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.