Author’s Note: I was invited to be a speaker for the Open Access Webinar Series by OhioLINK. The post below is a shorter version of the webinar lecture. I would like to thank Gwen Evans for the invitation and the webinar participants for listening.

I have been thinking a lot about downward pressure of pricing for scholarly publications.

The costs associated with publishing content in a professional way is part and parcel to the discussions on which business models should be associated with scholarly communications. Leaving behind the silly arguments about what is an acceptable profit margin or surplus, and who decides what kinds of activities one is allowed to do with those surpluses, I want to explore a bit about what I see as “publisher added value,” look at some numbers that are complicating the issues, and imagine a future world in which these services or activities cease to exist as we collectively race to the bottom in order to cut expenses.

Downward pricing pressure is happening regardless of the business model of the journal. Yes, the Plan S intention to cap Article Processing Charges (APCs) is currently fueling some cost speculation; but we also see pressure to keep year-on-year subscription price increases low, despite the fact that more services are required of publishers and there is more content to review and perhaps produce.

removing a block from a Jenga tower

Open access (OA) journals have not been immune to criticisms on pricing strategies (here and here, for example). The main goal of the OA movement was to make more content accessible to all with liberal reuse rights. This is a very good talking point and one that — if better organized — would have resulted in a faster and more widespread adoption of OA than has happened. The lack of consensus or clear-cut answers on how widespread OA would work, be financially supported, and be sustainable in the long term, meant that these issues were largely ignored.

It should not have been any surprise that the largest commercial publishers would be able to roll out OA options for those who wanted it with ease — at a price. There is an increasingly better understanding that producing and disseminating scholarship does, in fact, cost money. Initial concerns that a universal flip to OA would only shift money around as opposed to reducing the amount of money put into the system, have been proven true.

The term “publisher added value” has become a pejorative way of dismissing publisher concerns about this downward pressure on pricing. That said, I do think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask, what do publishers do to scholarly content that adds value?

While I will not be giving you an itemized lists of the costs of publishing a journal article, I want to focus on some of the hidden costs associated with journals, regardless of whether they are OA or subscription journals. I also want to imagine what might happen if these tasks were no longer performed.

Peer Review

The peer view process has been in the crosshairs for the last few years. Authors complain of bias and the length of the process. Reviewers complain that the quality of papers is substandard and authors are lazy about making changes. Readers complain that flawed papers are still passing review. And editors complain that there aren’t enough people willing to perform quality peer review to cover the vast increases in the number of papers being submitted.

When you don’t get print journals that make a thud when they hit your desk, it can be easy to miss that the journals themselves are getting bigger. Further, journal papers are getting longer as publishers have relaxed page limits online. But there is a nasty little secret about that. We still pay for production services like copyediting, tagging, and typesetting by the page — even if we aren’t printing the journals.

I really can’t underestimate the impact that a large increase in submission rates can have on a journal:

  • More editors are needed
  • Larger reviewer pools are needed
  • More staff are needed
  • All submissions cost money, even the ones that aren’t accepted

For all journals that reject more papers than they accept, the cost of rejections is high. This is true for OA journals as well. A competitive APC must also subsidize the costs associated with rejected papers and papers published with waivers. That expense will depend on the acceptance rate of the journal.

In order to address concerns of quality and in response to highly public wrong doings in scholarship, new steps are taken such as Similarity Checks, the EQUATOR checklists, conflict of interest reviews, checks for excessive self-citations, checks for citations to retracted articles, and more. Journals are now starting to require data availability and compliance with FAIR data principles, all good for science and reproducibility, all requiring staff resources.

Even services such as ORCiD, built as a way to disambiguate individuals and their work, is being implemented in the submissions systems as one more check on whether a reviewer is who they say they are — an important step for publication managers to ensure the integrity of the peer review process and a direct response to the unthinkable — authors posing as reviewers and scamming the system.

Journals are also using forensic software to review graphics and images to ensure that they were not fudged.

