Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Big Commercial Publishers Can Help Themselves

Big commercial publishers - especially Elsevier - have been getting a lot of flack lately. There's the usual background noise about high costs of institutional subscriptions and individual PDFs for non-subscribers, and now we have concerns over SOPA, PIPA, RWA and the burgeoning Elsevier boycott. I think it's fair to say that the argument has been dominated most strongly by the publishers' critics. Nonetheless, there is invariably someone who pipes up in comment threads (or in posts at sites like The Scholarly Kitchen) in defense of the publishers.

Pro-commercial publisher arguments almost always include the term "added value" or something similar. In other words, the big publishers add something beyond the raw manuscript and figures that are provided by the authors. I think very few people will dispute this claim, at least at its face*. The publishers:
  • facilitate peer review by paying for a manuscript handling system (either licensing a commercial product or installing an open source product on servers they pay for) [note that this is not the same as doing the peer review, which is done by volunteer referees and unpaid or minimally-paid editors]
  • do some copy editing
  • format the manuscripts into a pretty PDF and web page
  • provide a veneer of respectability with well-known journal "brands"
  • distribute the journals to libraries and interested readers, via subscriptions, web hosting, and proprietary search engines
  • and other miscellaneous things
[*To forestall the inevitable comments, yes, some of these "services" are of dubious value to many users]

Look, I appreciate the fact that all of this costs money. Somebody needs to be paid to do the formatting into the appropriate medium (whether web page or PDF), technical staff need to make sure the authors submit the files in the right format, it costs money to run a server, programmers don't come cheap, and all of the various functions of a business/journal aren't free (office space, salaries for necessary employees, etc.).

But does it really cost so much that publishers have to charge $37.95 for a single PDF file, or $392 for a personal subscription to a journal?

Maybe the answer is yes (forgetting the 30%+ profits for many major publishers). Maybe it does cost a lot of money to produce an article. Fine. Just do a better job of convincing me that it's worth it. Particularly when some of the most labor-intensive tasks (typesetting and peer review) are provided for free by the authors and their colleagues.

Many large publishers have an established list of things they do that cost money. They've done a decent job of publicizing these talking points, judging by the facts that they show up so often in comment feeds and that I was able to assemble the bullet points above virtually from memory.

However, publishers have performed miserably at convincing us that $37.95 is a reasonable price for a PDF download. Elsevier and company could deflect much criticism if they were to be more honest and transparent about the costs behind a journal article. How much time/money actually goes into formatting? How much does it really cost to serve a file to the internet, over multiple years? What is the honest per-article cost for the manuscript submission system? How many people actually buy articles? Instead we're stuck with the broken record of "oh, this stuff costs money, OA advocates just think it all happens for free. . ."

Finally, here's my most pressing question: If economies of scale apply to publishing, why are the largest publishers providing some of the most expensive services? (in terms of solo journal subscription rates, individual PDF downloads, and open access fees) Wow, would I love the answer to that one!

Post script: It seems that many folks are having similar thoughts. Check out Bj√∂rn Brembs' round-up here.


Heinrich Mallison said...

Let me put it this way:
Palaeontologia Electronica published some 45 research and technical articles last year (I am not counting editorials, reviews, etc. - just to make that very clear). If each article would cost $25, and each article was bought about 10 times, the journal would, I guess, be financed. Only ten times - and that's without any library subscriptions etc. to bolster things further.

So how much does copy editing and all the rest really cost? Especially when we consider that some big publishers these days want volunteers to do the grunt work for them.

Andy said...

Thanks for the insight, Heinrich. As I'm sure you realize, it's not journals like PE (published as a not-for-profit) that I worry about - it's places like Cretaceous Research, PPP, etc.

Heinrich Mallison said...

Well, that#s the point, isn't it? If PE can do it for that price, a commercial publisher should be able to do it for what - double? Triple? Even if it costs them four times as much a price of some $30 or more per paper is simply not justified.

Mike Taylor said...

Needless to say, I strongly agree that it would be great to see some actual numbers on all this from Elsevier. I am not sure I agree this would exactly help them: I suspect their lack of transparency is a policy rather than an oversight.

And to be fair, I would like to see the numbers for PLoS ONE as well. Where does the $1350 go? Yes, it's well below half of what Elsevier and T&F charge for "sponsored articles", and for a much better product, but it's still good to know actual amounts.

Andy said...

If they can show that $37.95 is a legitimate price for an individual PDF, or that $12,000 is a legitimate price for a journal title, they could
presumably shut down criticism that they're overcharging for their service. (by legitimate, meaning that there is no way to charge only $5 or $15 or whatever the going rate should be)

I too am curious as to numbers for PLoS ONE.

Mike Taylor said...

"If they can show that $37.95 is a legitimate price for an individual PDF, or that $12,000 is a legitimate price for a journal title, they could presumably shut down criticism that they're overcharging for their service."

My point is, I don't believe they can show any such thing. If they did release numbers, and didn't fiddle them, those numbers would most likely show that $37.95 is not a legitimate price for access to a PDF. Which is why they don't release them.

Andy said...

Hence the point of my post - (some) publishers need to put up or shut up.

Raptor's Nest said...

I thought the revenue generated through PLoS ONE was to support the high running costs of PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine.

Bjoern Brembs said...

For my next publication with PLoS One, I'll try and ask for a partial waiver: I'd like to see my fee reduced by the percentage that goes towards keeping the PLoS community journals alive. Last I asked, I was told it was less than 20US$ per article. The official numbers released by PLoS are not broken down by journal, unfortunately.

Mike Taylor said...

Bjorn, what do you have against the PLoS community journals? (That's PLoS Genetics, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Pathogens, and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, for anyone who, like me, hadn't heard the term before.)

Are you still happy for your PLoS ONE fee to fund the PLoS flagship journals (PLoS Medicine and PLoS Biology)?

If the amount of PLoS one publication fee that goes to support the other journals really is as low as $20 (1.5%), then PLoS should make that figure publicly known, and dispose of the myth that PLoS ONE is single-handedly keeping the whole enterprise afloat.

Bjoern Brembs said...

I was referring to all other PLoS journals. I thought 'Flagship' was a subset of 'Community'. I stand corrected.

The figure I was quoted (<$20) was a back of the envelope calculation by a PLoS senior employee at a conference. I never saw the calculation, she just quoted me the sum. I'd like to have an official figure, because I don't want to fund the publications of other people without good reason.

I have argued with a bunch of the PLoS people in private (and posted it in public) that I'd prefer PLoS to phase out all their other journals and reduce the OA fee of P1 accordingly.

Mike Taylor said...

More interesting still! So the back-of-envelope calculation was that only $20 of the PLoS ONE's $1350 goes to support all the other PLoS journals.

For myself, I think that is a perfectly good investment, and that it's healthy for the PLoS brand to have other journals than just ONE -- if only to defeat the unfounded assertions of those who claim that PLoS is just a dumping ground for weak papers. Having a journal with IF=13, leading its JCR category, gives the lie to such notions in their own terms.