BEFORE THE INTERNAL REVENUE Service induces any more upset in the professional societies that publish many of this nation's, and the world's, foremost scientific journals, it might be desirable for the revenuers to grasp a few obscure, though simple, realities of scientific publishing. By doing so, we hope, the IRS might be led to reconsider a reportedy impending ruling that would bring little gain to the Treasury and much harm to scientific communication.
Reflecting the specialization of contemporary research, most scientific journals have relatively small circulations -- often just a few thousand. Small, however, does not mean unimportant; on the contrary, the flow of information that is essential to the conduct of science is routinely channeled through many of these small-circulation journals.
The limited circulations do, however, create a revenue problem, especially since many of these journals are expensive to produce. Some of them run to hundreds of pages and are crammed with detailed charts, tables and footnotes that absorb a great deal of editorial labor.
To meet these costs, many of the societies that publish the journals employ a two-tier price system -- a low price for members, usually included with their dues, and a higher price for non-member who, for whatever reasons, want the journal. In one such typical arrangement, the Journal of Bacteriology, published by the American Society for Microbiology, is available to ASM members for $22 per year for personal subscriptions; libraries and other institutions pay $115 per year. And, since some 40 percent of the journal's circulation of approximately 10,000 goes to the higher-paying non-members, the ASM is able to get along with the relatively low price for individual scientists who need the journal.
IRS has indicated, however, that it considers that the two-price system amounts to a subsidy for the members and is incompatible with the preferential tax status that non-profit professional societies enjoy. While a formal ruling is yet to be issued, at least one major scientific society has been notified that it is on the way.
It is clear, however, that no good purpose will be achieved by follwing an ambiguous tax-collecting principle out the window. The professional scientific press, which is indispensable to the conduct and progress of research, does indeed have very peculiar economics. But that's the way it is. And good sence calls for preserving the conditions in which these organizations can continue to publish -- rather than have them slowly perish.