These checks and balances are extremely time intensive and carry a considerable cost. They are also not perfect. As fraud detection tools have increased, the fraud perpetrators have become savvier at fooling the system. Every time a red flag goes up on these quality checks, an investigation of some sort ensues. It typically starts with a query to authors, again requiring time and expertise of journal staff and editors to properly communicate the findings and the resolution needed. Days, sometimes weeks, are needed with a series of back and forth emails to determine whether the author made an honest mistake that can be fixed or if the paper should be rejected. Of course, the fun doesn’t stop at rejection. Often further investigations, possibly involving other journals and an author’s institution ensue.

The expectation is that journals will identify fraud and careless mistakes as part of the peer review process. There are assumptions that this is all quick and inexpensive, when in fact, it requires specialized training of staff and tools or memberships that carry expense. Ethics training of staff is an ongoing commitment as new ways of perpetrating fraud are constantly being discovered. Each high-profile retraction leads to process changes and additional reviews by journal staff and editors everywhere.

It’s not perfect, but it’s nowhere close to easy and it will only continue to get more complicated. Professionals whose job it is to ensure that fraud is discovered and that public safety is protected get a little bent out of shape when there are calls to abolish peer review as we know it. I have had to talk many an editorial coordinator off the ledge when a blog post, or worse a mainstream news article, questions whether what they do for 40-plus hours a week adds value to scholarship.

Pressure to decrease costs may mean that resources will no longer be spent on these activities. Worse, a business decision could be made that because the vast majority of authors and readers (1) don’t know we do these things and/or (2) don’t see a value in them, they should cease. I believe that these activities are of value to the overall scholarly community, but if paying for it is an issue, then perhaps the research institutions would need to insert a manuscript review process for papers prior to posting or journal submission.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of quality control, the facilitation of peer review is an onerous task. There have been calls for posting papers on preprint servers and expecting the community to spontaneously conduct peer review. I have my doubts that this will ever work. Publicly commenting on scholarly content has never been popular.

The facilitation of peer review — with a mechanism for editors to invite reviewers, follow up with reviewers, and successfully acquire reviews — does not happen by accident and removing the facilitators, in most cases journals staff, means that it won’t happen.

When discussing the cost of publishing a journal, what we hear most is that the peer review costs nothing because the reviewers aren’t being paid. Clearly publishers have not done a good enough job communicating what happens behind the scenes. Unless they are journal editors, the average author has no desire to look behind the curtain, which is understandable given the small percentage of their time spent being an author. However, before calls for defunding or eliminating formal peer review altogether come to fruition, the ramifications of doing so must be fully explored.

Production

Moving on from peer review, the production processes for journals are also often dismissed as unnecessary or woefully undervalued; however, dissemination and discovery of content is highly dependent on production work. Standardizing content and tagging for maximum interoperability is important for taking advantage of the rich offerings in content discovery.

Crossref reference linking will not work well if references aren’t formatted and missing information provided. Unstructured, incomplete, and poorly tagged references are minimally useful to the community. There are two options for fixing this: put the onus on the author to provide complete references or expect the journal to pay for someone else to do it.

Journal production processes are also taking measures to ensure that content is increasingly machine readable and accessible for text and data mining. Users expect to be able to mine the content in friendly formats.

Lastly, one could argue that typesetting is a relic of print; however, PDF usage of scholarly content remains the most used format by readers, though HTML full-text usage has been steadily increasing. User surveys have shown that readers like both versions: PDF to grab and stick in a file folder for reading later and HTML for search and discovery. Producing only one format would be less time consuming and would reduce expenses. That said, eliminating the PDF is not something most publishers are willing to do when over half of the usage comes in the form of PDFs.

Content Enhancement

Publishers and digital platform vendors are investing in new functionality such as allowing users to click on a figure to access the code and the data used to created that figure. This is increasingly useful to users. Inline reference tagging, high-quality recommendation widgets, annotating, and sharing features are also highly rated by end users. There is no shortage of bells and whistles that users want. However, I always go back to ask — will libraries and institutions pay for this? Will authors using grant money for APCs agree that this functionality is worth what it will cost them?

