What does it cost to publish a paywalled paper with anyone?

July 18, 2012

A couple of weeks ago we tried to work out what it costs the global academic community when you publish a paper behind an Elsevier paywall instead of making it open access. The tentative conclusion was that it’s somewhere between £3112 and £6224 (or about $4846-9692), which is about 3.6-7.2 times the cost of publishing in PLoS ONE.

That calculation was fraught with uncertainty, because it’s so difficult to get solid numbers out of Elsevier. So let’s try a simpler one.

In 2009, The STM report: an overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing reported (page 5) that:

The annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing are estimated at about $8 billion in 2008, up by 6-7% compared to 2007, within a broader STM publishing market worth some $16 billion.
[...]
There were about 25,400 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals in early 2009, collectively publishing about 1.5 million articles a year.

8 billion dollars divided by 1.5 million articles yields a per-article revenue to the STM industry of $5333. And since publisher revenue is the same as academia’s expenditure on publishing, that is the per-article cost to Academia.

(What about the articles currently published as gold open access? Don’t they cut down the number that are being bought through subscriptions, and so raise the average price of a paywalled article? Yes, but not by much: according to page 7 of the report, “about 2% of articles are published in full open access journals” — a small enough proportion that we can ignore it for the purposes of this calculation.)

What can we make of this $5333 figure? For a start, it’s towards the bottom of the $4846-9692 Elsevier range — only 10% of the way up that range. So the balance of probability strongly suggests that Elsevier’s prices are above the industry-wide average, but not hugely above — somewhere between 10% below and 80% above the average.

More importantly, each paywalled article costs the world as much as four PLoS ONE articles. In other worlds, if we all stopped submitted to paywalled journals today and sent all our work to PLoS ONE instead, the total scholarly publishing bill would fall by 75%, from $8 billion to $2 billion.

Why am I comparing with PLoS ONE’s $1350? There are other comparisons I could use — for example, the average cost of $906 calculated by of Solomon and Björk across 100,697 open-access articles in 1,370 journals. But that figure is probably propped up by journals that are deliberately being run at a loss in order to gain visibility or prestige. PLoS ONE is a more conservative comparison point because we know its $1350 is enough for it to run at a healthy operating profit. So we know that a switch to PLoS ONE and similar journals would be financially sustainable.

But there’s certainly no reason to think that PLoS ONE’s price of $1350 is as low as you can go and still have good-quality peer-reviewed gold open access. For example, PLoS ONE’s long-time Editor-in-Chief, Pete Binfield, thinks that it can be done, at a profit, for $99 — a staggering 92% price-cut from the $1350 figure we’ve been using. If he’s right — and he’s betting his mortgage that he is — then we could have 54 per-reviewed articles in PeerJ for every one that goes behind a paywall.

It’s too early to know whether PeerJ will work (and I’ll talk about that more another time). But the very fact that someone as experienced and wily as Binfield thinks it will — and was able to attract venture capital from a disinterested and insightful party — strongly indicates that this price-point is at least in the right ballpark.

Which is more than can be said for the Finch Report’s ludicrous over-estimate of £1500-£2000.

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22 Responses to “What does it cost to publish a paywalled paper with anyone?”

  1. Benoît Régent-Kloeckner Says:

    It is not clear to me that this overprice has much to do with the economic model. At least in math, we have non profit societies that publish journals roughly 4 times cheaper than the average, so we might get similar economies inside a subscription model.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Benoît, thanks for chipping in.

    Yes, of course there are outliers to the average prices given here, in both models of publishing. There are subscription journals that are very cheap, and there are open-access venues that are more expensive than the usual figures — for example, PLoS Biology (which has a much higher rejection rate than PLoS ONE, as thought that‘s something to be proud of) charges $2900, and Springer’s elective open-access program charges $3000 (as does Elsevier’s not-elective really-open-access program).

    Still, that vast chasm remains between the averages for the two models, and I think there are solid reasons for that. It comes down to what kind of market we have. Under the subscription model, every article is under a monopoly: if my department needs to read articles in Cell, then the library just has to have a subscription, whatever the cost. There’s no granularity to the negotiation, so the publisher always has the upper hand. By contrast, in a gold-OA marketplace, an author deciding which journal to submit to will take price into account on an article-by-article basis. Importantly, the individual author who’s paying is making the choice of venue, so there is an efficient market and an obvious downward pressure on price. By contrast, once a colleague has published the article I need in Cell (at no direct cost to himself), I have no choice in what journal to get that article from.

