A couple of months ago, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) released a white paper by Dr. David Shulenberger, an economist and Senior Fellow of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. In that paper, Shulenberger argues that a systemwide “flip” from journal subscription charges to article-processing charges (APCs) would result in higher costs to the system overall — that such a “flip” would, in fact, constitute a “cure that [is] worse than the present disease.”
The author’s position is framed as a response to what he sees as the two basic arguments offered by those in favor of a systemwide flip to APCs:
- Since APCs are based on the cost of processing articles rather than on determinations of demand in a free market, they should be both lower and less prone to increase than subscription costs.
- For hybrid journals, “some research university libraries have calculated that, had the APC route of acquisition (rather than the subscription route) been followed when their faculty published, university total outlay to obtain the same amount of scholarly communications would have been smaller.”
Shulenberger contends that both of these arguments are false. As for the second one, I confess that I find his presentation of it rather garbled and can’t tell for sure whether it’s valid or not — and since he provides no links or citations to examples of what he’s talking about (indeed, he provides no support anywhere for any of his characterizations of others’ arguments or findings), I can’t refer to any such examples for clarification.
But his first point is easier to comprehend, and, as it turns out, seems to be rooted in a radical misapprehension of some basic truths about the marketplace for scholarly journals. (For additional discussion of this point, see Jeffrey MacKie-Mason’s fine rebuttal.)
Shulenberger’s argument is that authors have no market power in the journal marketplace, because they are required to publish in “highly respected journal(s) within their discipline(s).” This, he believes, puts the journal publisher in the driver’s seat: if you control the “highly respected” publishing venue to which authors want access, you get to set the price of access and authors have no choice but to pay it. In Shulenberger’s words, a flip to APCs would create a system “that is still characterized by monopoly power on the seller’s [publisher’s] side but one where there is zero market power on the buyer’s [author’s] side.” And this argument would make a great deal of sense if there were, in fact, only a single journal in every discipline in which tenure-seeking authors must publish in order to advance their careers. But unless this is the case, Shulenberger’s argument is fatally flawed.
And of course, it is not the case, as anyone reasonably familiar with the marketplace for scholarly journals would know.
Consider, for example, the field of biology. A complete lack of competition among high-prestige biology journals — in other words, the existence of only a single prestigious biology journal — would support Shulenberger’s argument with regard to that discipline, because tenure-seeking authors would have no choice of submission venue and that single prestigious journal would be able to demand high APCs with impunity. However, the existence two prestigious biology journals would significantly undermine his argument in that discipline (because the existence of an additional prestigious biology journal would introduce an important competitive element that would tend to drive down APCs in that discipline). And the existence of three or more such journals would undermine his argument radically.
So what does the marketplace of biology journals look like — are there multiple highly-prestigious journals to which authors can submit their work for publication, in the reasonable hope that publishing in any one of them will advance their careers? The answer, of course, is yes: Nature, Science, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Physiological Reviews are only a few; in biology’s many subdisciplines there are quite a few other desirable, high-prestige publishing venues as well.
Many other scientific and humanistic fields show a similar competitive dynamic, with multiple journals offering high-prestige publishing opportunities:
- Journal of the American Medical Association
- New England Journal of Medicine
- American Journal of Sociology
- Social Forces
- American Sociological Review
- Critical Inquiry
- Deleuze Studies
- Postmodern Culture
- Physical Review
- American Journal of Physics
- Journal of Computational Physics
- Annual Review of Anthropology
- Human Nature
- Current Anthropology
In other words, Shulenberger is right to observe that in an APC-funded journal marketplace, “a journal funded by APCs would be expected to literally charge what the market would bear.” But he’s wrong to believe that in such a market, any individual journal would enjoy monopoly control over what the buyers (i.e. authors) want (i.e. a prestigious publication venue). The market for publishing services would actually be more competitive than it is now — because in addition to competing with each other for authors in a prestige market (trying to offer the most attractive publication venue), as they do now, publishers would also be competing for authors in an APC market (trying to offer the most attractive price for their publishing services). This new element of competition would tend to push APCs down, not up. Whether this pressure would ensure that APCs either become or stay reasonably low is a separate question, of course, the answer to which will depend on multiple factors and will surely vary from discipline to discipline. But in most scholarly and scientific disciplines, there really are multiple prestigious journals, and in an APC-based system there would be meaningful price competition between them.
