Publicity photo of Agnes Moorehead as Endora f...
Publicity photo of Agnes Moorehead as Endora from the television program Bewitched. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What happens if open access publishing becomes the norm?

This question came to mind when I engaged in an exchange with Richard Poynder, which took the form of an email interview.  Poynder has been polling a number of people about the current state of OA and the responses have been interesting.  Here, for example, is a remark by Heather Joseph:

“I think it is critical for us to understand that the moment is in our hands when we need to stop thinking of Open Access as fighting to become the norm for research and scholarship, and to begin acting in ways that acknowledge that Open Access is the norm.”  

There is a bit of magical thinking in this statement, but trying to take the magic out of magical thinking is not the most productive use of anyone’s time.  It is more instructive, I think, to assume that the assertion is true, that a dominant OA paradigm will indeed come to pass, and to imagine what a world built around that paradigm would look like.  It’s instructive in that it reveals the fault lines of the current (wildly successful) paradigm and enables perspicacious publishers to anticipate challenges to their enterprise.  Or to put this another way, traditional publishers can let the “storm the barricades” branch of OA advocates do their strategic planning for them.

With that in mind I would point to a particular widening fault line and remark that professional societies have a tough slog ahead.

Before trying to sketch the future of professional societies, let’s review how the current practices of such societies and scholarly communications actually work.

Professional societies, of course, are not all of one type. The differ in size, discipline, their relationship to the academy, the role of publication for professional advancement, and many other things.  But one very large segment of professional societies has a business model that essentially rests on three items:  membership dues, income from conferences, and revenue from publications.  Membership dues can be moved up or down, but higher dues can result in many people leaving the society, so the tendency is to keep dues as low as possible, the better to build a large organization.  Conferences suffer from a similar problem:  raise the registration cost and many people simply won’t attend.  But publications are different.  Members typically get access to their society’s publications for free or at a discount or through a library subscription.  Raising the prices of publications to libraries is thus an expedient way to increase a society’s income.  While not-for-profit societies are for the most part not the price leaders in their categories, many societies look to their publications to generate a surplus.

Societies use that surplus in many different ways.  It is used to subsidize membership dues and the cost of conference registration, provide support services for young scientists who are just starting out, to lobby in Washington, and for a host of other things.  I recently saw a fascinating membership survey in which one of the most highly ranked benefits was subsidized child care at the society’s annual conference.  I doubt that many people who took advantage of that service knew that libraries were paying for it.

Universal OA would break up this cozy situation by eliminating much, perhaps all of that surplus from publications.  As Andrew Odlyzko has noted, the average revenue per article in the traditional model is about $5,000–that is, if you divide the total number of articles published in a year into the gross publishing revenue of journals publishers, you get a figure of $5,000.  But under a gold OA regime, the income per article is likely to be under $2,000 (PLoS ONE charges $1,350), and in that $3,000-plus difference all the funding for special member services get thrown out.  No more Washington lobbyists, no more support for young scholars, no more child care.

Gold OA, in other words, represents something of an existential threat to many professional societies.  With reduced membership benefits, membership may drop, further weakening the society.  With reduced activity in Washington, there may be downward pressure on funding for scientific research, which would ripple through the entire scientific enterprise.  Professional societies, of course, will not simply sit back and contemplate their own extinction.  They will look for ways to increase revenues by other means and for ways to reduce overhead.  Many of them will seek to “bulk up” through partnerships of various kinds.

Is it any better with Green OA?  Yes, I think it is, at least if there is an embargo attached to it.  While Gold OA pretty much puts an end to the traditional subscription model–which is based on the utterly discredited notion that the people who benefit from a service should be the ones who pay for it–Green OA permits the traditional model to proceed, albeit under certain economic constraints.  What the Green model does is more or less wipe out all the revenue streams that do not derive from library subscriptions, leaving the library subscriptions in place.  These subscriptions continue to rise in price and generate a surplus for the lucky publishers that happen to have the most desired journals.

And here we return to what has become known as “the serials crisis.”  Since prices of subscriptions rise and library budgets do not and cannot keep pace, some publications get dropped.  How does a professional society avoid having its subscriptions cancelled?  The most common route is to create a publishing arrangement with one of the larger publishers, who in turn sell larger and larger collections or Big Deals to libraries at higher and higher prices.  This can’t go on forever, of course, but over the next 3-5 years it looks like a pretty safe bet.  (I have described this process in greater detail here.)

A comprehensive OA paradigm, in other words, is pretty much a frontal assault on professional societies, which can be expected to respond in ways that speak to their own interests.  Perhaps, paraphrasing Joseph, it is time to acknowledge the twilight of the professional society, though, oddly, none of the leaders of the professional societies with which I am acquainted like that idea one bit.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


93 Thoughts on "Open Access and Professional Societies"

Scholarly societies have been around a long time, I believe they started appearing around 350 years ago approximately the same time as scholarly journals. Up until 60 years or so ago, these societies and their members actually subsidized journals rather than lived off their income.

It may be an end of an era of societies with large professional staffs, fancy receptions at the annual meeting and broad agendas but I doubt it is the end of societies.


“While Gold OA pretty much puts an end to the traditional subscription model–which is based on the utterly discredited notion that the people who benefit from a service should be the ones who pay for it”

Another way to look at this is that it is the end of a model which is based on the utterly discredited notion that a publisher should end up owning something they put ~5% of the resources into creating and moving to a model where they can be paid fairly for the services they provide.

And what if the current model pays societies and their publishing operations fairly for the services they provide? What if the alternative is actually unfair and unsustainable?