    I am not a free-market fundamentalist, and I wouldn’t necessarily object to some kind of regulation in academic publishing. But I am quite sure that a proper market where publishers and journals compete on price and service level will serve the customers (us!) much better that the current system of monopolies and cartels.

  3. Diane Lester Says:

    We shouldn’t even have to guess on the costs of research publication considering the amount of public money involved. It should be transparent and this is also why Open Access journals are advantageous. About half the Toll Access publishers don’t even release financial accounts! (I often wonder where all their money goes. Opacity combined with constant flows of money doesn’t seem a great combination.)
    Also, monopolies are renowned for being inefficient, so half the money is probably not even enriching anyone but just being wasted.

  4. Benoît Régent-Kloeckner Says:

    @Mike: I mostly agree with you (and was aware of your argument that OA with APCs should drive the prices down, I even served it to the Scholarly Kitchen, where I feel a bit alone these days). However, the number of reasonably cheap journals is relatively large in math, and very strongly correlated with the kind of publisher. I am pretty sure that if only universities and academic societies published math, we would make a lot of economy (starting with a big chunk of the 40% profit, but even more than that).

  5. Benoît Régent-Kloeckner Says:

    Also: OA with APCs is not a good model for fields, like math, where one can do research with very little money. Big labs funding would only allow us to pay fees after many of our subscriptions have been canceled, but many departments would not be able to cover these costs, and more or less isolated researchers would be completely unable to publish. Green OA is a good transitional model, but we need to find something else for the long term. I advocate instutionally funded open journals, do you see a reason it could not serve science better than the PLoS model?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I am pretty sure that if only universities and academic societies published math, we would make a lot of economy (starting with a big chunk of the 40% profit, but even more than that).

    I bet you’re right. You probably know that Björn Brembs thinks the way this is all going to end up is with university libraries functioning as publishers for most academic papers.

    Interesting that maths journals tend to be cheaper than bioscience journals. I wonder why. A few thoughts spring to mind:

    1. Maths grants tend to be smaller than in the biosciences, and the maths journals are charging what their market will bear.

    2. Maths has a culture of putting preprints of everything in arXiv, which reduces the willingness to pay high subscription prices for the final versions.

    3. Mathematicians mostly typeset their own papers in LaTeX, whereas we luddite bioscientists mostly submit MS-Word, meaning that our publishers can say they are doing typesetting for us whereas yours can’t get away with that claim.

    Interesting combination. No doubt you envy us #1; but I am green with envy over #2 — not just the availability of arXiv for maths but the culture of using it uniquitously. On #3, I would be perfectly happy to make the change to providing my own “camera-ready copy”, but I am guessing most other bioscientists would not. (Then again, my background is in programming: I’ve been writing troff documents since 1986.)

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    I advocate instutionally funded open journals, do you see a reason it could not serve science better than the PLoS model?

    I’d be perfectly happy with that, so long as the detail of that solution didn’t exclude unaffiliated authors. I don’t know the situation is in maths, but it’s not unusual in palaeo for someone outside of the academic mainstream to make a worthwhile contribution.

    Of course, one way to have institutionally funded open journals is to have the institutions pay a specialist third-party open-access published (such as PLoS or BMC) to run the journal for them. I’m perfectly happy with that outcome, too.


  8. “the individual author who’s paying is making the choice of venue, so there is an efficient market and an obvious downward pressure on price”

    and herein lies the problem with funders meeting APCs that are de facto set by the Finch report. There is no downward pressure if the a funder says they will pay for a maximum price, since that will become the price, after any lobbying from publishers to raise it has stopped. I don’t pretend to have a solution. And there is a sort of monopoly on the high prestige space, as who is going to start a new journal to rival the top natural sciences journals like the recent announcement about the Forum of Mathematics journals? It wouldn’t gain a foothold. If someone could offer the prestige of the top tier at half the price, then we would see competition…

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Herein lies the problem with funders meeting APCs that are de facto set by the Finch report. There is no downward pressure if the a funder says they will pay for a maximum price.