Now, it would tempting to assume (as Shulenberge does in his paper) that in an APC-based journal publishing ecosystem, one area from which competitive pressure would disappear would be in the marketplace for content access that currently exists: one in which the buyers of scholarly publications are libraries and individual journal subscribers shopping for the best deals on subscription prices. But in fact, competition from that direction is largely illusory in the current system, and it’s not primarily because (as Shulenberger contends) of “the consolidation of top journals into the hands of fewer and fewer publishing entities” — although that dynamic certainly hasn’t helped. What really undermines price competition between journals is the fact that each journal enjoys a pure monopoly over its product (a unique set of content). For an author, placing an article in either the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) might be enough to move her towards tenure; thus there is meaningful competition between those two journals in the marketplace for authors’ content. But a medical library does not have the same freedom of choice: invariably, it will have to subscribe to both. Why? Because while JAMA and NEJM may offer articles in the same research discipline, they are not competing sellers of the same basic product, as two car manufacturers or two toothpaste makers are. The articles in an issue of JAMA are not a good substitute for those in an issue of NEJM, because they contain completely different information. JAMA and NEJM are not like two different brands of toothpaste; one is toothpaste, and one is dental floss.
For libraries, this means that when faced with faculty demand for JAMA, they won’t be able to satisfy that demand by offering NEJM instead — even though both are excellent medical journals. In fact, where there’s demand for NEJM there will almost certainly be a need for JAMA as well. And this means that when selling to content access to subscribers, journal publishers are operating in a market of complements rather than one of substitutes. This is one of the reasons journal prices have risen they way they have over the past decades: to the degree that your customer base consists of libraries charged with building research collections, there is little effective competitive pressure on journal prices. (The same isn’t true for databases and aggregator packages, which often do offer similar or substantially identical packages of information, and therefore do experience meaningful price competition.)
There’s one other point in Shulenberger’s essay that needs to be addressed: his contention that “flipping from subscriptions to APCs changes the incidence of cost from libraries to individual authors, regardless of whether the APC charge is reimbursed or not.” This is nonsense. A cost that is paid by the author from funds provided for that purpose by some other entity is, therefore, a cost not borne by the author. The author may be the one writing the check in this scenario, but that doesn’t mean the author is bearing the cost; it means only that the author is acting as the administrator of payment. Furthermore, the idea that an APC-based system would necessarily shift costs away from the library is mistaken: under some proposals it would, and under others it would not. (Interestingly, Shulenberger seems to believe that APC subventions come only from authors’ institutional employers; in fact, APCs are very often paid out of grant funds.)
I realize that all of this may make it sound like I’m taking the side of those who argue for an entirely APC-based journal publishing system. I’m not. For me the jury is still very much out on this question, and none of what I’ve said above is intended to advocate for an entirely APC-based journal publishing ecosystem. I don’t know whether such a system would be better than the current one, or that it would necessarily lead to lower costs throughout the system. Much more analysis needs to be done before anyone can safely assert either that it would or it wouldn’t. But Shulenberger’s argument against it is based on mistaken assumptions and apparent ignorance of fundamental realities of the publishing marketplace, and simply doesn’t hold water.
39 Thoughts on "APCs and Competition: What Shulenberger Got Wrong"
I am not an economist, but I would think that as long as there is a tiered preference structure there can be a tiered pricing structure. Monopoly is not required.
Rick apparently did not take a basic course in economics where the concept of oligopoly was explained. If there are only a small handful of top journals in any field, and those few journals are published by just a small number of publishers, the conditions exist for oligopoly, which allows for a few sellers (acting in collusion or not) to control a market sufficiently to undermine the normal effects of competition and keep prices high. To be really persuasive, Rick needs to tell us why the journals market is not oligopolistic in nature.
The problem I see with a APC based journal publishing system is that many journals have a very high rejection rate and the publishing output is less than 10% of the articles submitted. In other words there are far too few articles published to support the publishing costs by APC’s. As long as NEJM and AMA as well as other major publishers maintain their quality and severely limit their output, funding the publishing by APC’s is never going to support the publishing effort. APC based publishing works best where you have several thousand articles published each year.