David, it is interesting that your arguments are basically about ethics, and questionable at that. You seem to be claiming that the present society system is unethical, especially their professional staffs, broad agendas and unfair prices. I disagree.

Not at all. I just feel it no longer is necessary or sensible for authors to trade ownership for publishing services whether it is a society, a commercial publisher. I also think it creates a real conflict of interest when the American Chemical Society on one had approves undergraduate chemistry programs and as part of those requirements insist that their libraries carry the Society’s journals.

Mr. Solomon I suggest you review the CPT recommended journal list. You will find more than just ACS journals on it.

I suggest you review the role of any publisher and I am sure you will find more than the 5% contribution you claim.

What is gained by ownership of an article. I still want to be convinced that an author gains from ownership. I would say that an author loses from ownership. Is an author prepared to go to court over a copyright infringement? Just to whom is the author going to sell his/her now owned article?

A publisher risks money and provides for reviewing, production, copyright protection, archiving, marketing, accounting, delivery means and talent and the author provides content. I would say it is a 50/50 arrangement if not 70/30 publisher/author.

In OA the author pays to publish. This is ok for an author with funds, but one without? I believe you think that the charge to publish will remain as it is or just have incremental increases. I can assure you it will only increase by leaps and bounds and just like page charges of the past will soon outpace the budgets for publishing at the expense of the lab. OA publishing is a business not a philanthropic endeavor. Aside from PLos 1 which still charges $1350 per. There other journals range from $2250 to $2900. As the infrastructure increases the charges will go up. There is no free lunch.

My experience in serials publishing supports every item mentioned by Harvey Kane. I’ve met up with numerous journal article authors who urged that they retain ownership rights to their article. Some had notions of selling translation rights; other had notions they could sell rights to have their article anthologized in books. When asked for details on how exactly such transactions could be pursued–no answers. It seemed authors were making such claims on the basis of “general principle.” If that means ethics–well, fair enough.

“I suggest you review the CPT recommended journal list. You will find more than just ACS journals on it.”

That is irrelevant. The point is that the society sets standards for undergraduate chemistry programs that require the the library to subscribe to their journals and then can charge whatever they damn well please for those journals. That’s a conflict of interest.

The 5% comes from an estimated $60,000 the NIH spends on the research going into an NIH funded manuscript and the typical $3,000 publishers charge for a hybrid article which they claim covers the cost of publishing the article.

Also check out what some of the major publishers are charging for APC funded OA articles.

I doubt they are pricing their APCs to loose money.

As an author I have never lost any sleep over copyright infringement and find that “that don’t you worry honey we’ll take care of everything” nonsense insulting. Anyone is welcome to use my articles freely as long as they give me credit. That’s all most academic authors care about.

Plagiarism is a different issue but I don’t see a publisher as much of a protector. if someone plagiarizes material and they are in some developing country halfway around the world, do you actually think a publisher is going to spend the money to try to sue them and if they did they would have any success? On the other hand if someone plagiarizes the USA all I or any author would have to do is report it to the scientific integrity officer in their university. You have the original article OA or subscription as proof. Scientific misconduct including plagiarism gets you fired and branded for life. It’s worse then being sued. Every major university has a scientific integrity office and a process for investigating scientific misconduct. It’s a requirement to accept federal grant funding.

As for APC costs, there is also PeerJ which uses basically the same publishing model as the incredibly successful PLoS One and costs $99 for the right to publish one article a year for life.

Anyone is welcome to use my articles freely as long as they give me credit. That’s all most academic authors care about.

Reactions such as these would suggest your peers are not in agreement with you on this issue:

As for APC costs, there is also PeerJ which uses basically the same publishing model as the incredibly successful PLoS One and costs $99 for the right to publish one article a year for life

The PeerJ model is a fascinating experiment, but it is far too early to know if it will be financially sustainable.

Some peers be might be upset but but many would not if it is properly cited. The CC-BY license requires proper attribution.

“Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work”

It doesn’t sound like the offending journals properly cited the articles they republished but it is not really clear from the articles you list above.

My main point was if someone violates the license agreement or copyright and they are located in for example, Nigeria, is the publisher is going to try to sue them? I just find this idea, “give us your copyright and we will protect you” argument” meaningless.

The publisher will go after a cease and desist order. The offender, if in the game to make a buck, will in essence be blacklisted. I was in a case where the offender was in a developing country and my company went after them.

But from the quotes in the linked articles, attribution was not a concern of the “outraged” authors.

Science, and Research in general, is a reputation-based business. How you are perceived by your colleagues, your employers and funding agencies plays a tremendously important role in how your career proceeds. It’s not unreasonable for researchers to want to have some level of control over how their names and writings are used. Here, they worry that the perception is being created that they are in cahoots with a publisher they see as less than reputable.

Would you be pleased to see your name and work associated with (and by implication supporting) a political candidate with whom you strongly disagree? What if a creationist website created those same implications by excerpting portions of your work, clearly attributed to you in order to support their claims? How about a snake oil medical treatment scam that used your name and reputation in an attempt to bolster their sales? Should any reuse by anyone be permissible, as long as they attribute?

“Would you be pleased to see your name and work associated with (and by implication supporting) a political candidate with whom you strongly disagree? What if a creationist website created those same implications by excerpting portions of your work, clearly attributed to you in order to support their claims? How about a snake oil medical treatment scam that used your name and reputation in an attempt to bolster their sales? Should any reuse by anyone be permissible, as long as they attribute?”

I believe it is perfectly legal under fair use to reference and quote small snippets of text doing what you note above with copyrighted material. Further more republishing and implying in any way the author endorses what you are promoting is a violation of the CC-BY license.

