What does it cost to publish a paper  in a non-open access Elsevier journal? The immediate cost to the author is often zero (though page charges, and fees for colour illustrations mean this is not always true). But readers have to pay to see the paper, either directly in the case of private individuals or through library budgets in the case of university staff and students. What is the total cost to the world?

Previous attempts

It’s a calculation that I’ve taken a couple of stabs at in public forums, but in both cases space restraints meant that I couldn’t lay out the reasoning in the detail I’d like — and as a result I couldn’t get the kind of detailed feedback that would allow me to refine the numbers. So I am trying again here.

The first version of the calculation was in my article Open, moral and pragmatic at Times Higher Education:

According to Elsevier’s annual report for 2010, it publishes about “200,000 new science & technology research articles each year”. The same report reveals revenues for 2010 of £2.026 billion. This works out as £10,130 per article, each made available only to the tiny proportion of the world’s population that has access to a subscribing library.

As Kent Anderson pointed out in an otherwise misleading comment, that calculation was flawed in that I was using the total of Elsevier revenue rather than just the portion that comes from journal subscriptions. Trying to fix this, and using more up-to-date figures, I provided a better estimate in Academic Publishing Is Broken at The Scientist:

To publish in an Elsevier journal … appears to cost some $10,500. In 2011, 78 percent of Elsevier’s total revenue, or £1,605 million, was contributed by journal subscriptions. In the same year, Elsevier published 240,000 articles, making the average cost per article some £6,689, or about $10,500 US.

But this, it turns out, is also an over-estimate, because it’s 78% of Elsevier’s Scientific, Technical and Medical revenue that comes from journal subscriptions; the other half of Elsevier, their Health Sciences division, has its own revenues.

The data we have to work with

Here’s what I have right now — using data from 2010, the last complete year for which numbers are available.

Bear in mind that Elsevier is a publisher, and Reed Elsevier is a larger company that owns Elsevier and a bunch of other businesses such as Lexis Nexus. According to the notes from a Reed Elsevier investment seminar that took place on December 6, 2011 in London:

  • Page 2: 34% of Reed Elsevier’s total 2010 revenue of £6,055M (i.e. £2058.7M) was from “Science and Medical”, which I take to mean Elsevier. This is in keeping with the total revenue number from Elsevier’s annual report.
  • Page 8: Elsevier’s revenues are split 50-50 between the Scientific & Technical division and the Health Sciences division. 39% of total Elsevier revenue (i.e. £803M) is from research journals in the S&T sector. No percentage is given for research journal revenue in Health Sciences.
  • Page 18: confirmation that 78% of Scientific & Technical revenue (i.e. 39% of total Elsevier revenue) is from research journals.
  • Page 21: total number of articles published in 2010 seems to be about 258,000 (read off from the graph).
  • Page 22 confirms “>230,000 articles per year”.
  • Page 23, top half, says “>80% of revenue derived from subscriptions, strongly recurring revenues”. Bottom half confirms earlier revenue of 78% for research journals. I suppose that the “subscriptions” amounting to >80% must include database subscriptions.

The other important figure is the proportion of Elsevier journal revenue that comes from Gold OA fees rather than subscriptions. The answer is, almost none. Figures for 2010 are no longer on Elsevier’s Sponsored Articles page, but happily we quoted it in an older SV-POW! post:

691 Elsevier articles across some six hundred journals were sponsored in 2010. Sponsorship revenues from these articles amounted to less than 0.1% of Elsevier’s total revenues.

So for the purposes of these rough-and-ready calculations, we can ignore Elsevier’s Gold-OA revenue completely and assume that all research-journal revenue is from subscriptions.

The data we don’t have

The crucial piece of information we don’t have is this: how much of Elsevier Health Sciences revenue is from journal subscriptions? This information is not included in the investor report, and my attempts to determine it have so far been wholly unsuccessful. Back in March, I contacted Liz Smith (VP/Director of Global Internal Communications), Alicia Wise (Director of Universal Access), Tom Reller (VP of Global Corporate Relations), Ron Mobed (CEO of Scientific & Technical) and Michael Hansen (CEO of Health Sciences). Of these, only Tom Reller got back to me — he was helpful, and pointed me to the investor report that I cite heavily above — but wasn’t able to give me a figure.

If anyone knows the true percentage — or can even narrow the range a bit — I would love to know about it. Please leave a comment.

In the mean time, I will proceed with calculations on two different bases:

  1. That Health Sciences revenue is proportioned the same as Scientific & Technical, i.e. 78% comes from journal subscriptions;
  2. That Health Sciences has no revenue from journal subscriptions. This seems very unrealistic to me, but will at least give us a hard lower bound.

Calculation

It’s pretty simple.

If HS journal-subscription revenue is zero, then Elsevier’s total from journal subscriptions in 2010 was £803M. On the other hand, if HS revenue proportions are about the same as in S&T, then total journal-subscription revenue was twice this, £1606M.

