As was widely expected, eLife recently announced a move away from their 100% funder-supported business model to one where authors will be required to pay an Article Processing Charge (APC). And yet, as seems to be the case for several other highly selective, fully-open access (OA) journals, the chosen APC is too low to actually cover the costs of publication. Why are many OA publishers unwilling to charge enough to break even? Does this set unrealistic expectations for what it costs to run a top journal? And are there instead other strategies that might work better?
eLife has, since its founding, been in a position of privilege as compared with other journals. With access to the deep pockets of its wealthy funders, the journal has been able to run with few constraints, providing free high-quality services for authors and readers at no cost while at the same time offering generous salaries for editors and staff and investing heavily in technology development. As the leader of a major non-profit scientific society quipped at a meeting just after the launch of eLife, “it must be nice to be rich.”
At its launch, promises were made to move eLife to a sustainable business model after a few years. While that still hasn’t happened, the implementation of an APC is a move in this direction. But given the expenses that eLife incurs, the chosen APC, $2,500 per paper, only covers a fraction of their costs. A recent analysis suggests that a more reasonably sustainable APC level for the journal would range between $6,000 and $7,000.
Note also that if eLife was like other journals, it would need to pay off the original investment and startup costs, which would make the required APCs even higher. Startup journals are generally saddled with a large burden of debt as there are significant launch costs and most run at a deficit for the initial years. Those costs are slowly paid off once the journal starts to turn a profit. Since eLife has had all their initial bills paid, they don’t carry the red ink seen by a typical startup journal, which artificially lowers the APC they need to charge.
The $2,500 price is justified by eLife by dividing the costs for the journal into what they call “fixed” and “marginal” costs, defined respectively as costs that remain constant regardless of the volume of papers published, and those that vary with volume. It is suggested that $2,500 will cover eLife’s marginal costs, but as was the case with their annual report, the accounting here is questionable. “Article processing,” for example, is listed as a fixed cost, which seems contradictory. Regardless, the division between fixed and marginal costs here is nothing more than a shell game. The bottom line remains the bottom line, and if you divide your total expenses by the number of articles you publish and it works out to $6,000 per article, then that’s what it costs you, no matter how you choose to slice up the pie.
Why does this matter? It matters because the $2,500 chosen APC creates a false impression, that an amount this low is sufficient to support a journal that offers the high quality and strong level of author and reader services provided by eLife. There has long been a resistance toward high-end OA journals charging fees that actually reflect their costs. As the recent “Pay It Forward” report notes, APC prices are not set based on actual costs, but more on a fuzzy notion of what the competition is charging and what the market will bear. For hybrid journals, APC prices are artificially low, because they are subsidized by subscription and other revenue channels and would need to be vastly higher if required to stand on their own.
A leading humanities journal that I’ve worked with calculated that in order to maintain their current level of service to authors and relatively small margin, they’d need to charge $18,000 per article. Note that this is a journal where the top-tier subscription price for the very largest of institutions is around $300 per year, with most schools paying much less. Were they to move to a gold OA model, this would create a seemingly poor offering for universities, as the choice between paying for one author to publish one paper would be the equivalent to the cost of subscribing to the journal for the next 60 years.
I suspect there is also some advocacy strategy involved in setting these too-low-for-the-real-world prices. OA is often promised as a pathway to cost savings, a way to turn the market more competitive and to cut publisher profit margins. Admitting what it really costs to publish a top-notch journal undercuts these arguments. And so we end up with situations like PLOS’ high-end journals charging an APC ranging from $2,250 to $2,900 and losing money. The losses are covered by authors publishing in PLOS ONE, which remains highly profitable, and those profits are used to mask the actual costs of the other journals. When faced with increased expenses, PLOS chose to further burden PLOS ONE authors, rather than asking authors in the high-end journals to pay a larger share of their own expenses.
This creates an unrealistic expectation in the marketplace which may prove difficult to overcome. PLOS and eLife can get away with this because each has access to their own private pool of funds, either the tremendous profits of PLOS ONE or the enormous endowments of the Wellcome Trust, the Max Plancke Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Most journals do not have such luxuries and so the models employed by either publisher are outliers that cannot be implemented by anyone else.
This lack of transparency ultimately does the cause of OA a disservice. If one really wants the world to move to a fully-OA publishing ecosystem, then one has to be realistic about the economics of such a system, and create functional and sustainable real-world strategies for long-term support. Offering a model that requires access to private pools of millions of dollars does not provide an example that will work for anyone other than the richest of organizations. If the market expects a top journal to only charge $2,500 per paper, and that’s not enough to support a top journal, then a shift to OA will not provide a sustainable future.
What’s frustrating here is that there seems a potentially likely path to making selective OA journals work financially: submission fees. The effects of submission fees are two-fold — by charging a fee for every manuscript submitted, the number submissions to a journal drops precipitously. All of the frivolous submissions of papers that are wildly out of scope or extremely unlikely to be accepted go away. This has an enormous effect on lowering costs and reducing an editorial office’s workload.
Second, submission fees cover the costs of rejection. This is a major driver of costs for highly selective journals. If all of your revenue comes from the papers you publish, then each paper published must pay for all of the papers that the editorial team spent time on yet rejected. If you’re receiving thousands of submissions per year and rejecting 95% of them, this can add up to quite a cost. But if each manuscript comes in with funds sufficient to cover the costs of its review and rejection, this problem is solved and published authors must only pay for the work that they receive directly.
If we are moving away from the selling of content to a model where we sell services directly to authors, this seems an obvious step. Rejected authors are still receiving a service which incurs costs that must be paid. It appears that eLife did consider instituting submission fees, but chose not to for the stated reason that, “given the variation in the feedback that is given to authors, we felt that a publication fee would be fairer.” How asking accepted authors to pay for the work done for rejected authors is “fairer” remains unclear.
The real downside of submission fees, and why we see so few willing to use them, is that they put a journal at a competitive disadvantage. If there are two nearly equivalent journals to which you could submit your paper, and one charges a fee and the other doesn’t, most authors will submit to the free journal. Paying a submission fee remains something of a gamble for an author, a measure of their confidence that they are sending their manuscript to the right and most appropriate journal. Because there is no guarantee of acceptance, making a bad call means that money is lost. A journal that implements a submission fee stands a risk of seeing papers go to the competition.
Further, many journals like to boast about their selectivity — a low acceptance rate is seen as a badge of honor. Because submission fees cause a large percentage of garbage submissions to go away, the journal’s perceived selectivity, shown by percentages of articles accepted, appears lower even though their standards remain constant.
While understandable for business reasons, it is disappointing that the strongest leaders in OA advocacy seem unwilling to experiment in this arena. It seems an obvious and practical way to give the field what it wants (and clearly there remains significant demand for high-end, high-service, highly-selective journals) in a sustainable manner.
Instead we are left with unrealistically low APCs that are not a widely reproducible means of doing sustainable business. These false expectations may do more harm than good in the long run, and slow the progress sought toward the spread of OA. It is better to honestly recognize the challenges such a move would require and seek realistic solutions, rather than making false promises that can’t be sustained. I would love to see publishers who are willing to conduct bold experiments take more chances with submission fees. If they prove acceptable to authors, then our ability to move toward OA without sacrificing quality would be greatly improved.