Three of the major ways publications are funded are the subscription model, the advertising model, and what I’ll call the “source-pays” model (authors or sponsors pay, representing the source of the research report). The three models have co-existed for years within what was commonly understood as the subscription model, with author fees taking some burden off subscribers and advertising taking yet more off in some cases. Advertising also c0-exists in some cases with the source-pays model, usually when there’s a specifically valuable or sufficiently large audience to be reached. And some source-pays publishers also ask for subscription-like fees from institutions, waiving publication fees for associated authors.
A mix of models also contains a mix of motivations.
The subscription (or reader-pays) model is about a bargain based on expectations — if readers don’t value the content they expected they’d receive, they stop paying for it. It also allows narrow-interest or niche articles to co-exist and be paid for when they ride along with high-profile or general interest articles — the bundle being paid for in advance, editors have some freedom to explore. If the editor strikes the right balance, readers get enough value from whichever articles they value highly while accepting that not everything of editorial merit will be for them. There is little conflict of interest at the base of this model, because the editor and reader are aligned — both want the right mix of quality and value for readers on an ongoing basis.
The advertising model is rightly scrutinized for conflict of interest. After all, if sponsors or advertisers were to have influence over editorial content, the incentives of academic publishing could be further warped by subtle or explicit pressures from sponsors and advertisers. Therefore, policies have to be created and published, statements about a lack of influence have to be both created and enforced, and the firewall between advertisers and editors must be maintained. Even when it is, readers are sometimes (rightly) suspicious. Single-sponsor distributions are the most suspicious, while mixed advertising often features competitors, underscoring the level playing field and diminishing the perception of bias. But there is still a meta-perception — that advertising-driven journals are more sympathetic with industry. Alignment is not clear — there may be cross-purposes between editors and advertisers — so there is friction and concern.
The sponsor-pays model has intrinsic motivations all its own — essentially, it’s about author service rather than reader service. Alignment between editor and audience isn’t clear, as the editors are providing a service to authors first and foremost. This point can be obscured through equivocation, a fact that was revealed nicely in a recent comment on this blog:
Under open access, the money that keeps the Publisher in business comes from the same sources as in the traditional publishing model, it is just delivered before an article is published instead of being paid afterward to provide researchers with access.
The author of the comment stated that since the source of the funding – academic budget – is identical between subscription purchasing and publication fees, there is no real difference to be found. And, to continue the inference, since source-pays usually provides free access, it’s obviously superior.
There’s more than money at play when you compare these models, and that little reminder led me back to the basic questions of descriptive journalism – who, what, when, where, and why – to compare my beliefs with those who believe source-pays funding of publishing doesn’t consist of a distinct set of motivations.
So, I spent some time to work through these basic motivators of action:
- Who – The funding for subscriptions usually comes from a library budget, a department budget, or an individual’s personal funds. Obviously, the funding from advertisers comes from large and small companies in the relevant field. The funding for source-pays is different — it also comes from demand, but the demand is not for information; rather, it’s demand for publication, prestige, and recognition. The value is about expediency and credibility. A recent quote from the head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute sums it up — “efficient” publication is the goal. This can make sense for a busy scientist who wants to get back to the bench or lab, but for the busy reader, it may only add a burden — more to sort through.
- What – What readers and their proxies pay for is value and utility of information; what advertisers pay for is exposure to an audience in a vehicle with a penumbra of respectability and prestige; and what sources of funding and authors pay for is expediency. Subscription-based journals can grow in size, but often return to a leaner form in order to keep costs to readers down. Advertising-driven journals swell or shink in sync with the economy — or at least they did in the print era. And source-funded journals are less predictable thus far. Those that are expected to provide a return tend to scale up in size — this seems likely to recur as they proliferate in the commercial space.
- When – Subscriptions and advertising are paid based on potential — that is, there’s a leap of faith that the publisher, editor, and journal will be able to provide value for money based on reputation, reach, and quality. There is no guarantee, but by measuring multiple objective and subjective criteria, readers and advertisers can pick the best of the bunch and pay for them (or ask their library to). When it comes to source-pays publishing, money changes hands when publication is assured, especially for author-pays publishing. There is no need for a guarantee of readership or reputation, since the goal is to be published. Once publication is offered and the fee paid, the value equation is solved. There are no refunds for a lack of clicks or comments — at least, not yet.
- Where – Where does the money arrive from? Subscription-based publishing has multiple players at various levels testing its value proposition, from subscription agents to librarians to readers. These participants use multiple criteria to purchase subscriptions, negotiate prices, and deal with service issues. It’s an attenuated system with multiple checkpoints. Advertising dollars can come directly from companies, but most often they come through media buyers and agencies, all of whom use highly sophisticated models to predict their most effective advertising spend. Again, there are many data points in play, and much of this is quite transparent to those with even passing familiarity. The source-pays model is more opaque since all the value is exchanged between a publisher and an author. This makes source-pays publications more difficult to trace because the flows of funds aren’t as exposed in the market. In some ways, funds being set aside to pay author fees provide some insight, but I don’t know of any clearinghouse listing all these and their current state.
- Why – Subscribers and their proxies hope for good information that will shed light and inform. Advertisers pay when advertising is part of a marketing strategy that they hope will help them sell products. Authors pay in order to advance career, share useful information, and relieve the burden of publication earlier. Sponsors pay for authors to publish as proxies for authors and potentially to advertise through patronage.
The commenter I referenced earlier is right — money changes hands in all three models and when they are hybridized. However, who pays, when they pay, what they pay, why they pay, and where the money passes through are all points of differentiation, no matter the mix or balance. Fundamentally, there is separation occurring, a separation based on distinct service motivations, editor-reader alignments, and indirect reward aspirations.
It’s all based on money, but it’s also all based on so much more.