Authors, Books, Business Models, Controversial Topics, Economics, Open Access, Peer Review, Research

The Natural Limits of Gold Open Access

English: Crystaline Gold

Crystaline Gold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Editor's note:  This essay first appeared in Against the Grain (November 2013).  Joe would like to thank Katina Strauch for her editorial insights in developing this.]

Everything has limits. While there is much discussion about the limitations of the traditional publishing model, where users or their proxies (e.g., libraries) pay for access, the natural limits of open access (OA) publishing are often overlooked or are discussed only in unproductive, heated online forums. What I propose to do here is to identify some of the natural limits of the Gold variety of OA publishing with the aim of focusing subsequent discussion on how to moderate or eliminate those limitations.

I said that traditional publishing has its limits, too, and that they are well known, but perhaps it would be advisable to rehearse those limits briefly.

The most significant characteristic of traditional publishing is that is designed to operate in a market economy. For some, anything that smacks of the marketplace is anathema for scholarly activity, but even more moderate souls will be prompted to ask what happens when there is literally no market? This is not an unusual situation for scholarly material. Some research is so specialized that the number of interested readers is tiny, at least today (who would want to predict the impact of research a decade or a century from now?). Such specialized work exists, if it can be made to exist at all, outside the marketplace. Other material lacks a market for the simple reason that there is no money to pay for it. This is the case for a great deal of scholarly material in the developing world, and even in the First World a library with no money to spend represents no market at all. Traditional publishing has limits and they are marketplace limits.

The marketplace limits of traditional publishing affect every aspect of the publishing process. Most importantly, it gives rise to the practice of pre-publication editorial review (because only the better works will find a market), which in turn means that a small number of editors serve as gatekeepers. For some people, editorial review is the strength of traditional publishing; for others it is an almost satanic practice that suppresses free speech. What is indisputable is that editorial review under the traditional model aims to restrict what gets published by making judgments about a work’s importance, appropriateness (for a particular publisher or journal), originality, and other subjective measures of quality. This means that some authors and works do not get published at all, which is a limit of a kind.

The traditional editorial model imposes an almost binary distinction between what is published and what is not. Are we comfortable that whatever is not published is totally worthless? Or do we believe that materials fall onto a continuum with outstanding work on one end and worthless books and articles on the other, with most works lying somewhere in between? Should an article that makes a small contribution but not a grand one be shut off from readers entirely?

Everything changes with OA, though there are many varieties of OA and it is hard to generalize about all of them. The most important distinction is between the Green and the Gold varieties. In Green OA authors deposit copies of their articles in publicly-accessible repositories. Green publications continue to participate in the traditional publishing process, but the self-archived copy represents an escape valve, as it were, providing access to the material even for those who do not have access to it through personal or institutional purchases. To some extent Green OA can be said to live outside the marketplace, as the cost of creating the material is subsidized by the purchasers of the same material through the traditional system.

Gold OA, on the other hand, is very much market-based, but it was conceived to exist in a different kind of marketplace from the one for traditional publishing. Gold OA is “author-pays,” that is, there is a fee paid by the creator of the work or the creator’s sponsor to produce the work. This is the diametrical opposite of the “user-pays” model of traditional publishing, the economic model we all participate in when we purchase a textbook in a college bookstore or a digital edition of a mystery novel on Amazon or, if we are librarians, when we subscribe on behalf of our institution to a journal or magazine. Thus for Gold OA, the customer is not the reader but the author, and the purveyors of Gold OA services work diligently to appeal to the author.

This brings us to the first natural limitation of Gold OA, namely, that it is susceptible to devolving into vanity publishing. This is a charge that advocates of traditional publishing make all the time, and it is not without merit. The flip side of the “predatory publishers” that Jeffrey Beall has brought to our attention could be said to be the “predatory” author, someone with nothing to say but who pays to say it anyway. Calling these authors “predatory,” however, would almost always be unfair. It would be more accurate to say that some authors, who find the traditional venues closed to them for whatever reason, are under enormous pressure to publish to meet departmental requirements. Such pressure can result in desperation, and there is no shortage of services that bill themselves as Gold OA publishers that are ready and willing to take their money. Beall is doing the community a good service, in my view, by beginning a process of identifying good and bad Gold OA venues. Vanity publishing exists on the borderline of Gold OA publishing, defining one of its limits and limitations.

