Academic Publishing Profits Enough To Fund Open Access To Every Research Article In Every Field

from the let's-just-do-it dept

The arguments against open access have moved on from the initial "it'll never work" to the "maybe it'll work, but it's not sustainable" stage. That raises a valid point, of course: who will pay for journals that make their content freely available online?

There are many open access business models that are being tried, and one of the most obvious ones is to charge authors a publication fee Ė in fact, many traditional academic journals do that as well as making readers pay a subscription fee. In practise, the fee is usually paid by the author's funding institution as part of their overall support for research.

A per-article publication fee is the approach adopted by one of the leading open access publishers, Public Library of Science (PLoS). Its announcement earlier this year that revenue now covers its operating costs is an important data point in establishing the viability of the open access approach.

Meanwhile, on the traditional publishing side, Heather Morrison has been analysing the profits of the major academic publisher Elsevier (disclosure: I worked in one of Reed-Elsevier's divisions a few decades ago) on her splendidly-named blog "The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics":
If the total profit from Elsevier and Lexis-Nexis is added together and converted to U.S. dollars, the total is $2,075m. Divided by the estimated worldwide scholarly article output of 1.5 million articles per year (Björk et al, 2008), this comes out to $1,383 U.S.
That figure is very close to the $1350 article fee charged by PLoS for its biggest title, PLoS ONE, which means:
the profits of this one company alone could fund a global, fully open access scholarly publishing system, at a rate of $1,383 U.S. per article.
A comment on a post on another blog with a fantastic name - "Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week" (what is it about open access advocates and their blogs?) - pointed out that this calculation was incorrect, and that the actual figure was more like $730 per article. But adding in the profits of another major academic publisher, Springer, would bring the overall profit per article published back up to the PLoS ONE level.

But those are just details; what really matters is the fact that collectively the top two or maybe three publishers take out of the academic world enough profits to pay for every research article in every discipline to be made freely available online for everyone to access using PLoS's publishing fee approach.

As Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week's Mike Taylor explains, that would mean:
Dentists would be able to keep up with the relevant literature. Small businesses would be able to make plans with full information. The Climate Code Foundation would have a sounder and more up-to-date scientific basis for its work. Patient groups would be able to understand their diseases and give informed consent for treatment. Medical charities, amateur palaeontologists, ornithologists and so many more would have access to the information they need. Researchers in third-world countries could have the information they need to cope with life-threatening issues of health, food and water.

We can have all that for our $2.075 billion per year. Or we can keep giving it to Elsevierís [+Springer's] shareholders. Giving it, remember: not buying something with it. Donít forget, this is not the money that Elsevier absorbs as its costs: salaries, rent, connectivity, what have you. This is their profit. Itís pure profit. This is the money that is taken out of the system.

So, yes, open access is cheaper. Stupidly cheaper. Absurdly, ridiculously, appallingly cheaper.
It's an intriguing thought: to provide global access to all current academic research we just need to flip from one system Ė the present one, where a few giant corporations make billions of dollars a year Ė to one where open access publishers break even, and where academic institutions save money. So what are we waiting for?

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Yogi, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 12:30am

    A new law?

    We are waiting for the publisher's lobbyists to order a new law from Congre$$ prohibiting the distribution of academic research in an open access manner becuase it is a Communist, un-American, terrorist business practice that undermines MOM, baseball, apple pie and everything wholesome and good that America stands for!!

    GOD BLESS AMERICA!!! TASER THE FREETARDS!!! KILL THE ATHEISTS!!!

    (etc. etc.)

     

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  2.  
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    Markus Hopkins (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 12:46am

    I think the idea is great, but...

    The logic here is flawed, at least in terms of taking the companies' profits and saying they there is enough from those to fully fund open access. The breakdown occurs when you consider that those same profits come from charging fees (subscription or otherwise) for access to the content it is proposed they could provide open access to. While it it is great that the PLoS ONE model is profitable, to act like the other companies' profits exist independently of access charges does not further the discussion.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 12:48am

    Why don't researchers do an Omemo(aka social storage, distributed storage, crowd sourced storage)?