More and more, when we look at adding functionality to our products, I have to ask:

Are we considering this because it’s the right thing to do and the cost of doing business?

  • COUNTER compliant usage stats
  • GDPR compliance
  • Metadata feeds in format like KBART and MARC records

Do we think we can increase prices to offset the new expense?

  • Interactive equations
  • Data hosting
  • Embedded code

Do we need to do this in order to remain competitive?

  • Data analytics tools
  • Taxonomy use
  • Google friendly search engine optimization (SEO)

These are not always easy questions to answer.

Discovery

Publishing scholarly content is not the same as just throwing a PDF online. Richly and properly tagged metadata, taxonomies, Google Scholar friendly SEO, and portable XML are a thousand times more important than whether the article title uses initial caps consistently; however, these outputs are invisible to the end user. It is far more challenging than you would think to make sure that your content appears properly in Web of Science. It takes forever for Google Scholar to correct an error, even one for which they are responsible. PubMed is increasingly stringent about its requirements. Authors are often unaware of this work until it goes wrong.

Online is not easy. Publishers have dozens of metadata agreements with some partners receiving a feed of metadata, some creating their own metadata, and others crawling a site. For the most part, there are no payments made for this metadata. It is seen as the cost of doing business and a marketing activity.

More and more, specially trained staff are required to care for metadata. A whole week can get sucked into trying to figure out why a set of DOIs are not properly resolving. This is one of many new staffing issues for smaller publishers. Positions that did not exist 10-12 years ago are fundamental to the business. These are very specialized skill sets revolving mostly around technology issues. In other words, this is not your Grandma’s editorial office anymore.

All Publishers Are Not Equal

This is where we start to see a fundamental shift in the financial paradigms between large commercial publishers and smaller commercial or not-for-profit publishers. Downward pressure on pricing across the board will not be evenly applied. There are a few cautionary notes to consider:

  1. Large scale publishers will be able to negotiate lower prices from vendors based on the volume of work while smaller publishers struggle to get attention from vendors.
  2. While large publishers have the resources to manage multiple “offshore” vendors, smaller publishers may require an “in country” vendor to help manage offshore partners. This adds to the expense.
  3. In some cases, the larger publishers are cutting back some services, deprecating the level of service available. For example, some publishers are no longer doing human copyediting. This leads to vendors not having copyediting staff, which eventually forces everyone to forgo copyediting.
  4. Publishers wishing to continue to offer services that larger publishers have forgone are pushed to boutique service providers at a much higher cost. There are fewer and fewer of these vendors.
  5. Commercial publishers are now purchasing the previously publisher agnostic vendors.
  6. Capping APCs in the OA market is worrisome to small independent publishers. Again, the large publishers have the benefit of economies of scale and can accept a lower APC than the smaller publishers can.

Here is where my big warning comes in — it does not benefit anyone, particularly the libraries, to have the entire journals market owned by 3 or 4 commercial publishers. Well, I guess it benefits the families and shareholders that own those publishers, but if you aren’t one of them, this would be a troubling reality.

All of this leaves me with some fundamental questions:

  • Have the expectations for what publishers do changed?
  • Are there things we still do that aren’t valuable anymore?
  • Are there too many journals? Too many papers?
  • What if a flip to OA costs more than the subscription model?
  • If institutions are paying for OA almost exclusively, will OA journals and platforms be expected to meet the same standards that subscription journals do (COUNTER Compliance, archiving, metadata reporting, holdings reports, etc.)?

There are costs, everyone knows that. What I hoped to do here was highlight some of the activities that I would put in the bucket of “publisher added value” to potentially start conversations with all stakeholders in earnest.

I recognize that not all publishers are providing the same level of service. In my experience, self-published and society journals, or those managed by not-for-profit publishers, or even smaller for-profit publishers, have tried to use “quality of the finished product” as a competitive selling point. If those who are reading and paying for the costs of those services would prefer to have rock bottom prices in exchange for nothing but light peer review and a curated list of PDFs, some other entity will need to pick up the slack, for the sake of public safety and the integrity of science.