It is seldom that I find a journal that can economically shift to an APC model as the publisher would lose 70% of their revenue. It takes a significant amount of work to find the top 10% and everyone forgets the cost of publishing includes managing the review and editorial process to find the top 10%.
Rick if Jama and Nejm publish different kinds of articles in what way are they competing? Further, to my knowledge one does not flood the market of publishers with the same article and then await a decision from one.
Does one want to put the scholarly publishing enterprise in the hands of a fickle public (government) or fickle endowments? After all, any of the supporters of the APC charges can pull the money at a moment’s notice. At what point will a funder say: wait a minute journal X is charging A while journal Y charges less. Author, we will not support journal X. Or, a congressperson stands up and declares that the Life Science journals being supported by tax dollars do not give equal time to intelligent design!
In my mind APCs are a great idea as long as it is the author who pays and s/he is not reliant on some funding agency.
Rick if Jama and Nejm publish different kinds of articles in what way are they competing?
This is the question I discuss in the posting above.
Does one want to put the scholarly publishing enterprise in the hands of a fickle public (government) or fickle endowments?
As I explain in the final paragraph of the posting above, I’m ambivalent on the question of whether or not a systemwide switch to APCs makes sense, and if it does, on how it should funded and administered.
“But in most scholarly and scientific disciplines, there really are multiple prestigious journals, and in an APC-based system there would be meaningful price competition between them.”
I doubt you could classify the publisher world as a free market (the competition is not between journals, after all, but between publishers). It is an oligopoly at best, and with (implicit) publisher cartels, I would see it leaning much closer to a monopoly situation than you are describing. Or am I missing something?
I’m not saying the journal market is perfectly free, only that there is a meaningful degree of competition for authors. How much competition there is will vary from discipline to discipline, of course.
Jord, for authors deciding where to submit their papers — and this is where the source of power is in the market — without content, journals have nothing — the competition is between journals. As Rick points out, authors in any discipline typically have at least a few journals of comparable quality appropriate for any given paper they want to submit. If the journals want to get submissions (they do — without content, they have nothing), then they compete for submissions. Adding an APC price for authors to consider is a new dimension on which they could — and thus would — compete. If Nature charges $5000, but Science charges $3000…some authors, all else equal, are going to lean more towards Science than if they don’t see the price (as in the subscription world). And Nature can’t afford to ignore that.
JM Nature and Science are very different animals just look at their role and scope statements. They may or may not compete for the same author but I have never met an author of a journal article that picked a journal based on price. When it comes to APC the author is not paying the piper but rather the granting agency!
Rick—I don’t disagree with you or Jeff that this is an interesting question and deserves more study. On it’s face, though, I think I agree with David that there may end up being a certain amount of price inelasticity in this kind of a marketplace. Every “real” market is compromised in its absolute freedom to some degree. And in this case, for instance, the largest four or so publishers account for around 40% the journals produced (Ulrich’s 2013), so there may really only end up being price competition between these big four (since internally, these publishers would probably set a common range for their APCs based on the demand/prestige tiers for their journals). In marketplaces with such a scarcity of competition, it’s not uncommon to see sticky prices between competitors, not necessarily resulting from collusion, but just (oligopoly-like) acting with the knowledge that there are limited choices. I don’t mean this in a bad way at all toward publishers—it’s just the normal nature of markets. Publisher consolidation is just one example of how this particular market may be too constrained to result in optimal outcomes–there are other examples to consider as well (cost shifting, brand influence, etc.). Therefore, I agree that this this community really needs to sink its teeth into this question asap before APC reform gets too far down to the road. Maybe APCs will end up being the right way to go, but I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence in the answers yet, either for or against.
I don’t disagree that publisher consolidation contributes to a certain amount of price inelasticity. But that’s not the argument that Shulenberger makes in his paper. What he says is that in an APC marketplace, “authors have no market power.” There’s a big gap between saying “there’s a certain amount of price inelasticity” and saying “the buyer of the service has zero power.” By no means am I arguing that an APC market would be perfectly competitive–indeed, no marketplace in the real world is perfectly competitive–I’m only saying that there would be a meaningful degree of competitive pressure on APC pricess, as against Shulenberger’s assertion that there would be no such pressure at all. The amount of competitive pressure on APCs would vary, obviously, from discipline to discipline, depending on factors that include the degree to which publisher oligopolies exist in each discipline.
