In Open Access Publishing There Are No Free Lunches….. but it is really really cheap.

Posted on October 23, 2014


In my last post, I mentioned that not all Open Access publishing involves authors paying $2,000. In fact, many journals neither charge the authors or readers and if they do some will waive fees. This led to this very thoughtful comment from Anders-

“Excellent that there are OA publishers that do not charge the authors an APC, and that the review process is independent of payment.

However, that does raise another question. If the journal offer the same service as we (at least I) have been used to, that is things like professional peer review, archiving, indexing, PR (see also the blog post of yesterday by Kent Anderson, and charge neither writer or reader, how can their operations be economically sustainable?

I am not saying that you’re wrong; I just struggle to see how things add up. The way I read you, the journals you mention do not just offer you a free lunch, they waive the entire cost for the flight ticket. How is that possible?”

Publishers Are Like Snow Flakes

No one knows the exact number of journal publishers there are but I have seen ranges of 25-35k journals published by 10-15k publishers. They range from one man bands putting out a few articles a year to giant publishers like Elsevier with thousands of titles to  mega journals like PLOS ONE. Which makes it impossible to know exactly how everyone deals with this issue.

Sharing is Caring

That being said here is how some publishers deal with it:

That is the cost breakdown from Ubiquity press for their Gold Access (author pays) model. It is what I love about Ubiquity press, they are very open and honest about their whole process. You can see they have built in 16% of their charges to cover waivers for others. Basically, those who can pay do and cover the fees for others.

There Are No Free Lunches but ….

Ubiquity Press has DOI‘s, does peer review, their articles are archived through CLOCKSS, and they have a top notch website system to handle the whole process of publishing from submitting an article to publication. They have the same level and quality of services that I imagine Anders or anyone is accustom to. And they do this for an average of £300 per article, some of their Archaeology ones are for £250. Nope, not a typo that is about 10% of the prices that big commercial outfits charge, like Wiley-Blackwell, and Ubiquity is a profit making organization. They are not a charity.

How about $6.50 per article? That is roughly how much it has cost the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) to publish 1000 articles. What’s the quality of JMLR? Well ….

“Its first year in ISI’s rankings, it had the highest Impact Factor of any journal in its Web of Science subject category (“computer science, artificial intelligence”). It is currently ranked eighth (of 108 journals) by Impact Factor”

JMLR is run on donations and in-kind support. That is the other possible way of giving the ‘entire cost for the flight ticket’. An institute or individual takes over the very minor costs of running the journal. It is not free per say, the donors pay for it, but it is cheap enough that it can be done.

How the Sausage is Made

How can they provide services for $6.50? Actually, you can run an entire journal for about $350 a year. Those costs are:

  • Web hosting: $60/year
  • DOI numbers/CrossRef membership: $275/year or €75/year (including 50 DOI numbers)
  • CLOCKSS archival service: $200/year

Everything else you could possible need is provided by free Open Source Software like Open Journals System (OJS). The amazing Dr Martin Paul Eve has done a five part series on how to do this (part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5). He is the one who provided those numbers.

This takes care of all technical needs, sending emails, accepting papers, etc. etc. etc.

Outsource, Outsource, Outsource

That still leaves lots of human work involved. Expensive people-work like copy-editing, type-setting (now involves converting Word docs to XML) , etc. Or is it that expensive? I would like to tell you about this mythical place called India, where what would cost you to employ a BA in English you can get three PhDs in English who can also do French and Spanish. Again, I love the honesty of Ubiquity. Watch this video on what they do-

They are very honest about their process and that some of the work is shipped off to India.

Shhhhhh ……… Don’t Tell the Academics

Yes, the modern world of journal publishing is built on the pens of poor countries. When people talk about the jobs lost in publishing if Springer et al went out of business it is actually a tiny number. They have already outsourced most of their workforce. You don’t get 30-40% profit margins without undercutting wages.

#freepublishing like #freearchaeology

The other day I say an advertisement to be the Editor of Kiva, $9,000. There are some jobs you can’t outsource, like editor. However, it can be done for free or picked up by others. Not too long ago when an academic became an editor their University would count a quarter of their time as going to the journal i.e. teach a little less. The Universities picked up the tab for editors. I know what your thinking, ‘go home commie and take your socialism with you.’

I just ask you to think about this hypothetical for a moment. A professor at an US University spends 60 hours writing up a paper. It is sent to two associate professors who spend 4 hours each reading it and critiquing it. Before it is published the original author spends another 20 hours making corrections. How much was just spend on that paper? Well if we take the average Professors Salary of $100,000 and the average Associate Professors salary of $70,000. Then we come up with $4125 (based on 60 hrs prof. time (100,000 / 52weeks x 40 hours =$3,850 and 8 hours associates = $275).

The thing is we don’t have to imagine this hypothetical because it happens all the time. That is more than what Springer charges for its Open Access articles in Archaeology. If we use UP’s low £300 i.e. $450 than the time paid for by Universities makes up 90% of the costs of an article already. What’s a little more in-kind work (well paid for by Universities), especially to make the journal free?

Remember the Snowflakes and Scaling

Alright, I could go on and on about the different aspects of publishing and how you can do it for almost no costs AND quality, like marketing. But, I think you have got the point.

A more important thing to discuss is the fact that not everyone can do what I have described. It may be cliche but publishers are a bit like snowflakes, all the same but unique. I am sure editors of small regional Archaeology journals are thinking right now, ‘Where is my $9,000. I do this for free’. Elsiver can offshore labor intensive work but most small societies cannot. Not all publishers can do this.

Anders mentioned a blog post about 82 things publishers do. Ugh 82, its like Buzzfeed puked up all over The Scholarly Kitchen*. But moving on, some of the things mentioned in that list was develop new technology, innovate, etc. You will notice a good portion of the costs for Ubiquity are things like platform development. That involves them doing custom coding to their OJS. They also spend some of that 38% fighting the brave fight for OA against billion dollar companies. Serious, you probably didn’t know this but Ubiquity has present before the EU to fight for OS. Money or someone’s time is needed to advance publishing as a field, not just to advance profits**. I hope I have gotten across the point that money does need to be spent.

BUT, it does not need to be a lot of money. For example, OJS can run thousands of websites. It is all about scale. One system funding by Universities or Government could publish millions of articles and thousands. I know what your thinking, ‘Go home hippie and take your socialism with you. That could never happen’. Expect, it already has. Pubmed has millions of articles for free, well links to them, and that is a government set up. Hrack, the central portal of Croatian scientific journals, has hundreds of journals. Raco for Spain and Open Editions for France. Governments can, and have, set up systems that reach economics of scale that can allow everyone to enjoy not only the free meal, but the flight too.

If Only….

Open Access in which the authors and readers don’t have to pay is 100% financially and technically feasible, or at the very least small amounts. But, not very likely to happen anytime soon. We live in a warped system where the name of where you publish matters more than what you published. Something I will focus on in future posts on the subject. Needless to say, there are a lot of vested interests in the current system that need to be overcome. That is what we should be focusing on, not the money or technical abilities which are of a minor concern*** .




* I actually like Kent, if I don’t agree with everything he says. I just hate those bussfeed type lists 30 greatest, 40 things that will… Yeah, number 8, 12, 33, 1 were good but most of the lists are fluff. They should be 5 things…. . So my distaste has to do with long lists not SK.

** I have absolutely nothing against making a profit. But, publishers should realize I am into making money too. You don’t make money by overpaying, just saying.

*** Well if you are a publisher needing to make a profit they are not a minor concern.

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