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 – 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 Elsevier’s [+Springer's] shareholders. Giving it, remember: not buying something with it. Don’t forget, this is not the money that Elsevier absorbs as its costs: salaries, rent, connectivity, what have you. This is their profit. It’s 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 – the present one, where a few giant corporations make billions of dollars a year – to one where open access publishers break even, and where academic institutions save money. So what are we waiting for?

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Filed Under: academic research, open access, plos, research
Companies: elsevier


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  1. icon
    Markus Hopkins (profile), 3 Nov 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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