Open Question on Open Access

In a comment on Scott’s recent entry (discussed below), Mark D makes a good point, one that I’ve touched on previously and that bears repeating:

The problem is, I haven’t seen any hard data that documents the cost of peer review, redaction, and publishing. Everyone throws numbers around as if they were confetti. We are all, supposedly (publishers and librarians) in the scientific/technical community, yet so very few people take a scientific approach to this issue.
The first step on the road to open access, should be a review of the processes and costs associated with scientific publication. Sounds like a good paper for the library association journal. Any librarians out there that want to tackle this paper?
And as for the publishers, if they really do wish a dialogue, then why don’t they reveal their redaction costs? Any takers out there in the publishing world?

Online publication dramatically lowers costs relative to printed journals, but it is not free. Copyediting is still required, peer review must be co-ordinated even though the actual reviewing is done by authors for no charge, and the digital objects (articles, data, etc) must be created, archived and maintained in an accessible format. There are surely other important costs, too, that do not occur to me right now. All of this costs money, but the Big Question of OA is: how much money? According to a recent survey, publishers experimenting with optional OA charge author-side fees ranging from $85 to $3000, while fewer than half of full-OA journals charge any author-side fees at all (Peter Suber has a good discussion of no-fee OA here). Alternative revenue streams listed include member dues (e.g. for journals published by scholarly societies), industry support (I think this means/includes advertising), third-party licences, grants and subscriptions.
So, an open question: just what does it cost to run an OA scholarly journal?
The Public Library of Science charges $2500 for an article in its flagship journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine and $2000 for its second-tier journals, about which they say this:

Ultimately, the fees that PLoS charge reflect the costs associated with publishing. We are not in this to make a profit – our bottom line is to make the literature a public resource.

According to this article, PNAS articles cost “up to $3800” to publish. BioMed Central charges about $1400 per article in most of its OA journals, with a few under $1000 and about a dozen in the $1500 – $1800 range. BMC also maintains a helpful comparison table of author-side fees, which shows that they are one of the less expensive options, with typical charges in the $2000 – $3000 range. Hindawi is a fully OA publisher whose business model is based on page charges of about $60-$120/page (say around $500 for a typical article).
I mention Hindawi specifically because they are already showing profit, and because of a recent comment by their senior publishing developer Paul Peters on the Nature newsblog. Responding to an article by Declan Butler (toll-access! see Declan’s blog) focusing on PLoS finances and entitled “Open-access journal hits rocky times”, Peters wrote:

Based on our experience as a publisher of both subscription-based journals and author-pays open access journals, I would not only argue that the author-pays publishing model is sustainable, but also that it has many economic advantages over the subscription model. Even though our open access journal collection is only a few years old, we have already achieved profitability for the collection as a whole. […]
Opponents of open access publishing will most likely use the financial information that is available about the Public Library of Science to defend their stance that the author-pays business model in unsustainable. However, drawing conclusions about a business model based on the financial records of a single non-profit organization, whose stated purpose is that of an advocacy organization, seems like a rather weak argument. It is much more telling to look at a commercial publisher like Hindawi and ask why we would employ an author-pays business model, since our main objective, like that of all commercial enterprises, is financial success.

The emphasis is mine; and yes, it would be very informative to see inside the finances of a variety of OA publishers. Knowing what publishers charge, as above, does not tell us what it actually costs to run the journals. Beyond saying “we are showing profit”, Hindawi does not seem to be forthcoming on that issue. I take it as read that for-profit ventures charge what the market will bear, but when the market in question is largely scientists and their allies (librarians, clinicians, &c.), it seems logical that the market should look for data on which to base decisions about just what it will bear. Commercial entities rarely have open-access balance sheets, but perhaps OA publishers could take the lead there as well?

Update:Peter Suber has some sensible things to say about this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *