Having It All, by Helen Gurley Brown
Having It All, by Helen Gurley Brown

Recently the Nature news group published a piece by Richard Van Noorden concerning PLoS ONE on peer review and the pricing of Gold open access services.  I was interviewed via email for that piece (Van Noorden very graciously cited me) and I want to elaborate on what I had to say there.  The matter that interests me is how the Gold OA market can and will develop and what the basic economic drivers will be.

Before turning to PLoS ONE specifically, we should think about how established publishers using the traditional user-pays model are reacting to the rapid growth of PLoS ONE and its kin at Hindawi and BioMed Central.  The basic revenue model for most journal publishers consists of sales to academic libraries, some individual subscriptions, subscriptions to government agencies and corporations, and advertising where applicable.  It’s increasingly common for library subscriptions to give way to consortia sales and for smaller publishers to join forces with the largest to get access to library and consortia budgets, especially where there is an opportunity to address a global market.  These revenue streams are supplemented for some publishers with single-article fees (PPV) and page charges.  There is also a little bit of money sloshing around in hybrid journals, where the journal as a whole is sold on a toll-access basis but individual articles are OA.

Whatever one may think about the relative merits of Green and Gold OA (a matter that my colleagues on the Kitchen and myself have discussed numerous times) or the economic implications of embargoes of various lengths, what is clear is that Green OA has no promise of delivering augmented revenues to the publisher, but Gold OA opens up a new customer, the author him or herself, who in many instances pays for the article to be OA.  Gold OA, in other words, represents a business opportunity, whereas Green OA represents a business problem.

So the question for the traditional publisher is, how to get some of that Gold OA money?  And that money is sought with the hope and expectation that the revenues from the traditional publications will hold steady.  There are some natural strategies for this.  For example, the publisher of a toll-access chemistry journal may decide to set up a noncompeting Gold OA physics journal, or the publisher of a medical journal may decide to steer rejected articles from a traditional journal into a Gold OA sister publication (so-called cascading peer review).   When this works, it’s plus business.  What is certain is that traditional publishers are studying the articles that appear in PLoS ONE and asking themselves, What can we do to get some of those articles onto our own roster, along with all the author fees they provide?

Thus we have the emergence of a relatively new market, where publishers fight to collect fees from this new class of customers:  authors.  How to compete is another matter.  Most traditional publishers rely on the strength of their brands to bring the articles in.  This is most obvious in cascading peer review, where the established publication represents the wide end of the marketing funnel and the Gold OA venues sit at the narrow end.  (It’s worth remembering that this model works for purely toll-access publications as well, as the enormous success of Nature’s line-extension proves.)  Other publishers focus on metrics of different kinds and boast of their Web-friendly tools for submission, discovery, and dissemination.  As one would expect, wherever there is competition, the matter of pricing comes up.  And here the established publisher may have a problem.

All publishers calculate how much revenue they earn for every article they publish; the average across all publications is around $5,000.  Since that figure is an average, some publications earn more, some less. A publisher whose revenue per article is modest—say, $1,350, the same amount charged by PLoS ONE—will look to Gold OA and see a real opportunity.  I know of one publisher whose revenue per article is lower than PLoS ONE’s; for this publisher a switch to Gold OA could be a (groan) gold mine.  But for the publisher that earns more than $1,350, competing on price could challenge the overall revenue picture.  I reiterate that traditional publishers embrace Gold OA usually with the simultaneous goal of maintaining their traditional revenues.  So if a publisher now earns $3,000, $5,000, or more per article, coming up with an effective Gold OA pricing model could prove to be very challenging.

Thus publishers contemplating the launch of a Gold OA service study pricing with the goal of getting as much as possible per article, with the hope that they can charge more than PLoS ONE.  Well, we have an established brand, the argument may go, therefore we can charge more.  Or, PLoS ONE does a scaled-down form of peer review, but we are going to use the traditional model, and authors will be willing to pay more for that.  Let’s hope so.  The fact is that the open access price wars have begun and established publishers, with traditional revenue streams they hope to protect and overhead that was built for the legacy print business, are at a disadvantage.

