What does it cost to publish a Gold Open Access article?

December 10, 2012

There’s been a lot of concern in some corners of the world about the Finch Report‘s preference for Gold open access, and the RCUK policy‘s similar leaning. Much of the complaining has focussed on the cost of Gold OA publishing: Article Processing Charges (APCs) are very offputting to researchers with limited budgets. I thought it would be useful to provide a page that I (and you) can link to when facing such concerns.

This is long and (frankly) a bit boring. But I think it’s important and needs saying.

1. How much does the Finch Report suggest APCs cost?

Worries about high publishing costs are exacerbated by the widely reported estimate of £2000 for a typical APC, attributed to the Finch Report. In fact, that is not quite what the report (page 61) says:

Subsequent reports also suggest that the costs for open access journals average between £1.5k and £2k, which is broadly in line with the average level of APCs paid by the Wellcome Trust in 2010, at just under £1.5k.

Still, the midpoint of Finch’s “£1.5k-£2k” range is £1750, which is still a hefty amount. Where does it come from? A footnote elucidates:

Houghton J et al, op cit; Heading for the Open Road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications, RIN, PRC, Wellcome Trust, JISC, RLUK, 2011. See also Solomon, D, and Björk, B-Christer,. A study of Open Access Journals using article processing charges. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology , which suggests an average level of APCs for open access journal (including those published at very low cost in developing countries) of just over $900. It is difficult to judge – opinions differ – whether costs for open access journals are on average likely to rise as higher status journals join the open access ranks; or to fall as new entrants come into the market.

[An aside: these details would probably be better known, and the details of the Finch report would be discussed in a more informed way, if the report were available on the Web in a form where individual sections could be linked, rather than only as a PDF.]

The first two cited sources look good and authoritative, being from JISC and a combination of well-respected research organisations. Nevertheless, the high figure that they cite is misleading, and unnecessarily alarming, for several reasons.

2. Why the Finch estimate is misleading

2.1. It ignores free-to-the-author journals.

The Solomon and Björk analysis that the Finch Report rather brushes over is the only one of the three to have attempted any rigorous numerical analysis, and it found as follows (citing an earlier study, subsequently written up):

Almost 23,000 authors who had published an article in an OA journal where asked about how much they had paid. Half of the authors had not paid any fee at all, and only 10% had paid fees exceeding 1,000 Euros [= £812, less than half of the midpoint of Finch’s range].

And the proportion of journals that charge no APC (as opposed to authors who paid no fee) is even higher — nearly three quarters:

As of August 2011 there were 1,825 journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) that, at least by self-report, charge APCs. These represent just over 26% of all DOAJ journals.

So there are a lot of a zero-cost options. And there are by no means all low-quality journals: they include, for example, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palaeontologia Electronica in our own field of palaeontology, the Journal of Machine Learning Research in computer science and Theory and Applications of Categories in maths.

2.2. It ignores the low average price found by the Solomon and Björk analysis.

The Solomon and Björk paper is full of useful information and well worth detailed consideration. They make it clear in their methodology section that their sample was limited only to those journals that charge a non-zero APC, and their analysis concluded:

[We studied] 1,370 journals that published 100,697 articles in 2010. The average APC was 906 US Dollars (USD) calculated over journals and 904 US Dollars USD calculated over articles.

(The closeness of the average across journals and dollars is important: it shows that the average-by-journals is not being artificially depressed by a large number of very low-volume journals that have low APCs.)

2.3. It focusses on authors who are spending Other People’s Money.

Recall that Finch’s “£1.5k-£2k” estimate is justified in part by the observation that the APC paid by the Wellcome Trust in 2010 was just under £1.5k. But it’s well established that people spending Other People’s Money get less good value than when they spend their own: that’s why travellers who fly business class when their employer is paying go coach when they’re paying for themselves. (This is an example of the principal-agent problem.)

It’s great that the Wellcome Trust, and some other funders, pay Gold OA fees. For researchers in this situation, APCs should not be problem; but for the rest of us (and, yes, that includes me — I’ve never had a grant in my life) there are plenty of excellent lower-cost options.

And as noted above, lower cost, or even no cost, does not need to mean lower quality.