As a practical matter, however, vanity publishing is a much less serious problem than many suppose. For predatory publishers we have to be on our guard, and we thus should all congratulate Beall for his work, but for truly predatory authors the solution is simple: we don’t read them. Thus, sophisticated readers safely ignore the paper that proposes to use household plumbing as an information technology network (the now-defunct Red Herring technology magazine published such a piece several years ago as a hoax), we disregard the essay on telekinesis, and we log out when we are instructed to study the cultural links between Celine and Celine Dion.

Knowing what to ignore is another matter, however. And here we come to another of the natural limits of Gold OA publishing, the need to assert a publisher’s brand. This may sound like hooey to the many people who argue for “article-level metrics,” but without a reliable brand, readers could be subjected to authors of doubtful merit whether they could be classed as predatory or desperate. The protection we have against this is an evolving set of best practices for peer review (coupled with the brand that sponsors the peer review). Peer review, whether of the full-bodied kind practiced by such established journals as Nature and The Lancet or the scaled-back variety championed by PLoS ONE, nudges the least promising authors out of our line of vision.

Thus Gold OA is defined not only by the network technology that enables it to facilitate communications but also and more importantly by the human network that sits atop the IT network, whose job it is to exercise human judgment. We can call this another natural limit of Gold OA, that it is not a technology business but an aspect of human affairs (and in this respect not unlike its counterparts among traditional publishers).

A more serious limit of Gold OA publishing is that it works for some fields and not for others. The reason for this is the economic model. For an author to pay for publication, the author must have the money. Researchers working in areas rich with grant money (e.g., life sciences) can put publication fees into their grant budgets, but woe to the scholar of Chaucer or Prester John. There have been many attempts to come up with low-cost ways to attract humanities scholars to OA services, but to date none has achieved the critical mass of, say, arXiv or PLoS ONE. The funding problem for Gold OA services in the humanities could be solved in one stroke if a consortium of universities or the federal government were simply to decide to underwrite the operation, but in the current fiscal climate in the U.S., this is improbable. We are living in the period of the Tea Party Academy, and that helps to set one of the limits of Gold OA: it is a publishing model for the rich disciplines.

The fact that OA has grown up around research articles is not an accident. Putting aside the hostility many librarians have toward high-priced scholarly journals, research articles are brief enough not to require large capital investments and often part of a fast-moving flow or conversation about a particular topic. Compare this to a monograph on the Roman Empire in the first century BCE or a study of the evolving reception of Boccaccio in the English-speaking world. I spend a great deal of my professional time studying how much it costs to creat an article or a book, and the cost of book-creation is far, far higher than most people suppose, even if the publisher is not paying an author a large advance. When all costs, including the appropriate allocation of overhead, are taken into account, a book could require an investment of as much as $50,000. Some people have put that number lower (you will hear figures as low as $15,000); most put it around $25,000. For my purposes here, it doesn’t matter which end in the range you determine is closest to the truth, as even $15,000–or $5,000, for that matter–is a very big number when the economic model is Gold OA.

And here we see a very important limit for Gold OA: it is very hard to implement for works that are longer than an article. This is because the author has to pay for everything, whereas in the traditional model, the costs are shared by all the customers. Some journals charge as much as $5,000 to make an article OA; PLoS ONE charges $1,350. Those figures are a fraction of what it costs to make a book, even if the book is published only in a digital edition. (As a rule of thumb, the cost of print comes to about 20% of a publisher’s net receipts. Many suppose that this figure is much higher.) For Gold OA to fully embrace long-form scholarship, it is going to have to come up with some extraordinary innovations to lower costs.

We should spend a minute on the cost structure for journals to see what limits it imposes on Gold OA. In a recent excellent article, Andrew Odlyzko noted that the average article published under the traditional system garnered revenue of about $5,000. He reached this figure by dividing the number of new articles published each year into the total revenues of the journals industry. (Interestingly, Elsevier came in just slightly above the average.) There is a lot that is squishy about that figure (using new articles leaves out the revenues and costs of managing backfiles; the average varies widely by discipline; what constitutes an article?: etc.), but it’s useful as a guideline.

