Wednesday 16 March 2016

The High Price of Open Access

We've been chatting about open access journals, and how surprisingly expensive it is to publish in them. Obviously there are costs involved in publishing, but given it's all digital and a lot of the labour remains free, why is it so high?

Because we are clearly just floating along in the zeitgeist and completely, if subconsciously, attuned to the academic universe, it turns out this question arose the other day on Twitter. Andrew Kern started with this tweet and then continued to dig (full Storify of the tweets here).
The answer, it turns out, is that the very large amount of money that PLOS makes goes into all kinds of surprising things; huge (but unfortunately normal) CEO salaries, investments in stocks etc, building up reserves, and investment in the company and it's infrastructure (in particular a new submission system). Michael Eisen then came back with some useful context (full Storify here) which addresses some of these issues; much of the investment in the company is around open access advocacy, etc).

PLOS created open access, and proved it could be done and make money. This is a remarkable achievement done in a pretty small amount of time. They are strong advocates for open access and this advocacy requires time, people and money to advertise, attend conferences, lobby and more. All of this is important work and I really do appreciate it - open access simply must be the future of scientific publishing.

I am, however, still not convinced that I should be paying for that activity via my article processing fees.

PLOS tweeted out about what they do with their money in response to the online discussion:
This is lovely, but why am I paying for it with my APCs?
Also lovely, but surely this is only required because there are high APCs in the first place, and those are mostly paying for other things.
Great, but again why am I paying for this with APCs?
Irrelevant, and besides, with economies of scale, shouldn't costs be going down with more submissions?
As Eisen discusses in this replies to Kern, this actually is legitimately important (although remember, their mission covers a lot of things I am not yet convinced should be paid for by APCs).

I have no idea how to pay for all the very real things that PLOS and others have to do in order to help push the field through the transition from paywalls to open access. But APCs are too damned high and they are creating barriers to entry into the open access world.

APCs are high in many places because they are a way for the big journal companies to continue making the money they used to make via library subscriptions (and actually that's money they are still making right now, although hopefully not in the future). APCs are high at PLOS for the same basic reason: to make enough money to sustain their company. Now, their business activity is more about creating and sustaining open access as a publishing model, more so than simply 'making everyone involved a profit'. But given that I'm not sure I should be paying for them to do that mission via APCs, from my first-person perspective the motivation makes no real difference because the end result is the same - a high cost at my point of entry.

The other issue is where the money is really coming from. I'm not paying APCs. Taxpayers are, via the grants and other university sources of income being used. In all cases, that money (which was often specifically given to us to do research) is being used to support a business that is only partly about communicating that research. Why should any of us be paying PLOS to advocate for open access through this route?

Here's the thing - I might be wrong, and this might actually be just fine because we all benefit so much from open access that helping fund its creation should indeed be part of the price of doing science. But I heard a lot of rumbles on Twitter from people and institutions who aren't that thrilled, and maybe, just maybe, it's time for PLOS to use it's money made from taking the first step towards OA and help the publishing world take the next step towards true open access by removing or lowering APCs and finding another way to fund its other work.

Or, you know:


  1. One reason why you could be paying PLOS (instead of non-gold-OA publishers) is that you also support a journal where you are sure you can read it next year too, and the year after that, etc You need to compare it to the alternative: scientists are now *also* paying for publishing for free, just via a different route. Hidden cost, typically higher, and in the 5000 dollar range.

  2. Can I ask a really silly question? How do I subscribe to your blog via email? I see your Subscribe To options but there isn't a simple email subscription - as far as I can see. Can you guide me to one please? Thanks!

    1. I added the 'subscribe by email' widget so that should be an option now.

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