Last time, we looked at the difference between cost, value and price, and applied those concepts to simple markets like the one for chairs, and the complex market that is scholarly publication. We finished with the observation that the price our community pays for the publication of a paper (about $3,333 on average) is about 3–7 times as much as its costs to publish ($500-$1000)?

How is this possible? One part of the answer is that the value of a published paper to the commnity is higher still: were it not so, no-one would be paying. But that can’t be the whole reason.

In an efficient market, competing providers of a good will each try to undercut each other until the prices they charge approach the cost. If, for example, Elsevier and Springer-Nature were competing in a healthy free market, they would each be charging prices around one third of what they are charging now, for fear of being outcompeted by their lower-priced competitor. (Half of those price-cuts would be absorbed just by decreasing the huge profit margins; 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 them.)

So why doesn’t the Invisible Hand operate on scholarly publishers? Because they are not really in competition. Subscriptions are not substitutable goods because each published article is unique. If I need to read an article in an Elsevier journal then it’s no good my buying a lower-priced Springer-Nature subscription instead: it won’t give me access to the article I need.

(This is one of the reasons why the APC-based model — despite its very real drawbacks — is better than the subscription model: because the editorial-and-publication services offered by Elsevier and Springer-Nature are substitutable. If one offers the service for $3000 and the other for $2000, I can go to the better-value provider. And if some other publisher offers it for $1000 or $500, I can go there instead.)

The last few years have seen huge and welcome strides towards establishing open access as the dominant mode of publication for scholarly works, and currently output is split more or less 50/50 between paywalled and open. We can expect OA to dominate increasingly in future years. In many respects, the battle for OA is won: we’ve not got to VE Day yet, but the D-Day Landings have been accomplished.

Yet big-publisher APCs still sit in the $3000–$5000 range instead of converging on $500-$1000. Why?

Björn Brembs has been writing for years about the fact that every market has a luxury segment: you can buy a perfectly functional wristwatch for $10, yet people spend thousands on high-end watches. He’s long been concerned that if scholarly publishing goes APC-only, then people will be queuing up to pay the €9,500 APC for Nature in what would become a straightforward pay-for-prestige deal. And he’s right: given the outstandingly stupid way we evaluate reseachers for jobs, promotion and tenure, lots of people will pay a 10x markup for the “I was published in Nature” badge even though Nature papers are an objectively bad way to communicate research.

But it feels like something stranger is happening here. It’s almost as though the whole darned market is a luxury segment. The average APC funded by the Wellcome Trust in 2018/19 was £2,410 — currently about $3,300. Which is almost exactly the average article cost of $3,333 that we calculated earlier. What’s happening is that the big publishers have landed on APCs at rates that preserve the previous level of income. That is understandable on their part, but what I want to know is why are we still paying them? Why are all Wellcome’s grantees not walking away from Elsevier and Springer-Nature, and publishing in much cheaper alternatives?

Why, in other words, are market forces not operating here?

I can think of three reasons why researchers prefer to spend $3000 instead of $1000:

  1. It could be that they are genuinely getting a three-times-better service from the big publishers. I mention this purely for completeness, as no evidence supports the hypothesis. There seems to be absolutely no correlation between price and quality of service.
  2. Researchers are coasting on sheer inertia, continuing to submit to the journals they used to submit to back in the bad old days of subscriptions. I am not entirely without sympathy for this: there is comfort in familiarity, and convenience in knowing a journal’s flavour, expectations and editorial board. But are those things worth a 200% markup?
  3. Researchers are buying prestige — or at least what they perceive as prestige. (In reality, I am not convinced that papers in non-exceptional Elsevier or Springer-Nature journals are at all thought of as more prestigous than those in cheaper but better born-OA journals. But for this to happen, it only needs people to think the old journals are more prestigious, it doesn’t need them to be right.)

But underlying all these reasons to go to a more expensive publishers is one very important reason not to bother going to a cheaper publisher: researchers are spending other people’s money. No wonder they don’t care about the extra few thousand pounds.