From the CC-BY license “You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work”

There are probably several hundred of thousand articles published under CC-BY. How many actual examples of the types of horror stories do you know about?

Here is an example of the other side of the coin. I work on a project funded by the EPA developing educational material to train health providers so they can advice their patients about the benefits and risks of eating fish (mercury contamination etc). We published some of the educational materials in MedEd Portal.

The Association American Medical Colleges (rightly so) made us track down assure we had permission for every single one of the large number of figures, charts etc. used out of published material. We spent a grand total of $200 in royalties to be able to publish it all. It probably cost us 20 times that and took an extra couple months to track it all down, get all the paperwork and pay the stupid $200. That’s what CC-BY or CC-BY-NC avoids.

DavidS what you say is so and you followed the rules. However, DavidC brought up the situation whereby an unscrupulous individual took your material and did not follow the rules.

We all know what should happen, but the examples DavidC sited are examples of those who did not follow the rules.

Mr. Solomon:

Actually it is relevant. You stated that ACS requires their journals to be subscribed to in order to be accredited. They do not!.

The NIH funds the research and a paper is a by product not the goal of the research. There is a difference.

If an article is reproduced and not credited and if the publisher finds out about it they will call for a cease and desist and if the offender does not do so by contract the publisher will take the guilty party to court. The publisher will even pursue someone in a developing country.

“Actually it is relevant. You stated that ACS requires their journals to be subscribed to in order to be accredited. They do not!.”

It may have changed but Denise Brush in the article I cited in “Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship” lays it out pretty clearly. It is or at least essentially was in 2011 a requirement to subscribe to at least a few of society’s journals. While no specific journals were required, it was impossible to meet the requirements without subscribing to some of the society’s journals.

The requirements may well be quite reasonable. What I have a problem with is that the society both sets the requirements and publishes the journals. That is a conflict of interest by any reasonable definition.

A few is very different than subscribing to all. Additionally, considering that ACS publishes probably the most prestigious list of journals in Chemistry, I would think the library already subscribed to the required number if not more.

To receive the imprimatur of one of the most prestigious scientific societies in the world has its requirements and I do not believe the ACS’s are onerous. Nor do I believe most chemists would say they are.

“I doubt they are pricing their APCs to loose money.”

Ah yes, the big, bad publisher rhetoric. As an academic publisher, I can tell you that even with $3000 APCs, the publishers are definitely losing money on each article. OA is not yet a business model that can sustain itself.

I see, David. It is not that publishers are unethical, just that the millions of authors who struggle to get published are not sensible. So we need government mandates to straighten them out. I have seen some strong claims in my day and this is a beauty.

David, what planet are you on? I said there are more sensible ways organize and fund publishing than having authors give up their copyright to the publishers and have them fund publication by selling articles. Authors are stuck with whatever publishing options exist and are under tremendous pressure to publish in the best journal they can no matter what funding model it uses. Just about every major funder and university has figured that out. For example see the position of the 15 major universities of the CIC

So what you are saying is that the redaction process and reviewing process serve no purpose and that a “raw” paper is sufficient.

David, you said nothing of the sort either time. What you are saying keeps changing and I am just trying to get clear about what you are trying to say. This is called issue analysis.

Let us try again. So the publishers are ethical and the authors are sensible but the publishing system as a whole is not sensible and we need government mandates to make it sensible. Is that it? An entire industry is not sensible?

David, your 5% figure is a bit of a scam. It implies that the reason we fund research is to get articles, which is false. Funders are buying understanding not articles.

It’s not a scam, it is a rough estimate of the resources that go in to funding the research presented in a article based on NIH funded research. I am estimating typical publishing costs at $3,000 or 5% of what is spent on the research. They are rough estimates and there is a lot of variance in both numbers. If you want to quibble with them, then do so…

Mr. Solomon can you break down the costs of publishing an article and how you derive the $3,000.figure?

I have no quarrel with your numbers, David. It is your concept that is nuts. You say “…the utterly discredited notion that a publisher should end up owning something they put ~5% of the resources into creating.” The research funding is not part of the resources put into creating the paper, not unless the paper writing labor is a direct charge to the contract, in which case it is a tiny fraction of the budget. The publisher does not end up owning the research, just the paper. In fact the publisher’s investment may well be larger than the author’s.

Your supposed 5% fraction is a scam, a deliberate rhetorical confusion that permeates the OA movement, namely that somehow the paper is the research. It is not. Research is a separate activity from writing papers.

Half of US Federally funded research has been 12 month green OA for many years with seemingly relatively small impact on the relevant societies. The other half will probably be 12 month OA in a few years. Given the scale of US funding this 12 month model is likely the emerging norm. I suspect the threat is correspondingly small, at least for now. But we are short on actual data.

The rise of predatory OA publishers have made the credibility of new publishers of gold OA journals very important. A scholarly society can confer immediate credibility to such a journal, as they validate the editorial line and the quality of the peer review. The new business model is probably a partnership between societies and commercial publishers, where the members of the society takes care of editorial work and peer review, and the APC is split according to some model open to negotiation. This indirectly gives the societies a chance of monetizing the work of their members. Is there any reason to believe that this model could not be as profitable as the old model? Does anyone know how much a society typically earns per paper?

Scientific societies have well-established, reputable brands, and even the staunchest open access advocates acknowledge the power of brand. I don’t believe a lot of non-profit societies are fearful of open access; in fact, most I speak with are enthusiastic about it. A society publishes a journal to communicate the science. You said yourself that societies are not of one type, and I would argue that many of the smaller societies that have long been lost in the roar of the big deal will benefit from this open access sea change.


Although the society publishes to present the science, they use the revenue from the publication to support the society. Joe’s discussion of funding a society is very accurate.

