Yesterday I had one of those little thought-provoking coincidences that make you wonder about how things could be done better.
At 11:44 am I got an email from the American School of Classical Studies publication office concerning our soon-to-be-published article on fortification around Ano Vayia. Our article will appear in the next issue of the American School's journal, Hesperia. The email asked us where we would like our 50 complimentary offprints sent and whether we wanted to purchase 50 more for $150. Hesperia offprints are really lovely things. They are stapled, on high quality paper, impeccably edited, stylish in design, and include a nice, glossy cover. In short, the $150 price for 50 does not seem unreasonable.
At 1:45 pm that same day I received a form-email from Jack Davis, the Director of the American School of Classical Studies. It was their annual fund-raising email. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens is one of my favorite things in the world. The institution played a key role in anything that is good about my professional development and no matter how long I am away, still has the feeling of a home-away-from-home. I have benefited three times over from their generous fellowships and these fellowships have led to my dissertation and numerous publications. I have come to appreciation the American School for its awkward and paradoxical blend of things traditional and things contemporary and "modern". By not shying away from some of the most traditional aspects of a classical education (e.g. the flavor of the Grand Tour that pervades the Regular Program), the School encourages students to reflect on the practices and institutions that have created the disciplines of Classics, Classical Archaeology, Ancient History, et c. Because of these things, I am in the habit of giving money to the American School. I can't give much as an Assistant Professor at a state school in North Dakota, but I give my proverbial widow's mite.
Back to the coincidence: In the same day, within hours, the same institution that was asking for money also offered me that very day something for free. This got me to think: what if we as contributors to Hesperia just turned down our offprints? Now, I recognize that the circulation of offprints continues to play a small role in the "academic gift economy". But, as I began to try to make a mental list of people to whom I'd like to send offprints, I was counting far fewer than 50 individuals. Moreover, many of the people on that list would probably just as soon have a digital offprint (a handsomely formatted .pdf file) suitably disgraced with some personal note of thanks. The digital offprints of Hesperia are every bit as high quality as the print offprints with good resolution on photographs and searchable text. Moreover, of the handful of people to whom I'd send offprints, almost all of them have access to Hesperia. Less than a month ago I had a conversation with a resolutely "olde skool" American School type and offered to send him an offprint of my forthcoming article. He smiled, thanked me, and said, that he subscribes to Hesperia. (I knew this, of course, but apparently even among the "olde skool" the ritual component of offprint exchange had fallen into disuse.)
All the same, I can anticipate some people saying that some individuals still keep paper offprint files and some of our European colleagues take the circulation of paper offprints quite seriously and some offprints serve as valuable contributions to small, highly specialized and underfunded libraries (say at the local office of the archaeological service). The high quality of a Hesperia offprint makes them almost something of intrinsic value.
On the other hand, I am pretty sure (although I won't admit to doing this) that we can still print out a copy of a Hesperia article, scrawl some heartfelt note of thanks of the first page, and present it to a colleague as a token of thanks. Maybe this violates copyright? I'm really not sure, but I can hardly imagine this to be the kind of practice that the International Copyright Police would enforce, and it would guess that it would be possible for Hesperia to give authors permission to reproduce a certain number of copies of their own articles. (Although it would be awesome to be approached by a neatly dressed Nigerian man outside the Agora in Athens with a stack of slightly blurry photocopied Hesperia offprints...).
One more thing, Hesperia offers to let us purchase another 50 offprints for $150. Since Hesperia articles tend toward the long side, I assume that this price represents the average cost of printing 50 offprints, perhaps with some small compensation of watering down the copyright (in other words, perhaps they factor in that some people will receive an offprint and will decide not to purchase the journal, but I can't imagine that this represents a very large group). Last year, Hesperia published 17 articles and if $150 is the average cost of a run of offprints, then they spent about $2550 on offprints.
If every contributor over a year just said, politely, no thank you to offprints from Hesperia, we could, in effect, give the American School Publication Office a gift of $2500. I suspect that each of us would have to turn down all of our offprints because printing enjoys really significant economies of scale, and it seems fair to assume that these economies are realized at 50 copies of each article. I know some contributors will still want to "kick it olde skool" and will want to have their shinny Hesperia offprints, but I also suspect that, if given the option explicitly, a percentage of hipper, new skool contributors would turn ours down. And I'd like to think that Hesperia and the American School would appreciate this little gift.