Across the 258,000 or so articles published in 2010, that yields either £803M / 258,000 = £3112 per article, or £1606M / 258,000 = £6224 per article. At current exchange rates, that’s $4816 or $9632. My guess is that the true figure is somewhere between these extremes. If I had to give a single figure, I guess I’d split the difference and go with £4668, which is about $7224.

Remember: this is what it costs the academic world to get access to your article when you give it to an Elsevier journal. Those parts of the academic world that have access, that is — don’t forget that many universities and almost everyone outside a university won’t be able to access it at all.

This is less than my previous estimates. It’s still an awful lot.

Why this matters

Over on Tim Gowers’ blog, he’s recently announced the launch of a new open-access maths journal, Forum of Mathematics, to be published by Cambridge University Press. The new journal will have an article processing fee of £500 after the first three years, during which all fees will be waived. I’ve been shocked at the vehemence with which a lot of commenters have objected to the ideas of any article processing fee.

Here’s the thing. For each maths article that’s sent to an Elsevier journal, costing the worldwide maths community between £3112 and £6224, that same worldwide maths community could instead pay for six to twelve open-access articles in the new journal. And those articles would then be available to anyone who wanted them, not only people affiliated with subscribing institutions.

To me, the purely economic argument for open access is unanswerable. Even if you leave aside the moral argument, the text-mining argument, and so on, you’re left with a very stark financial equation. It’s madness to give research to subscription publishers.

I got an interesting email a couple of days ago from Robin Wilson:

Something which I thought may be of interest to a number of people who are keen on OA is your views on what learned societies should do about the closed journals they currently run. I’m particularly interested in this as I have just joined the Publications Committee of a (smallish) learned society in the UK who publish a journal through Taylor and Francis which is currently closed access.

In some ways I want to go to the next meeting and suggest that they make it Green OA – but I can’t see that happening because it brings in a significant revenue stream for the society, thus allowing them to charge far less for their annual conference, employ admin staff, publish a quarterly newsletter etc. Gold OA is possible, but would restrict publication to those whose departments or funding bodies would pay the fee – and as this journal isn’t right at the top of its field the argument may go “Why publish in X for $3000 when I could (try to) publish in Y for free!

It’s an important question. Before I try to answer it, let me make it clear that I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment on this subject. I am an extremely junior researcher — not even a postdoc, I have an honorary position. I have never been an editor of any journal, nor on any publication committee. Regarding the flagship journal of our discipline, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, I am not even a member of the society that produces it, having not renewed my SVP membership after the society’s cowardly abdication of responsibility over Aetogate. So I have no authority, no experience, and no influence. Anyone who is interested in my opinion anyway is welcome to read on. The rest of you should read this comic instead.

Pros and cons

First, there are vcry good reasons why society journals should go open access. Here are some:

  • It’s in line with societies’ missions. For example the SVP says “The object of the society is to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology and to serve the common interests … of all persons concerned with the history, evolution, comparative anatomy, and taxonomy of vertebrate animals”. Without question, freeing the research in its journal would be a huge step towards fufilling that mission.
  • There is a significant citation advantage. This graph shows the changing impact factor[1] of Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica through time. It’s on a definite downward trajectory from 2000 till 2006; then it goes open-access with BMC, and immediately switches to a strong upward trajectory.
  • Increasingly, authors are reluctant to give their best work non-open journals. (For myself, I no longer give any of my work to non-open journals; I realise that not everyone is in a position to make such a blanket commitment, but many people make it at least part of their decision process.)

On the other hand, there are also reasons why society journals might want to remain subscription-only. Here are a couple:

  • As Robin noted, the big one is subscription revenue. From a quick browse of the SVP web-site, I can’t find any accounts (which is a bit of a transparency fail), but I am guessing that JVP subscriptions are a pretty big part of the society’s income. That income might be threatened by going open-access.
  • A journal that switches to Gold OA (i.e. the author or his institution pays a publication fee) may find that it gets fewer submissions, as authors switch to free-to-submit venues.

(I think I have all the major pros and cons here — did I miss any?)

Evidence

We know from many independent studies — not just anecdotes like the graph above — that the open-access citation advantage is real. A good summary is found in Swan (2010), which surveys 31 studies of the OACA, showing that 27 of them found an advantage of between 45% are 600%. I did a rough-and-ready calculation on the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often — that is, 2.76 times as often — as non-open.

By contrast, we have no actual evidence for either of the negatives. To be clear, I’m not saying that the downsides are necessarily not true, only that we have to rely on our intuition about them rather than hard facts. We don’t actually know what effect a switch to Gold OA would have on submissions rates, because there are no studies that analyse this. (At least, none that I know of — can anyone enlighten me?) The example of Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica doesn’t help us here: its impact-factor increase says nothing about how many articles it published, only about how widely cited they were.