Of course they do. Societies will use revenue from anything they possibly can to support their programs and operations. I have no argument with Joe’s discussion about that. I’m saying that the revenue return to low cost journals in giant, aggregated library deals is not supporting all that much.

For smaller societies that have been operating on a shoestring all along, who have a strong reputation in their field, and who have long prioritized scientific communication over fancy conference parties, this is a welcome change.

What a society or association does with its publications’ revenues is irrelevant to this discussion; what is relevant for both publishers and societies/associations is a sustainable model that allows reputable gatekeepers to referee and aggregate science in a way that promotes broad dissemination and the advancement of knowledge.


I fear that what a society does with its revenue and how it earns it is relevant. I learned as a VP in two society/associations that without revenue there is no society. Further, that one of the most important revenue streams is the publication program.

Harvey, given that you have inside information about the finances of society publishing, do you know approximately how much a society earns per paper? In other words, how much would need to be added to the APCs of the technical publishers to create the same revenue for a society in a gold OA business model?

I’m not sure an average would tell you much. Some societies make a few thousand dollars a year from their journals, others make millions. The APCs needed would vary from very little to a lot.

Of course there is a range of values, however, it is very difficult to have a qualified discussion about how societies will fare in an OA publishing world without knowing how much they need to extract from the APCs. My admittedly completely unqualified guess would be in the 100-1000$ per paper range. Add that on top of the APCs of a cheap OA publisher like Hindawi or PeerJ and that still looks like a competitive price, suggesting that societies will fare fine in an OA economy. If my estimate is out by an order of magnitude, that of course changes the assessment completely….

Your estimate is off by quite a bit, but I don’t know if there is any public information on this topic that has been fully analyzed. Lots of variables to take into account. For example, how do you account for reviews or the sale of backfiles? How do you build in the dynamic aspect of marketing, which can cause the number of subscribers to rise or fall, which in turn changes the calculations? I don’t know if we have anything better than Odlyzko’s figure of $5,000, which is a broad average. In my experience, I have not seen anything under $3,000, but I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive grasp on this subject.

As Joe notes, it’s a complex question. A large medical journal that earns millions of dollars in advertising revenue can likely sustain a much lower APC than a small humanities journal without other revenue streams like this (or secondary rights licensing, to use another example). Subscription is not the only source of revenue for a journal.

You could perhaps get a better sense of things by looking at the i990 forms that non-profit organizations are required to fill out, which are publicly available. But this will only paint the picture in very broad strokes. I’ve seen estimates for society journals that range as high as $18,000 for APCs to maintain their current levels of financial support.

The i990 form was indeed quite illuminating. I looked up a small society in my field, the Protein Society, with a single medium impact journal “Protein Science” published by Wiley (OA after 12 months). In 2011, they stated 41620$ as publication income. With 207 papers on pubmed in 2011 that gives 201$/paper. However, elsewhere they declare “Royalties” of 720k$. It is not clear if they are derived from the journal in some indirect way as well. Link to form:

This understates the revenue; this is what the society receives, not what Wiley takes in. The whole accounting issue is very complex and requires careful analysis by knowledgable professionals.

Joe, yes and I think this is the relevant figure in this case. The question I am interested in answering is how much does the society need to add to the APC to get the same profit. The Protein Science figure may be one of the lower ones. The Biophysical Journal comes out at 1297$/paper profit to the society. For the Journal of Biological Chemistry is not so clear, but ASBMB total publication revenue was 17.2 M$ for 4.432 paper in JBC, although it is not clear which expenses are related to the publication business.

This is a very fair question. I can only speak from my own experience, and that is that virtually all publishers I know have done this analysis internally, but few or none are likely to share it publicly, as it is considered an important trade secret. It would be a great project to do a real study of this, but this is not the casual research of a weekend but something requiring a commitment of several months (and where is the funding coming from?). It is also something that has to be done by an industry practitioner who knows how to critique the financial reports of publishers.

But there is another dimension as well, and that is that the numbers exist in context: change the context and you change the numbers. When you switch from the subscription model to Gold OA, more changes than the source of payment and the open status of the material, and some of those changes cannot be predicted in advance.

How much each society earns from an APC charge is more dependent on costs and how they are assigned than revenue.

Each society, I believe assigns costs in different ways.

My knowledge is proprietary and I would not devulge it. Additionally, it is particular to the society with which I was associated.

Nevertheless, we are seeing APCs of $5,000 and I do not believe this figure is the top.

I believe that as this experiment unfolds, we will find that OA is just as expensive if not more so than the subscription based model, that readership of articles will not increase and that although quantity will go up quality will go down. I conclude this because it is the nature of business to make money.

Even the internal revenue per article figure for a given Society is not particularly useful, except perhaps as a rough measure of potential exposure. If APC OA actually becomes a threat, it is likely to do so in a discipline specific way. To get a local handle on this threat the important question is what are people buying when they pay APC charges? There are a number of different motives, which will vary from buyer to buyer, some of which subscription journals can actually compete with. These different motives include ideology, access, speed of publication, reduced hassle factor, light review, reduced rejection, compliance, etc. It is hard to compete when you do not know what you are competing against. This sort of local market issue analysis is perhaps more useful than simply assuming a coming global switch to APC OA.


I fear many have not worked on the financial side of the business and do not understand the relationship between cost, revenue, author and consumer.

Hopefully folks will learn as the OA movement either succeeds, fails or becomes just another means of delivery of information.

