The total annual budget for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I work as Managing Editor, is projected to be $736,000 in 2022. If you go back 15 years to 2007, you find that total expenses for the journal were $863,000. Why has the nominal budget dropped by 15% over 15 years? The answer is online publication.

(If the overall costs of running this academic journal seem almost ludicrously low for those of you who deal with much larger budgets in academic or business settings, remember that we don’t pay authors anything at all. )

Back in 2007, the JEP still printed about 20,000 copies of each issue–which had dropped off from about 25,000 a few years earlier. The costs of paper, printing, and postage were almost half the total cost of the journal. Now we print less than 4,000 copies of each issue, which are mostly mailed to libraries. The cost savings from printing fewer copies are dramatic. Of course, other costs do rise over time. But over the last 15 years, the rise in other costs like salaries and web maintenance has not offset the drop in printing and mailing costs.

However, since 2011 the Journal of Economic Perspectives has been freely available online. The publisher, the American Economic Association, now publishes nine journals, which are bundled together as one subscription for members and libraries. The AEA recognized that few economists were becoming members of the AEA and few libraries were subscribing to AEA publications just to get the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Thus, making the journal freely available did not involve a revenue loss. All the archives back to the first issue in 1987 are freely available, too.

About 2.5 million individual JEP articles are downloaded annually from the American Economic Association website. It’s also possible to download an entire issue: about 70,000 entire issues were downloaded last year. These totals don’t count downloads of JEP articles from other sources: for example, JEP articles were downloaded about 700,000 times from JSTOR last year, and many JEP article are available by being posted on personal websites or as part of reading lists, too.

It’s not obvious how to calculate a gain in productivity for the JEP over the last 15 years. The quantity of labor going into the journal is roughly the same. In physical form, the journal looks much the same: that is, roughly the same number of pages and articles each year. But with free online distribution, it seems clear that the JEP is vastly more available to the universe of possible readers around the world than it was 15 years ago, at a total cost that is substantially lower. This kind of productivity gain will not be reflected in official productivity statistics, but similar changes are happening in many ways, not just academic journals.

(The total publication expenses for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, along with an overview of the budget for the American Economic Association as a whole, are published each year in the “Report of the Treasurer” which appears in the annual (for example, May 2022, “Report of the Treasurer,” pp. 650-654).