With PLoS ONE charging a mere $1,350 per article, there is a big gap to close: $3,650. Where will that money come from? We know it can’t come from the authors, many of whom struggle to find the money even to pay a fee the size of PLoS ONE’s. Eliminating print won’t close the gap, and even if it were eliminated, the gap is too large. Some people would argue that much of that $5,000 is profit (hiss), but even PLoS ONE operates at a surplus. The fact is that the gap cannot be closed without tossing out other things that we associate with journal publishing.

PLoS ONE managed to lower its costs (and to operate at a profit) by changing the nature of editorial review. This is a provocative point, but for PLoS ONE and many other Gold OA services a keydecision was to review material not based on its importance or originality (the hallmark of a traditional journal) but merely on its methodological rigor. This has the practical effect of increasing the acceptance rate from the neighborhood of 30% to somewhere around 70%, which in turn more than doubles the revenue without significantly increasing the costs. Many Gold OA services also drop copy-editing as a way to lower costs even further. This is a limit of a different kind, presenting a challenge to the author who is not a native-English speaker.

Thus one of the limits of Gold OA is that it cannot sustainably practice the form of peer review and other editorial oversight associated with traditional journals. Is that a good or a bad thing? It depends. If you subscribe to the view that the authoritative model of traditional publishing is a good thing (as do most tenure and promotion committees), then it is a bad thing. If you think that this model should be challenged, it is a good thing. For my part, I think it is a different thing and that comparing Gold OA publications to traditional journals is adding apples and oranges. Why can’t we have both?

Although the benefits of OA publishing are broadcast regularly (speed to publication, free access to disadvantaged people, the establishment of community-based forms of review, the availability of texts for large-scale data-mining, etc.), the limits are less frequently identified. But Gold OA has them, and they include not being able to provide services for all disciplines, difficulties in working with longer texts, disadvantaging scholars whose primary language is not English, a need to attack the cost structure and the editorial regime that is associated with it, and, most importantly, the requirement of a human factor to resist submissions by inferior authors and the need to assert a brand to reflect the presence of that human factor. I don’t see that any of these limits are a reason not to support Gold OA publishing, but they do argue for continuing to support traditional publishing at the same time.

What we need to minimize these limitations, or at least to understand them better, is to study them and to talk about them. There is a place for an online review or multiple reviews of OA services, for which Beall’s work is only the beginning. PLoS should be put under the same scrutiny that we now see for Elsevier. This is not to denigrate Gold OA publishing but to improve it. The practices of OA publishing should be treated in the same way as the articles in OA publications–that is, openly.

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

32 thoughts on “The Natural Limits of Gold Open Access

  1. Joe has provided us with another illuminating analysis of an aspect of Gold OA publishing that we haven’t discussed enough yet. I have one comment and one question.

    The comment is that the gatekeeping role of an editor is different in book than in journal publishing. Joe knows this, of course, but his article tends to submerge the difference by talking about books and articles together. It is quite true that one of the book editor’s major roles is to make a preliminary decision about the potential saleability of a book submitted for consideration; well over half of manuscripts that are offered to editors are rejected at this preliminary stage on the basis of sales estimates and other considerations. The journal editor does not have to be concerned about the market in this way at all. A journal sold by subscription already has an established market, and no single article accepted for publication is going to affect that market. Thus the editor can concentrate on judging an article for its intellectual value and its fit for the journal alone–or, in the case, of PLoS One, its methodological soundness.

    The question is whether the author’s fee needed to publish a book as Gold OA is really that high when viewed as an investment in the author’s entire career and when compared with multiple article fees. The value of an article compared with a book differs by field, sometimes even by subfield. In political science, for example, a book is worth much more in political theory than in, say, American politics, where articles carry greater weight. But let’s say, for purposes of discussion, that a book is worth six articles. The fees for publishing those six articles combined is likely to be in the range of what it would cost to publish a book. Moreover, given what an author stands to earn over the course of an entire career if tenure is awarded, a cost of $25,000 begins to look like not such a bad investment after all. It becomes but a tiny fraction of what winning tenure will bring to the author over the long term. Of course, this realization doesn’t alter the difficulty of raising that money in the first place, but even if external sources are unavailable, in the last resort having the author come up with the fee from his or her own pocket doesn’t seem like such a bad deal in this wider perspective, does it?