I appreciate that businesses are reluctant to devulge their financial details. However, the plight of scholarly societies is a frequently cited objection to OA. Without any concrete knowledge about the finances of society publishing, it is impossible to assess how big this problem really is. For the society journals where most of the publishing process is outsourced to commercial publishers, it is relatively easy to to estimate the financial contributions from the i990 as discussed above for Biophysical Journal and Protein Science. For publishers such as ASBMB that do the publishing in-house, the total publication income divided by the number of papers must give us a reasonable upper limit for what APC would be needed to generate the same income. In the case of ASBMB the number comes out at appr. 3300$/paper for their relatively selective journals. This doesn’t take any OA associated savings into consideration. These numbers at least suggest that society gold OA is in principle possible for relatively good journals without outrageous APCs. The dark horse in these considerations is what a change to OA would do to the number of submissions, and I guess none of us really know. All the journals mentioned above have page charges already by the way.

Again just what does the society consider costs? Do they consider that the journal should be charged a percentage of the cost of the accounting dept, marketing dept, all salaries lines, etc. Additionally, I can see no savings in OA. The cost of ppb is simply absorbed in the cost of computers, programmers and IT.

I would think $3300 per article is short changing the society.

Magnus, I do not see the point of your long paragraph. Are you suggesting that all Societies open their books as some sort of deterrent to APC OA? Not likely. Do you know of any major new APC OA mandates in progress?

Magnus–again, it’s not that simple.

First, you’re looking at a line that’s listed as “publishing”. Do you know, for each society, what has gone into that line? Does the society do any publishing other than its journal? Does it put out books, training videos, a magazine, a newsletter? Does each product make money, or do some subsidize others? How are costs allocated? If the journal staff works in the same building as the rest of society management, are overheads, rent, electricity, air conditioning, etc. being charged as a production cost?

Then, when you look at publishing revenue, you’re assuming it entirely comes from subscriptions and would need to be replaced by APCs. How much of it comes from advertising? How much from reprints, from secondary licensing rights? It has been estimated that at least 1/3 of STM journal revenue comes from sources other than subscriptions. How do these revenue sources fit into your calculations? How many of them will still be feasible under OA rules and won’t need to be replaced?

Next question–does the society own its journal? There are many societies that are “associated” with journals but have no ownership stake. The revenue they receive for this association may have no direct relationship to costs or profits for the journal. Nor would they have any say, or any right to make any changes to the business model of the journal, no matter what they would prefer.

For a society that owns its journal and has partnered with a publisher, what is their financial arrangement? Are they receiving a royalty, and what is that royalty based on (often these are based on revenue, rather than profits)? Are they instead receiving income based on a profit share arrangement? Are they receiving any bonus payments? Are they receiving any guaranteed minimum payments? Does their revenue include payments from the publisher to cover editorial office costs, travel costs, meeting costs? Unless you know these specific arrangements, you cannot know the costs involved, nor the actual level of surplus being generated.

If the society chose to go without the publishing partner, then likely the costs would increase greatly. One key reason so many societies choose to partner is that through economies of scale, publishers are able to greatly reduce costs. If you’re cutting the publishers out of the picture in your equations, then what are the costs for a small society publishing one journal likely to be as compared with costs for an Elsevier which publishes 3,000 journals?

ASBMB is a big organization, with over 12,000 members and an enormous body of researchers working in related fields. How much publishing revenue comes from members? How does their financial situation compare with a niche science society with 1/4 as many members? How does funding in their fields compare with others? Can you realistically compare a huge, well-funded biomedical society with a smaller unfunded humanities society and expect to draw similar conclusions?

To summarize, I spent 15 years as a developmental neurobiologist, and yet I still find the complexity of publishing to be daunting. I’ve seen many attempts such as yours at simplified equations used to derive the “true” cost of a paper, or what things would cost to replace subscriptions with APCs. Every single one is grossly oversimplified and makes an absurd amount of assumptions that fall apart under real world circumstances. They result in numbers that are wildly incompatible with reality, and which paint an inaccurate picture of what is likely to happen if a major chaotic shift is attempted in a complex ecosystem.

The real bottom line is that it would be extremely time and labor consuming to accurately model, and more likely, since much of the necessary data is unavailable, it may be impossible to do so. That doesn’t mean that experimenting with new models, new ways of publishing is a bad thing. But the thing about experiments is that you don’t know their outcome until you do the experiment. Making guesses in advance about what will happen is all well and good, but I’m not sure how much I’d be willing to risk on a guess.

David C:
Like in developmental biology, one can learn something about complex systems by studying simpler model systems. It is clearly impossible for an outsider to penetrate the financials of a massive beast such as ACS, but for the smaller ones it is not necessarily impossible. The societies mentioned above all only have one or a few journals and do not publish books etc. Their journals are all OA after 12 months so there isn’t much sale of reprints etc. The advertising income is stated to be 180k$, and there is no reason to believe that it would be much lower in an OA setting. When you are looking at the raw revenue per paper, as in the ASBMB case, the allocation of costs is irrelevant.

So do I short-change the ASBMB in the above calculation? I do not believe I do. The 17.2M$ publishing revenue comes out of a total revenue of 20.7M$. The rest is composed of membership dues, investment income and meeting income. So unless the ASBMB is hiding revenue streams from the IRS, there clearly isn’t much wiggle room for the revenue per paper to be higher than the 3300$ mentioned above. This number seems to correspond roughly to the JBC immediate OA fees of 1500$ + 80$ per page (2000$ + 90$ per page for non-members). These numbers are not that different from the page and colour charges that were in place until recently.