Which brings us back to PLoS ONE.  At $1,350 per article, they are irritating the established publishers, but the fact is that journals publishing has not been disrupted.  The question is, what will be PLoS ONE’s marketing strategy going forward?  Will it view its success and say, We are now established; we could probably push through a price increase and increase our profitability without seeing a decline in the number of submissions?  Will it stand pat, holding its prices, and allow traditional publishers to get a beachhead in Gold OA publishing?  Or will it go for the jugular and try to take the whole thing–all of it, the whole of STM publishing?

In the era of traditional publishing, with its reliance on the budgets of academic libraries, PLoS ONE’s first option, trading on prestige and increasing prices, was the tried and true strategy:  establish a journal in the marketplace and as its reputation grows, have the price grow along with it.  Since there are only so many academic libraries in the world, there is a limit to growth through the addition of new customers. Hence the core of the traditional model, which is anchored entirely in the editorial effort:  Get the very, very best authors, who produce the very best articles, identify those articles with a brand, and increase pricing as that brand shines brighter and brighter.  Welcome to The Lancet and Brain.

But PLoS ONE is not an editorial shop.  In fact, it brags that it does not make judgments about the quality of its articles.  Whether or not PLoS ONE’s claims about the value of its peer review system—and by implication, the dubious value of the peer review systems of traditional publications—are true, the fact is that thousands of authors believe that they are true and continue to plunk down $1,350 for what is perceived to be a good deal.  Presumably if PLoS ONE’s fee was lower, more authors would jump on board; and if it were lower yet, even more would join the lists.  As that price drops, we begin to approach a situation where PLoS ONE becomes truly disruptive.

What we don’t know is what PLoS plans to do with its money.  It has a number of options.  It could simply lower its fees as a service to authors; this would be in keeping with its mission.  More likely, I would think, is that it would find a progressive way to lower fees, with authors with means paying higher fees (PLoS is already doing some of this already).  This could get very complicated and begin to rival the U.S. Tax Code–which would increase the administrative costs and reduce profitability.  PLoS could also invest the money in new services or even acquisitions, or it could begin to provide services unconnected to publishing, just as professional societies do, e.g., lobbying in Washington, assistance for young scientists, conferences, etc.  All of this would be in keeping with its mission, which is not, after all, to destroy the traditional publishing paradigm in itself but to make research materials more easily accessible.

Or it could go another way, taking a cue from the many tech businesses located near it in the Bay Area, and think about what economists call the Law of Increasing Returns  and network effects.  PLoS ONE becomes more valuable the bigger it gets; as it pulls ahead of competing services, it begins to grow faster and faster.  Right now no one can match it; in time no one will even be able to dream of matching it.  This is why, for example, there will never be another Amazon, another Facebook:  the rich get richer.

For PLoS the tantalizing option is to begin to lower its fees as much as possible, which will make it harder and harder for established publishers to compete with their nascent OA programs.  PLoS can do this because of scale.  It is already the world’s largest journal, giving it a unique opportunity to spread its fixed costs over a large and growing base of articles.  The bigger it gets, the lower the allocated overhead per title, untill it reaches a point where the overhead is negligible.  I repeat:  no one else can do this competitively because no one else is operating at PLoS’s scale.

What will John Wiley, Elsevier, ACS, and their ilk do if PLoS ONE begins to charge a mere $1,000?  What happens at $900?  How about $500?  At what point does PLoS ONE go from thousands of articles to tens of thousands?  How about a million, half of all research output in a year?

This could happen, though there is no indication that PLoS is thinking this way.  The prospect is there, however, and it should make traditional publishers think carefully about what their value proposition is and whether they want to chase PLoS, Hindawi, et al into Gold OA publishing.

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.


25 Thoughts on "How PLoS ONE Can Have It All"

I’m not sure how much price is a differentiator for megajournals like PLOS ONE, at least in comparison to other factors. To me, the key to success is the Impact Factor, and even for a poorly funded lab, spending $500 more to get your paper into a journal with an IF a few points higher is likely an excellent investment.