How can funders fix this, and get APCs down to levels that approximate publishing cost? I see at least three possibilities.

First, they could stop paying APCs for their grantees. Instead, they could add a fixed sum onto all grants they make — $1,500, say — and leave it up to the researchers whether to spend more on a legacy publisher (supplementing the $1,500 from other sources of their own) or to spend less on a cheaper born-OA publisher and redistribute the excess elsewhere.

Second, funders could simply publish the papes themselves. To be fair several big funders are doing this now, so we have Wellcome Open Research, Gates Open Research, etc. But doesn’t it seem a bit silly to silo research according to what body awarded the grant that funded it? And what about authors who don’t have a grant from one of these bodies, or indeed any grant at all?

That’s why I think the third solution is best. I would like to see funders stop paying APCs and stop building their own publishing solutions, and instead collaborate to build and maintain a global publishing solution that all researchers could use irrespective of grant-recipient status. I have much to say on what such a solution should look like, but that is for another time.

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!

Matt and I are about to submit a paper. One of the journals we considered — and would have really liked in many respects — turned out to use the CC By-NC-SA license. This is a a very well-intentioned licence that allows free use except for commercial purposes, and which imposes the same licence on all derivative works. While that sounds good, there are solid reasons to prefer the simpler CC By licence. I wrote to the journal in question advocating a switch to CC By, and then I thought the reasoning might be of broader interest. So here’s what I wrote, lightly edited.

First, CC By neatly expresses the one requirement all academics have of their work: that they get credit for it. When we publish papers, we are happy for them to be freely distributed, but also want people to build on them, re-using parts in whatever way helps, provided we’re credited — and that is exactly what CC By enables.

Second, because of this, many funders that require the work their grantees do to be published open access specifically require the CC By licence, in the expectation that it will provide the greatest societal benefit in exchange for their investment. Most famously, this is the case for the Gates Foundation (the largest private foundation in the world), but for a partial list of the many other funders with this policy, see — funders whose grantees, as things stand, are not allowed to publish their work in your journal.

Third, CC By is almost universal among well established and respected open-access journals, including all the PLOS journals, PeerJ, the BioMed Central journals, the Hindawi journals, eLIFE, Nature’s Scientific Reports, and palaeo journals such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. This is important because CC By-licenced journals can’t freely use material published under more restrictive licences such as your journal’s CC By-NC-SA. Instead, authors of such articles must labouriously seek exemptions from the copyright holders of the material they wish to reuse or adapt.

Fourth and last, other online resources also use CC By (or optionally CC By-SA in the case of Wikipedia), which means that, while material from PLOS ONE, Scientific Reports et al. can be freely used in Wikipedia articles, text and illustrations from articles in your journal cannot, limiting its use in outreach. Similarly, even on our own palaeontology blog, we would have concerns about using By-NC-SA materials as we use Patreon to solicit donations and our blog is arguably therefore commercial. (Part of the problem with the NC clause is that there is no rigorous definition of “commercial”.)

For all these reasons, we believe that your journal would better serve its authors, its readers, the academic community and broader society if its articles were published under the CC By licence. We hope that, if you agree, you are able to some point to help the journal make this transition. And if there’s anything Matt or I can do to assist that process, we’ll be happy to.

I’ve been on vacation for a couple of weeks, hence the radio silence here at SV-POW! after the flood of Supersaurus posts and Matt’s new paper on aberrant nerves in human legs.

But the world has not stood still in my absence (how rude of it!) and one of the more significant things to have happened in this time is the announcement of RVHost, a hosted end-to-end scholarly publishing solution provided by River Valley Technologies.

It’s not so long ago that scholarly publishing remained technically difficult, and could only be achieved by using expensive proprietary technologies. Journals that rolled their own tended to make rather creaky systems that were not much fun to use — and come to that, the commercial systems were mostly pretty wretched, too. But now there are a lot more options. I’ve surely missed some, but among the low-cost, open-oriented hosted publishing solutions out there are:

These platforms (and others that I have no doubt missed — do remind me, in the comments) provide a range of service levels and price points so that every journal should be able to find a service that suits it. Editorial boards wanting to move away from exploitative publishers have all sorts of options these days, and it’s ever easier to go open access.