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Nov 19, 2013, 8:13 am
    • Sandy, Although I can see your point, after some 40 years in publishing both books and journals I have found that when it comes to the sciences, books really do not do weigh very much for the scholar when it comes to tenure and promotion.

      Posted by Harvey Kane | Nov 19, 2013, 9:59 am
  2. This is an illuminating, but ultimately incomplete, picture of the possibility of OA publishing for longer-than-article length works.

    It’s exactly right that there are fundamental limits to the possibility of OA — if one takes as a given the need to operate in the marketplace. This leads, as the post here wisely points out, to a world of binary possibilities. Either the end user pays — the reader, or the librarian, or the Amazon user paying the purchase price established by the publisher — or the author pays. Somehow revenue has to be generated, either at the beginning or the end of the value chain, to keep the machine of scholarly publishing working.

    It’s exactly for this reason that universities which have supported publishing operations now scrutinize them with all the stringency of management consultants. If they are not at least managing to break even, they are likely to be put on a high-scrutiny list — which of course cannot help but to shape decisions going forward on what to publish. The value of scholarship, most would agree, cannot be accurately measured by market performance; but as that is the only measure available to publishers, or recognizable to their supporting institutions, ineluctably it favors some works and dooms others.

    But there is a third way — a via media, in a sense — not considered here. It is that neither the reader, nor the buyer, but rather the >publishernotthean< answer. Are the limitations of Gold OA publishing really inherent in the idea of OA itself? Or are they rather inherent in the assumption of market mechanics? How would our understanding of those limitations change if we simply jettisoned the market ab initio?

    Posted by Mark Edington | Nov 19, 2013, 9:33 am
  3. Joe:

    A most interesting article. Your findings that some 30% of articles are accepted by traditional publishers (I would note that at ACS the number was much lower) vs 70% being accepted by Gold OA is most disturbing. It seems to me that the OA business model is similar to a farmer harvesting his crop using a combine in that the combine takes in both the wheat and the chaff but in this case the farmer has set the machine to keep more chaff.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Nov 19, 2013, 10:14 am
    • The combine takes in more chaff for sure. However, I think the combine rejects many
      good papers as well, if the papers are somewhat difficult to evaluate. Who has
      time to read a tricky paper, if every paper should contribute to the profit?

      Dr. Hvem

      Posted by Dr. Hvem | Nov 27, 2013, 8:25 pm
  4. I am very confused by your discussion of the money trail. Odlyzko estimates that the average article generates $5,000 in revenue. PLoS ONE charges $1,350 per article and has a surplus (presumable a “profit”). Yet you feel it is necessary for the article to produce an additional $3,650 to make up the difference in revenue. If one can make a profit charging $1,350, why does it matter how much revenue is generated by the average journal article?

    I think you are confusing revenue and expense. Had it cost $5,000 to produce an article, your summary would make sense. Revenue is declining across all publishing, but so are costs. Your conclusion that Gold OA cannot be a model with rigorous peer review certainly is not proven by your example. Just because PLoS ONE has chosen to approach peer review differently does not mean it cannot be done at a reasonable price point.

    Posted by David Ball | Nov 19, 2013, 12:42 pm
    • Joe’s point is that PLoS ONE has changed its review and acceptance criteria to make it so that revenues of $1,350 per article are profitable. Their profit margin is about 25%, and for PLoS ONE, it’s higher still (PLoS’ prestige titles lose money). Most publishers have margins well below 25%, so their expenses — for full review and editorial oversight — are much closer to their revenues, which per Odlyzko is about $5K per article. So, Joe’s summary does make sense.

      One can make a profit charging $1,350, apparently, but what is lost in cutting expenses down to that level? That’s a key question.

      Revenues are actually increasing slightly across publishing. You’re incorrect in that data point.

