Publishers, where is the added value?

October 28, 2014

It’s nearly two years since Alexander Brown wrote Open access: why academic publishers still add value for the Guardian, in which he listed ways that he feels publishers make a contribution. I wrote a lengthy comment in response — long enough that it got truncated at 5000 characters and I had to post a second comment with the tail end. At the time, I intended to turn that comment into an SV-POW! post, but for some reason I never did. Belatedly, here it is.

I’m a bit nonplussed by this article, in which a publisher lists a lot of important services that they claim to provide, nearly all of which turn out to be either not important at all (if not actively harmful) or provided for free by academics. Let’s go through them one by one, and see how they measure up against the average cost to academia of $5333 per paywalled academic paper.

strong, skilled editors to ensure that research can be universally understood

It is authors who make their work understood. As the author of a dozen published papers myself, I’ve certainly never received any help from an editor to make my work more comprehensible. But even if I had, this would have been done by a handling editor, who is a volunteer academic.

to recognise emerging fields and create new journals

Publisher don’t recognise emerging fields, researchers do. The last thing we need is more journals — there are already far more than anyone can keep track of. The more fruitful trend is the consolidation into a smaller number of more generalist journals, with tools for finding papers relevant to each individual researcher’s interest. (PLOS ONE exemplifies this.)

to build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.

Journal brands are actively harmful to science. Please stop building and maintaining them.

recruitment and management of editorial review boards

Yes — this, at last, is a real cost in return for a real benefit.

coordination of peer review to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record

This is done by volunteer academics at no cost to the publisher.

Yes, editorial board members and reviewers are by and large unpaid. However there are still scores of people whose full time jobs are managing this process for a growing body of scientific literature.

This seems more like confession of inefficiency than a claim of achievement. No doubt Google could double the number of managers they have to look after their engineers; but that would hardly result in doubling their output. The real question here should be why traditional publishers feel they need so many staff to do so little.

helping customers learn how best to find what they need

How does this happen? I have never had a publisher help me to find anything.

rigorous efforts to acquire content

This means sending spam emails inviting researchers to submit to journals. Like everyone else I know, I bin these on receipt. Researchers know what journals they want to publish in, and when they discover new journals it’s by word of mouth from trusted colleagues.

publicise the brilliance of our authors

Please. This never happens. Authors need to publicise their own work, with or without the help of their institutions, but certainly without significant help from publishers. Often the publisher’s most significant contribution to the publicity process is to release a paper prematurely, thus destroying any attempt at co-ordinating press embargoes.

Developing systems and platforms that can cost well into the tens of millions of dollars/pounds/euros

Again, the fact that a publisher spends this much only shows how inefficient they are. There are several free journal-management systems, including Annotum (used by PLOS Currents) and Open Journal Systems (used by 11,500 journals). If publishers don’t use these tools, that’s no reason to charge researchers more.

with the advent of mobile technology, the job becomes exponentially more difficult as we add “whenever they want it” to the list of our customers’ needs

I have no idea what this means. Any open-access journal’s article are always free “whenever they want it”, whatever device someone is reading on.

While the dissemination of research may not require ink and paper like it used to, distribution remains a very real cost

Yes. To pick a well-known large-scale example, it costs arXiv about $7 per paper to accept, host, archive and serve each of its papers indefinitely. A bit less than $5333, admittedly.

Also included in these activities are archive projects like the Springer Book Archives, a massive undertaking to digitise more than 150 years of previously unavailable titles

This is indeed a valuable programme. But it has nothing to do with ongoing publishing, and is a red herring in the current discussion.

for OA authors Springer deposits a researcher’s work into the institutional repositories these scientists are often required to use, helping to provide further access to scholarly works.

This is good. It saves the author a good fifteen minutes. £5333 well spent!

It is hard to imagine how anyone with an internet connection could do this with the speed, efficiency and added value with which publishers operate

On the contrary: it’s hard to understand how publishers manage to do it so inefficiently.

I just find all this baffling. Any researcher who has actually been through the process of publication knows that it is researchers who do all the significiant work: not only the research, but the writing, the preparation of illustrations, the editorial process, the peer-reviewing, the copy-editing, and increasingly even the typesetting. Hosting, archiving and replication can be done for $7 per paper. So I still don’t see where the publishers are adding any value that is of value to the academy.

11 Responses to “Publishers, where is the added value?”

  1. Pandelis Says:

    Hi Mike, just a few days ago I suggested in a tweet that authors should request an analytic invoice for article processing charges. What do you think?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I approve!

    In fact, I only know of one publisher that breaks down its APC, and that’s Ubiquity Press. this page breaks their £300 APC down into 38% indirect costs (platform, business, advocacy), 34% editorial and production, 16% for the waiver fund, 8% for promotion, indexing and archiving, and 4% for administrating the APC itself.

    By the way, note that that’s £300, not £3000. Just saying.

  3. Good post! Made me recall this older one, even if it’s aim is gold OA publishers What is an author buying fom a gold OA publisher?.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yep. Subscription publishing costs much more than APC-based publishing, but either way it’s clear that we are way overpaying for what the publisher actually does for us. (Obvious exceptions, of course: low-cost APC-based publishers like Ubiquity and PeerJ.)

    In particular, I think PLOS ONE’s APC of $1350 is looking increasingly unfashionable. I understand that they want to build up a war chest to fund future innovations, but any four-figure APC compares very unfavourably with what the new kids on the block are doing. I’ve been saying for a couple of years that PLOS should make some kind of reduction as soon as possible — even if it’s only $50 down, to $1300 — to establish how it’s different from the barrier-based publishers that are constantly raising prices. But I think the time for that has come. PLOS ONE needs to cut its APC to $999.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    What do I mean by “needs to”? I mean that if they don’t do that, they’ll continue to receive many more submissions than Ubiquity and PeerJ, at least in the short term; but that they won’t be earning those submissions any more. They’ll be coasting on reputation — which is one of the things we accuse the established barrier-based publishers of. We desperately need PLOS to be a real alternative.

  6. Pandelis Says:

    Well said Mike! I have been waiting to hear this from someone…

  7. Some relevant commentary in this article: “EPISCIENCES – an overlay publication platform” by Berthaud et al. doi:10.3233/978-1-61499-409-1-78

  8. From that article:

    The economic study[12] of the EU-funded Publishing and the Ecology of European Research (PEER) project evaluated (p.48) the cost in a repository to range between 2 and 50 € per reference and between 2,5 and 53,2 € per full text[13]. It also showed that a
    baseline for managing the peer-review process alone lies around 200 € per article for most commercial journals.

    [13] Note that for HAL the average cost per paper has been evaluated to 14.73€

    So it costs about 200 Euros and perhaps a bit more to referee a paper. With an efficient/free platform, this should be the biggest contributor to an APC, perhaps with some padding to subsidise those who can’t pay that much.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Very interesting, David, thanks for that link. I note that the “€200 plus some slop” price region that you suggest here is somewhere between the PeerJ and Ubiquity levels (although as always it’s impossible to put a proper number on PeerJ due to their membership-based payment model).

  10. […] on the grounds that at least the science is then available to everyone. This is a common line of argument, but it glosses over the fact that OA journals charge a similar amount per manuscript to make […]

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