Economics of open-access publishing
October 22, 2011
[This post is mostly a rehash of a comment I made on the last one, but I guess more people see posts than comments. Oh, and I will try to post something about sauropod vertebrae Real Soon Now.]
Last time out, Michael Richmond suggested that one way towards an open-access world is pointing out to decision makers that open-access publishing/reading is cheaper, and commented “that approach will only work if the open-access journals are much less expensive. Are they?”
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the difficulty in shifting to author-pays open access is that universities’ libraries and research departments are funded separately, so that when the extra costs to the latter result in savings for the former, it doesn’t look like a good deal (in the short term) for the research departments.
But let’s ignore that for now, and imagine a perfect economy where universities could shift money from the subscriptions that libraries buy to the publication fees that departments pay. If we could reassign all that money, would the universities spend more or less in total?
The answer may surprise you. A recent article on the Poetic Economics blog shows that Elsevier’s 2009 profits of more than $2.075 billion, divided by the world’s total scholarly output of 1.5 million articles per year, comes out to $1383 per article.
Now as it happens, PLoS ONE’s publication fee is $1350 — $33 less.
So think about it. That means the money that Elsevier alone takes out of academia — not its turnover but its profits, which are given to shareholders who have nothing to do with scholarly work — is enough to fund every research article in every field in the world as open access at PLoS ONE’s rate.
(And remember that PLoS is now making a profit at that rate — no longer living off the grants that helped to get it started. At a rate of $1350 per article, it’s not just surviving but flourishing, so we know that that’s a reasonable commercial rate to charge for handling an open-access academic article with no limits on length or on number of high-resolution colour figures.)
Isn’t that … astonishing?
Isn’t it … scandalous?
ONE COMMERCIAL PUBLISHER is taking out of the system enough money for everything to be open to the world. Everything. In the world. Open to the world.
if we all stopped buying Elsevier journals — just Elsevier, no other publisher — and if we threw away the proportion of the savings that Elsevier spends on costs, including salaries; then the profits alone would have been sufficient to fund every single research article in the world to be published in PLoS ONE — freely available to the whole world.
What would this mean? Dentists would be able to keep up with the relevant literature. Small businesses would be able to make plans with full information. The Climate Code Foundation would have a sounder and more up-to-date scientific basis for its work. Patient groups would be able to understand their diseases and give informed consent for treatment. Medical charities, amateur palaeontologists, ornithologists and so many more would have access to the information they need. Researchers in third-world countries could have the information they need to cope with life-threatening issues of health, food and water.
We can have all that for our $2.075 billion per year. Or we can keep giving it to Elsevier’s shareholders. Giving it, remember: not buying something with it. Don’t forget, this is not the money that Elsevier absorbs as its costs: salaries, rent, connectivity, what have you. This is their profit. It’s pure profit. This is the money that is taken out of the system.
So, yes, open access is cheaper. Stupidly cheaper. Absurdly, ridiculously, appallingly cheaper.
Update (later the same day)
In an article posted just an hour ago, Cambridge research-group head Peter Murray-Rust comes right out and says it: closed access means people die. That’s the bottom line. Follow his syllogism:
- Information is a key component of health-care
- Closed access publishers make money by restricting access to information.
- The worse the medicine and healthcare, etc. the more people die.
Are any of those statements false? And if not, is there any way to construe them that doesn’t lead by simply logic to the conclusion that closed access means people die? I don’t see one.
CORRECTION (Monday 24th)
Please see Jeff Hecht’s comment below for an important correction: Elsevier’s annual profits are “only” 60% of the figure originally cited. Which means we’d need to throw in Springer’s profits, too, in order to open-access everything. My bad — thanks for the correction, Jeff.