    Every single user can contribute to create a large storage facility distributed around the world.

    How many people would install it in their computers?
    This could even work in conjunction with PLoS and it would cost a lot less than $2 billion dollars.

    The problem is, the internet is to slow, and it is still pricy, speeds need to go up at least to 1 gigabits in every home and caps should be a thing of the past.

    Medical images take a lot of space one CT scan session can easily reach gigabytes of data, LIDAR images are gigabytes in size, simulations and sensors can generate terabytes of data to be analysed and transferred. So studies with data could be distributed to everyone.

     

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  4.  
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    Griff, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 2:09am

    Seems to make no sense

    This bizarre conclusion seems to make no sense.

    Seems to be saying if every published paper worldwide had been charged a publication fee of $1300, it would have amounted to the Elsevier profit number.

    The fact that PLoS can run on an open access model is certainly relevant to the discussion, but equating the numbers with a company's profits seems meaningless.

    What I'd like to see is a comparison between what Universities typically spend on paid access vs what they would pay if the $1300 publishing fee was introduced universally.
    If these numbers are compelling, then the Universities may want to campaign together for a change in how the world works. And that would be a big force to reckon with.

    Someone needs to show the for profit journals that there is an open access model they can still pay shareholders with, and this post seems to show the opposite. That Elsevier & Springer would need to charge $1300 on every paper in the world (not just their own) to return the same amount to shareholders that they currently do.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 2:10am

    Hooray!

    Glynn has finally realised his name has capital letters at the start!

     

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  6.  
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    PaulT (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 2:26am

    Re: Hooray!

    But only one 'n' at the end ;)

     

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  7.  
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    Mike Taylor (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 3:05am

    Re: I think the idea is great, but...

    Here is the point: the profits of non-open publishers such as Elsevier overwhelmingly come out of money spent by academic libraries for access to paywalled contant. That money in turn comes from the universities whose libraries they are. If all the universities instead spent that same money on open-access publishing charges, then they would have overwhelmingly enough to fund ALL research many times over, and all of it open to the world.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 4:21am

    Re: Seems to make no sense

    why should academic journals have shareholders? there's your problem.

     

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  9.  
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    Chris-Mouse (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 5:29am

    Re: Seems to make no sense

    Someone needs to show the for profit journals that there is an open access model they can still pay shareholders with, and this post seems to show the opposite.
    You're missing an important point here.
    The research is paid for by others, largely public tax money.
    The writing is done for free by the researchers.
    Peer review is also done for free by other researchers.

    The publishers merely take the work done by others and lock it behind a paywall to cover 'distribution costs' and profits for shareholders. Why should the publishers be allowed to claim exclusive rights to work paid for by others when there are proven methods of distribution that cover all the costs involved without putting artificial limits of the distribution?

     

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  10.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 6:33am

    "Free" and "open access" works if /someone/ puts in money.

    Academia actually has tons of money from endowments and investments -- somehow even sports programs "make" money among supposed intellectuals -- so much that could probably make tuition free everywhere. Certainly could with the right gov't rules: France does, for instance.

    But there's the darn /greed/ factor that just continues to screw up "capitalism" by channeling all its benefits to a few. I'd bet that here, academia (or individual academics) either directly "invest" in publishing houses, or somehow get a kickback from it. Anywhere is piles of money is corruption.

     

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  11.  
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    Sheepy, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 7:00am

    Like others, I don't think the comparison with Elsevier makes sense, even as a big fan of open access and hater of current journal/database fee structures. But as a grad student, I would be screwed if the world moved to a model where authors pay publication fees -- ain't no way my institution or funders are forking over more than a grand for me to publish. And in many cases the more radical research is being done by grad students rather than full professors, because we have less to lose by following a risky hunch.

    PLoS says they offer waivers, but gives no information about how readily nor what the criteria are to receive one.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 7:37am

    Re:

    All they really need is one host and a torrent file.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 7:38am

    Re:

    Think of it like this. I know, for a fact (Since I work on managing the database system) that if you took all the articles published by the university multiplied by 1300 and compared them to what we currently spend, we'd be saving a big chunk of change.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 7:39am

    Re: "Free" and "open access" works if /someone/ puts in money.