    Agreed. This is why, although it’s unappealing in the short term, I think that it’s a good thing long term that the Government’s response to the Finch report does not allocate any money towards “transition costs”. Although it will be a painful process, the right way to make the transition is to pay for Gold OA by cancelling subscriptions.

    Because in the end, this isn’t primarily about getting a better financial deal from publishers (although that’s certainly of value). It’s about getting research out from under the control of a third party, so it can make its way out in the world doing who-knows-what for who-knows-who using whatever new ideas anyone can come up with. So long as we’re buying subscriptions at all, we’re compromising the idea that science is a common good, and in the end that’s unacceptable to me.

    There is a sort of monopoly on the high prestige space, as who is going to start a new journal to rival the top natural sciences journals like the recent announcement about the Forum of Mathematics journals?

    eLife.

    If someone could offer the prestige of the top tier at half the price, then we would see competition…

    eLife will initially be free to publish in — it’s funded by the Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society. It’s not clear how long that will remain the case, or what level of fee they will charge thereafter, but I think we can be very confident it’ll be a lot less than the £1500-£2000 that the Finch Report somehow considered acceptable.

  10. claytonbingham Says:

    Reblogged this on LitRoost Blog and commented:
    A cost analysis of publishing is not as simple as revenue divided by units of product. Unfortunately, and despite editorial recommendations on quality and appeal of content, article success does not follow any simple model. The gamble that publishers take by accepting any article is not insignificant. Reported profits might make it seem easy, I suspect otherwise. It is altogether possible that PeerJ will publish a bunch of duds on its first run and despite the fact that it was able to do it cheaply…they lost all other channels of revenue because the articles they released were crap. Then what do they do?

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    A cost analysis of publishing is not as simple as revenue divided by units of product.

    I rather think it is, when you’re trying to calculate average cost. Of course, no-one is saying that this number is precisely correct for each article: some will cost more, some less. But taken as an average across 1500000 articles, the average is right. And given the large size of the annual article pool, while “the gamble that publishers take by accepting any article is not insignificant”, that risk is amortised across so many individual gambles that the outcome remains a certain overall win — a significant one.

    Of course, when the number of articles is small (as in the initial run of the sole journal of a new publisher), the risk is greater. That’s why Binfield and Hoyt secured enough venture capital to run for well over a year before they need to start making any revenue at all. Time to establish the journal’s reputation, and to get the volume up high enough that the average can be relied on.


  12. [...] real cost is what the world at large pays for each paywalled article. As we discussed here in some detail, the aggregate subscription paid to access an average paywalled article is about $5333. [...]


  13. [...] I support the redistribution of university funds to pay publication charges for Gold open access. Simple calculations suggest that the overall cost to the worldwide academic community of an average paywalled article is £3307 [...]


  14. [...] times the rate of inflation. The result is that each published paper now costs the academic world more than $5000. Prices are so extreme that even Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, recently declared [...]


  15. [...] The current journal model (non-open-access) is one in which an article is written and sent to a publisher who very rarely pay the authors, and more often than not, the authors even pay the publishers to publish the article in a journal. The incentive for publication in a large journal by academic institutions is that of promotion, increased salary and reputation [2]. The institution is then made to repurchase the article that it published through subscription fees to the journal. It has been found that the purchase of a published article now costs the academic world more than £3000 per article [3]. [...]


  16. [...] publishers won’t start PeerJ-alikes because they can’t. As noted in many SV-POW! posts, Elsevier takes about $5000 for each article they put behind a paywall. Slice away the 40% profit [...]


  17. [...] the cost to the world of a paywalled paper (aggregated across all subscriptions) is about $5333. There is no reason to think that will change under the Green model, in which we continue to give [...]


  18. Some analysis here on what it costs to published a paywalled paper with Elsevier:

    http://poynder.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/media-research-analyst-at-exane-bnp.html

    and the figure arrived at is $4000.

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    An interesting interview, like all of Richard’s series — although in some respects a baffling one, full of statements that seem obviously false to me.

    It’s disappointing that no justification at all is given for the $4000 figure — it would have been interesting to see where it comes from. But good to see Claudio Aspesi’s estimate of £3000 (= $4821) is within 10% of my own $5333 estimate.


  20. […] does it cost to publish a Gold Open Access article? (2012) en daarbij ook de berekening wat een “paywalled […]


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