Journal articles ‘should cost £300 to publish’

Calculation by open access campaigners questions supposedly unnecessary spending by publishers on lobbying, marketing and executive pay

June 24, 2019
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Publishers are hugely inflating their costs through unnecessary spending on marketing, lobbying and executive pay packets, according to open access campaigners who have calculated what they claim is the real cost of publishing.

It should cost on average just $400 (£315) to publish an academic paper, and at the very most about $1,000 for very selective journals with high rejection rates, an analysis says.

This is far less than the prices universities currently pay publishers, it argues: estimates of costs vary, but subscription journals receive about $4,000 to $5,000 per article, while article processing fees for open access papers average at least $1,470.

Publishers have long been criticised for their high profit margins, which regularly exceed 30 per cent. But this does not fully explain the difference between costs and price, say Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg, and Alexander Grossmann, an informatics and media professor at the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences.

Instead, publishers are adding to costs by splashing out on activities that are not essential to academic publishing, the pair argue in a PeerJ paper.

“How do you justify the costs…to the people who pay the bill, who are the taxpayers?” Professor Brembs asked.

One area the pair single out is lobbying: RELX, the parent company of Elsevier, spent between €400,000 (£357,000) and €500,000 lobbying the European Commission in 2018.

The preprint also highlights what it sees as high top salaries at some publishers. In 2016, the New England Journal of Medicine spent 4 per cent of its publication revenue on the salaries of the 10 highest paid staff, which would add about $160 to the cost of each paper.

Publishers also spend extra on trying to attract authors through advertising or on promoting their brand at conferences, as well as paying for sales teams to deal with libraries, it points out. A handful of journals, such as Science and Nature, also employ journalists.

Professor Brembs said he would be happy to pay for this journalism, and noted that activities such as lobbying, while they “sound superfluous”, could be useful if deployed on behalf of the entire research community.

But these extra activities should be separated out from wider subscription costs, he argued.

A spokesman for the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers pointed to other assessments of costs that came up with higher figures: one 2011 calculation, for example, put the cost of activities such as peer-review management, copy-editing, typesetting and origination at an average of £1,261 per article.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Good evening David, I'm wondering if you have considered whether the Oligarchs controlling academic publishing will ever relinquish their monopoly and or profits. I believe that while Open Access is a commendable ideal, it poses an existential treat to high output research countries. The annual revenues of the STEM publishers internationally is approximately €25 Billion, if one was to divide that by 2.5 million articles published annually, you may see a future Article Publishing Charge (APC) of €10,000 per article being charged. Australian Universities account for approx 4% of published articles so it's easy to imagine Australian Universities paying €1 Billion annually or A$1.6 Billion in a Open Access World. To put this into perspective Australian Universities only spends A$300+ Million annually on subscription. Open Access moves the burden from the reader (Subscription) to the Scholar (APC), this may be an impost in G20 countries but an impossibility is 3rd world countries. Cheers Geoffrey Baldwin The Eldorado Project

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