We have a tendency to be sloppy about language in everyday usage, so that words like “cost”, “value” and “price” are used more or less interchangeably. But economists will tell you that the words have distinct meanings, and picking them apart is crucial to understand economic transaction. Suppose I am a carpenter and I make chairs:

  • The cost of the chair is what it costs me to make it: raw materials, overheads, my own time, etc.
  • The value of the chair is what it’s worth to you: how much it adds to your lifestyle.
  • The price of the chair is how much you actually pay me for it.

In a functioning market, the value is more than the cost. Say it costs me £60 to make the chair, and it’s worth £100 to you. Then there is a £40 range in which the price could fall and we would both come out of the deal ahead. If you buy the chair for £75, then I have made £15 more than what it cost me to make, so I am happy; and you got it for £25 less than it was worth to you, so you’re happy, too.

(If the value is less than the cost, then there is no happy outcome. The best I can do is dump the product on the market at below cost, in the hope of making back at least some of my outlay.)

So far, so good.

Now let’s think about scientific publications.

There is a growing consensus that the cost of converting a scientific manuscript into a published paper — peer-reviewed, typeset, made machine-readable, references extracted, archived, indexed, sustainably hosted — is on the order of $500-$1000.

The value of a published paper to the world is incredibly hard to estimate, but let’s for now just say that it’s high. (We’ll see evidence of this in a moment.)

The price of a published paper is easier to calculate. According to the 2018 edition of the STM Report (which seems to be the most recent one available), “The annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing are estimated at about $10 billion in 2017 […] collectively publishing over 3 million articles a year” (p5). So, bundling together subscription revenues, APCs, offsets deals and what have you, the average revenue accruing from a paper is $10,000,000,000/3,000,000 = $10,000/3 = $3,333.

(Given that these prices are paid, we can be confident that the value is at least as much, i.e. somewhere north of $3,333 — which is why I was happy earlier to characterise the value as “high”.)

Why is it possible for the price of a paper to be 3–7 times as high as its cost? One part of the answer is that the value is higher still. Were it not so, no-one would be paying. But that can’t be the whole reason.

Tune in next time to find out the exciting reason why the price of scholarly publishing is so much higher than the cost!

I have the honor of giving the National Fossil Day Virtual Lecture for The Museums of Western Colorado – Dinosaur Journey, next Wednesday, October 13, from 7:00 to 8:00 PM, Mountain Daylight Time. The title of my talk is “Lost Giants of the Jurassic” but it’s mostly going to be about Brachiosaurus. And since I have a whole hour to fill, I’m gonna kitchen-sink this sucker and put in all the good stuff, even more than last time. The talk is virtual (via Zoom) and free, and you can register at this link.

The photo up top is from this July. That’s John Foster (standing) and me (crouching) with the complete right humerus of Brachiosaurus that we got out of the ground in 2019; that story is here. The humerus is in the prep lab at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, and if you go there, you can peer through the tall glass windows between the museum’s central atrium and the prep lab and see it for yourself.

If you’ve forgotten what a humerus like that looks like in context, here’s the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton at the North American Museum of Ancient Life with my research student, Kaelen Kay, for scale. Kaelen is 5’8″ (173cm) and as you can see, she can just get her hand on the animal’s elbow. The humerus–in this case, a cast of the right humerus from the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype–is the next bone up the line. Kaelen came out with us this summer and helped dig up some more of our brachiosaur–more on that story in the near future.

Want more Brachiosaurus? Tune in next week. Here’s that registration link again. I hope to see you there!