collecting another publication which would leave their reputation unchanged.


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The authors are very grateful to the participants of the XXV Erfurt Workshop on Law and Economics, the Turin IEL—SIDE Conference 2011, and the Academia & Publishing Conference 2012. In particular they owe a great debt to Chiara Zara of the University Library System for the data mining, to Enrico Colombatto for comments and suggestions, and to ICER Prague for providing the research facility.

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Correspondence to Giovanni B. Ramello.

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The work is a part of CRT Foundation research project no. 20100860.

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Migheli, M., Ramello, G.B. Open access, social norms and publication choice. Eur J Law Econ 35, 149–167 (2013).

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  • Open Access
  • Scholarly publication
  • Social norms
  • Academics’ behavior
  • Economics of science

JEL Classification

  • K19
  • Z13
  • O33
  • L17