Of course things will be different for other societies, but I think the take home message is that a large societies with a popular publishing program are likely to do just fine in an all OA world. Small societies may struggle, but the numbers quoted for the Protein Society suggests that some of them already do in the current system. There is quite a bit of scaremongering going on by OA-opponents, i.e. the societies will collapse and APC will need to be ridiculously high. To evaluate whether these arguments are solid, we need some data. The data I have quoted above may not be perfect, but it gives outsiders, such as myself, an idea of what he finances involved are. From what I have seen, I will rest assured that OA is not going to be a major disaster to the societies in my area.


Many errors in your comment, though I believe it was offered in good faith. But for I say more, I want to make the point that the basic thrust of your argument is correct, that is, that if you divide the number of articles into the gross revenues (must be gross, not net), you will come up with a number. On average, across all journals from all publishers,that number is around $5,000. It is therefore impossible for any publisher to claim that the cost of publishing an article is, say, $14,000 or $25,000 and still be profitable unless the revenue received per article is far greater than the $5,000 average. And many journals do indeed have revenue far beyond that figure.

Your comment on advertising requires qualification. If the ad dollars come from print editions, as most ad dollars do, then OA will definitely undercut ad revenue. On average online advertising earns about one-tenth as much as print advertising. This is well-documented. Consider the plight of the NY Times.

But the real problem with your analysis is that you say that the information is not available for analysis. It is available; it is simply not available to you. The societies themselves know exactly what is happening to them. They know that OA of certain varieties undermines much of what they do. This is not true for all societies, but for many.

There is a fundamental mistake in your analysis, and that is that you believe that the scholarly community is the audience for these speculations. That is no so. The audience is the societies themselves. They make decisions based on the interests of their members, as one would expect.

I understand that societies have detailed information that they base their strategic decisions on, and that most of this isn’t shared with the community at large. However, individual researchers also have to make up their minds about OA, whether to push for or against. Furthermore, the fate of OA is likely to be determined by public policy, and it is thus a political debate as well. It is the information available for these types of decisions I am talking about.

Many individual researchers belong to societies and are thus in a position to be informed of the situation by their elected leaders. I seriously doubt that the fate of OA is a matter of public policy. Economics trumps policy every time. OA will happen, is happening, but for economic reasons, and they are good ones.


ASBMB–according to this page, the society publishes four journals, one magazine and at least one book. They appear to have some sort of deals set up with at least three other journals outside of their own publications that may or may not be revenue bearing. How are you dividing up the costs and revenues from each separate publication in order to do your calculations?

More importantly, your experimental system assumes that market pressures will remain identical after a shift from subscription to OA. As Joe Esposito has noted, a move from print (which requires subscriptions in some manner) to online OA means a big drop in advertising revenues. Then, there is likely a significant level of revenue coming in from secondary rights licensing for aggregators like EBSCO, ProQuest, OVID and the like. If you’re using the BOAI definition of OA, that all goes away because of the CC-BY license requirement. Also under CC-BY, we’ll likely see a great deal of aggregation, much like the Huffington Post aggregates articles from smaller blogs. The aggregators then start to see the majority of traffic and any online advertising revenues begin to shift from the journal to the aggregator. So both of these revenue streams need to made up for by increasing the APC.

Then there’s the changing economic drivers. For OA, you’re always going to be dealing with a situation where there are limited funds available (as there are always limited research funds available for all purposes). Author decisions are now going to be cost-based as well as based on finding the right journal for the paper. You’re assuming that since Journal X receives Y submissions now and publishes Z papers now, the same numbers will happen when they charge authors $3000-plus. But if authors don’t have sufficient funds, maybe they start sending their papers to journals with lower rates, and you get into a pricing war. That would certainly have an effect on society viability.

To do an appropriate experiment, one sets up a condition where there’s only one variable. To learn what the experiment means, you have to have controls set up to remove the influence of other factors in the system. Here you’ve set up an experiment but no controls, no way of eliminating the myriad contributing factors of a chaotic system. Hence the results don’t mean much in the real world.

From what I have seen, I will rest assured that OA is not going to be a major disaster to the societies in my area.

And this is a big reason why there’s so much growing backlash against OA. So much of the advocacy and the systems set in place were driven by the biomedical world, with an assumption that the rest of the research world works the same way. It turns out that each field of research is different, and one size fits all is not a good way to go. See tomorrow’s Scholarly Kitchen post for more…

Joe, where do you see OA happening for economic reasons? It seems a strange claim. Green especially. On the gold side does not this contradict the idea that it is economically harmful? Or do you see gold OA knocking off the subscription industry on economics grounds.

Gold OA has opened up an entirely new market, money from researchers and their funding agencies. Much of Green OA exists today because of requirements by funding agencies. It seems to me that OA is mostly just following the money, as you would expect.

Joe you are right the money comes from the funding agencies. What happens when the funding is cut? I remember when grant money had a stipulation that library holdings were to be increased with some of the grant money. That went with the Reagan Administration and with it much monograph publishing.

I think the same will happen again with the OA funding monies.

This is probably too weighty a subject to be resolved in the blog comments. I would like to end by thanking you all for schooling me in the economics of scholarly publishing.

Joe, you and I seem to have different concepts of economic activity, maybe worth a separate article. Green mandates are regulations so more or less pure public policy. Gold (or APC) OA is a hybrid but even the commercial side is based on selling into a political movement. Moreover there is no new market here, just a new way of sharing the existing market. A new market means selling more stuff but the number of articles does not increase. Thus it is a zero sum game, a battle for market share between the APC journals and the subscription journals. Selling the same pile of stuff a different way is not a new market.