We have pretty clear evidence that there is great interest in PLOS ONE’s IF (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/07/30/the-persistent-lure-of-the-impact-factor-even-for-plos-one/) and it appears that as PLOS ONE continues to expand, the high impact papers are watered down by the “filler” papers, and the IF declines (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/06/20/the-rise-and-fall-of-plos-ones-impact-factor-2012-3-730/).

The question then, is whether expansion hits a point where the IF is diluted enough that the IF-driven researcher then switches to another megajournal whose IF is higher. Then you create something of a cycle–megajournal 2 sees explosive growth and the concurrent drop in IF, PLOS ONE sees a decline in growth and the matching increase in IF, and the researchers switch back (or move to megajournal 3).

I think this scenario is perhaps more likely than researchers ignoring IF in favor of saving a few hundred dollars.

An interesting model indeed. This is a chaotic oscillator driven by delay in information, in this case the lag built into the IF calculation. Huberman described the general case many years ago in a landmark paper.

You should to take a look at Pete Binfield’s blog post.


Other mega journals, in particular Scientific Reports are growing rapidly and picking up the pace while PLOS ONE’s growth is flattening out a bit. There are now over 20 mega journals and another 10 that are already announced that will be launched in over the next year or so.

What is clear is a lot of researchers like this model and it is not hard to understand why. With mega journals you will get a quick decision and as long as your manuscript is methodologically sound you are fairly sure of it being published. There is nothing more frustrating that submitting what you know is a perfectly sound research and get nit picked by a review system that is very unreliable and end up having to resubmit and wait 3 to 6 months to get a decision from another journal. While mega journals don’t guarantee that won’t happen it is far less likely and journals like PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports are developing pretty good reputations so what is not to like? From a cost perspective @ $1,350 they are a rip off but from a value perspective they appear to be a good deal in the view of many researchers.

Why is this model so popular? Is mere publication itself so crucial? What about quality? The PLOS ONE model only provides assurance of methodological soundness, not whether the article has any substantive importance whatsoever. So, why should we care about an article just because it is methodologically sound? A lot of methodologically sound crap can be published under this model? How does that serve the interests of science? How does it even serve the interests of scientists? Do P&T committees award tenure and promotion on the basis of number of publications alone? If so, it;s a sad commentary on the state of higher education.

It is possible that the community is rejecting the old idea that journals should filter and rank articles for quality. Or perhaps there are a lot of researchers who do not need such ranking and the market is simply segmenting. This is a research question.

First there are plenty of articles in traditional journals that are crap, methodologically and otherwise. Peer review is pretty unreliable. Ask anyone who has been an editor the range of opinions you often get on the value of an article. Methodology is a little easier to rate since it tends to be less subjective. Researchers get sick of getting rejected because someone feels their research isn’t important or not quite what this particular journal wants and then have to take the time, trouble to reformat it and wait months for another journal to review the paper that often thinks it is great and is just as good a journal.

With such an unreliable system it serves science to get research disseminated quickly and efficiently that has been screened for appropriate methodology and it is done in an ethically sound way. It is always possible to overlay a journal like PLOS ONE with a screen using someone’s assessment of quality for those the feel the don’t have the time or expertise to screen it themselves.

As for PLOS ONE publishing crap, there must be a lot of gems in there as well because on average it’s still cited higher than about 90% of the journals in the science JCR with most of those being screened for quality.

As for P&T committees, I chair the Internal Medicine committee at Michigan State University and yes we do read the material candidates submit. I probably spent 6 hours going through the packets of the two candidates we reviewed last month. I much rather have their latest research to read rather than have it tied up for a year and a half in some constipated system that rewards orthodoxy and screens out anything that is new, novel and/or non signification.

Again, does this apply only to STEM? How does one go about judging the “methodological soundness” of an article in the humanities or social sciences when, say, an Anglo-American analytic philosopher is not going to think that a Continental philosopher’s approach is at all “methodologically sound,” or a quantitatively oriented political scientists is not going to think much of a qualitatively oriented colleague’s work? Methodological soundness in the liberal arts often crosses over into ideological and philosophical disputes that make any judgments of methodological soundness inherently suspect.

