from Heather Morrison, The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) continues to grow, and along with it, the exuberance of those who wish to see a complete transformation of the journal marketplace.  For these imaginary poetic economists, the economic indicator that measures this change is simply the number of OA journals charted over time.  And when you look at the trend, the future looks pretty rosy.

But does this type of growth really indicate economic success in open access publishing?  Or does growth simply point to a system gone awry, like the growth in unemployment or the proliferation of spam?

Without more information, it’s hard to tell.

Writing in the December issue of First Monday (“The size distribution of open access publishers: A problem for open access?”), Jan Erik Frantsvåg at the University Library of Tromsø, Norway, analyzes the distribution of journals by publisher in the DOAJ.  He finds that the distribution is strongly skewed, with nearly 90% of publishers represented by only one journal title and larger publishers representing only a quarter of the titles in the directory.

Arguing from basic economic theory, Frantsvåg concludes that the high proportion of  single-journal OA publishers is a sign of an inefficient OA marketplace that is unable to take advantage of economies of scale in production and distribution.  He writes:

All these elements suggest that small-scale operation of OA publishing is economically inefficient, and that OA publishing best be organized in larger publishing institutions.

The problem with Frantsvåg’s analysis, however, is that authors don’t publish journals — they publish articles. If you dig deeply into the contents of the journals indexed in the DOAJ, you’ll discover that most journals publish very few articles.

Characteristics of Open Access Journals in Six Subject Areas,” (C&RL, 2011 in press) by Bill Walters and Anne Linvill is the latest analysis of the OA journals that comprise the DOAJ that goes beyond tracking the sheer number of indexed titles.

Based on an article-level analysis, Walters and Linvill report that the OA marketplace is dominated by just three large players: PLoS, BMC, and Oxford University Press, which together account for nearly a quarter (24%) of the OA articles in their study. Half of the remaining publishers churn out 25 or fewer articles per year. More interestingly, open access publishers appear to have adopted different business strategies.  They write:

The largest nonprofit OA publisher and the largest commercial OA publisher have adopted very different approaches, one focusing on a few large journals of broad scope (PLoS ONE, PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, and PLoS Computational Biology), the other publishing many smaller, specialized journals such as BMC Bioinformatics and BMC Palliative Care.

Walters and Linville also add qualification to the well-documented fact that the majority of open access journals do not charge article processing charges (APCs). While they report that just 29% of the DOAJ journals in their study levy APCs, these titles represent 50% of published OA articles, 69% of OA articles in biology and 76% of OA articles published in commercial journals.  In other words, the majority of authors publishing in open access journals are paying for publication.

The lesson of the Walters and Linvill article is that counting the number of open access journals is a poor metric of success because the economics that governs the size and dynamics of other industries does not transfer well to online publishing.  If brand matters to authors (and readers, funding agencies, department heads, promotion and tenure committees), then journals must not be multiplied beyond necessity.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatemWilliam of Occam

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


17 Thoughts on "For Open Access Journals, Size Does Matter"

Does the study try to identify how many DOAJ journals are “published” through IRs based in libraries or in academic departments? I suspect that the existence of many journals not clustered in a group with a publisher has to do partly with the fact that many of the “publishers” are not really publishers in the traditional sense, but are putting out an OA journal or two in conjunction with other activities. That would in itself not necessarily indicate inefficiency in the marketplace.

Thanks for your comment!

Anne Linvill and I did not specifically identify journals published through institutional repositories, but my impression is that very few are. (We looked at the web page of each journal, and I don’t remember noting that any were part of a larger IR domain.) I do remember that a few were published on the web sites of particular academic departments, however.

We did specifically identify university-sponsored journals, which includes those published by university presses, individual departments, research centers, etc. Separate results for that group can be found in our paper.

I’d argue that small “publishers” (individual departments, etc.) are inefficient, in an economic sense, since they cannot take advantage of economies of scale. There may be a good reason for their smallness, but that doesn’t influence whether they can take advantage of economies of scale. Small publishers can’t; large publishers can.


Can you give some examples of the types of “economies of scale” you are thinking about?

When it comes to technology, even the smallest publishers now have access to the best scholarly publishing solutions in SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) format.


It may also be true that economies of scale are achievable within university structures, as individual departments may be utilizing platforms that have been established and are maintained by the main campus IT administration. That the journals are identified as originating from, or being sponsored by, individual departments says nothing about the administrative and technological infrastructure underlying and supporting them. Achieving economies of scale, indeed, is one reason that the Penn State Press decided to become a unit of the Penn State Libraries!

