For the first time since 2009, the Public Library of Science announced that they were hiking the price of publishing in PLOS ONE by $145, from $1350 to $1495–an increase of 11%. Compared to increases in the costs of living or higher education in the United States, this rate hike barely covers inflation. So, why did such a small price increase arouse such a negative reaction from open access advocates?
In the following public Twitter exchange, Michael Eisen, who sits on PLOS’ Board of Directors, defends the publisher’s price hike, justifying their decision on the growing costs of publishing. If you didn’t know Michael Eisen, you might be convinced that the responses were coming from the Director of Public Relations at a large commercial publishing house:
Now granted, PeerJ does not charge $99 per paper, but applies membership fees starting at $99 per author, so the comparison is not accurate. However, the argument that open access publishing can be done much cheaper is shared by many OA advocates.
If you look at the PLOS’ latest financial statement, it appears that PLOS operates more like a commercial publisher than a charity. In 2014, the not-for-profit publisher made $4.9 million surplus on $48.5 million in revenue. The vast majority of this revenue came from article processing fees for papers published in PLOS ONE, which numbered more than 33,000. PLOS’ profit margins are some of the highest in the industry, making one wonder why such a profitable non-for-profit needed to raise rates.
I should note that PLOS is only raising its publication fees for PLOS ONE and leaves its other journals untouched, in spite of the fact that current article processing charges (APCs) do not cover their operating expenses, according to Eisen. Profits from PLOS ONE continue to subsidize PLOS’ more selective titles.
According to the official PLOS blog, publication fee hikes for PLOS ONE were justified by improvements in the quality of PLOS ONE publishing, along with ongoing development of a new manuscript submission system called Aptera. Describing the current systems being used by PLOS, Eisen tweeted, “we cobbled together systems over time and there’s just a lot of manual steps in process.” In other words, the ultimate goal of PLOS ONE is to keep prices stable through automation, high acceptance rates, and high volume publishing. It does make me wonder whether other publishers can truly offer competing services at much lower rates. In its third year of publishing, output from PeerJ is tiny compared to PLOS ONE.
In spite of social media uproar, I still have a hard time viewing PLOS ONE‘s rate hike announcement as controversial, even newsworthy. To me, it simply reflects a newfound dedication to longterm planning and financial sustainability. Ideology, even for its board of directors, is slowly being tempered by pragmatism:
The turbulence we hear may be PLOS’ second wave of pragmatism colliding with fundamentalist open access ideology — that publishing needs to be done cheaply while including all of the services demanded by authors. These arguments are still being made by disgruntled academics, librarians, and scrappy startups — groups that dream of becoming a disruptive force in science publishing but have little to lose. Fifteen years later and $50 million annual revenue, PLOS is in a real position to effect change, but may find itself like most other incumbent publishers, growing conservative and protective of its assets.