    Wow, out_of_the_blue came into the sunshine.

     

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  15.  
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    Re: Everyone who doesn't get it, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 7:52am

    It's pretty simple. The publishing companies really add nothing to the equation. The money being poured into them on both sides, if paid to a non-profit instead, could provide the entire world with the information that this for-profit company is locking down.

     

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  16.  
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    rubberpants, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 8:16am

    Re:

    But, then no one would be making any money from the process. That concept is unfathomable to some and heresy to others.

     

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  17.  
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    Heather Morrison, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 8:30am

    Why publishers' profits are relevant

    The reason why publishers' profits are relevant is because the vast majority of revenue comes from academic library budgets (over 70%). If this funding were prudently redirected to support OA, there would not only be enough, but far more than enough. Which is important, because libraries need to clear up funds to support research data and preservation services.

    Prudent means support quality publishers and journals with real OA at reasonable prices. Sometimes this means paying article processing fees, other times providing hosting and support services.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 8:39am

    Re: Re:

    Sure they would. Employees get paid competitively even in non-profits. Granted, there wouldn't be a handful of people sitting at the topic with a checkbook growing by $2.5mil/yr, but they might just wind up having to get real jobs.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 8:44am

    Re: Re: Re:

    s/topic/top/

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 9:00am

    Why are they charging ANYTHING for publishing? Can they not earn enough with ad placement?

    By charging to publish content are you not limiting your content to contributors with funding? Do poor people not provide good content?

    This is an outrage! The elitist with their big bankrolls are going to flood the published research world and smaller institutions and stand-alone researchers will not be able to afford these submission fees.

     

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  21.  
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    Markus Hopkins (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 9:57am

    Re: Re: I think the idea is great, but...

    No it's not. The fact that PLoS ONE can keep in business based on the fees garnered from the authors and authors' institutions already shows that research can be funded that way. The purpose of discussing the profits of the companies is meant to show that their profits alone could also allow open access (and thereby imply they are hampering this effort because they can, and not because it is a reasonable part of their particular business model). My point is that we're comparing apples to oranges with the profits talk, because front end fees are not their only source of revenue. Maybe it's most of it, but taking away even a very small percentage moves us much farther away from the 1350/1385 number that is being bandied about. Again, PLoS shows this can work, so we don't even need to worry about whether the big players can make it work, but the article implies they could just flip a switch and still operate at at least break-even, which has not been shown at all.

     

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  22.  
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    Markus Hopkins (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 10:02am

    Re: Why publishers' profits are relevant

    So we should be talking about that, and those numbers. I'd love to see the data on that. Talking about profits from who knows exactly what sources of income is unhelpful, until we can see specifics. That would have been a great article to read, had it been written here, or at the referenced blogs.

     

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  23.  
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    lucidrenegade (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 10:54am

    Re: Re: "Free" and "open access" works if /someone/ puts in money.

    Sometimes he makes sense, other times it's just incoherent babbling and attacking Mike.

    My money is on multiple personality disorder.

     

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  24.  
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    PrometheeFeu (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 1:05pm

    I don't understand... What is $1,300 paying for? Researchers do peer-reviews for free. Being a journal editor is in many fields an honor that many will fight for. Just publicly host your papers on your websites and let the market figure out how to make money off of it. Most likely some search engine will emerge in just a few months.

     

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  25.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 4:21pm

    Re: Re: Re: "Free" and "open access" works if /someone/ puts in money.

    My money is on multiple personality disorder.

    IANAP, but I believe Bipolar is much more likely. Potentially Schizophrenia, which would account for the paranoia and incoherent babbling (they think what they are saying makes sense, but nobody can understand them.)

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 4th, 2011 @ 11:56am

    A MORE REALISTIC WAY TO DO THE ARITHMETIC...