Thanks for this welcome discussion – my reply can be found on IJPE at

In brief:

The growth of open access is particularly amazing given how little economic support has been made available so far. The economic target that I would suggest is high-quality, fully open access publishing that is economically sustainable or cost-effective. The number of open access journal titles is an indirect indication of the growth of open access publishing per se, which would ideally be measured by the number of articles published open access. As the DOAJ search by article service grows, this measure may become more feasible over time. Nevertheless, the number of titles per se is important as an indication of OA infrastructure, that is, the ability of open access to grow rapidly, given a little support. Behind the many fairly new, relatively small journals listed in DOAJ is a substantial new publishing system which can support many more titles; and small journals with relatively few articles could easily grow with even a little redirection of funding. These are just a few of the reasons why it makes a lot of sense for libraries to join the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity. Online-only, open access journals are not the same as print or subscription-based journals, and so it does not make sense to apply the same measures to assess the success of these journals – for example, the need to bundle a certain amount of articles for a print artefact, or to justify subscriptions has implications for the number of articles needed for a successful print and/or subscription-based journal that does not necessarily apply to an online open access journal.

Hi, folks.

In response to Richard Wynne’s comment, I have to confess that I don’t know enough about the publishing business to specify the particular economies of scale that are involved. The general principle has been shown to apply in a wide range of contexts, however, in relation to both goods and services. I can think of several examples in the library context. These are generalizations, of course, based on my experiences in large and small libraries:

— Small libraries can’t afford to hire specialists in certain subject areas or functional areas. A systems librarian might be able to solve problem X in half an hour, but I have to read the manual and spend all day on it. In small libraries, the process takes longer, and the solution may not be optimal.

— The in-house web designer at a large library is already familiar with the university context (the curriculum, the kinds of students served, etc.). The freelance designer hired by a small library needs to spend more time building knowledge specific to the work environment, or else proceeds without that knowledge.

— The large library has the cash and the expertise needed to evaluate and purchase the best product for purpose X. The small library may have to use the cheapest alternative, and may not have the personnel with the expertise needed to make a good purchasing decision.

These examples are made up, of course, but the general principle is well estabished. Larger size permits specialization of labor and methods, allowing individuals and organizations to make good use of their comparative advantages. That, in turn, increases efficiency. The full-time copyeditor with expert knowledge of the journal and the subject is likely to do a better job than the administrative assistant shared by three academic departments.

I should point out that the advantages and disadvantages of the current situation are not really the focus of our paper in C&RL. The paper is almost purely descriptive, with an emphasis on accurate and reliable measurement rather than “real-world” implications.



Indeed, this is a time to watch, maybe even to participate, but not to judge.

I especially like the idea that someone who is interested in a very specific area of scientific inquiry can now launch a tiny OA journal to track that area. At the moment I happen to be looking at the evolving frontier of research on name disambiguation, which is a dreadful problem in both searching science and scientometrics, because whole names are not used. I will think about starting a little journal.

This fits nicely with my theory that the fundamental role of journals is to track the frontier.

Let me get this straight: when the number of expensive academic journals exploded over the past couple of decades (mostly by large international companies), that wasn’t a problem. But now that the economics of the internet have drastically lowered the entry costs of publishing, “journals must not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

If I could draw, here I would insert a cartoon of dinosaurs with charts and graphs explaining how these “mammals” would never succeed, since they were not only too small, they were wasting all that energy by regulating their temperature.

Damnant quod non intellegunt.

Who ever said the explosion of journals was a good thing? You’re reacting to something that neither the authors of the studies nor I have made.

I think Mark’s point is that commercial publishers have continually proliferated journals to serve narrower population bases far beyond “necessity”. They relied on economies of scale to create an artificial market, with the knowledge that libraries would be in a difficult position if they didn’t add the new titles to their collections.

On the other hand, OA has opened the opportunity for shysters to launch plenty of journals that seem to exist for the sole purpose of relieving authors of their money! Such frauds were more difficult to perpetrate in the print world just because of the entry barriers.

Without advocating the multiplication of journals beyond necessity, I would rather stress the positive side of small OA publishers/journals. The scientific benefit must not be forgotten over the economic discussion.

Actually, smaller size is one of the advantages of OA online publications: Traditional publishers would not have had the economic basis to cover specialized fields with only a low number of potential subscribers. Therefore, many OA journals successfully cover academic niches.

Also, the size of the journal itself matters: Journals that specialize in small fields or, e.g., publish exclusively review articles, naturally release fewer articles per year than journals with a broader scope.

Only OA publications are able to serve and survive in these niches. Economically, of course, this works only when backed-up by the bigger framework of a scientific institution, as university presses, libraries, or community organizations.

I think your claim that “only OA publications are able to serve and survive in these niches” is demonstrably false.

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