      Gold OA journals can have very strong peer review. Those that do tend to charge a lot more than $1,350, or, like the PLoS journals with traditional approaches to peer review, they tend to lose money.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Nov 19, 2013, 5:16 pm
  5. In the end, doesn’t it all come down to cites? For subscription journals, librarians are looking at Impact Factor or its variants. For Gold OA, it’s the authors looking for prestige, which, in its simplest measure, equals Impact Factor. Regardless of the a journal’s financial model, maintaining prestige, measured by Impact Factor or other less tangible variables, still requires selectivity and quality peer reviews. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Nov 19, 2013, 1:11 pm
  6. A very useful discussion. I think, Joe, that you neglect to mention the significant limitation of the traditional model of journal publishing derived from unaffordability to scholars throughout the developing world. On a separate issue, I would not equate Gold OA to author fees as you do at one point. When you say “The funding problem for Gold OA services in the humanities could be solved in one stroke if a consortium of universities or the federal government were simply to decide to underwrite the operation” you seem to backtrack on that equation. On November 20, SSH journals and Canada’s research libraries begin to discuss whether such an underwriting consortium of libraries might indeed be possible.

    Posted by Rowland Lorimer | Nov 19, 2013, 2:08 pm
    • Or maybe look at the Knowledge Unlatched model for OA monographs of building library consortia around books to ensure minimum viable funding, then progressing to go OA online and paid for print for those outside a consortium.

      Does seem to depend on interest, and how it scales will be interesting to see (like a membership model, really).

      Posted by ian Borthwick | Nov 19, 2013, 4:20 pm
      • One concern I have about the KU model is that it doesn’t actually depend on interest (which can’t be gauged realistically until a book exists in which someone can be interested). It depends on the expectation of interest, or at least the expectation of quality. For that reason, it perpetuates one of the serious problems with traditional scholarly publishing: expensive items continually entering a marketplace that harbors little if any discernible demand for them. The KU model counts on librarians saying “Yes, that looks like it will be a good and/or relevant book,” but the actual interest of real-world readers and researchers doesn’t enter the equation until the money has all been committed. I’m not sure this is a fatal problem, but it’s one that concerns me.

        Posted by Rick Anderson | Nov 19, 2013, 6:03 pm
  7. There’s one aspect of Gold OA that troubles me. If, as Joe points out, it means the market shifts to an author/funder-centric market then publishers will surely follow the market signal and turn to face their new customers and compete to win their business. In other words, there is a risk that publishers, lacking any market signals from readers, will turn their backs on readers and the supply chain that serves them (including librarians). Which publisher will bother to invest in reader-facing tools and services if there is no return on that investment? One could argue that authors/funders will put their business only with publishers that have a track record of finding an audience and that this will drive publishers to build audiences and therefore invest in reader-facing tools. However, I think this market signal is weak because most authors I’ve come across seem remarkably uninterested in reaching an audience beyond their immediate peer group (some even believe there is no audience beyond their immediate peer group). Couple this lack of drive to find a large readership with the reality that Gold OA means that the costs of publishing are now competing head-on for funds that hitherto have been used for research suggests to me that authors/funders will look for the cheaper publisher rather than the publisher that invests in building an audience. This will create a market vacuum for reader-facing services. I can imagine that the market may split into two: author-facing, Gold OA, publishers who prepare and post articles/books online at the lowest possible cost and aggregators who ‘hoover’ up this free content and bundle it with reader-facing tools to create services that will be offered, for sale, to institutions that want to improve the productivity of their staff and students. This won’t be double-dipping because the subscribing institutions have the choice of using the tool-less-but-free, ‘Gold’, online editions provided by the publisher. I reckon the wealthier institutions will subscribe because they will want a better service for their staff and students and so a two-tier haves and have-nots reader market rides once again.
    My other reflection on the Green/Gold OA debate is that it ignores the different value propositions possible when thinking about content itself and the digital service(s) that can be wrapped around the content. For example, what if the content was free to all to read online (read-only), but services such as downloading or printing or copy-pasting etc are only available to those who pay? This makes research findings accessible to all (a key objective for OA advocates) and leaves reader-facing tools dependent and responsive to those that are best placed to judge if they are worth paying for – namely the reader and their representative, the librarian. This approach, Freemium Access publishing, is being tried out by a number of small book and journal publishers (including OECD) in areas where formal Green/Gold OA is finding it difficult to take root (namely, social sciences and humanities). I think Freemium Access publishing has many merits and might be more in tune with market forces in the long run and might therefore be more sustainable. (and I would love to see what would happen if one of the big science journal publishers switched to Freemium . . .)

    Posted by tobygreenoecdorg | Nov 19, 2013, 7:24 pm
    • Interesting Toby. I will add freemium to my list of basic OA models, now eight in number. But one wonders if downloads add so much value beyond reading that they will pay the way? Hard to imagine that.

