How much does “typesetting” cost?
June 11, 2015
We 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 publisher, or nothing at all for many journals.)
We know that peer-review is essentially free to publishers, being donated free by scholars. We know that most handling editors also work for free or for peanuts. We know that hosting things on the Web is cheap (“publishing [in this sense] is just a button“).
Publishers have costs associated with rejecting manuscripts — checking that they’re by real people at real institutions, scanning for obvious pseudo-scholarship, etc. But let’s ignore those costs for now, as being primarily for the benefit of the publishers rather than the author. (When I pay a publisher an APC, they’re not serving me directly by running plagiarism checks.)
The tendency of many discussions I’ve been involved with has been that the main technical contribution of publishers is the process that is still, for historical reasons, known as “typesetting” — that is, the transformation of the manuscript from from an opaque form like an MS-Word file (or indeed a stack of hand-written sheets) into a semantically rich representation such as JATS XML. From there, actual typesetting into HTML or a pretty PDF can be largely automated.
So: what does it cost to typeset a manuscript?
First data point: I have heard that Kaveh Bazargan’s River Valley Technologies (the typesetter that PeerJ and many more mainstream publishers use) charges between £3.50 and £9 per page, including XML, graphics, PDF generation and proof correction.
Second data point: in a Scholarly Kitchen post that Kent Anderson intended as a criticism of PubMed Central but which in fact makes a great case for what good value it provides, he quotes an email from Kent A. Smith, a former Deputy Director of the NLM:
Under the % basis I am using here $47 per article. John [Mullican, a program analyst at NCBI] and I looked at this yesterday and based the number on a sampling of a few months billings. It consists on the average of about $34-35 per tagged article plus $10-11 for Q/A plus administrative fees of $2-3, where applicable.
Using the quoted figure of $47 per PMC article and the £6.25 midpoint of River Valley’s range of per-page prices (= $9.68 per page), that would be consistent with typical PMC articles being a bit under five pages long. The true figure is probably somewhat higher — maybe twice as long or more — but this seems to be at least in the same ballpark.
Third data point: Charles H. E. Ault, in a comment on that Scholarly Kitchen post, wrote:
As a production director at a small-to-middling university press that publishes no journals, I’m a bit reluctant to jump into this fray. But I must say that I am astonished at how much PMC is paying for XML tagging. Most vendors looking for the small amount of business my press can offer (say, maybe 10,000 pages a year at most) charge considerably less than $0.50 per page for XML tagging. Assuming a journal article is about 30 pages long, it should cost no more than $15 for XML tagging. Add another few bucks for quality assurance, and you might cross the $20 threshold. Does PMC have to pay a federally mandated minimum rate, like bridge construction projects? Where can I submit a bid?
I find the idea of 50-cent-per-page typesetting hard to swallow — it’s more than an order of magnitude cheaper than the River Valley/PMC level, and I’d like to know more about Ault’s operation. Is what they’re doing really comparable with what the others are doing?
Are there other estimates out there?