Aha. Thanks for the clarification. In that case, I agree with you that authors will have a tremendous amount of power in this arrangement. My point is that this power might not end up producing the outcomes we expect since the purchasing decisions of consumers aren’t always based on getting the most value for the dollar—look at how we purchase cars and college educations after all. Or will these decisions be better? For instance, what about arrangement where libraries are charged with dispensing money for APCs. Certainly they wouldn’t want their money to be spent unwisely, so would libraries (could they) require that authors only buy Toyotas, or that—like Medicaid—they will only pay $x for a particular service, take it or leave it? This kind of push back on the market would probably be very consequential.
Just to be clear, though, Glenn — I’m not arguing that authors would have a tremendous amount of power in an all-APC publishing environment. I’m saying that Shulenberg is wrong to assume that they will have “no market power.” How much they have would vary from context to context, but I believe that in most disciplines they would have a meaningful degree of power.
I agree with you that this kind of flip might easily end up producing outcomes we don’t expect. In fact, I’ll go further: such a flip would absolutely produce outcomes we don’t expect.
Rick: Is there a competition for authors? In my experience, an author(s) write an article and then does a quick audience analysis and submits the article to that journal which they believe best fits the audience for the article. Of course IF comes into play, but often is secondary to the audience.
Further, I cannot recall an editor in chief saying that s/he sent a letter to someone soliciting their next article. I have seen an EIC and a publisher sitting down and discussing just how they can raise the IF standing. But, this usually involved changes in the editorial board and that sort of thing. Of course there are conversations such as Sally I read over your findings in the e mail you sent and should you decide to pen an article on this topic I would be interested in reviewing it for the journal. It seems to me that there is a difference in seeking articles that apply to the role and scope of a journal rather than the author of an article.
Perhaps, I am wrong and have misinterpreted what is being said and would appreciate being corrected.
Is there a competition for authors? In my experience, an author(s) write an article and then does a quick audience analysis and submits the article to that journal which they believe best fits the audience for the article.
You just answered your own question. Authors have to choose where to submit their content; journals want to attract the best content. That’s where competition comes into play.
Further, I cannot recall an editor in chief saying that s/he sent a letter to someone soliciting their next article. I have seen an EIC and a publisher sitting down and discussing just how they can raise the IF standing.
You’ve just expressed the same idea in two different ways. Why do journals want to increase their IFs? It’s not mainly to attract subscribers; it’s to attract the best content. For the most part it’s authors, not readers, who care about IFs.
Rick: I just googled do readers care about IF and it seems there is a body of research that says they do – a high IF journal attracts readers and authors want readers. I am not too sure I made myself clear. What I am saying is that journals compete for articles not authors.
I think you’re making a distinction without a difference, Harvey. Articles are contributed by authors. “Competing for authors” and “competing for articles” means, effectively, the same thing.
Rick: I agree with you 90% of the time but this is one of the ten percenters! In a blind review the author is not known until publication or in some cases acceptance. I never asked an EIC or Section Editor to get favorable reviews because it is in the best interest of the Journal to publish someone.
Harvey, I’m not sure we’re disagreeing — I think we’re talking past each other. I don’t see the connection between the arguments I’m making in my piece and the observation you’re making here. The competition for content takes place prior to peer review — you can’t review an article that hasn’t been submitted. Submission happens because your journal has successfully competed with other journals to attract the submission of an author’s content.
Your last point –that authors won’t pay APCs but will have them come from third party sources– has me concerned. This is likely true if you’re dealing with grant-driven, university-based authors. But it leaves out independent scholars, students who might not qualify for university publication support, and universities outside Europe/America where these costs might not be easy to cover. And it is certainly easier in STEM fields that support research by grants than in the humanities. In other words, it privileges the wealthier parts of the academy over the marginal ones. It would not be a democratizing switch.
Yes, this is a good point. While many authors who pay APCs do so out of grant funds and a few are able to draw on local institutional subventions of various kinds, there are also lots of authors who don’t have access to third-party support. One of the downsides of an all-APC system would be that it substantially excludes authors who don’t have access to third-party support of one kind or another.