Open-access journalist Richard Poynder posted a really good interview today with the Gates Foundation’s Associate Officer of Knowledge & Research Services, Ashley Farley. I feel bad about picking on one fragment of it, but I really can’t let this bit pass:

RP: As you said, Gates-funded research publications must now have a CC BY licence attached. They must also be made OA immediately. Does this imply that the Gates foundation sees no role for green OA? If it does see a role for green OA what is that role?

AF: I wouldn’t say that the foundation doesn’t see value or a role for green open access. However, the policy requires immediate access, reuse and copyright arrangements that green open access does not necessarily provide.

Before I get into this, let me say again that I have enormous admiration for what Ashley Farley and the Gates Foundation are doing for open access, and for open scholarship more widely. But:

The (excellent) Gates policy requires immediate access, reuse and copyright arrangements that gold open access does not necessarily provide, either. It provides them only because the Gates Foundation has quite rightly twisted publishers’ arms, and said you can only have our APCs if you meet our requirements.

And if green open access doesn’t provide immediate access and reuse, then that is because funders have not twisted publishers’ arms to allow this.

It’s perfectly possible to have a Green OA repository in which all the deposited papers are available immediately and licenced using CC By. It’s perfectly possible for a funder, university or other body to have a green OA policy that mandates this.

But it’s true that no-one seems to have a green OA policy that does this.

Why not?

You know what’s wrong with scholarly publishing?

Wait, scrub that question. We’ll be here all day. Let me jump straight to the chase and tell you the specific problem with scholarly publishing that I’m thinking of.

There’s nowhere to go to find all open-access papers, to download their metadata, to access it via an open API, to find out what’s new, to act as a platform for the development of new tools. Yes, there’s PubMed Central, but that’s only for work funded by the NIH. Yes, there’s Google Scholar, but that has no API, and at any moment could go the way of Google Wave and Google Reader when Google loses interest.

Instead, we have something like 4000 repositories out there, balkanised by institution, by geographical region, and by subject area. They have different UIs, different underlying data models, different APIs (if any). They’re built on different software platforms. It’s a jungle out there!


As researchers, we don’t need 4000 repos. You know what we need? One Repo.

Hey! That would be a good name for a project!

I’ve mentioned before how awesome and pro-open my employers, Index Data, are. (For those who are not regular readers, I’m a palaeontologist only in my spare time. By day, I’m a software engineer.) Now we’re working on an index of green/gold OA publishing. Metadata of every article across every repository and publisher. We want it to be complete, in the sense that we will be going aggressively for the long tail as opposed to focusing on some region or speciality, or things that are easily harvestable by OAI-PMH or other standards. We want it to be of a high, consistent quality in terms of metadata. We want it to be up to date. And most importantly, we want it to be fully open for all and any kind of re-use, by any other actor. This will include downloadable data files, OAI-PMH access, search-retrieve web services, embeddable widgets and more. We also envisage a Linked Data representation with a CRUD interface that allows third parties to contribute supplemental information, entity reconciliation, tagging, etc.

Instead of 4000 fragments, one big, meaty chunk of data.


Because we at Index Data have spent the last ten years helping aggregators and publishers and others getting access to difficult-to-access information through all kinds of crazy mechanisms, we have a unique combination of the skills, the tools, and the desire to pursue this venture.

So The One Repo is born. At the noment, we have:

  • Harvesting set up for an initial set of 20 repositories.
  • A demonstrator of one possible UI.
  • A whitepaper describing the motivation and some of the technical aspects.
  • A blog about the project’s progress.
  • An advisory board of some of the brightest, most experienced and wisest people in the world of open access.

We’ve been flying under the radar for the last month and a bit. Now we’re ready for the world to know what we’re up to.

The One Repo is go!

