Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More on the costs of publishing peer-reviewed articles

Richard Poynder, Open Access: Doing the numbers, Open and Shut? June 11, 2008.  Excerpt:

...[W]hat are the essential costs of publishing a scholarly paper? To date, however, no one appears to have come up with an adequate answer....

When OA publisher Biomed Central (BMC) started operating in 2001, for instance, it set its article-processing charge (APC) at $525; today BMC charges from $1,700 to $1,900 to publish a paper. Similarly, when Public Library of Science (PLoS) launched its first journal it charged an APC of $1,500; today it charges from $2,100 to $2,750....

But does this mean that OA publishing will turn out to be just as expensive as traditional subscription publishing? We don't know, not least because it is still not possible to say with any authority what it costs to publish a scholarly paper, let alone how much it costs to undertake each of the individual components of that process....

People have, of course, tried to crunch the numbers. In 1997, for instance, mathematics professor Andrew Odlyzko estimated that it was costing the research community around $4,000 to publish a paper. In reality, he concluded, the task could be done for as little as $300 to $1,000.

More recently (last month) the UK-based Research Information Network (RIN) estimated the "average total publishing and distribution costs per article" to be around ?4,000 ($7,800) today. The report added that moving from a subscription-based publishing model to an OA publishing model would see a fall of ?2.91 billion in the subscription prices paid by libraries, but that these savings "would be offset by an increase of ?2.92 billion in the charges that the academic and research institutions of which they are part (or their funders) would have to meet in author-side publication fees". The end result, RIN concluded, would be that "academic institutions at a global level would need to fund an additional ?10 million from the move to author-side payment."

But the problem with much of this number crunching is that it is...invariably done by people who are able only to look through the window of the scholarly publishing business, not by those actually working in the industry. And it is only the latter that have access to the necessary data....

Fortunately, at least one publisher is prepared to be more transparent: When I asked the American Physical Society (APS) how much it costs APS to publish a paper, the organisation's treasurer/publisher Joe Serene not only produced a figure, but agreed to break it down for me as well.

In total, Serene said, in 2007 it cost APS approximately $1,500 to publish the electronic version of a paper (with all print-related costs excluded), roughly 20% ($300) of which can be apportioned to each of the following functions:

  • Editorial costs (including peer review)
  • Electronic composition and production
  • Journal information systems, "which support everything from manuscript receipt through electronic posting, mirroring, and archiving of the published papers"
  • Central publication management
  • Essential overhead expenses....

[H]aving the figures from just one publisher is not enough in itself. What would help would be for other publishers to be as transparent as the APS....

One thing to note in the above figures, by the way, is that authors wishing to opt for the APS' "Free to Read" OA option are charged a $975 APC for articles in Physical Review A-E, and a $1,300 APC for Letters in Physical Review Letters. Serene points out, however, that these charges were purposely set below cost in order to encourage initial use of Free to Read, with the understanding that they would have to be raised if a significant number of authors were to chose this option; so far the use of Free to Read has been very low.

Perhaps the take-home point here is that either everyone has consistently underestimated the true costs of publishing a scholarly paper, or publishers (both traditional subscription publishers and OA publishers) still have some way to go in reducing their costs if OA is to prove more affordable than the subscription system.

Consider that at a workshop held at CERN in 2001 participants concluded that the cost of editing and processing an article could fall as low as ?500 ($775 at today's rate) in an OA environment....

I will close by pointing out that some OA advocates respond to any discussion about the costs of OA publishing by arguing that most OA journals don't actually charge an APC today. Others, meanwhile, insist that it is far too early to worry about Gold OA, since researchers can quite easily continue publishing in subscription journals and then self-archive their papers on the Web themselves ? thereby achieving OA at no cost to them or their institutions (leaving aside the subscriptions they currently pay to buy access to research produced by other institutions). But there are reasons for arguing that these responses are not entirely satisfactory ? as I hope explain in a future post....


  • The portion of the RIN study that Richard describes is based on very unrealistic assumptions.  It studies the scenario in which all journal convert to OA, all charge author-side publication fees, and all the fees are paid by universities.  As I put it at the time:
    [The report] 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.
  • One reason it will be very difficult to get a single estimate of the cost of publishing a peer-reviewed article is that journals differ widely in their practices (number of reviewers, number of editors, use of copy-editors, mix of research and review articles) and publishers differ widely in their costs and efficiencies (local costs of rent and labor, economies of scale, and levels of legacy equipment, employees, and overhead from print operations).  We're already seeing OA journals differ in what, beyond peer review, they regard as essential (for example, copy-editing, marketing, and print editions). 
  • However, even if we accept a range in place of a single estimate, I think we'll find that the range for OA journals is lower than the range for TA journals.  OA journals generally dispense with print (or price the optional print edition at cost), eliminate subscription management, eliminate DRM and user authentication, eliminate lawyer fees for licenses and enforcement, and reduce or eliminate marketing. In their place they add back little more than the cost of collecting publication fees or institutional subsidies. 
  • Moreover, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the costs of facilitating peer review are coming down.  "[S]teadily improving software (including open-source software) is steadily taking over the clerical chores of facilitating peer review, and thereby reducing its costs."  That changes the question.  We shouldn't ask merely what publication costs existing publishers today.  We should also ask what it could cost without reducing quality.
  • On that front, note the comment to Richard's post by Julian Fischer:  "The true costs of e-publishing are frighteningly fact two orders of magnitude less than many publishers are charging. Take a look at my evaluation, Scholarly Publishing Re-invented: Real Costs and Real Freedoms in the Journal of Electronic Publishing [Journal of Electronic Publishing, Spring 2008]."  Along the same lines see Alexander Scheeline's open letter to Senator Susan Collins from June 2006:  "As an editor of an NSF-supported open access publication (Online Articles, Analytical Sciences Digital Library), I administer a similar process, except we do little metacoding (letting Google find the appropriate codes after we publish), don't typeset the manuscripts (authors must do their own copy editing), and don't have anyone other than the editor to nag reviewers. Once articles are accepted, anyone, anywhere, can read them for free. No one would claim that our production values equal those of commercial publishers....But our costs are negligible ? we figure we could manage review and publishing of articles at about $100 apiece...."

Update.  Good point by Glyn Moody:

...[E]ven if the transition to open access produced absolutely zero savings, it would still achieve something invaluable: making scholarly communications available to all, not just the lucky few at institutions with subscriptions. That alone would make the exercise worthwhile.

I heartily agree.  Because I believe OA publishing costs less than TA publishing, I haven't made the point recently.  But here's how I put it in a 2002 article:  "If [the] benefits [of OA] were expensive to produce, they would nevertheless be worth paying for...."