Of even greater concern to me is the allowing of politics to play a role in what is published! Will government apply a litmus test to articles? Will it demand that Intelligent Design be published in journals or how about only articles published by those in the liberal arts who are liberal or conservative.
I haven’t read Shulenberger’s original white paper, but it sounds as though you’ve hit the nail on the head. Indeed, the right to read one journal is not a substitute for the right to read another, but publication slots in comparable journals are substitutes when sold to authors. You might be interested to see that we made the same argument in a Nature web focus article in 2004 ( http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/accessdebate/22.html ).
From our article:
“Journal articles differ in that they are not substitutes for each other in the same way as cars are. Rather, they are complements. Scientists are not satisfied with seeing only the top articles in their field. They want access to articles of the second and third rank as well. Thus for a library, a second copy of a top academic journal is not a good substitute for a journal of the second rank. Because of this lack of substitutability, commercial publishers of established second-rank journals have substantial monopoly power and are able to sell their product at prices that are much higher than their average costs and several times higher than the price of higher quality, non-profit journals.
By contrast, the market for authors’ inputs appears to be much more competitive. If journals supported themselves by author fees, it is not likely that one Open Access journal could charge author fees several times higher than those charged by another of similar quality. An author, deciding where to publish, is likely to consider different journals of similar quality as close substitutes. Unlike a reader, who would much prefer access to two journals rather than to two copies of one, an author with two papers has no strong reason to prefer publishing once in each journal rather than twice in the cheaper one.
If the entire market were to switch from Reader Pays to Author Pays, competing journals would be closer substitutes in the view of authors than they are in the view of subscribers. As publishers shift from selling complements to selling substitutes, the greater competition would be likely to force commercial publishers to reduce their profit margins dramatically.”
Carl: I am rather curious as to who pays to read? If the APC is government supported I pay and I may have no interest in paying and if it is supported by a foundation or a society/association than the members pay. In short, the reader pays if s/he wants to or not!
In my mind the APC is a transfer of payer and in no way creates a free read.
Harvey, if you read the Nature piece you’ll see that our argument is one about the competitiveness of markets and the consequences for prices. Rick is making the same argument here. Neither of us are attempting some slight-of-hand claim that APCs magically make everything free. They don’t.
What APCs should do is the reduce the average cost that the payers (taxpayers, foundation, society members, whatever) pay per article. Indeed I’m surprised that APCs have not dropped to lower price points, and we’re currently working both to understand why and to effect change in this area.
What evidence do you have that OA reduces the average cost paid per paper across all of the literature? I suspect that if you factor in the costs for the high end subscription journals (which do very little OA) or the high end OA journals (many of which run at a deficit), you’d see very high APCs (Nature estimates $25K per paper), which would, in an all OA world, bring the average costs back up to where they are now.
David, if you take a look at the Nature piece, you’ll see that I’m making a theoretical argument about how we expect the market to respond when journals sell slots to authors instead of subscriptions to readers. I’m not claiming to have empirical evidence that the expected price decline has occurred, and if you read my comment above you’ll see me expressing surprise that we haven’t seen greater drops in APC prices.
That said, I do think that APCs will drive stronger price competition. In an all-OA world, I cannot see how the market can sustain the 4- to 6-fold price difference between for-profit and non-profit journals of comparable quality that we describe in the linked Nature piece. Average costs should then drop, if for no other reason than that they would not include 40% annual return for Elsevier shareholders.
I’m less convinced. As Rick Anderson often points out, the market here is, and will remain distorted. One of the big lessons confirmed by the Pay It Forward project is that there will remain a separation between those making the purchasing decisions (authors) and those paying the bills (likely their universities or funders). If I’m a postdoc about to hit the job market, then I am likely much less concerned about the university’s budget than I am my own job prospects. I’m probably going to assume that the university, with its multi-billion dollar endowment, can cover a $5K APC on my behalf. Given that it will likely lead to increased earnings through a better job and better funding, that seems a reasonable investment, particularly since it’s not coming out of my own pocket.
I also think that you, and many, will be shocked at how expensive it is to run a high quality journal. We know that if eLife didn’t have access to Wellcome’s vaults, they’d be charging a $7K APC in order to be sustainable (and in reality, they’d likely need to charge more to pay off lots of debt from infrastructure building if they didn’t have a sugar daddy that had already covered all those startup expenses). And that’s projecting a fairly low profit margin. I know of many other journals run by not-for-profits with small margins that cost at least that much, if not more, per article.