How many nonSTM mega journals have you seen? One, Sage Open. The format works in the sciences in my view the social sciences as well, not in the humanities but then no one is trying to create them in those disciplines either.

I think you do your argument a disservice by using the $5000 figure, you would be better off by using a value derived from what publishers other than Plos charge as APCs, rather than a questionable analysis of publishers’ balance sheets. There is frequently a significant difference, which goes to undermine the assumptions in the paper you cite.

Joe you present an interesting scenario as does David C. One response to an attempt by PLos to grab an ever larger share of the market is a price war. Say Elsevier, Springer, Wiley etc simply say we will charge a lesser fee than PLos One and we have cache within the scientific market that it does not.

Lastly, I do not see costs declining because of the volume of papers being published by PLos One. After all, it takes folks to juggle all those papers and they cost money. Although their balance sheet appears solid, (they dropped some $7.4 million to the bottom line) their costs are substantial and as the number of papers increase so will those costs. Will they be able to keep the page charges level as they have or will page charges have to increase rather than decrease? http://www.plos.org/about/what-is-plos/progress-updates/

PLOS already offers a no-questions-asked APC waiver to anyone who requests it – that’s my understanding, at least, although I haven’t (yet) tried it out personally. This can be a complete waiving of costs, or you can pay a proportion – say, 50%, or whatever you think you can afford. So it could already cost just $500/paper, if all authors requested it. If journal choice were so price-sensitive, why don’t more authors already do this? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I am interested to hear opinions on this.)

My guess is that PLoS’s policy of routinely granting waiver requests will continue only so long as very few authors request them. If authors began routinely requesting waivers, I think that option would disappear very quickly.

I know of at least one very prominent and well-funded institution where a department chair requires that all researchers who publish in a PLOS journal ask for a waiver or discount on APC fees. This is not because of financial hardship, but done simply because PLOS offers them, so why not take advantage of the discount. I suspect that they won’t eliminate waivers or discounts, but will at some point start doing more to limit them to researchers who really need them.

Fantastic post and speculation.

How is PeerJ doing?

My understanding is that its run by a former founder of PLoS on a pay-per-author fee basis, which can be as little as $99 for a lifetime. Looks like they have about 220 papers published ($99 – $299 x # of authors)) and 134 pre-prints….they state a paper for 5 authors could run about $500 and then the authors enjoy a “lifetime” of publishing so long as they do a peer review.

Isn’t this the “bargain-basement” pricing model already? Granted they don’t have an Impact Factor quite yet…

I asked precisely that question of a colleague in my field who is a PeerJ editor. The response was that he/she had not handled even one single paper for PeerJ during this entire calendar year…

This may be field and editor dependent…in the interests of anecdata, I’ve handled 3 published papers so far this year (full disclosure–I am a volunteer editor for PeerJ and have published in the journal also).

My journal is a hybrid, offering Gold OA to those authors who require it. “Require” is the key word. If all our authors switched to Gold and our subscriptions dropped to zero, we might still survive, but with one big assumption and one bad effect. The assumption is that authors not under an OA mandate would pay the extra fee. Probably not all, because competing alternatives are available. And, a stiff fee would hit hardest those authors starting their careers and those in developing nations. The net result might be survival, but likely with a significantly different author base. My own view is we would be of poorer quality for the effort.

BTW, the assumption of keeping all subscription revenue while offering Gold OA is a bad one. Wiley already is adjusting its subscription prices for the effect of Gold OA.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but it assumes that the authors market is homogenous and very price-sensitive. Speaking as an author I can assure you that there are limits to this hypothesis. We will pay more for publication in a more prestigious journal simply because that is much more likely to bring in dividends. During 2012 I paid $ 1,350 to publish a paper in PLoS One, and $ 5,000 to publish another paper in Cell Reports (Cell Press, Elsevier). The Cell Reports publication was the basis of a major grant application which was approved, bringing in literally over 500X the funding that was expended in publication fees. Q.E.D.

Another example from a different branch of publishing is the disruption of the newspaper market in my country by the appearance of a free daily newspaper funded by a billionaire with a political agenda. This has obviously hammered the regular newspapers, but a market still seems to exist for newspapers that provide more in-depth or higher level coverage, or that serve very specific market segments (financial or business dailies, etc).