Provoked by Mike Eisen’s post today, The inevitable failure of parasitic green open access, I want to briefly lay out the possible futures of scholarly publishing as I see them. There are two: one based on what we now think of as Gold OA, and one on what we think of as Green OA.

Eisen is of course quite right that the legacy publishers only ever gave their blessing to Green OA (self-archiving) so long as they didn’t see it as a threat, so the end of that blessing isn’t a surprise. (I think it’s this observation that Richard Poynder misread as “an OA advocate legitimising Elsevier’s action”!) It was inevitable that this blessing would be withdrawn as Green started to become more mainstream — and that’s exactly what we’ve seen, with Elsevier responding to the global growth in Green OA mandates with a regressive new policy that has rightly attracted the ire of everyone who’s looked closely at it.

So I agree with him that what he terms “parasitic Green OA” — self-archiving alongside the established journal system — is ultimately doomed. The bottom line is that while we as a community continue to give control of our work to the legacy publishers — follow closely here — legacy publishers will control our work. We know that these corporations’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, science, customers, libraries, and indeed everyone but themselves. So leaving them in control of the scholarly record is unacceptable.

What are our possible futures?

Gold bars

We may find that in ten years’ time, all subscriptions journals are gone (perhaps except from a handful of boutique journals that a few people like, just as a few people prefer the sound of vinyl over CDs or MP3s).

We may find that essentially all new scholarship is published in open-access journals such as those of BioMed Central, PLOS, Frontiers and PeerJ. That is a financially sustainable path, in that publishers will be paid for the services they provide through APCs. (No doubt, volunteer-run and subsidised zero-APC journals will continue to thrive alongside them, as they do today.)

We may even find that some of the Gold OA journals of the future are run by organisations that are presently barrier-based publishers. I don’t think it’s impossible that some rump of Elsevier, Springer et al. will survive the coming subscription-journals crash, and go on to compete on the level playing-field of Gold OA publishing. (I think they will struggle to compete, and certainly won’t be able to make anything like the kind of money they do now, but that’s OK.)

This is the Gold-OA future that Mike Eisen is pinning his hopes on — and which he has done as much as anyone alive to bring into existence. I would be very happy with that outcome.


While I agree with Eisen that what he terms “parasitic Green” can’t last — legacy publishers will stamp down on it as soon as it starts to be truly useful — I do think there is a possible Green-based future. It just doesn’t involve traditional journals.

One of the striking things about the Royal Society’s recent Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication meetings was that during the day-two breakout session, so many of the groups independently came up with more or less the same proposal. The system that Dorothy Bishop expounded in the Guardian after the second meeting is also pretty similar — and since she wasn’t at the first meeting, I have to conclude that she also came up with it independently, further corroborating the sense that it’s an approach whose time has come.

(In fact, I started drafting an SV-POW! myself at that meeting describing the system that our break-out group came up with. But that was before all the other groups revealed their proposals, and it became apparent that ours was part of a blizzard, rather than a unique snowflake.)

Here are the features characterising the various systems that people came up with. (Not all of these features were in all versions of the system, but they all cropped up more than once.)

  • It’s based around a preprint archive: as with arXiv, authors can publish manuscripts there after only basic editorial checks: is this a legitimate attempt at scholarship, rather than spam or a political opinion?
  • Authors solicit reviews, as we did for for Barosaurus preprint, and interested others can offer unsolicited reviews.
  • Reviewers assign numeric scores to manuscripts as well as giving opinions in prose.
  • The weight given to review scores is affected by the reputation of reviewers.
  • The reputation of reviewers is affected by other users’ judgements about their comments, and also by their reputation as authors.
  • A stable user reputation emerges using a pagerank-like feedback algorithm.
  • Users can acquire reputation by authoring, reviewing or both.
  • Manuscripts have a reputation based on their score.
  • There is no single moment of certification, when a manuscript is awarded a “this is now peer-reviewed” bit.