David, I agree with you that plans under which universities absorb 100% of APC costs are a mistake. As you note, if someone else pays the entire bill, the price elasticity of demand is essentially zero. This is why I’ve argued against such programs on my own campus and in articles such as this one: http://octavia.zoology.washington.edu/publications/WestEtAl14.pdf
That said, I think it’s quite rare that schools cover APCs out of endowments. I know there have been some efforts to do this out of library budgets and similar, and maybe there are a few endowment examples, but at most big state R1s, mine included, the university won’t contribute a penny toward APCs. These come out of either my own pocket or out of grant funding that I would otherwise use to I pay my own summer salary and the salaries of any students or postdocs in the lab.
Over and again in this thread people have claimed that researchers would never choose among open access journals based on price, but I’ve done it twice already this year. And I don’t imagine ever submitting to Nature Communications despite their high quality, precisely because their $5200 APCE price are so far of line with the rest of the market. Based on my conversations with colleagues, this is relatively common practice. People don’t react to APC prices as much as I would have expected, that’s true. I’m not quite sure why, and it would be very useful to figure this out. Perhaps this is because it’s not so easy to do. APC prices across publishers aren’t readily available in a sort of one-stop-shop price list — but maybe we can do something about that.
Finally, as an editor of eLife, I’m quite familiar with their financials. I agree that their costs are high and I’ve worked to bring them down in a number of ways. My feeling is that there remains substantial room to improve, and that APCs have plenty of room to drop. Whether that will actually happen at elite journals like eLife remains to be seen.
I don’t mean to suggest a school would pay an APC out of its endowment — but to a postdoc/student working 80 hours a week for what amounts to minimum wage, looking at their university which continues to raise tuition every year while sitting on tens of billions of dollars in endowment (which seems to exist solely for no practical purpose other than growing itself), it’s hard for most to have a lot of sympathy and willingness to sacrifice one’s own career advancement and well-being on behalf of such a financial behemoth.
And if the university is not going to cover the bills for the researcher, then everyone without funding or in fields without significant levels of funding are not going to be able to publish their research.
Further, you may be in a position in your career where cost matters more to you than the advancement that publication in the highest level journal could provide. For many, investing $5K would be a wise move if it means a better job or more funding in the future.
Dr. Bergstrom if ELife did not have the $5.7 million per year to run the back room would the fee to publish in ELife more mirror that of Nature? If so, is Nature out of line?
Dr. Bergstrom: There seems to be a problem with what should happen and what is happening. PLos is increasing its fees, ELife is going to charge $2500 per article and that is with a $5.7 million per year subvention, and I am sure others will raise APCs in line. The problem seems to be that realty trumps economics. Those who charge more than the least expensive will not lower their prices unless their costs go down and those who are least expensive seem to be encountering raising costs so their prices are going up – witness ELife with its 2500% APC increase.
I do not believe competition drives the STEM market not for authors or for publishers. What we publish is unique to a few and that few will pay whatever they need to in order to have the information offered. Lastly, although I like the idea of OA, it seems to take everything into account except costs.
Thus, I cannot see an author publishing in a lesser journal because the APC is less nor the subscription rate. Where I do see competition is on behalf of the scientist who strives to publish in the best journal that will accept the article. That is why the scientist sends his article to the best journal which s/he perceives is best suited for what is written.
Authors are competing to get published in high ranking journals, so any journal with a high rejection rate can charge a correspondingly high APC. There may be a parallel with university tuitions.
Can anyone point to a case where an entire industry transitioned from one set of customers to another, very different set? I am inclined to expect that there would be a massive restructuring, with lots of winners and losers. This is a big reason why the transition may not occur, because the risks are too great.
David: Perhaps the reason is because the model does not work. ELife just announced that it will charge $2500 per article and that is with a $5.7 million per year subvention to cover the back room costs!
Just this morning received an email ad from T&F’s Cogent offering me a discount on APCs if I submit an article during Open Access Week. Imagine an OA world where the journals all had 4th of July sales or bulk discounts if you submitted 3 articles at once.