A leading life sciences journal has thrown down the gauntlet to rivals by revealing for the first time in detail what it costs to publish an article, in an attempt to open up the debate about whether academics and universities are being overcharged by publishers.
eLife, which was set up as an open access challenge to prestigious journals such as Nature, Science and Cell, disclosed that this year it expects to spend £3,147 per paper, a fraction of the tens of thousands of pounds that the editor-in-chief of Nature has estimated it costs his journal to publish an article – although many open access journals are far cheaper.
Mark Patterson, executive director of eLife, said that he hoped the move would “encourage other publishers to be more transparent about their costs”.
The figures add to the long-running debate over whether big publishers are raking in excessive profits from subscription fees and article processing charges, and what services different journals provide in return.
“One of the things that’s lacking in that debate is real evidence and data…especially among the more selective journals,” he said. “Maybe it’ll just let people feel a bit safer about releasing that information.”
A third of eLife’s publishing costs go towards paying editors; about a quarter is spent on managing article processing teams and maintaining online systems; while 14 per cent goes on marketing. Other costs include employing staff who handle submissions and produce a regular podcast.
As eLife has ramped up the number of articles it publishes, costs have fallen from more than £12,000 per article in 2013, the first full year of operation, to just over £3,000 this year.
Nature and Science have not released similar details on what it costs them to publish, although a Nature article in 2013 said that Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief, estimated that its costs were £20,000 to £30,000 per paper.
Jeremy Berg, the editor-in-chief of Science, said that the journal was “currently trying to get a clear understanding on these per article costs and will consider sharing…appropriate information in the future".
Unlike eLife, both journals are physical, not online-only, and employ a team of journalists to write science-related news and features that are published alongside research papers – two factors that may push up costs.
Article processing charges for open access journals in the Nature and Science family are broadly in line with eLife’s costs. Nature partner journals charge between £1,350 and £2,650, while the journal Science Advances cites an average charge of about $2,900 (£2,204).
Asked whether eLife costs will come down further, Dr Patterson said that the journal was still experiencing “steady growth” in the number of articles, and that there was no reason “for that not to continue”. The journal could also push down costs through more streamlined and efficient ways of working, he added.
For the moment, the non-profit eLife, which is backed by research funders including the Wellcome Trust, does not charge for publication, but this would change eventually, said Dr Patterson. The journal will release more information about when it might introduce article processing charges in the autumn, he said.