One unknown here is independent peer review services (like http://axiosreview.org, my horse in this race), particularly if they become very popular. The $5000 APC at a very selective journal reflects the cost of running peer review for not just that article, but also 1/(acceptance rate) papers that got rejected. For example, a journal with a 10% acceptance rate would need to review and reject 9 papers for every one it accepts, and if we peg peer review at $350 per paper this soaks up $3500 of the APC.

Independent review services steer inappropriate submissions away from higher profile journals while letting them choose among articles that are above or close to their quality threshold. The journal can still publish high quality papers, but their acceptance rate rises from e.g. 10% to 70%. If high profile Gold OA journals begin competing on price, using independent review services could allow them to drop their APC close enough to that of PLoS One to remain a viable option, particularly since authors would be able to publish in a more prestigious outlet for a similar price.

Isn’t the business model a little more complicated by the fact that the Big Deal allows the largest publishers to support weaker journals because of their bundling with the most prestigious?

Your focus is on STM, where there are multiple sources for paying APCs. What about humanities and social sciences, where there are far fewer such sources? Is a counterpart to PLOS ONE going to emerge in that sector? It doesn’t appear so far that SAGE’s somewhat comparable offering is holding up very well.

In that sector, shifting from TA to Gold OA is going to be a matter of what part of the university bears the burden. It could continue to be the library, if the library budget is partly dedicated to paying APCs on behalf of faculty authors. Or maybe it will devolve onto departmental budgets, or even onto individual faculty. Whatever the source chosen, the amount available is not likely to increase over time very much since neither library nor departmental budgets are growing and faculty salaries aren’t either.

Sp, how are these realities going to affect the future of Gold OA outside of STM?

One thing to consider is that faculty are working toward tenure- a position that for most is employment for life. This is not true for any of the employees at any journal, PlosOne, or most library staff, etc. So these pay-to-play fees could be seen as someone investing in their future. Why should the university or library pay for this? It is, for this segment, the cost of “doing business” in the academy.

Good point, and I have made it myself in the context of arguing that even paying $25,000 for publication of a first OA monograph may be viewed as a modest investment for an individual scholar if it brings tenure and a lifelong career in academe.

Small quibble, Joe. You wrote, “At what point does PLoS ONE go from thousands of articles to tens of thousands?” They already have:

2010: 6,750

2011: 13,796

2012: 23,464

2103 (YTD): 28,633

(Source: search of the PLOS ONE site)

… the fact is that thousands of authors believe that they are true and continue to plunk down $1,350 for what is perceived to be a good deal. Presumably if PLoS ONE’s fee was lower, more authors would jump on board; and if it were lower yet, even more would join the lists. As that price drops, we begin to approach a situation where PLoS ONE becomes truly disruptive

I highly doubt that this simple mechanism will work. First, increasing the number of published papers will most likely change the journal metrics (IF etc), which will modify the price – journal reputation tradeoff for authors. Second, many (most?) authors try to target a relevant audience, and unless the reading habits of scientists change dramatically I doubt that authors are so price sensitive that they will trade peer readership for lower price. After all, the money invested in an article (past research) and the future gain (recognition, readership, reputation) are worth much more than a price drop of $500. Don’t get me wrong. I’m positive to Plos One in many ways (and have coauthored a paper published there), but I think different journals can fill different purposes.

I do not think the argument holds even within Gold open access journals. For argument’s sake, lets create a scenario in my field (Ecology) with a top-5 journal that is fully open access with a high rejection rate and a very high reputation. Lets call it Ecology Gold. I can easily envision a situation where the value of publishing in Ecology Gold will be much larger than a $2000 fee difference to Plos One (close to the current relationship between established hybrid ecology journals and Plos One). It is even plausible that the advantage of Ecology Gold could be considered so large that Plos One cannot compete (from an author perspective) even if Plos One drops its article fee to $0. Basically, there is much more than price at stake. But this will naturally only work for smaller journals competing on quality and not journals that try to compete on size/low fees.

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