Hi Harvey,
I’m not suggesting that association revenues from publishing aren’t important, but to approach the sea change underway in scholarly publishing by beginning with the burden of the organization’s overall revenue requirement is a bit like trying to drive a cay by looking in the rear view mirror. Associations/Societies must also look at what’s ahead, not cling to what has come thus far, so that both the organization’s overall operations, including its publishing, can go forward with new models that are market and constituent relevant. So much of the commentary around this post presumes that only minor shifts are needed to keep that revenue stream flowing; that’s naïve in my opinion. I have had the privilege of working with many different associations. The ones who diversified their revenue streams weathered many types of changes. Diversification is essential, even at the micro level within organizations.

Yes there are other revenue streams but those streams for the most part are not connected to the society’s mission as are publications. Additionally, the new streams of revenue are not as large as the publication’s river or revenue. As Joe and David have so well pointed out. We are talking one of the foundations of a society when we talk publications.

All of this assumes that we will continue the churn that ePublishing now makes unnecessary. The apparent absurdity of academics giving something away and then having their institutions purchase it after being ‘blessed’ by a revenue-driven publisher was only justified by the need to externalize the risks of paper publishing. With that in the process of being set aside, we should be thinking in terms of streamlining the process of scholarly publishing and letting the chips fall as they may. That is a lesser evil than trying to keep old business models intact and causing the larger enterprise to price itself out of the market.

No, the need for objective third-party validation, filtration, and designation led to the emergence of well-funded editorial and publishing offices. Paper publishing was no more risky financially than online publishing is now. In fact, it appears to many of us now to have been less risky, as it could be managed on a variable cost basis (need fewer copies, print fewer copies, control costs) whereas online is 24/7 and worldwide and costly for both reasons, requiring fixed technology and staff costs.

If publishers become poorly funded, they become subject to influence by outside powers. We’ve already seen this with some OA publishers accepting nonsense papers, allowing corporate entities to look into their editorial processes, refusing to tell readers who paid for a paper to be published, and so forth. Skimping on third-party validation is not wise.

Societies provide a great amount of value to their communities, and a recent survey showed that young professionals really value them, especially because they are key to their early career progress. Mentoring the next generation of professionals and scientists requires resources and community action. Proposing anarchy and letting the chips fall where they may is irresponsible.

It’s not far from other calculations I’ve seen at major journals with high rejection rates. The cost of rejection is significant. PLOS ONE can charge less because their cost of rejection is low (they rejection less than 1/3), and they don’t have the major editorial infrastructure of a Nature, NEJM, JAMA, or Cell. For my flagship journal, just doing the initial evaluation of an article (just the sniff test) costs $275, and a full peer-review costs $1800 on average, more in many cases. Then, we edit, do statistical review, compose the article, have many exchanges with authors to get things right, deal with figures, and so forth. We’ve estimated that we’d have to charge above $10K per article in order to maintain the same journal — rejection rate, quality, reputation, impact. And we’re a niche of a niche. Most major journals like those named above do calculate their APCs as needing to be $25-35K in order to continue to be what they are to the community. If you’ve never seen one of these journals at work up close, that’s a shame. What they do is pretty intense and amazing, actually. They pound content into shape in ways that are quite impressive. They’re not perfect, but they’re excellent.

While Nature would have to charge $30-40K in an APC model, they currently charge nothing. That’s very transparent to authors. There is no increased transparency for authors in the APC model. They know what they’re paying either way.

Kent you forget that Plos seeks outside funding to support some of their journals. For instance their journal on cancer is seeking funding outside of NIH. I wonder why NIH would fund them in the first place.

The accounting is pretty easy. Take the annual overheads for producing Nature, divide by the number of papers published per year.

As fro transparency, Plos seeks outside funding for some of its journals. How much and from whom? Plos is not for profit but does not seem profitless.

I don’t think the transparency is quite as straightforward as you suggest. For example, APC’s in hybrid journals are certainly subsidized by subscription revenues. Take those away and authors would have to be charged more, much more. And larger publishers often use their more profitable journals to subsidize their less profitable journals. A good example is PLOS, where revenue from PLOS ONE is used to subsidize their other journals. So for the PLOS ONE author, the APC charged goes to support other authors for other journals, and for the PLOS Medicine or Biology author, the APC is artificially low.

David, I said it is transparent in terms of what you are paying and what you are purchasing. Yes, PLoS One subsidizes PLoS’s high end journals but the authors and their funding agency knew what they were paying and what they were getting in terms of publishing services.

Professional societies will collapse if they are pushed out of the market by
the few large publishers that exist also. So this is not about OA. This is
about trying to fund one thing of the back of another. This model is somewhat
outdated in the era of full economic costing and the like.

I have my doubts about many professional societies anyway; they seem to spend
most of the time representing their own importance, rather than that of their
profession, even if you can cherry-pick some good things that some of them
have done. But that is a different story.


I believe that a society is more than a publishing house. They serve many other functions such as promoting the discipline on capital hill, providing expert witness before congress, not to mention student initiatives, etc.

How is a model which has supported publishing for over a century now “utterly discredited?” In my journal, the reviewers would call for more explanation.

I have been following the comments to my post with great interest. Almost none of them have anything to do with my post, but, hey, that’s the Internet, so what the heck. For the record: I did not propose that OA is a good thing or a bad thing. I said it would have consequences for that segment of professional societies that use their publishing arms to generate money for other society activities. That’s all I said.

The discussion is not entirely irrelevant. The issue is whether these consequences are good or bad? For example David Solomon argues that the present system is not sensible and societies need to shrink a lot, hence the discussion.

My comment about 12 month green OA was perhaps more relevant, as I do not see the large impact you describe looming. The industry can absorb a small revenue loss.

