Publishing is a button: what Clay Shirky didn’t say

June 12, 2013

Looking again at Clay Shirky’s “How we will read” interview, I re-read these now classic words:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.

Here’s what Shirky could have gone on to say, but didn’t.

An unfortunate side-effect of this shift is that we still have these big, lumbering publishing corporations clogging up the landscape, with nothing constructive to do. And the reason that’s a problem rather than merely a waste, is that whereas it used to take special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public, now it takes special professional skill to make words and images invisible to the public, and that’s what these corporations are now dedicating their energies to.

This is the true tragedy of modern “publishers”: that as the world has become able to do the job that once only they could do, they’ve not stepped graciously aside, but devoted their energies to preventing works being available. The publishers’ outdated business model forces them to act in a way directly opposed to their mission.

Why do you think legacy publishers’ open-access APCs are so much higher than those of all-OA publishers like PLOS, F1000 Research, eLife or Peerj? Sure, part of it is sheer profiteering, but even when you factor that out their prices are outrageous. It’s because they have to pay for:

All of these are the costs of not publishing openly. In a world where infinite perfect copies are free to produce, it costs a fortune to avoid publishing.

No wonder Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and Blackwell are all converging on APCs on the order of $3000*, while PLOS ONE charges $1350, F1000 Research $1000, eLife free and PeerJ a one-off fee of $99.



1at the request of David Mainwaring, I here note that legacy publishing doesn’t always mean $3000 fees. They can be much higher (e.g. $5000 for Elsevier’s Cell Reports) and sometimes rather lower. In particular, the SAGE charges £800 for SAGE Choice in humanities journals, and $99 for the SAGE Open humanities megajournal.

12 Responses to “Publishing is a button: what Clay Shirky didn’t say”

  1. Yes! This is why I’m often mystified by the anti-OA argument “but no one (outside academy) will read it”. So what? It’s cheaper to make it accessible than to hide it. If there is no cost (actually a saving), you don’t need a large benefit (which there is, but it’s a different discussion).

  2. Samuel Says:

    Well, if publishing is a button, why is it okay that PLoS Biology charges $2900? (It’s a bit misleading, I think, to only quote the PLoS ONE charge of $1350).

    I mean, how can they possibly justify that price to do nothing more than push a button, as they presumably have none of the overhead you’ve described for legacy publishers?

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Who says it is OK for PLOS Biology to charge $2900? That certainly isn’t the burden of my post.

  4. Samuel Says:

    Well, your post seems to be making two points – first, that publishing is now trivial and essentially free and second, that OA publishers are much cheaper than traditional publishers because they don’t have all the crazy overhead you mention.

    The first point is hard to reconcile with the fact that OA publishers are charging quite a lot as well – either they’re also profiteering or the costs of publishing are not (yet?) trivial. Which do you think is true?

    The second is a bit unclear, since as I mentioned PLoS also charges nearly the $3000 figure you quote for legacy publishers for some journals. Plus I’ve now followed your link to Elsevier and it quotes OA fees of $500 – $5000 USD, and your footnote talks about Sage charging less. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it doesn’t seem all that clear cut.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Samuel. Yes, it’s more clear cut than you would see from these numbers. Solomon and Bjork surveyed 100,000 articles in 1,370 pure-OA journals that charge APCs, and found the average to be $906. But since more than half of pure-OA journals charge no APC at all, the true average is more like $453. At the moment, PeerJ is my OA journal of choice, and publishing there is going to cost me $99 each for my next two articles, then all the rest will be free.

    Elsevier’s range is indeed given as $500-$5000. However, when you start looking at the APCs for individual Elsevier journals, you’ll find they’re nearly all $3000. I don’t know which journals charge $500, but that are not numerous.

    Sage is very interesting. Although it does a bit of science on the side, it’s very much a humanities publishers. Given the tendency of humanities scholars to complain about open-access publication fees, it’s actually very encouraging to see that these humanities journals are rather cheaper than the fees we’re used to seeing in the sciences.

    But it’s unquestionably the case that, despite some outliers, the Big Four legacy publishers who together totally dominate the academic science market, are all converging very strongly on a fee of $3000. That is a striking coincidence. So much so that it bears a superficial resemblance to what you might expect to see if a price-fixing cartel was in effect.

  6. […] The term “hybrid open access” refers to a subscription journal in which individual articles can optionally be made open access on payment of a fee — for the Big Four publishers, typically (though not always) in the region of $3000. […]

  7. […] on marketing subscriptions. So there goes another $827.64. And because legacy publishers have to spend a fortune on paywalls, authentication systems, lawyers, spin-doctors, lobbyists and the like, that could well account for, say, half of the remainder. If that’s correct, then only […]

  8. […] post yesterday was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read [archived copy]. Here […]

  9. […] 5. We have got into the habit of paying far too much for publishing. On average paywalled papers cost the world more than $5000 each. Legacy publishers typically charge APCs of $3000 or so. Yet born-digital publishers such as Ubiquity Press need charge only $500, and show the breakdown of that cost. (And note that $80 of that is set aside to cover waivered articles for which no fee is paid.) Against that analysis, PeerJ’s fees don’t look crazy. The truth is that, as well as their 40% profit-margins, legacy publishers’ costs are sky-high because they are dragging around the carcass of print-based publishing. […]

  10. […] their own products. These counterarguments vastly underestimate the amount of work this entails. Publishing is not a button at present, and it will not be for some time (ask a local professor or reporter how much time he […]

  11. […] know what’s not sustainable? Dragging around the carcass of a legacy barrier-based publisher, with all its expensive paywalls, authentication systems, Shibboleth/Athens/Kerberos integration, […]

  12. […] the rest would have to come from streamlining business processes, in particular things like the costs of maintaining paywalls and the means of passing through […]

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