Similarly, no study has ever shown that Green OA — allowing or even encouraging authors to deposit preprints in repositories — harms subscription revenue. In fact there is good evidence that Green OA either does not affect subscription revenues or, surprisingly, actually increases them by acting as an advertisement for the “official” versions of papers. For example, Swan (2005) wrote:

We asked the American Physical Society (APS) and the Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd (IOPP) what their experiences have been over the 14 years that arXiv has been in existence. How many subscriptions have been lost as a result of arXiv? Both societies said they could not identify any losses of subscriptions for this reason and that they do not view arXiv as a threat to their business (rather the opposite — this in fact the APS helped establish an arXiv mirror site at the Brookhaven National Laboratory).

For much more on this issue, see the PEER project (Publishing and the Ecology of European Research). For example, the project’s final report says that:

A Randomised Controlled Trial indicates that making preprints visible in PEER repositories is associated with more traffic to the publisher sites at the aggregate level, but this varies by publisher and subject. Overall, PEER is associated with a significant, if relatively modest, increase in publisher downloads, in the confidence range 7.5% to 15.5%.

The likely mechanism is that PEER offers high quality metadata, allows a wider range of search engine robots to index its content than the typical publisher, and thus helps to raise the digital visibility of scholarly content.

Gold, Green, subscription or hybrid?

So what should subscription-based society journals do? Stay as they are? Switch to the author-pays Gold OA model that has served Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica so well? Support Green OA by encouraging preprint deposit? Or become hybrid journals (as JVP is now) by offering optional open access within otherwise subscription-based journal?

It will come as no surprise that I think subscription-only is a disaster, and that some kind of change away from that is necessary. A scholarly society simply can’t best serve its discipline by locking its work behind a paywall. It just can’t.

I also have an increasing sense that “hybrid OA” (i.e. a subscription journal with an optional open-access fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. I’ve heard that JVP‘s optional-OA uptake has been disappointing, too — probably the true reason for the recent price-cut. My guess is that this is pretty representative. So I think that hybrid is really a bit of a fig-leaf that’s used by publishers and journals that don’t really want to do OA but feel they have to be seen to be doing something.

So journals that do want to move to open access have to choose between Gold and Green. My best judgement is that Green is easier in the short term, but that most journals will want to go Gold in the end. The advantage of Green at this point is that it doesn’t require the societies to actually do anything — just to tell authors that they are welcome to self-archive preprints, after revising for reviewer comments, but before copy-editing (if any) and typesetting. A forward-looking society might host an archive for this purpose, but that is not necessary.

The thing is, a society that is serious about open access — that really wants that 176% citation advantage — will need to not just grudgingly allow Green OA, but actively shout about it. That’s maybe the single most important point here. Open access is not a threat to be deflected, it’s an opportunity to be grasped. The journals, and societies, that do that most effectively will be the ones that flourish. Right now, JVP is dead to me, and to some few other palaeontologists I know. I’d love that to change.

(Going forward, I am not sure that Green will remain viable indefinitely, but that is a subject for another post.)

References

Footnotes

[1] Yes, yes, I know.

Here is another illustration that I prepared for the forthcoming “Apatosaurusminimus redescription. Compare this with the sacrum and fused ilia from the previous post.

Left ischium of AMNH 675, “Apatosaurusminimus. Left column: proximal. Middle column, top to bottom: medial (inverted), dorsal, lateral, ventral (all with proximal to left). Right column, distal. Click through for very high resolution (4810 x 5229).

Can you tell what it is yet?

By the way, I’d appreciate some advice on the directional nomenclature here. Since I’ve illustrated the lateral view with the long axis horizontal, I’m referring to the margin that’s closest to the tail as “dorsal” and the margin closest to the ground as “ventral”. But since the ischium is directed more or less posteroventrally, I guess you could equally make a case for designating those two aspects as “posterior” and “anterior” respectively. The third alternative is to embrace the diagonality and call them “posterodorsal” and “anteroventral”. Is one of these schemes conventional?

 

I sent this letter to Wiley today, in response to their announcement of elective open access being available in 81% of their journals. I will blog the response when it comes (or the lack of one if they don’t reply after a reasonable time).

Date: Tue, 3 Jul 2012 11:22:55 +0100
From: Mike Taylor <mike@indexdata.com>
To: cs-onlineopen@wiley.com, info@wileyopenaccesss.com
Cc: sciencenewsroom@wiley.com
Subject: New Open Access option on 81% of journals

Dear Wiley,

I am writing to express my thanks and congratulations on extending your elective open-access policy to 81% of your journals, as announced in yesterday’s press-release.