So I leave you with this thought that maybe, at this point, we aren’t asking the right question. Maybe instead of arguing what the cost should be — or who should pay for it –  we should come to an agreement on what “it” actually is.

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is the Managing Director and Publisher at the American Society of Civil Engineers. She is president-elect of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and past president of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.

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Discussion

38 Thoughts on "Ramifications of the Downward Pressure on Pricing"

Sorry, but “Leaving behind the silly arguments about what is an acceptable profit margin or surplus”is unacceptable. It’s fundamental to the whole discussion about publisher pricing strategies. Yes, publishers invest in all the things mentioned (albeit minimising the fact that peer review is done by the reviewers for free), but profit margins are the key. Publishers could do all the things listed but at a lower profit margin.

What if a publisher has the lowest APC and great service, but still makes a large profit or surplus? What about a high APC, poor quality and service, but a publisher makes a loss? I do not think we should dictate what profit companies are allowed to make, especially when we are talking about capping what they can charge!

I am not suggesting we dictate publisher profit margins. That’s for them and their owners/shareholders to decide. But to pretend profits aren’t relevant to a debate on costs is just plain silly.

A low profit margin also leaves the publisher paying for technical innovation out of a meager operating budget–or not innovating at all. That can be a dismal world for all involved.

Agreed. We (publishers) are under tremendous pressure to continue to innovate and provide services that enhance accessibility and other important, even critical functionality, all of which is incredibly expensive.

Harvey, I did in the 12 years I worked in the highly profitable part of scholarly publishing industry that I was in. That’s why I chose to leave the industry and to take a significant pay cut, plus loss of perks (business class flights everywhere for example) in doing so. I decided it was time for me to give something back to the scholarly community. So your sarcasm is wasted on me….

+1 This is fundamentally a monopoly-ish-driven market and it is entirely appropriate for the public to consider controlling profit margins for an industry that has government-granted monopoly-type power driving its profit margins. I’ve had this debate in previous discussion threads on this site, so I know others disagree with the characterization of copyright as a kind of monopoly power, but I still believe that the majority of economists agree with me on that. But even if you don’t think it’s a true monopoly, when you get to the discussion of profit margins, it is surely relevant to consider those kinds of economic forces. The only places in our economy where we see such consistently high profit margins even during times of deep global recesssion are in industries involving intellectual property protection by governments.

Try cancelling your subscriptions to Science and Nature and explaining to your faculty how many other wonderful science-related journals by smaller publishers you will subscribe to with that money instead, and you’ll quickly discover what “monopoly” means in this context.

This is an outstanding article. Thank you, Angela. Unfortunately, Charles Oppenheim does not know how the economy works. The reason the large publishers have high profit margins is scale. The new demands on publishers make it harder for society publishers to comply. Thus they license their journals to the largest publishers. This increases the market share of the largest publishers, leads to even higher prices, and creates an almost monopolistic market dominance. This situation is created by libraries, which reap what they sow.

I worked as a senior executive in the scholarly publishing industry for 12 years. Do me a favour, Joseph, don’t insult me.

I was not intentionally insulting anyone. I was making an observation. If I offended Charles, I apologize. But I stand by the thrust of my comment: the situation today in the marketplace is the inevitable outcome of decisions by libraries, which have created huge commercial entities by discriminating against small publishers.

This is a severe case of “blaming the victim” given that the crisis in scholarly journal pricing accompanied by extremely high profit margins long predates any “new demands”. It predates the Big Deals (in fact it led to the creation of Big Deals) which are one of the biggest factors in creating that pressure on society publishers to join up with the largest publishers.

What if the victim is in the wrong? In any event, the fundamental issue is a lack of strategic thinking on the part of libraries. This is where the commercial publishers win. Anecdote: a few years ago I was working with a small society publisher, I called up a library consortium to see if we could negotiate a deal. I was told that the publisher was too small for the consortium to put any time into it. The society ended up licensing rights to one of the big publishers. Reap what you sow.

