Paying for knowledge one page at a time: The author fee in physics in twentieth-century America

Tom Scheiding, Elizabethtown College


The definition of the physics journal as an economic object has changed significantly over the course of the twentieth century. One issue debated and negotiated by academics, scholarly societies, and research patrons has been whether the journal was a public good, a private commodity, or some combination of the two. In physics, discussion of the economic status of the journal, as explored here for the journals of the American Institute of Physics, occurred in concert with the initial creation of the page-charge pricing mechanism in the 1930s, its enlarged role during the Cold War, and its diminished influence starting in the 1970s. Several factors influenced how much revenue the page charge generated. Some were obvious, such as the generosity of the research patronage; others less so, such as dominant economic metaphors, administrative decisions made by taxing and postal authorities, and changes in intellectual property law. This paper chronicles the use of the page-charge pricing mechanism for physics journals so as to reveal the often hidden, yet heated, pursuit to define the journal as an object that creates benefits for, and deserves financing from, the public at large, scholars, and research patrons. © 2009 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.