You are absolutely right that OA will have consequences for many professional societies, Joe. And finding new revenue streams to replace lost subscription revenue is likely to be challenging for at least some of them. It seems quite possible that the small ones will survive, for the reasons Jen mentions, as will the large ones, which typically have more diversified revenue streams and the resources to develop new ones. But it may be more difficult for the medium-sized ones…

I would suggest that many societies are going through a cost benefit analysis as to whether or not to continue being their own publisher or go with a major house and receive a more reliable revenue stream.

The above is a very difficult decision but one that is going to have to be made.

Here at HFES, a small society with 7 staff for 4,600 members and an annual budget of $1.6 million, we’re in a particularly vulnerable place. And thanks to a couple of big economic downturns, we have no place to shrink, as we’ve been cutting to the bone for many years. So for this society at least, the expansion of OA is not a “welcome change” but reason for deep and strategic conversations and no small degree of concern. Please refrain from speaking for others without specific knowledge of what those others are actually experiencing.

Apologies, Lois – “could be a welcome change.” Obviously not every society is the same, which was noted. My point could have been better stated. In short, I don’t think that OA is necessarily a “frontal assault” on a twilight facing professional society.

I think this is the more common experience. The economy supporting scholarly communication is shrinking while the demands for outlets and quality are increasing. Societies are facing more competition from all angles, and are finding it harder to compete. Online is not free, but a major new expense category for most, and we’re in the early stages which is more expensive.

OA was determined in a top-down and before the fact, as Joe said in the interview he refers to. Contemplating these consequences, which were not considered before OA was set up, is important both because of the damage they can cause but also because we may need to accept that OA needs to be restructured in some way or it will fail.

Unfortunately, one refers to OA without qualifying it. Clearly Gold OA will result in a remodeling of a Society’s business model for its journals. Instead of institutional subscriptions, the authors and funding agencies will be asked to pay for publication directly. Whenever we do a SWOT analysis, OA has been seen as a threat by the leadership. However, having run the American Physiological Society since 1985, a society that has existed since 1887 and that has published a journal since 1898, I do not see Gold OA as a threat to our journals. If warranted, we will shift from subscription to APC. The APC fee selected might prove problematic and we might have to reduce our services to the authors, but the journal will not die. Green OA is clearly a better model for most publishers and it is my hope that is the model that will persist for if it does not, the research intensive institutions will find themselves paying for access for the rest of the world.

Last year, US News reported that Harvard Med Library had a $3.75 M acquisition budget. In the same year, Harvard faculty produce 12,000 articles. At $1,500 per article, Harvard would have to spend $18M in APCs. The complaint used to be that institutions in developing countries could not afford access, under the Gold OA model, they will have no problem since Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc will be buying them access through the payment of APCs.

Mr. Frank brings up an interesting observation. If granting agencies fund APCs then I will be contributing to the publication of an article on some topic which I will not understand. Why should I be forced to pay for someone getting a paper published so that a person can get tenure?

Of course what I have said is to a certain extent absurd because I could benefit from a paper without realizing it. The paper could be the foundation for a cure to some disease. However, the unintended consequences of OA seem to be multiplying.

At what point will an author consider it being too expensive to submit an article? For instance, could a journal charge say $7,500? In light of PLos charging $2,900 to publish in some of its journals that price may not be far off.

In short, is there a break point and if so what is it?

What will an author consider being the determining factor for paying a high fee?

If I recall page charges were discontinued because of cost to author. Will history repeat itself?

Will journal publishing become like the pharma industry where the US bears the costs and the price while the rest of the world enjoys the benefits without paying the price?

Cell Reports charges an APC of $ 5,000. They do not lack for submissions…

One issue with that as a strategy is that many (most) researchers don’t earn a huge amount of money. And unlike article processing charges or journal subscriptions, most grants won’t pay for society memberships. So membership is out-of-pocket for researchers.

Where it gets interesting though, is if you think in terms of PeerJ’s membership model and start applying that to society memberships for societies with journals. If your grant does indeed cover publication costs, then would it cover a package that offers membership, publication of a (or several) papers, and registration to the annual meeting?

Then you could charge a significantly higher rate without hitting the researcher in their own bank account, and likely do well the same way many membership deals do, where people buy in anticipation of doing so, but don’t actually take advantage of what’s offered.

There are some basic mathematics to consider here. Subscription and retail publishing seeks revenues from across tens of thousands of readers, if not more, which reduces prices for each participant to affordable levels. If revenues are attained through membership only, then the number of possible payers shrinks by a factor of 10 or more, in most cases. So why rush toward a model that is smaller and more expensive intrinsically when we have a more dispersed, diverse, and affordable model already in place.

Tossing off “oh, just raise your dues” isn’t helpful. The economics of running an association or professional society are complex, and there is often a delicate balance between meetings, publications, and dues, which has to be modulated gently over time. Shocks to the system could throw the whole thing out of whack, and throttle all three revenue streams at once.

The complexity and confusion in this discussion is largely due to the fact that it is about very different alternative possible futures, not reality. Thus there is little basis for decision making. In fact at present the threat from OA is small, but this is seldom mentioned. I recommend watchful contemplation not precipitate action.


A long time ago I worked directly for Mr. Jerry Kaplan founder of the Free Press and his admonition was: great publishers follow and never lead. Thus, your suggestion is wise.

Thanks Harvey, but there is leadership in not responding to hype. OA is a political movement not an economic one and compromise is the art of politics so I do not see a radical threat in the works. When I go into an organization often the first thing to do is quiet the hyperbolic excitement, then decide what is actually worth doing.

When the internet first hit and was considered the great challenge to societies, I was at a rather association. The CEO was very concerned that we would become irrelevant. We had many meetings and my admonition was wait and see. We did and as they say dog years became just years and the society is doing very well because we responded in a measured way.

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