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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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


16 Thoughts on "Pondering the 5 W’s of Publication Funding – Who, What, When, Where, and Why"

This is a useful conceptual exercise, but it does not exhaust the possibilities. Consider the prevailing model for publishing a scholarly work in the 18th century, as described by historian James West:

“The author and/or various traveling book agents for the publisher would go out and solicit advance orders for a book. The author might approach well-to-do friends or patrons and ask for sums of money to subvene the book, often in return for a dedication (if the amount was sufficiently large) or for having the donors’ names listed in the front or back matter, if there were several donors. Thus, in C18 and even C19 American books, you might see lists of an author’s friends or of men with whom he served in the military, whom he would hit up. This was demeaning for the author, of course, and probably had something to do with the low status of scribblers in C18 and C19. Book agents, by contrast, went door to door and, in rural parts of the country, town to town, soliciting subscriptions. The subscriber would pay half the cost of the book up front and the rest upon delivery. The agent would deduct his commission from this money and forward the rest to the publisher, who would use the money to subvene the printing and binding costs. Lots of salesmen’s dummies survive, mostly from C19, which document the practice…. You can see the point in all of this. The publisher, with help from author and agents, was determining ahead of time how many copies he could count on selling. He would manufacture these with the advance money, printing overruns of the sheets for the subsequent sales but probably not binding up very many of these overruns. It is a cautious but effective way of publishing. You could pretty well predict what your fixed or plant expenses were going to be, before the book went to press, so you have to have at least enough guaranteed sales to cover these fixed expenses, plus some money for your running costs (paper, ink, press time, etc.) once the book went to press.”

This “subscription” model combines elements of what you describe under all of your three models. It has been suggested, by people like Eric Hellman, that a modern system of collaborative academic library purchasing could be built on this model, which might be a way of resolving some of the problems that afflict scholarly book publishing today.

For more about this model, and for other possibilities in advertising in books and “crowd-source” funding that has elements of both traditional advertising and patronage, see my essay Back to the Future

Subscription journals have interesting conflict of interest problems, especially when their editors try to lead the science. As someone (Planck?) said, your ideas will become accepted when your students become journal editors. When I was a grad student there were two primary journals in my field and it was explained it me that if you published in one you would never publish in the other, either way.

That seems based on ego, not business model. Any business model could support a petty tyrant.

You have missed my point, which is that the subscription business model has its own conflict challenges. My concern is merely that you seem to present the options such that subscription has an asymmetric lack of conflict. These potential conflicts flow from what I see as the basic function of a journal, which is to say which research results (of those submitted) are the most important. This function, combined with the tiering of journals, grades all research. Given this grading model the various possibilities for conflict are fairly obvious, such as pal review, blocking new ideas, leading the science, etc.

I get your point, but I don’t think the subscription model contributes exclusively to it. The OA model, the funder-sponsored model, the institutional repository model — all can suffer from pal review, blocking new ideas, leading the science, etc.

Under “When” you say “There is no need for a guarantee of readership or reputation, since the goal is to be published”, while under “Why” you say “Authors pay in order to advance career, share useful information, and relieve the burden of publication earlier”.
I believe that the goal isn’t only to be published, but to be published in a journal that has a readership that is interesting to the author, both in whom and in how many. So an OA journal has to deliver at least a promise of readership quality in order to be able to attract paying authors. No-one wants to publish in unread journals, because that won’t advance careers or CVs or h-indices.

As for advertising, you seem to overlook that much online advertising isn’t paid by what you promise, but by what you deliver in terms of clicks and/or sales, and uses partherships where you don’t negotiate with advertisers. Much advertising (though not all) in OA journals is of this kind. Your reflections on advertising seem more relevant to paper-based publishing.

I find it an interesting post, though!

I like to imagine (or hope for?) a fourth option. Or perhaps a substantial rethinking of the source-pays option. If it’s academics that create the content, academics that use the content, and academics that vet the content, perhaps it should all be kept in academia. Instead of outside organizations being involved, academic institutions could manage the whole process systematically. Journals would be replaced by institutional repositories. Peer review and content editing could become more important in determining academic reputation. This would require several changes in the scholarly literature process but it seems doable.