Wiley is an important publisher and the guardian of many significant journals. Given the increasing inevitability of open access, as noted in recent months by US congressmen, UK government ministers, and numerous academics and publishers, it’s going to be crucial to avoid becoming marginalised during the transition. In concert with your existing all-open-access journals, and your Free Backfiles provision, yesterday’s announcement goes a long way to assuring the community that Wiley will be around to be part of the transformed landscape.

I do have an important reservation, though. When I checked the specific details of what Wiley means by “open access” I saw to my dismay that instead of using the standard Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence, Wiley has rolled its own set of terms and conditions which, in addition to being more restrictive than the standard ones, will not be immediately recognised and comprehended by potential authors.

As you probably know, the CC BY licence unambiguously fulfils all the terms of the original definition of “open access”, as specified in 2001 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. It is for this reason that it has been overwhelmingly adopted by for-profit and non-profit open-access publishers, including BioMed Central, PLoS and Hindawi. I assume this is also why it was recently adopted by Springer for its own elective open-access programme (“Open Choice”). For a fuller discussion of the merits of fully BOAI-compliant open access, please see the article Why Full Open Access Matters.

The unfortunate upshot is that, as things currently stand, Wiley’s elective open-access programme stands alongside Elsevier’s derided “sponsored article” scheme, rather than having joined the true open-access advocates BMC and PLoS, as Springer’s Open Choice has done. This makes Springer journals currently a much more attractive open-access choice than Wiley’s. At a time when lines are being drawn, and when Elsevier in particular is widely seen in a very negative light, it’s important to establish which side of this divide Wiley is going to position itself on.

So I strongly urge Wiley, with all possible haste, to adopt the Creative Commons Attribute licence for all its open-access activities. In doing so, you will send out a strong statement. I am confident that the commercial benefits will greatly outweigh the loss of whatever minor revenue accrues from the licenced commercial re-use of not-quite-open-access articles under the current scheme.

I hope this is helpful; if desired, I will be more than happy to discuss these issues in more detail with with anyone at Wiley.

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ
ENGLAND
https://svpow.com/

P.S. This is an open letter; I will be posting it on my blog, along with your reply. It’s important that the wider community see and understand what decisions are being made as publishers transition to open access.

Update 1 (Wed  4 Jul 2012 17:38:31 BST)

Received a brief response from Wiley’s Director of OA via LinkedIn:

Dear Mike,

Many thanks for the congratulations and for the helpful comments on your blog. We are well aware of the policies of our competitors and review appropriate licensing arrangements regularly. I’ll be out of the office 6-23 July, but otherwise happy to talk further.

Best wishes,

Rachel

Rachel Burley
Vice President and Director, Open Access
Wiley Blackwell

Quietly promising, I think. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Update 2 (Thu Jul 5 09:57:01 BST 2012)

Another, independent response, from Wiley’s STM publicity manager:

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your timely note. We are considering our options for open access licensing arrangements at the moment, so it’s useful to hear the views of the wider community.

Best wishes
Jen

Jennifer Beal
Global Publicity Manager
Scientific, Technical, Medical, and Scholarly
Wiley

Again, noncommittally encouraging. We’ll see what comes of this.

A couple of news items from the last few days show encouraging signs that Wiley, unlike certain other academic publishers, is taking steps to move in an open-access direction.

First, there was the announcement four days ago that they have created a new role within the company specifically to lead their open access efforts. The lucky recipient is Rachel Burley, whose previous job title was Publisher” and who is now Director of Open Access. Exactly what that role will entail we don’t yet know; hopefully we’ll see over the next few months, and it will be much more than a PR post.

Then, just yesterday, Wiley announced that they now provide an open-access option for 81% of their journals. At the moment the terms are not truly open access, but we can hope that that will change — as it recently did at Springer — now that Wiley have someone whose responsibility it is to think about these issues.

(More to come on the licensing issue in a subsequent post.)

I mentioned a few posts ago that Matt and I are working on a redescription of AMNH 675, a sauropod specimen referred by Mook (1917) to “Apatosaurusminimus, but which everyone knows is not Apatosaurus. We plan to share the illustrations from this in-progress paper as we prepare them, so here is perhaps the key one:

Sacrum and fused ilia of AMNH 675, “Apatosaurus” minimus. Top row: left lateral and right lateral; middle row: dorsal, with anterior to top; bottom row, anterior and posterior. Scale bar = 1 m. Click through for very high resolution (6283 x 6479).

The other material comprising this specimen consists of a partial pubis and two ischia, one of which is complete. We’ll show you these once we’ve prepared the illustrations.

What actually is it? Well, we don’t know yet. it has a strange mix of advanced diplodocoid and advanced macronarian features. A preliminary phylogenetic analysis is inconclusive. We have some more approaches to follow up before we’re ready to nail a conclusion to the door.

Reference

Mook, Charles C. 1917. Criteria for the determination of species in the Sauropoda, with description of a new species of Apatosaurus. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 38:355-360.