2.4. It ignores the world’s leading open-access journal.

PLOS ONE publishes more articles than any other journal in the world, has very high production values, and for those who care about such things has a higher impact-factor than almost any specialist palaeontology journal. Its APC is $1350, which is currently about £839 — less than half of the midpoint of Finch’s “£1.5k-£2k” range.

Even PLOS’s flagship journal — PLOS Biology, which is ranked top in the JCR’s biology section, charges $2900, about £1802, which is well within the Finch range.

Meanwhile, over in the humanities (where much of the negative reaction to Finch and RCUK is to be found), the leading open-access megajournal is much cheaper even than PLOS ONE: SAGE Open currently offers an introductory APC of $195 (discounted from the regular price of $695).

2.5. It ignores waivers

The most important, and most consistently overlooked fact among those who complain about how they don’t have any funds for Gold-OA publishing is that many Gold-OA journals offer waivers.

For example, PLOS co-founder Michael Eisen affirms (pers. comm.) that it’s explicitly part of the PLOS philosophy that no-one should be prevented from publishing in a PLOS journal by financial issues. And that philosophy is implemented in the PLOS policy of offering waivers to anyone who asks for one. (For example, my old University of Portsmouth colleagues, Mark Witton and Darren Naish certainly had no funds from UoP to support publication of their azhdarchid palaeobiology paper in PLOS ONE; they asked for a waiver and got it, no questions asked.)

Other major open-access publishers have similar polices.

2.6. It doesn’t recognise how the publishing landscape is changing.

It’s not really a criticism of the Finch Report — at least, not a fair one — that its coverage of eLife and PeerJ is limited to a single passing mention on page 58. Neither of these initiatives had come into existence when the report was drafted. Nevertheless, they have quickly become hugely important in shaping the world of publishing — it’s not a stretch to say that they have already joined BMC and PLOS in defining the shape of the open access world.

For the first few years of operation, eLife is waiving all APCs. It remains to be seen what will happen after that, but I think there are signs that their goal may be to retain the no-APC model indefinitely. PeerJ does charge, but is ridiculously cheap: a one-off payment of $99 pays for a publication every year for life; or $299 for any number of publications at any time. Those numbers are going to skew the average APC way, way down even from their current low levels.

2.7. I suspect it concentrates on hybrid-OA journals.

There are all sorts of reasons to mistrust hybrid journals, including the difficulty of finding the open articles; the very high APCs that they charge is only one.

Why do people use hybrid journals when they are more expensive than fully OA journals and offer so much less (e.g. limited length, no colour, number of figures)? I suspect hybrid OA is the lazy option for researchers who have to conform to an OA mandate but don’t want to invest any time or effort in thinking about open-access options. It’s easy to imagine such researchers just shoving their work into in the traditional paywalled journal, and letting the Wellcome grant pick up the tab. After all, it’s Other People’s Money.

If grant-money for funding APCs becomes more scarce as it’s required to stretch further, then researchers who’ve been taking this sort of box-checking approach to fulfilling OA mandates are going to be forced to think more about what they’re doing. And that’s a good thing.

3. What is the true average cost?

If we put all this together, and assume that researchers working from RCUK funds will make some kind of effort to find good-value open-access journals for their work instead of blindly throwing it at traditional subscription journals and expecting RCUK to pick up the fee, here’s where we land up.

  • About half of authors currently pay no fee at all.
  • Among those that do pay a fee, the average is $906.
  • So the overall average fee is about $453.
  • That’s about £283, which is less than one sixth of what Finch suggests.

4. What are we comparing with?

It’s one thing to find a more realistic cost for an average open-access article. But we also need to realise that we’re not comparing with zero. Authors have always paid publication fees in certain circumstances — subscription journals have levied page charges, extra costs for going past a certain length, for colour figures, etc. For example, Elsevier’s American Journal of Pathology charges authors “$550 per color figure, $50 per black & white or grayscale figure, and $50 per composed table, per printed page”. So a single colour figure in that journal costs more than the whole of a typical OA article.

But that’s not the real cost to compare with.

The 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. That’s as much as it costs to publish nearly twelve average open-access articles — and for that, you get much less: people outside of universities can’t get it even after the $5333 has been paid.

5. Directing our anger properly

Now think about this: the Big Four academic publishers have profit-margins between 32.4% and 42%. Let’s pick an typical profit margin of 37% — a little below the middle of that range. Assuming this is pretty representative across all subscription publishers — and it will be, since the Big Four control so much of the volume of subscription publishing — that means that 37% of the $5333 of an average paywalled article’s subscription money is pure profit. So $1973 is leaving academia every time a paper is “published” behind a paywall.

