Economics of open access

Debate over open access to scientific articles is steadily moving into the mainstream, with the publication this month of an editorial in The New York Times, a recently introduced Congressional bill to promote open access publishing, and a television commercial sponsored by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a California-based group that plans to launch an open-access journal in October.

As enthusiasm grows, however, some sceptics wonder whether open-access journals will succeed financially, since they charge relatively small “article processing fees,” paid upfront by the researcher, instead of substantial fees for institutional library subscriptions. If these fees cannot cover the basic costs of publishing, then open access could go the way of many free services provided by dot-com companies during the Internet bubble, warned Michael Held, executive director of The Rockefeller University Press, in a recent editorial in the Journal of Cell Biology.

But proponents of open access say they are confident they can cover the costs of publishing without running into the red. PLoS plans to charge $1500 per submitted article. BioMed Central, a partner of The Scientist, charges $500 per article and recoups costs through value-added services. BioMed Central also offers institutional memberships that allow the institution’s researchers to publish in BioMed Central’s 90-plus journals without paying the fee.

While critics say that scientists will balk at paying upfront fees, which will probably come out of their grants and will mean less money for other laboratory activities, proponents of open access say that the fees are competitive with the “page charges” that some journals already charge for colour images and the like.

Most funding agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation, already allow researchers to use their grant money for publishing purposes, said Michael Eisen, a geneticist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a bioinformatics researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of PLoS. “Scientific agencies are already paying the costs of publishing,” said Eisen. “They are just doing it in an indirect manner.”

Once open-access publishing becomes more established, Eisen said, universities might consider picking up the tab in lieu of spending taxpayer money on costly journal subscriptions. British universities have already made such a move by partnering en masse with BioMed Central, allowing any NHS or University researcher in the United Kingdom to publish in a BioMed Central journal without paying article-processing charges. A number of prominent US universities have also joined BioMed Central.

If funding agencies were to grant funds explicitly ear-marked for upfront publishing costs, Held said that he would “take a closer look” at the open-access model. “I believe, however, that the amount set aside in the grants would have to be significantly larger than currently proposed by PLoS for a viable business model to be maintained,” he added.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has started a policy of making $3000 available to grantees to spend on open access journals. “We think open-access publishing has tremendous potential,” said Thomas Cech, president of HHMI.

So far, no US government agency has followed suit. But the National Library of Medicine has had a long-standing commitment to open-access archiving through its online citation database, PubMed, and, more recently, through its repository of open-access articles, PubMed Central. These services are run by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Its director, David Lipman, told The Scientist that he is now working with a group at NIH to formulate policy options for NIH Director Elias Zerhouni.

While universities express optimism and publishers of traditional journals exhibit skepticism about the economic viability of open-access publishing, few on either side of the debate can respond to the question, “How much does it cost to publish a scientific paper?”

“That is a really tough question to answer,” said John Willinsky, an economist at the University of British Columbia. Each journal has slightly different methods to account for costs such as editing, proofreading, formatting, Web services, and other tasks.

Using income tax records, however, Willinsky conducted an analysis of publishing costs as a proportion of total operating costs of scholarly associations. Of the 20 associations he surveyed, 14 did not generate enough income from their journals (through subscriptions and royalties) to compensate for the cost of producing the journal and often used membership dues and other revenue sources to subsidize the journals.

If subsidies are already necessary to pay the costs of publishing the journals of scholarly associations, the question becomes, how will they and other nonprofits afford to publish journals without income from library subscriptions? “It would seem to me that a publisher in the open-access model would have to bill the author, just as we do now for page charges, colour charges, and authors’ alterations on a ‘real’ cost basis if the business model is to be viable,” said Held.

“It would be next to impossible to set a flat rate per paper that would be meaningful,” he said. “As it is, publishing in print and online, our authors can pay a significant amount, approaching that suggested by PLoS if the article is long with a number of colour figures. Clearly, the overall cost for a single paper will be significantly higher than PLoS is estimating.”

Early adopters of the open-access concept, such as BioMed Central, recognized the costs inherent in producing journals in print, using the traditional, fairly labour-intensive, process for handling manuscripts through peer-review to publication, and instead started out by developing software packages that automate the peer-review process and other tedious tasks associated with producing an article. This, along with online-only publication, has allowed them to streamline publication and reduce costs.

Willinsky thinks this is the way to go. “The irony for me is that principle costs of running a journal—editors, authors, and peer reviewers—are free,” said Willinsky, who has developed such software, called Open Journal Systems. “If you reduce the costs for everything else, you could afford to pay the copyeditors and other needed staff,” Willinsky said.

One way to streamline costs is to simply discontinue printed versions of journals, said Willinsky. “The paradigm that arose under print structure may not be the most appropriate way to go forward,” said Paul Uhlir, director of the Office of International Scientific and Technical Information Programs at the National Academies of Science. He added that this is an area that the National Academies want to study more thoroughly.

Commercial publishers face not only competition from open-access journals, but also from each other. Some economists view scientific publishing as a mature market. “Consolidation is inevitable,” said Joseph Esposito, president of SRI Consulting in Menlo Park, Calif. He added that consolidation could include commercial publishers taking over non-profit and open-access publishers.

But Peter Suber, an open-access advocate at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., said that even if open-access publishers were taken over by commercial enterprises, their previous output would remain in the public domain. “While not blessed with eternal life, open-access journals give a more plausible assurance of longevity than toll-access e-journals,” Suber said, “whose licensing terms prevent libraries from archiving them for long-term preservation.”

Letter to the Editor: 22 August 2003

In her article on the economics of open access, Catherine Zandonella incorrectly characterizes my views. She wrote, “Peter Suber…said that even if open-access publishers were taken over by commercial enterprises, their previous output would remain in the public domain.” When she interviewed me on this subject, I said that the back issues of open access journals would remain online and openly accessible. I did not say that they would remain in the public domain, and I knew perfectly well that many of them were never in the public domain in the first place. Her way of paraphrasing my position makes it appear that I loosely equate open access with the public domain when, on the contrary, I have repeatedly argued against this damaging simplification over the years.

Just for the record: open access is compatible with copyright and does not require the public domain. Using works from the public domain is indeed one way that open access can steer clear of infringement problems. But using the consent of the copyright holder is just as effective. Moreover, rights holder consent has some important advantages over the public domain. First, it lets authors retain some rights, including the right to block the distribution of mangled or misattributed copies of their work. Second, it avoids picking unnecessary quarrels with defenders of copyright and thereby enlarges the range of potential allies who can support open access.


Peter Suber
Research Professor of Philosophy, Earlham College
Open Access Project Director, Public Knowledge
Author, SPARC Open Access Newsletter
Editor, Open Access News blog

The Scientist
22 August 2003

Original web page at The Scientist