      Posted by David Wojick | Nov 20, 2013, 7:25 am
      • I don’t know if downloads per se are sufficient value, but what I do know is that our revenues are holding up at the same time as we’ve made all our content free to read online with the paywall kicking in when you want to download, copy/paste etc.

        We recently commissioned a study to ask the question: what if we moved the paywall so that PDFs could be downloaded for free? The answer: we’d lose maybe 70% of our revenue. However, there is very little hard evidence to work from so this is probably best described as an guestimate by an intelligent and experienced consultant. At the moment, this tells me there is sufficient value in the downloadable PDF – together with all the other value-adds in our publishing platform – to keep the revenues flowing. But what is certain is that by releasing a free Read version we are growing our audience because no-one is being turned away from our paywall any longer. We’re also trying to use the free Read version as a marketing tool by making it easy to share and embed.

        In making them embeddable, we hope that some our readers will share/embed our publications in their blogs and websites creating a mini-viral/network effect. The result, we hope, is an ever-larger audience from which we hope to draw a proportion to the premium service. It’s early days (I think many people don’t imagine they can embed a book or a chapter in their website or blog) but it is happening – this link is to a blog in Argentina which embedded one of our publications yesterday. http://www.infobae.com/2013/11/19/1524788-ocde-economia-mundial-crecera-menos-culpa-los-paises-emergentes .

        Posted by tobygreenoecdorg | Nov 20, 2013, 2:59 pm
        • Cool! I am now imagining it, and a very interesting idea it is.

          Posted by David Wojick | Nov 20, 2013, 4:08 pm
    • This is the model that the National Academy of Sciences followed and the one that we adapted to lour humanities monograph publishing at Penn State Press in Romance studies. It is commonly used by those presses that have been experimenting with OA monograph publishing. It will also likely be used by the new Amherst College Press, which is funded largely by endowment money. In the search committee for the director at Amherst, we discussed at length the need for marketing even when the monographs are available OA, so I think your worry is premature, Toby. Certainly, we did not cut back on marketing for the OA monographs at Penn State. I suspect many authors will want to go with an OA publisher that is not simply a passive document supplier.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Nov 25, 2013, 7:34 pm
      • Sandy, I should have made it clear, I was really thinking about journal articles, not books. (I agree, book publishers do think about marketing to readers.)

        Posted by tobygreenoecdorg | Nov 26, 2013, 2:17 am
        • Consider that in science readers and authors tend to be the same people, while libraries are not readers, so the shift in marketing is actually also to readers. Existing gold journals emphasize impact factor and who indexes them, and altmetrics may be next. Proof of readership may be important in marketing to authors, so the gold journals have to push readership.

          Posted by David Wojick | Nov 26, 2013, 6:48 am
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    Posted by avatarinstructordesintesis | Nov 20, 2013, 12:43 am
  9. In distinguishing between market mechanisms of Gold OA and “Traditional Publishing”, it seems you haven’t mentioned the dramatic shift in market mechanism that has transformed said “traditional publishing.” Where once researchers purchased individual subscribitions to the print journals that were mailed to their address, now publishers sell to huge bundles at undisclosed prices to libraries who are charged with providing maximum coverage of the literature. Surely we might expect very different behaviour from a publisher who sells directly to each reader, who will subscribe only to a handful of journals and can easily cancel or add subscriptions based on quality and price of alternatives, then in the library model?

    Posted by cboettig | Nov 20, 2013, 1:49 pm
  10. It’s true that PLOS ONE formalised the Review For Soundness model. But the reality is that many, perhaps most, subscription journals also operate at acceptance levels of 60-70%. There no doubt some difference here, but not nearly enough to explain the huge difference in production costs.

    Posted by Mike Taylor | Nov 20, 2013, 3:17 pm
    • Good point, Mike. Let’s add to this the elimination by many OA journals of copy-editing and the lack of a requirement to maintain parallel production and distribution networks for print. Another very important item, which varies considerable from journal to journal, is the number of submissions, which is a different matter from the acceptance rate. I think when one considers all this, the achievement of PLoS ONE is all the more remarkable.