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age, pp. 99-105, L'Harmattan. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/15753/
    ABSTRACT: What the research community needs, urgently, is free online access (Open Access, OA) to its own peer-reviewed research output. Researchers can provide that in two ways: by publishing their articles in OA journals (Gold OA) or by continuing to publish in non-OA journals and self-archiving their final peer-reviewed drafts in their own OA Institutional Repositories (Green OA). OA self-archiving, once it is mandated by research institutions and funders, can reliably generate 100% Green OA. Gold OA requires journals to convert to OA publishing (which is not in the hands of the research community) and it also requires the funds to cover the Gold OA publication costs. With 100% Green OA, the research community's access and impact problems are already solved. If and when 100% Green OA should cause significant cancellation pressure (no one knows whether or when that will happen, because OA Green grows anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal) then the cancellation pressure will cause cost-cutting, downsizing and eventually a leveraged transition to OA (Gold) publishing on the part of journals. As subscription revenues shrink, institutional windfall savings from cancellations grow. If and when journal subscriptions become unsustainable, per-article publishing costs will be low enough, and institutional savings will be high enough to cover them, because publishing will have downsized to just peer-review service provision alone, offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories. Green OA will have leveraged a transition to Gold OA.

     

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  27.  
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    Stevan Harnad (profile), Nov 4th, 2011 @ 11:59am

    A MORE REALISTIC WAY TO DO THE ARITHMETIC...

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age, pp. 99-105, L'Harmattan.
    ABSTRACT: What the research community needs, urgently, is free online access (Open Access, OA) to its own peer-reviewed research output. Researchers can provide that in two ways: by publishing their articles in OA journals (Gold OA) or by continuing to publish in non-OA journals and self-archiving their final peer-reviewed drafts in their own OA Institutional Repositories (Green OA). OA self-archiving, once it is mandated by research institutions and funders, can reliably generate 100% Green OA. Gold OA requires journals to convert to OA publishing (which is not in the hands of the research community) and it also requires the funds to cover the Gold OA publication costs. With 100% Green OA, the research community's access and impact problems are already solved. If and when 100% Green OA should cause significant cancellation pressure (no one knows whether or when that will happen, because OA Green grows anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal) then the cancellation pressure will cause cost-cutting, downsizing and eventually a leveraged transition to OA (Gold) publishing on the part of journals. As subscription revenues shrink, institutional windfall savings from cancellations grow. If and when journal subscriptions become unsustainable, per-article publishing costs will be low enough, and institutional savings will be high enough to cover them, because publishing will have downsized to just peer-review service provision alone, offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories. Green OA will have leveraged a transition to Gold OA.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    Brendan (profile), Nov 5th, 2011 @ 9:36pm

    Re:

    But this is exactly the point: your school /already/ spends that money, except they are paying for "access" to the journals, rather than a publishing fee.

    So you take the same money they pay for access now, get rid of that, and pay an open journal a publish fee instead. (You also get access -- its open.)

    The school is no worse off (probably better off once economies of scale kick in past the threshold), and the world is better off with global access.

    You see?

     

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  29.  
    identicon
    Scott Epstein, Nov 8th, 2011 @ 4:15am

    Profit vs. Costs

    One small hiccup: You're talking about PROFIT, not REVENUE. So you wouldn't be covering the COSTS (like, for example, my salary--I work for Springer) with that fee. Especially given that operating margins would typically be, say 10% after EBIDTA or so.

    So the APC has to cover the REVENUE, which is the costs PLUS the profit*.

    NB: This should not be taken as not supporting Open Access, only quibbling about the APC cost. And, of course, my opinions are my own, not Springer's etc., etc.

    Scott Epstein
    *FWIW, University Presses, like OUP, ALSO like to make profit. They just turn theirs over the University Trustees (i.e., "shareholders") rather than to an equity fund or stockholders.

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Open Access, May 13th, 2012 @ 11:03pm

    publishing

    Not only acedamic publishing Companies even scientific publishing Companies are charging publication fees for every article to be published in online. This open access publishing companies became commercial.

     

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  31.  
    identicon
    Open Access, May 13th, 2012 @ 11:48pm

    publishing

    Not only acedamic publishing Companies even scientific publishing Companies are charging publication fees for every article to be published in online. This open access publishing companies became commercial.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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