In my experience, attempts to evaluate any business’s profit margin from the outside, particularly while lacking an intimate knowledge of its back room practices, debt, inventory, cost of sales, allocation of overheads, etc. — and especially by folks with no professional experience in periodicals publishing accountancy — is indeed silly at best, and a toxic dead end at worst. Why not compare universities’ profitability based on revenues minus spending?

Excellent article. Subscriptions have a long history to establish market-based prices, but APC’s still have not established a stable market mechanism. I’ve heard concerns from large agencies contemplating more “competitive” APC pricing. A rush to the bottom is a real possibility. You’ve done a good service pointing out the value added by publishers and noting not all offer equal service. Perhaps to facilitate comparisons, all journals should publish a checklist of the services they provide:
JOURNAL XYZ
Impact factor: …
Circulation: …
Acceptance rate: …
Proofing: full/automatic/none
Metadata: …
PDF version: yes/no
HTML version: yes/no
etc. etc.

Thanks, Ken. I was also thinking this morning about the initiatives that have been specifically advanced by journals. PLOS and Nature really got the ball rolling on requiring data availability statements. AGU has done a whole lot of work to advance requirements around FAIR data principles. Journals that started requiring ORCiDs was a game changer. AGU and ACS were two of the first society publishers to launch preprint servers for their disciplines. These initiatives are good for scholarship and not at all a requirement for journals. Journals, particularly society journals, take on this extra expense to advance the science that their missions support.

Great article.

When we buy a shirt and it costs $50 we say to ourselves: It is a piece of cotton that is sewed. We forget all that goes into the entire process of sewing a piece of cloth. We don’t account for the indirect costs associated with back room expenses that have to be accounted for including salaries!

Thus, I urge that if one is brave enough to cost out a journal article one includes all the costs both direct and indirect.

Having personally investigated the market for scholarly publications since the 1960s, I have often noted that outputs of academic research – articles and books – have matched the exponential growth of inputs – research spending – by every measure for generations. Yet the growth of infrastructure spending meant to preserve reported facts and knowledge slowed after the 1960s.

It is a systemic bottleneck, and not a recent event. Thank overreach by bean-counters whose appreciation for science begins and ends with how much R&D grant money they can divert to their own particular interests. Read Pres. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address of 1960 in the context of Max Weber, Thorsten Veblen, Robert A. Nisbet, Edward Shils, and proceed to the National Enquiry on Scholarly Communication of 1979, etc. (I can provide many more sources), and you must conclude the institutional market is, and has been, hostile to all scholarly publishers.

Excellent article that highlights the costs associated with the increasing complexity of publishing. These costs are widely unknown by researchers and adjacent markets. Some education may perhaps help the level of awareness of the added value publishers, especially society publishers that are not necessarily driven by profit margins, provide.

A few comments.
1. Great point about how the focus on OA as an end goal has to some extent distracted from how to accomplish it from a business/economic standpoint. In this context, this statement from an earlier TSK posting is sobering: “APCs are already rising faster than inflation.”
2. Concerning “there have been calls for posting papers on preprint servers and expecting the community to spontaneously conduct peer review. I have my doubts that this will ever work. Publicly commenting on scholarly content has never been popular.” A few points here. Certain disciplinary cultures, notably in physics, regard peer-reviewed “traditional” journal publishing almost as an after-thought, even superfluous for scientific communication (perhaps as opposed to t and p purposes). Thus for limited domain(s), preprints already work for communicating knowledge. In principle, there is also no reason why preprint space cannot be one in which authors challenge other authors. But I agree entirely in that in very many disciplines, what Churchill said about democracy still applies to traditional peer review and may with perfectly good reason do so for a long time. (No one template fits all disciplines.) That said, there is no reason why preprints cannot play a complementary role — even in disciplines that rely on the traditional journal model–to peer reviewed journal articles. Certainly the burgeoning of journal literature is going to make it more and more difficult for peer-reviewers to handle such a load, in anything other than an increasingly perfunctory way.
3. I noticed the other day that SSRN has a significant load (7737) of engineering items (I mention this because the views of those of an ASCE representative); how many of these are “preprints” I don’t know: https://www.ssrn.com/index.cfm/en/engrn/
What to make of this, I have no idea.
See also these stats at https://blog.engrxiv.org/2018/12/end-of-2018
It’s unclear what will happen in the engrxiv space in the next few years. Engineers rely heavily on conference proceedings, which as a format may crowd out preprints.

