Two recent newspaper editorials (by Monbiot and Guttenplan) made angry arguments against the “ruthless capitalists” behind scholarly publishing, charging that profit margins were far too high. Both articles suggested that open access (OA), particularly gold OA, was the solution to this problem.
Do these arguments hold up when the majority of OA journals are owned by those same ruthless capitalists and when some OA journals are proving to be extremely profitable?
The last few weeks of lively debate about OA in the Scholarly Kitchen have been informative, but have also involved a variety of mixed messages from all sides. There are assumptions being made that aren’t necessarily true, and arguments joined together that may in reality be at cross purposes.
The most glaring example stems from the outrage over profits generated by commercial publishing houses. The editorials cited above are typical examples, where this cause has been interwoven with the desire for increased access to the literature. I’m not sure the two are inextricably joined and in many ways, the arguments strive for contradictory goals.
The costs of dissemination of research results is, without a doubt, a factor behind the OA movement. It’s certainly understandable that these costs have been linked to the profit levels of journal publishers, and the more vocal advocates for access often also share anti-corporate agendas. But the economic reality of the author-pays business model does not seem to line up well with a drive to reduce publisher profits. OA via the author-pays model does nothing to change the quantitative nature of these costs — it only seeks to move the financial burden from the readers to the author.
The much heralded Public Library of Science had around a 20% profit margin in 2010. PLoS ONE published 6,800 papers at $1350 per paper, which adds up to revenue of around $9 million. In 2011, the journal is predicted to publish around 12,000 papers, bringing in an astounding $16 million.
Doing the math for 2011, if everything else remains equal, PLoS would have a higher profit margin than Elsevier. That’s difficult to reconcile in an argument that pits OA as the cure for excessive profiteering.
Nature Communications was widely mocked for launching with an author fee of $5,000, yet the journal has seen a 40% OA uptake rate. Clearly OA is not proving to be tremendously price sensitive. Springer reports “double digit” profit margins for BioMed Central publications. Should this be celebrated, or is Springer acting as a “parasitic overlord”?
There’s a troublingly common assumption that OA must mean PLoS ONE (or even PLoS), when the reality is that OA is in use in a huge variety of ways by a vast number of publishers. And it’s important to realize that in some ways, the big commercial publishers have a leg up on the not-for-profit competition as far as making OA work.
Scale is an important factor in author-pays OA publishing models. In relying on this method as the primary revenue source, there are two obvious ways to improve the financial bottom line: increasing the number of articles accepted (one form of scale) and reducing editorial and publishing costs.
To do the latter, a smaller publishing house must reduce the level of services offered, things like eliminating copyediting. But the bigger publishing houses benefit so much from economies of scale that they can achieve savings merely by being big. If you’re publishing 1,500 journals, each journal shares a smaller portion of the total overhead than if you’re publishing 10 journals. Your costs for materials and services are always lower when you’re buying in bulk.
This favors the big publishers, and a drive to OA may only strengthen the “parasitic overlords” while eliminating the smaller not-for-profits (John Wilbanks addresses this worry, though I’m less convinced than he is that such a concentration would be easy to “shake out” over time, as entrenched monopolies are difficult to dislodge).
The desire to lower the profit margins taken in by publishing houses may in fact be in direct conflict with the growth of OA. The gold rush by publishers to create their own highly profitable version of PLoS ONE should be informative here.
As one of our commenters recently asked, what would have happened “if a big commercial publisher had pioneered the high-volume, low-bar, author-pays mega-journal”? If PLoS ONE was instead Big Company ONE, would it have succeeded and been as adored as it is now by OA advocates, or would it have been seen as a “cynical exploitation of the publish-or-perish climate in academia?” Would publishing traditionalists see it as an exciting new market to serve rather than the end of quality?
OA in and of itself is not the solution for those seeking to attack commercial publishing houses and profit margins, as so far it seems to be enhancing both. Perhaps a better avenue is to instead work on supporting not-for-profit publishers, particularly those who return any excess funds to the research community.
This quest is a difficult one because it asks researchers to put the anti-commercial goal above their own self-interest. Asking a postdoc who is about to hit the overcrowded job market to give up the prestige of a Nature paper in order to “stick it to the man” is going to be a tough sell.
Factor in also that a large number of the journals published by the big commercial houses are owned by research societies and the lion’s share of the profits generated fund their activities. That’s perhaps another subtle point missed in all the anger: the notion of the academic community “taking back publishing” is, for a huge amount of the journal landscape, moot. For society journals, publishing never left the academic community. An end to commercial publishing profits also means an end to the main funding mechanism for many academic societies.
For those more interested in improving access, does it really matter if in providing that access, the publisher makes a substantial profit? If the publishing process offers broad access and comes at a sustainable and affordable rate, aren’t you better off with a situation where there are incentives offered for driving progress? Or does the identity of the supplier of that progress matter more than the progress itself?
Robin Hood is a fun mantle to don, and it certainly makes for a compelling newspaper editorial. The reality of the situation is more complex though, and we do a disservice to progress by looking to create heroes and villains rather than striving for a deep understanding of the economics of publishing. Knee-jerk assumptions, particularly ideas that OA is a magical cure for for all perceptions of corporate misbehavior or thinking that there’s only one possible way for OA to be an integral part of the publishing landscape should be questioned, if not entirely abandoned.