Open questions about the costs of the scholarly publishing system

April 15th, 2016 by

Stuart Lawson (et al)’s new paper on “Opening the Black Box of Scholarly Communication Funding” is now out – it’s an excellent contribution to the discussion and worth a read.

From their conclusion:

The current lack of publicly available information concerning financial flows around scholarly communication systems is an obstacle to evidence-based policy-making – leaving researchers, decision-makers and institutions in the dark about the implications of current models and the resources available for experimenting with new ones.

It prompts me to put together a list I’ve been thinking about for a while – what do we still need to know about the scholarly publishing market?

  • What are the actual totals of author/institutional payments to publishers outside of subscriptions and APCs – page charges, colour charges, submission fees, and so on? I have recently estimated that for the UK this is on the order of a few million pounds per year, but that’s very provisional, and doesn’t include things like reprint payments or delve into the different local practices. All we can say for sure at this stage is “yes, it’s still non-trivial, more work needed”.
  • What are the overall amounts paid by readers to publishers and aggregators for pay-per-view articles? In 2011 I found that (for JSTOR at least) the numbers are vanishingly small. I’ve not seen much other investigation of this, surprisingly – or have I just missed it?
  • Can an overall value be put on the collective “journal support” costs – for example, subsidies from a scholarly society or institution to keep their journal afloat, or grants from funding bodies directly for operating journals? This money fills a gap between subscriptions and publication costs, and is essential to keep many journals operating, but is often skimmed over.
  • How closely do quoted APC prices reflect actual costs paid? After currency fluctuation, VAT, and sometimes offset membership discounting, these can vary widely, which can make it very difficult to anticipate the actual amount which will be invoiced. (A special prize for demonstrating the point here goes to the unnamed publisher who invoices in Euro for a list price in USD, and including annotations showing a GBP tax calculation). Reporting tends to be based on actual price paid, which helps, but a lot of policy and theory is based on list-price estimates.
  • How are double-dipping/hybrid offsetting systems working out, now they’ve had a couple of years to bed in? There has been quite a bit of discussion looking at the top-level figures (total subscriptions paid plus total APCs paid) which suggests that the answer is “total amounts paid are still rising”, which is probably correct. However, there’s very little looking in detail at per-journal costs, how the offsets (if any) are calculated, and whether or not the mechanisms used make sense given the relatively low number of hybrid articles in any given journal. Work here could help come up with a standard way of calculating offsets, which could be used in future negotiations. Hybrids won’t be going away any time soon…
  • What contribution to the subscription\publishing charges market comes from outside academia? We tend to focus on university payments (as these are both substantial and reasonably well-documented) but there are very large markets for subscription academic material in, for example, medicine, scientific industry, and law. These are not well understood.

And, finally, the big one:

  • How much does it cost (indirectly/implicitly) to maintain the current subscription-based system? We have a decent idea of how much the indirect costs of gold/green open access are, thanks to recent work on the ‘total cost of publication’, but no idea of the indirect costs of the status quo. And we really, really need to figure it out.

To illustrate that last point, and why I think it’s important…

A large number of librarians (and others) spend much of their time maintaining access systems, handling subscription payments, negotiating usage agreements, fixing user access problems, and so on. Then the publishers themselves have to pay staff to develop and maintain these systems, handle negotiations, deal with payments, etc. Centralised services like JISC’s collective negotiation mean more labour, and some centralised services like ATHENS can be surprisingly expensive to use.

Let’s make a wild guess that it comes down to one FTE staff member per university (it probably isn’t that much work for Chester, but it’s a lot more for Cambridge, so it might balance out); that’s about 130 in the UK. Ten more for all the non-university institutions. Five more for the central services. Five each at the five biggest publishers and another ten for all the others. Total – for our wild estimate – 180 FTE staff. (While the publisher staff aren’t paid by the universities, they’re ultimately paid out of the cost of subscriptions, and so it’s reasonable to consider them part of the overall system cost.)

This number compares interestingly with the 192 FTE that it was estimated would be needed to deal with the administration of making all 140,000 UK research papers gold OA – they’re certainly in the same ballpark, given the wide margins of error. It has substantial implications for any “just switch everything”-type proposals, for obvious reasons, but would also be a very interesting result in and of itself.

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2 Responses to “Open questions about the costs of the scholarly publishing system”

  1. Open Access 2016: A Year of Price Bargaining, Preprints, and a Pirate | Absolutely Maybe Says:

    […] came in next, with nearly 17 million). Lawson’s article prompted a librarian blogger, Andrew, to add more black boxes of economic […]

  2. Open Access 2016: A Year of Price Bargaining, Preprints, and a Pirate | PLOS Blogs Network Says:

    […] came in next, with nearly 17 million). Lawson’s article prompted a librarian blogger, Andrew, to add more black boxes of economic […]

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