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Nov 20, 2013, 4:59 pm
      • How common is copy-editing in journals? Having published in a reasonable sprinkling of both OA and subscriptions journals, I’m not aware of ever having had a paper copy-edited. (Doesn’t mean it’s not happened, of course — maybe they just couldn’t find any errors :-))

        My intuition on this (I have no data to back it up) is that “requirement to maintain parallel production and distribution networks for print” is the biggest factor here. I take your point that “the cost of print comes to about 20% of a publisher’s net receipts. Many suppose that this figure is much higher”, but I suspect the overhead of retaining the capacity to print, and the cultural and legal machinery surrounding that capacity, may dwarf the actual costs of paper and ink. Is that your experience?

        Posted by Mike Taylor | Nov 20, 2013, 6:23 pm
        • Every journal at both publishing houses where I’ve worked, both large and small, is copyedited. Some to a greater extent than others.

          Perhaps the key to answering your first question though lies in economies of scale. Whatever system you’re employing, if you’re doing it right, scales and offers you a better per-paper value as the number of papers increases. The cost per paper for a journal that publishes 100 papers per year is going to be higher than the cost per paper for a journal that publishes 23,000 papers per year, all other things being equal.

          It’s a driving force behind all of the consolidation in the market these days, with the bigger players getting bigger and the independent players disappearing.

          Posted by David Crotty | Nov 20, 2013, 6:32 pm
          • Economies of scale are certainly real, and it’s easy to imagine account for, say, a halving of price for a big OA publisher like PLOS. On the other hand, wouldn’t you expect even greater economies of scale from much larger subscription publishers like Elsevier?

            The idea of scale as explanation also founders on the phenomenon of small OA publishers like Ubiquity, who ask for an APC of £200 with no-questions-asked waivers for those who want them. Seems to me they only explanation for that is enormously lower costs of a born-digital, born-open operation that has never had to invest in print facilities, paywall/authentication platforms, copyright lawyers, etc.

            Posted by Mike Taylor | Nov 20, 2013, 6:38 pm
            • Probably have to balance that scale with rejection rate (you’re not getting any return for the papers you reject)–if you’re rejecting more than 2X as many papers for each one published, you have to scale to more than 2X the volume just to be even with the journal that accepts more.

              A lot of the infrastructure needed for print these days is outsourced, and I suspect that all publishers, regardless of the copyright system they’re using, employ legal help on some level (seems a cost of doing any sort of business these days). Can’t really see any savings for PLOS on physical offices either, given that they’re based in such an expensive location.

              But as Joe notes, there are different services offered and different investments made in new technologies. Looking at PLOS’ last financial statement, I was a bit surprised to see that they list their entire expenditure on research and development as 1% of their total expenses (around $300K if I’m reading it right, page 21 of the progress report pdf). So unlike Elsevier and the like, they’re not making the big spends on building out new ventures, which definitely helps their bottom line.

              Posted by David Crotty | Nov 20, 2013, 7:01 pm
        • When I was director of Penn State Press, where we published a dozen journals in the humanities and social sciences, all of them were scrupulously copyedited. I believe that all journals published by university presses are copyedited.

          Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Nov 26, 2013, 4:05 pm
  11. I like the idea of discussing the limits of Gold Open Access, and as the comments show, this discussion is not finished. One thing that I could not get out of my mind is the tendency of OA journals to save costs at the peer review process, as the article suggests.
    Publishing is a business and any business owner will have an eye on costs. So do big publishers, and they do it very carefully. If there is a chance to save money, they will certainly use it. If we leave aside the flagship publications with large in-house editorial teams and we have a closer look at the other journals we may find journals that run well with less costs than the OA journals you mentioned.
    I was a bit disappointed when Bohannon’s sting just tested Open Access journals. There was the same limitation: the finger was just put in the wounds of the Open Access journals. Nevertheless, some journals performed well in the test (I think even some from Beal’s list), showing that OA doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a lack in quality.

    After all it is a question of quality management. I have worked once for the medical device industry and there, quality management is very crucial. One should assume that the reputation of the peer review process is crucial for publishing too, but within 10 years I worked in publishing I have never seen an independent system for a regular test of Peer Review quality. Personally, I suppose that Peer Review quality is completely independent of the business model of the publication. I hope that someone finds a way to test that and then at least this part of the discussion about Open Access limitations would change a bit.

    Posted by Andreas Thoss | Nov 21, 2013, 10:38 am

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