So every time a university sends a paper behind a paywall, the $1973 that it burns could have funded four average-priced Gold-OA APCs. Heck, even if you want to discount all the small publishers and put everything in PLOS — never taking a waiver — it would pay for one and a half PLOS ONE articles.

So let me leave you with this. In recent weeks, I’ve seen a fair bit of anger directed at the Finch Report and the RCUK policy. Some researchers have been up in arms at the prospect of having to “pay to say“. I want to suggest that this anger is misdirected. Rather than being angry with a policy that says you need to find $453 when you publish, direct your anger at publishers who remove $1973 from academia every time you give them a paper.

Folks, we have to have the vision to look beyond what is happening right now in our departments. Gold OA does, for sure, mean a small amount of short-term pain. It also means a massive long-term win for us all.

29 Responses to “What does it cost to publish a Gold Open Access article?”

  1. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but there are two Gold OA mathematics journals that have just opened up for submission, called Forum of Mathematics: Pi and Forum of Mathematics: Sigma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forum_of_Mathematics) published by Cambridge University Press. They will, after a few years of waiving APCs, be charging £500 or $750. The level of Sigma is roughly analogous to PLoS Biology, and the level of Pi is roughly analogous to Science. Or, to put it in mathematics terms, Pi is like the Annals of Mathematics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annals_of_Mathematics), and Sigma is like the Journal of Differential Geometry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journal_of_Differential_Geometry) or Journal of Algebra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journal_of_Algebra) or the top journal in your speciality.

    It just goes to show that the fanciest journals don’t need to come with the fanciest prices.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for this, David — being very palaeo-centric, my examples from other fields are often rather sparse and it’s good to get contributions from people in those fields.

    That said, how can you equate the prestige of two journals which don’t even exist yet with that of PLOS Biology and Science? I very much hope you turn out to be right, just as I hope eLife‘s goal of blowing Science and Nature out of the water is realised, but surely only the passage of some years will show whether these aims are fulfilled?

  3. MRR Says:

    Thanks for this post, which will indeed provide a very useful resource.

    And I totally agree that those who are angry at having to pay a little to publish (for all) are missing the target of having to pay a lot to read (for a chosen few).

    I want to take issue though with one point you make: “hybrid OA is the lazy option”. I have at least two reasons which I consider legitimate for publishing in hybrid journals (also good ones not to, especially that we pay twice):
    – Some at least are well recognized community journals, which includes access to good editors, good reviewers, and immediate recognition by colleagues that your work is part of the community.
    – At least for some OUP journals, you can actually pay less and get more by taking the OA option in a hybrid journal: “This Open Access fee is a flat charge, including all page charges and color print fees. That is, authors who pay for the Open Access license will not be charged any page and color print charges”

    So in my field, I will continue to publish hybrid in journals such as Molecular Biology and Evolution, or Bioinformatics, because they are excellent community journals.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, MRR. Your second point of course makes perfect sense — at least, from the perspective of authors, though you have to wonder why publishers would offer such an option.

    The first one is more problematic. Although you are more restrained in how you say it than I was, it seems to me that it’s basically a restatement of my claim that Hybrid is the lazy option for such authors: piggybacking on a journal’s established reputation is pleasant, but really the value of your work should be apparent from the work itself, not from the venue that it appears in. Note that this principle is explicitly stated in the Welcome Trust’s policy on making funding decisions, and has also been affirmed by representatives of the UK’s Research Excellent Framework (REF).

    So while hybrid is a perfectly acceptable option — and of course both the Finch Report and the RCUK policy are perfectly OK with it — we shouldn’t be too surprised if subscription publishers take the opportunity to price-gouge with their hybrid offerings, as a way of exploiting authors who won’t play by the eminently sensible rule that a work should stand or fall on the merit of that work, not on the merit of others published nearby.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    To clarify on the REF: Panel criteria and working methods (page 64) says: “The subpanels will assess all forms of output on an equal basis, with no preconception of quality atached to the form or medium of an output. No sub-panel will use journal impact factors or any hierarchy of journals in their assessment of outputs.”