I think the fundamental flaw of that is that there has to be another role other than incestuous institutional processes. When the academic output of Harvard is reviewed by academic peers from Stanford and perhaps Penn State, it’s “within academia,” but given some objective review, often quite revelatory. What’s really broken with the current system? What problem are you trying to solve? Payment? Do you really think funding a few hundred institutional repositories and creating the administrative offices and IT staffing to run these would be less expensive than the current system? If that were the case, then I’d expect to see the cost of university tuition rising more slowly than the cost of journals. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. Institutions are not controlling their costs as well as publishers, one might say.

What’s broken with the current system is that publishers now add virtually nothing to the equation. At one time the information container known as the journal was useful. There was no other feasible way for readers/researchers to keep up to date with all the literature. Now, with so many journals and so much content to go through, subscribing to a few key journals is ridiculous for most. To keep up to date we need databases providing better access to the content locked inside journals. Even this is not enough and so more and more tools are being developed to do the job that journals are not and cannot do anymore. What do journals do now? Peer review? Nope. Experts do that for free/reputation. Manufacturing & distribution? Nope. Content is increasingly electronic now. What’s left? Are we paying tens of thousands of dollars for editing and pretty layout? Publishers are simply increasing costs indiscriminately and academic library budgets are shrinking, but when compared with inflation. And the few hundred institutional repositories are already being funded. We already have the expertise to do it in universities… it’s just a matter of redirecting academic priorities.

If you don’t understand what journals do it is easy to see them as useless. The basic function of a journal is to say which research results (of those submitted) are the most important. This filter function, combined with the tiering of journals, grades all research. Neither repositories nor search engines perform this ranking role.

Research is highly competitive, for both funding and attention. Science is a social activity, one person building upon others, so who reads what is a key factor, along with who does what. Journals play a major market role in this marketplace of scientific ideas, by collectively ranking research results. You need to factor this collective ranking role into your model.

I will grant that one of the hoped for (and frequently claimed) results of journal publication is to filter and sort research output. I just don’t think it does a very good job of this. It certainly did at one point, and, along with providing access to research output, journals have been of vital importance to the scholarly communication process. But with technological progress, increased submissions, shifts in the scholarly process, and constant pressure to either make a profit or, for non-profits, to push towards self-sustenance, journals are becoming outdated. I don’t know what will replace them. What I’m suggesting though is that, like everything else in this world, journals are not the only thing that can fill the role that we want them to. What I’m hoping is that money doesn’t have to play such a central role in the academic process like it seems it must when dealing with journals.

One might even imagine universities starting their own Presses to manage the process of academic publishing, and keep the funds within academia.

Nah, that’s too far-fetched. Everyone knows that all scholarly publishers are “outside organizations”, right?

Whether the organization is affiliated with an academic institution or not, the perception that it’s independent and practices objective third-party review and publishing is key. You make a good point, David — OUP, Rockefeller, University of Chicago, and others have done or do a good job. However, not all succeed, and I’ll wager that the extent to which they succeed depends on how long the arm in the “arm’s length” relationship is (longer is better).

Absolutely, and the real key is to create a firewall between the editorial side of the press and those running the business/academic side of the university. Without it, you become nothing more than a PR machine without the necessary credibility. These issues are going to be particularly important with the recent announcement of a new proposed journal coming from a set of funding agencies.

You’re right. University presses, although sometimes better in motivation than pure for-profit publishers, are still separate from the institution they are connected to. And it is important to keep the process objective but I’m not sure that that is achieved by injecting business (or business-like non-profits) into an already somewhat self-regulating system. Publishers are not providing the the third-party review. They are merely managing it. To compare, academic education is governed by a third-party: the university administration and ultimately the government. No one seems to think that yet another institution needs to be involved in this but research does need it?

Ultimately, my original comment is merely theory. It would take radical change in academia to make it work. But the point is still that the publishing industry, from my perspective, seems to bring with it variables that serve to complicate the entire literature vetting process more than is necessary. Perhaps the university presses could help with this vital process by working more with each other and libraries.

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