I think it’s very possible that, instead of the all-Gold future outlined above, we’ll land up with something like this. Not every detail will work out the way I suggested here, of course, but we may well get something along these lines, where the emphasis is on very rapid initial publication and continuously acquired reputation, and not on a mythical and misleading “this paper is peer-reviewed” stamp.

(There are a hundred questions to be asked and answered about such systems: do we want one big system, or a network of many? If the latter, how will they share reputation data? How will the page-rank-like reputation algorithm work? Will it need to be different in different fields of scholarship? I don’t want to get sidetracked by such issues at this point, but I do want to acknowledge that they exist.)

Is this “Green open access”? It’s not what we usually mean by the term; but in as much as it’s about scholars depositing their own work in archives, yes, it’s Green OA in a broader sense.

(I think some confusion arises because we’ve got into the habit of calling deposited manuscripts “preprints”. That’s a misnomer on two counts: they’re not printed, and they needn’t be pre-anything. Manuscripts in arXiv may go onto be published in journals, but that’s not necessary for them to be useful in advancing scholarship.)


So where now? We have two possible open-access futures, one based on open-access publishing and one based on open-access self-archiving. For myself, I would be perfectly happy with either of these futures — I’m not particularly clear in my own mind which is best, but they’re both enormously better than what we have today.

A case can be made that the Green-based future is maybe a better place to arrive, but that the Gold-based future makes for an easier transition. It doesn’t require researchers to do anything fundamentally different from what they do today, only to do it in open-access journals; whereas the workflow in the Green-based approach outlined above would be a more radical departure. (Ironically, this is the opposite of what has often been said in the past: that the advantage of Green is that it offers a more painless upgrade path for researchers not sold on the importance of OA. That’s only true so long as Green is, in Eisen’s terms, “parasitic” — that is, so long as the repositories contain only second-class versions of papers that have been published conventionally behind paywalls.)

In my own open-access advocacy, then, I’m always unsure whether to push Gold or Green. In my Richard Poynder interview, when asked “What should be the respective roles of Green and Gold OA?” I replied:

This actually isn’t an issue that I get very excited about: Open is so much more important than Green or Gold. I suppose I slightly prefer Gold in that it’s better to have one single definitive version of each article; but then we could do that with Green as well if only we’d stop thinking of it as a stopgap solution while the “real” article remains behind paywalls.

Two and a half years on, I pretty much stand by that (and also by the caveats regarding the RCUK policy’s handing of Gold and Green that followed this quote in the interview.)

But I’m increasingly persuaded that the variety of Green OA that we only get by the grace and favour of the legacy publishers is not a viable long-term strategy. Elsevier’s new regressive policy was always going to come along eventually, and it won’t be the last shot fired in this war. If Green is going to win the world, it will be by pulling away from conventional journals and establishing itself as a valid mode of publication in its own right. (Again, much as arXiv has done.)


Here’s my concern, though. Paul Royser’s response to Eisen’s post was “Distressing to see the tone and rancor of OA advocates in disagreement. My IR is a “parasite”? Really?” Now, I think that comment was based on a misunderstanding of Eisen’s post (and maybe only on reading the title) but the very fact that such a misunderstanding was possible should give us pause.

Richard Poynder’s reading later in the same thread was also cautionary: “Elsevier will hope that the push back will get side-tracked by in-fighting … I think it will take comfort if the OA movement starts in-fighting instead of pushing back.”

Folks, let’s not fall for that.

We all know that Stevan Harned, among many others, is committed to Green; and that Mike Eisen, among many others, has huge investment in Gold. We can, and should, have rigorous discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. We should expect that OA advocates who share the same goal but have different backgrounds will differ over tactics, and sometimes differ robustly.

But there’s a world of difference between differing robustly and differing rancorously. Let’s all (me included) be sure we stay on the right side of that line. Let’s keep it clear in our minds who the enemy is: not people who want to use a different strategy to free scholarship, but those who want to keep it locked up.

And here ends my uncharacteristic attempt to position myself as The Nice, Reasonable One in this discussion — a role much better suited to Peter Suber or Stephen Curry, but it looks like I got mine written first :-)