  6. MRR Says:

    I don’t think that it’s just “piggybacking on a journal’s established reputation”. That may be true post-publication, but in the editorial and review process, knowing that a journal corresponds to a certain community of editors and reviewers who share a vision of a discipline, share certain standards of quality and rigour, etc, is for me a relevant criterion.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    OK, that’s a good point.

  8. The Rodopi journals (167 of them! http://www.rodopi.nl/ ) at a publisher-level seem to apply an RCUK-compliant Green OA policy, with no Gold OA option available from what I can see at a glance.

    But as Sherpa/RoMEO warns: “individual journals may have special permissions, especially if they involve other organisations or have paid open access options. Always run a journal title or ISSN search to check”

    Still – this looks like yet another promising outlet for RCUK-funded humanities research.

    Included in its range are these online journals:

    Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik
    Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren Germanistik
    Avant Garde Critical Studies
    Chloe: Beihefte zum Daphnis
    Clio Medica: Perspectives in Medical Humanities
    Contemporary Pragmatism
    Critical Studies
    Daphnis – Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur
    DQR Studies in Literature
    European Joyce Studies
    European Studies: A Journal of European Culture, History
    French Literature Series
    German Monitor
    Grazer Philosophische Studien
    Language and Computers
    Matatu – Journal for African Culture and Society
    Perspektiven der Philosophie – Neues Jahrbuch
    Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities
    Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui
    Thamyris /Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race

  9. Since it’s mostly just two or three humanities academics that are panicking about this, I thought I’d try and constructively highlight some excellent humanities OA options I’ve found, aside from SAGE Open as mentioned in Mike’s post. Please add more in further comments if you think they deserve highlighting. It’s hard for Mike & I to be aware of all the ‘good’ ones since we’re not humanities academics.

    Generally it’s good to check with http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/ to see if your ‘favourite’ journal allows RCUK-compliant Green OA (allowing self-archiving after no more than 12 months from the publication date).

    for Social Sciences

    Green OA – Social Science Research Network (SSRN) – the arXiv of the social sciences
    it seems to be extremely popular.

    Gold OA – the Social Sciences Directory http://www.socialsciencesdirectory.com/
    APC £120 (institutional memberships also available)

  10. for Economics

    Theoretical Economics ( http://econtheory.org/ ) APC £0 – one only need be a member of the society (which costs $100 for online-only, student discount $25 online-only)

    Economic Analysis and Policy ( http://www.eap-journal.com/ ) APC £0

    IZA journals http://journals.iza.org/ (Springer)

    Journal of Labor Economics, Journal of Labor Policy, Journal of Migration, Journal of Labor & Development, Journal of European Labor Studies
    APC: $1050 but with fee waivers, or discounts if your institute has a ‘membership’

    and more on OA economics publishing here: http://openeconomics.net/2012/10/26/review-of-open-access-in-economics/

  11. for Archaeology/History/MuseumStudies

    Gold OA – the Ubiquity Press journals ( http://www.ubiquitypress.com/ ) are definitely to be recommended:

    Archaeology International, Architectural Histories, The Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, Journal of Open Archaeology Data, Opticon1826, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Present Pasts

    example fees: for 2012-2013 Architectural Histories will be APC £0 (free) to authors, with fees paid by a grant from the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO). After that the APC will be 250EUR

    For other Gold OA journals, I’d highly recommend browsing the thousands listed at DOAJ ( http://www.doaj.org/ ).

    [sorry, had to split these comments into many sections to get them past the spam filter]

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Many thanks, Ross, that’s extremely helpful.

  13. brembs Says:

    As you might expect, I’m not going to argue with the main thrust of your post, Mike, namely that current average APCs are to be preferred over the status quo. That’s a non-brainer and I can’t really see any serious point that would draw your numbers into question:

    If we replaced all subscriptions with gold OA at the average Finch APC today, this would be absolutely fantastic!
    As long as the individual prices don’t differ more than 100% from the average.

