What Open-Access Publishing Actually Costs

November 09, 2015

In academe, ideas cost money. But how much?

Advocates for open-access journals say that academic research should be free for everyone to read. But even those proponents acknowledge that publishing costs money — the disagreement is over the amount.

The issue was highlighted last month, when all six editors and all 31 editorial-board members resigned from Lingua, a prominent linguistics journal, after a disagreement with the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, over how much libraries and authors should pay.

'There will always be costs. If you want these services, they have to be paid for.'
Many of the reviewers and authors at open-access journals work on a volunteer basis. So what are the true costs of running such a publication? The Chronicle asked the Open Library of the Humanities, a nonprofit group that publishes seven peer-reviewed journals in the humanities and social sciences. The group will also help fund Glossa, a journal that Lingua's departing editors are planning to start.

The Open Library of the Humanities is completely open access, and authors are not charged to publish in its journals. But like any nonprofit, the organization needs money to function. The publisher started up this year, and its estimated first-year costs are $320,000.

"There will always be costs," said Martin Eve, one of the publisher’s directors. "If you want these services, they have to be paid for."

The company has three salaried staff members: Two directors and a computer programmer receive a total of $246,000. Eventually, the publisher won’t need a programmer, and staffing costs will drop.

"The digital environment doesn’t get rid of the labor cost," Mr. Eve said. "It makes the cost of disseminating material after that — making copies — infinitesimally smaller."

Benefiting From Volunteers

As at traditional academic journals, all of the peer reviewers for the group's publications work without pay, the idea being that academic editing is a function of academic jobs. The company is trying to steer clear of volunteer labor in other areas, although some volunteers help with outreach. "Being nonprofit," Mr. Eve said, "people feel less grudging in helping you."

Around $57,000 goes to Ubiquity Press, the publisher’s service provider. On average, that comes out to $380 per article. That pays for services like platform maintenance, digital preservation, and typesetting.

Then there’s what Mr. Eve calls "the really unspoken cost" of marketing. "It actually takes a lot of work to get people to give you money to do good things like open access," he said.

The Open Library of the Humanities budgets $10,000 for travel costs, the company’s biggest marketing expense. After that, there are also business cards and printing fees.

"The costs are largely the same between open-access journals and non-open-access journals," said Michael Eisen, a co-founder of the open-access project PLOS. "We’re doing essentially the same thing as traditional publishers."

'There's no such thing as a free journal. It costs money.'
Publishing — regardless of the business model — is still a fairly labor-intensive process, he said. At PLOS, most of the money goes toward technology and labor costs. As technology improves, he hopes that more-efficient software will lower some of those costs. But for now, producing high-quality work is expensive.

In the publishing world, those kinds of costs are fairly universal. Traditional publishers also need to cover staffing, technology, marketing — in addition to everything else.

Traditional publishers often have to cover expenses that are unique to their business model, according to the open-access advocate Peter Suber. Because most traditional publishing companies charge subscription fees, there can be costs associated with renewing subscriptions, collecting money, and writing usage licenses. "On the open-access side," he said, "there are none of those expenses."

But sometimes open-access journals have fees that others don’t. If a journal collects article-processing fees, for instance, it will need someone to collect that money.

"People point to journals that they think are run for free, but they’re not run for free," Mr. Eisen said. "They’re either run by volunteers or there’s a subsidy. There's no such thing as a free journal. It costs money."

Because of those costs, some commercial publishers argue that open-access journals are unsustainable. Without higher subscription fees or article-processing charges, they say, how can a scholarly journal pay its bills?

Different Idea of 'Sustainability'

Open-access journals aren’t interested in profit, supporters counter. Elsevier, a for-profit publisher with pricing policies that recently drew scrutiny, made $1.1 billion in 2010, with a profit margin of 36 percent. 

Tom Reller, Elsevier's head of global corporate relations, said in an emailed statement, "Sustainability to us means nurturing, servicing, disseminating and preserving research for the entire scholarly ecosystem, including authors, readers, librarians, professionals, funders and others including shareholders who invest in this important work." 

The editors at Lingua, who resigned last month to start a new open-access journal, may have found a model that works for them, he added. "But we need to take a broader and longer-term approach."

At nonprofit publishers, sustainability can take on a different meaning. For the Open Library of the Humanities, Mr. Eve said, it means the ability to cover costs.

'It's a good thing that open-access publishing has made people aware of the basic economics of publishing -- that the kind of thing we ask publishers to do is expensive.'
Unlike commercial publishers, nonprofit open-access journals don’t have a traditional profit margin — but they also don’t break even. At the Open Library of the Humanities, surplus money goes toward a safety net, to be used for unforeseen costs. At PLOS, surplus money goes back into the organization.

"PLOS has margins on our journals," Mr. Eisen said. "The difference is we don’t return money to stockholders."

The nonprofit’s funding comes from two places: grants and article-processing fees. Instead of charging institutions money for access to the journals, it charges authors money to publish in them.

"It’s kind of a shock to their system to see a price tag put on publishing," Mr. Eisen said. "I think it's a good thing that open-access publishing has made people aware of the basic economics of publishing — that the kind of thing we ask publishers to do is expensive."

The Open Library of the Humanities operates under a different model: It's funded through a three-year, $741,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as well as by fees from libraries in its consortium. Access is free to all, even those not in the consortium. The libraries that join and pay fees get to vote on which new journals the organization should publish, but the money is more a statement of support than a fee for a service.

Right now, there are 120 institutions in the consortium. As more institutions join, the fees get smaller. And larger colleges pay more than smaller ones.

Mr. Eve sees open access as a way to make publishing cheaper by spreading the costs across a large number of institutions. For organizations that aren’t motivated by profit, he thinks the model will work. As universities have faced budget cuts, he said, traditional publishers have continued to collect large amounts of revenue.

"They may have a different idea, in the mind of shareholders, as to what 'sustainable' actually means," Mr. Eve said.