Thank you for the comments, Brian. When I talk to civil engineers about preprints they mostly don’t know what they are and then when I explain they say they already have conference papers, as you noted. There are subdisciplines in civil engineering that share space with others. Geomechanics, engineering mechanics, and aerospace have a certain amount of overlap with the physics community and they would be more likely to be familiar with ArXiv. To date, there has not been much interest in preprints from the rest of civil engineers. We do, however, publish a lot of conference papers.

Thanks
Curious if anyone has done an cultural anthropology type study of the uptake of preprints in various disciplines.
Why is it that the really heavily quantitative fields were early (or relatively early) adopters of this model?
I’ve seen speculation sprinkled here and there about the reasons for preprint adoption (or lack of adoption) among various disciplines but nothing systematic. Nice study for someone to do.
Btw, see figure 1 of https://www.mdpi.com/2304-6775/7/2/44/htm [the abscissa and ordinate I think are switched in the figure description).
“They’re off to the races”. Well, sort of.

It sounds like there is an opportunity for a tiered approach:

– the final, copyedited and peer-reviewed accepted manuscript is made freely available somewhere easily discoverable, with no embargo period. Very low or zero APC.
– the content-enriched, typeset article in multiple formats, with linked data and metrics is available for a fee (either APC or subscription).

This should keep everyone happy surely?

Except that you can’t make money doing this, so investment in developing content will drop. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Not quite, Phil. Copyediting, peer review, and fully discoverable content are all activities that cost money as defined in the article so a “low or zero” APC won’t cut it.

Thank you for this excellent post, Angela! It’s unfortunate that many of these necessary functions around peer review, production, and discovery are invisible to both authors and readers. It creates a situation in which we simply add more and more to our staff’s workload, while we can’t take anything away (and maintain our integrity). Then on top of that, we hear that we don’t add value – frustrating!

I hope there is a middle ground–there can still be significant downward pressure on costs but enough research institutions who will support *some* of the value-adds like peer review, production, and discovery. Maybe more societies will come together on a single platform of super high-quality journals. In the meantime, industry disruption is expected now.

A very well written article indeed, but I do agree with the criticism that referring to the discussion about profit margin as “silly” undermines your article. If you had simply taken that one word out, your article would have been improved immeasurably. (Your article cannot cover all aspects, but please do not dismiss the discussion on profits as “silly”).

Point taken. Though, where does that conversation get us? What’s an acceptable surplus or profit margin? Does it matter if the biggest publishers are the ones that continually invest the most in the infrastructure? Are Hindawi’s profit margins as a commercial publisher more honorable than Elsevier’s? If yes, would that change if someday Hindawi went public? Are society surpluses acceptable because they are using the money to support programs for the profession and PLOS surpluses not because they use it to invest in their own services?

This is why I think it’s silly. There is no good answer to these questions and it’s a distraction.

I think it adds to the confusion around pricing arguments as well, because all publishers end up lumped in with those that are most profitable. As you note, the big publishers pay less for everything than smaller publishers, so if they charge the same price, they’ll make a larger margin. To cap prices based on profit margin, you’d need to know the specific costs paid by each publisher for every aspect of their business and have a different cap for every single publisher — publishers with scale would have to charge less than those without for the same product, simply because they have a better supply chain. I’m not sure how one would determine and manage that as every single time some expense changes or something new gets added, you’d have to change that publisher’s allowed pricing. I’m also hesitant to support a regime that punishes businesses for being efficient.

And if you reduce Wiley or Elsevier’s profit margin by 5%, they’re going to continue to thrive. If you reduce an independent society publisher’s margin by 5%, they’re forced to go out of business.

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