    However, isn’t it realistic to assume that the *average* will not say very much about the distribution of APCs in a universal gold OA world? With 31k journals, it is easily conceivable that the average APC is just US$500 and thus the total costs for publishing world-wide will be just 10% of what they are now. On the surface, this sounds like a dream. However, if journal rank (or “journal reputation”) still exists, then you will have a few high ranking journals (let’s call them Harvard, Yale and Stanford), which can easily charge US$50k for an article, because with less than 10% of grant applications funded (e.g. NIH) and the percentage of scientists obtaining permanent positions decreasing, authors will easily share 50k amongst themselves (unless even such APCs will be covered by institutions), as each of them have 200k student loans anyway – what difference do a few dollars more make? Because it is virtually impossible find a permanent position or getting a grant without having published in these journals, they can essentially charge what they want.

    I’d like to know what would keep the hi-ranking journals from charging 50k in APC? If this happened, it would be worse, not better, than the status quo, IMHO, if not for the public purse, then surely for science and thus, eventually, for the public in general.

    I hope you don’t see that as hijacking your post as I’m not debating precisely your argument – I’m agreeing with you! – I’m only saying that your strategy of using average cost as an argument for universal gold OA strikes me as somewhat ill-placed and potentially counter-productive.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Björn, you are hijacking the post :-) But that’s OK, you’re taking it in an important direction. As you know, I have my own thoughts on this, but I’ll hang back for now and see what others have to contribute.

  15. Excellent post, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

    A couple of points. In terms of waivers, PLOS quite openly stated in their Progress Update 2011-2012 that $2,457,000 of their budget during that term was devoted to this end. Nice to have the numbers. Commitment. http://www.plos.org/about/what-is-plos/progress-updates/

    Aside from Finch etc., it will be very interesting to see how the APC landscape will change over the coming years in light of eLife/PeerJ and who knows what else will enter the ring during this period. As we are about to see, the ££ only way is……down :-)

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, PLOS’s fee-waiver numbers are very impressive. Their total revenue from APCs was $23,469,000, so the $2,457,000 that they voluntarily waived was a good 10% of that. A lot of the OA buzz at the moment is around the new kids on the block, eLife and PeerJ, but let’s remember that PLOS has a track-record of proving its dedication to “a mission to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”.

  17. Mike

    “how can you equate the prestige of two journals which don’t even exist yet with that of PLOS Biology and Science?”

    because these are the stated aims of the journals (rather, not to compare to these non-mathematics journals, but to the internal equivalent for mathematics). To get something published in Forum: Pi, you also need to write a two-page summary explaining why it should go in the journal, and (IIRC) the whole editorial board has to be happy about accepting it. At the moment there is no open access alternative to the top mathematics journals, so this is the alternative.

    The editorial board is stellar, and people will want to get in on the ground floor, so I imagine there will be no shortage of submissions. Since fees are being waived for three years, people will want to get in before they start (if they end up not finding a cash-cow/sugar daddy to fund the thing).

  18. […] for all that we rightly talk about the financial efficiencies of open access, when it comes right down to it OA is primarily a moral, or if you prefer idealogical, issue. […]

  19. […] not charge APCs, with publication funded in a variety of different ways. (For more details see this thought provoking blog article referencing several primary sources and followed up by lively and interesting comments from […]

  20. […] the true cost of Gold OA is much, much less. Follow the link for the detail, but one credible banner figure starts with the observation that […]

  21. Excellent piece! Your contribution of facts to the discussion is important; it’s amazing the F-report didn’t get this right.
    I’ve now penned a few thoughts about OA and academic freedom, which I leave here for anyone who may be interested. I think the net is positive, and we have to breathe deeply and reflect on this a bit more. 4 ways open access enhances academic freedom http://bit.ly/14vdBDv

  22. […] recently, while considering what it costs to publish a Gold Open Access article, I […]

  23. […] the way, we talked about the open-access citation advantage, the (mostly non-) problem of article processing charges, the complete non-problem of “predatory open-access publishers”, the acceptable length […]

  24. […] more about the issues surrounding the charging of APCs then this article (open access version) and blog post make interesting […]

  25. […] second, please know that more than half of all OA journals actually charge no APC at all. They run on different models. For example in my own field, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and […]

  26. […] as a community often ask ourselves how much it should cost to publish an open-access paper. (We know how much it does cost, roughly: typically $3000 with a legacy publisher, or an average of $900 with a born-open […]

  27. […] It’s a statement on hears over and over (a quick Google search provides mentions here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — if Wikipedia says it’s true, it must be, right?). […]

  28. […] It’s a statement on hears over and over (a quick Google search provides mentions here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — if Wikipedia says it’s true, it must be, right?). […]

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