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Thursday, May 22, 2008

More on the costs of scholarly communications

Activities, costs and funding flows in the scholarly communications system in the UK, a new report from the Research Information Network (RIN), May 2008.  From the summary:

...[T]he RIN joined together with the Publishing Research Consortium (PRC), the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), and Research Libraries UK (RLUK) to commission a study to investigate the costs incurred by key agents in the various stages of the scholarly communications process, from the production of research outputs to the reading of those outputs; and the sources, nature and scale of the funding and other resources provided to meet those costs....

We estimate that the global cost each year of undertaking and communicating the results of research reported in journal articles is £175bn, made up of £116bn for the costs of the research itself; £25bn for publication, distribution and access to the articles; and £34bn for reading them....

1. Electronic-only publishing.

Currently, most journals are published in both print and electronic formats. If 90% of all journals were to be published in electronic format only, the global costs of publishing, distribution and access would fall by £1.08bn (12%), offset by a rise of £93m in user costs for printing.

  • By far the largest part of that reduction in costs would be accounted for by a fall of £758m (36%) in libraries’ costs in providing access to journal articles.
  • Global publication and distribution costs would fall by c£318m (7% of total costs excluding peer review).
  • Falls in advertising revenues, membership fees and personal subscriptions would mean that less than two-fifths of the publication and distribution savings would be passed on to libraries through a reduction in subscriptions.
  • UK academic libraries’ costs in providing access to articles would fall by £23m. Within this total, the fall of £4m in subscription prices for academic libraries would be more than offset by an increase of £5m in VAT payments.

2. Author-Side Publication Fees

There have been moves in recent years to change the traditional journal business model, in order to make journal articles open access; that is, available to anyone who wants to read them, free of charge immediately upon publication. The models vary, but some journals now (especially in biological and medical sciences), instead of charging a subscription for access by readers, charge a publication fee to authors so that their articles can be open access. Currently, about 2% of articles are published in open access or “hybrid” journals (where most articles are available for reading only if a subscription has been paid, but authors have a choice to make their articles open access by paying a fee).

If 90% of all articles were made open access upon payment of a publication fee in this way, we estimate that the total saving in the global costs of publishing, distribution and access would be £561m, split almost equally between savings to publishers and to libraries. These savings would be on top of the savings from a move to e-only publishing. Our modelling assumes that there will be some costs to publishers in adminstering author-side payments; but any time and adminstrative costs to authors, their institutions and funders have not been modelled here. Some of these savings could therefore be offset if the costs to publishers, authors, institutions and funders are higher than we have modelled.

The key results of our modelling are that:

  • The subscriptions paid by academic libraries globally would fall by £2.91bn. But these savings would be offset by an increase of £2.92bn in the charges that the academic and research institutions of which they are a part (or their funders) would have to meet in author-side publication fees.
  • The costs and benefits would be unevenly distributed across institutions: research-intensive institutions would tend to pay more in publication fees than they currently do for library subscriptions, while institutions where research constitutes a lower proportion of activity and expenditure would tend to see reductions in overall expenditure.
  • In the UK, libraries in the HE sector as a whole would benefit by c £128m. But the UK’s contribution to publication fees would amount to c £213m. The UK’s share of funding to meet the costs of publication, distribution and access would rise from 5.2% to 7.0%.
  • The main beneficiaries would be other institutions that currently purchase journal subscriptions, but are not major producers of research outputs....

[T]he study is not a cost-benefit analysis of a move to ‘open access’ delivery of peer-reviewed journals. Rather, in accordance with the terms of reference, the study confines itself to analysing the cost and funding flows of the current and the possible future scholarly communications process....

Comment.  I focus on the conclusion in the third-to-last bullet point above:  "research-intensive institutions would tend to pay more in publication fees than they currently do for library subscriptions...."

  • Three previous studies have concluded that if all peer-reviewed journals converted to OA, then high-output universities would pay more in author-side publication fees than they now pay in subscriptions.  But all three of them relied on false or implausible assumptions, in particular, (1) that all OA journals would charge publication fees and (2) that all fees would be paid by universities.  For citations to the previous studies, analysis of their defects, and recommended methodological refinements, see my article from June 2006. 
  • The RIN study is slightly more careful than the earlier studies because it makes clear that the hypothesis is that 90% of new articles convert to fee-based OA, rather than to OA as such.  But it leaves the false impression that converting to fee-based OA is the only way to convert to OA, and it doesn't mention the two critical facts:  (1) that the majority of OA journals today charge no publication fees, and (2) that a significant percentage of publication fees are paid by funders rather than universities. 
  • To elaborate on the first of these for just a moment:  Most OA journals charge no publication fees at all.  As of late 2007, 67% of the journals listed in the DOAJ charged no publication fees, and 83% of OA journals from society publishers charged no publication fees.  We're still waiting for a careful model of the costs of scholarly communication which takes these realities into account instead of assuming that all or most OA journals use the fee-based business model.

Update. Michael Jubb of RIN has pointed me to a section of the full report (2.7.2) in which the authors acknowledge different business models for OA journals. (Thanks, Michael.) But not even that section acknowledges that the majority of OA journals charge no publication fees.