8 min read

Paying for scholarly publications

I have a couple of papers that I should be writing, but recent discussion (the whole PIPA/SOPA thing [see Michael Eisen’s OpEd in the New York Times]; the Elsevier boycott) has turned my thoughts to publishing generally.

So I’ll take some time out (way too much time out) to comment on the value and costs of publishing and peer review, how to pay for it, PubMedCentral, etc.

The value of publishing

Obviously the most important thing is to communicate the results of research. If you don’t publish your work (in a way that it gets seen and understood), there wasn’t much point in doing it. Write, and write well.

Secondly, publications are central for evaluating a researcher’s value and productivity, both for grants and promotions.

In any case, broad and easy access to publications is important, particularly for the former aspect: so that other researchers (or ordinary people) can study the work. And we don’t want to have to wait a year.

The costs of publishing

The cost of producing a paper comes from

  1. Conducting the research

  2. Writing the paper

  3. Peer review (including by editors) of the paper

  4. Administration of the journal

  5. Copy editing and typesetting

  6. Distribution

How to pay for it

(1) and (2) are paid by research grants or institutional funds, and are definitely (most of the time) the bulk of the cost.

(3) is generally provided by other researchers’ volunteer services (and so are also paid, indirectly, by research grants or institutional funds).

(4-6) are what the arguments are about.

The traditional model

Traditionally, authors signed away copyright to a publisher, who charged libraries or individual researchers for subscriptions. Part of the cost may be covered by a fee (“page charges”) to the authors.

In the distant past, the author would also purchase a bunch of paper copies of the article to give to friends or others who were interested. I still occasionally get a postcard, mostly from overseas, asking me to send a copy of an article. We used to get lots of those.

A potential reader without access to a library with a subscription may be charged a crazy amount, like $30, for access to a single paper. (Cambridge University Press is apparently now charging $6 rent for 24 hours of access to an article. Who would want that?)

Many journals make articles open after a year; many charge for access for forever.

The open access model

PLoS and BMC charge authors large fees (“page charges”) to publish in their journals. Readers can then get free access. These page charges can be pretty hefty (PLoS charges $2900 for PLoS Biology, $2250 for PLoS Genetics, and $1350 for PLoS One.)

Some pay journals have adopted an open access option. For example, at Genetics the standard charges are $70/page for members of GSA plus $40/figure, and you can pay an extra $1200 to make the article open access immediately (otherwise, non-subscribers must wait a year). For a 10 page paper with 5 figures, that would be $900 regular and $2100 open access.

This can give you an idea of the total cost of (4-6) for a typical journal. Imagine $2000/paper x 20 year/issue x 12 issues/year = $500k/year.

The SAGMB model

The journal Statistical Applications in Genetics and Molecular Biology (SAGMB) had some sort of point system where you would get points for reviewing articles and you had to have so many points in order to submit (and subsequently publish) an article with them; otherwise, you paid a fee. But the journal seems to have moved from BePress to De Gruyter and I can no longer find the details. And it’s definitely not an open access journal. (And I once had a painful argument with them over a point for a review that soured me on the whole business.)


My postdoc advisor, Jim Weber (now at Prevention Genetics), had the idea that particularly society-related journals might raise an endowment to cover the ongoing costs of the journal, so that it could otherwise be completely free and open. I like that idea.

These days, with something like 4% return on an endowment, you’d need $12.5 million to get $500k/year. That seems like a lot. But if a journal could raise half of that, they could cut page charges in half.

Publishers’ profit

In the end, the cost for (4-6) come from research grants or other institutional funds, either indirectly (our libraries pay for subscriptions) or directly (authors pay page charges). The main questions are how, and what cut does the publisher take?

Wikipedia reports that Elsevier made a profit of ~$765 million in 2006. Think of the research that might have been supported by that money. Part of that comes from overpriced scholarly books, but still….

PubMed Central

People seem to make a big deal about PubMed Central, like it’s been this great big thing for open access to research articles. But I don’t see it. I make good use of PubMed (for finding articles), but PubMed Central seems like a pain.

Most of the journals I publish in send the articles straight to PMC, but the articles aren’t open until a year after publication, and there’s been no attempt to deal with the copyright release business. And if you publish in a journal that doesn’t ship the things to PMC automatically, it’s really confusing what you need to do (a) with respect to the copyright release and (b) to actually get the appropriate version of the manuscript in there.

I generally just go back to my university library website to get an article, and if I can’t get immediate access, I order it through interlibrary loan.

The NIH public access policy seems like a good thing, but it’s not enough to actually help me in any way. They could have done more, and since they didn’t, I’m annoyed at what little they did do.

What about peer-review and impact factors and all that?

The cost of publishing and access to research articles has gotten tied up with the whole peer-review model for publishing, plus the use of things like the ISI Impact Factor to measure the quality of a journal and then to measure the quality of the papers in a journal. People seem to be saying, “Screw the whole page charges business; let’s just put articles in arXiv and develop another system for finding relevant articles and measuring their quality.”

To me, the value of standard peer review versus post-publication measures of quality is a completely separate issue (which I hope to comment on more thoroughly soon). Switching to an arXiv/tech report/working paper system just pushes the cost of (5) [copy editing] to the author (or, worse, to the reader); we still have to pay for (4) and (6) somehow.


To summarize my thoughts: there are real costs of publishing, and in the end they all get paid for from the same pots (research grants or institutional funds). The question is how (page charges or subscriptions or something else), and should for-profit publishers be making big bucks in the process?

I personally prefer journals that are associated with a scientific society (as Genetics is with the Genetics Society of America), and while I would like those societies to raise endowments to cover the full ongoing costs of their journals, in the meantime I prefer the open access model, where the publications costs are charged directly to the author and subsequently to the authors’ research grants. It’s simpler that way.

How to change the world?

I would like to see journals become fully open, with costs either charged to research grants (through page charges to the authors), directly to granting agencies, or covered by endowments. If we continue to rely on subscriptions, then there will be uneven access to researchers and little access to ordinary people.

But the most important thing is to remove the profit-driven bloated middlemen from the system. The Elsevier boycott is one step towards that: it seeks to cut out one particularly bloated but basically useless player.

But researchers (particularly junior researchers) have little incentive to participate in such efforts. They want their masterly (or crappy) manuscript to be in a high-impact journal, since its status on their CV matters more than it actually being read. In particular, why devote their limited start-up or grant dollars towards page charges when the cost can be pushed down to the (possibly nonexistent) reader?

This requires considerable thought, but here are my preliminary ideas:

  • If senior researchers send their best manuscripts to open access journals (PLoS Biology rather than Nature; PLoS Genetics rather than Nature Genetics), those journals will become more influential and junior researchers will follow.

  • Scientific societies might develop further awards or publication scholarships (or endowments!) to enable junior researchers to cover page charges (and further enhance their CVs).

  • If institutions care about open access, they might cut back on subscriptions to evil journals and use the savings to support researchers’ page charges to open journals.

  • Promotion committees and such might do more to actually read candidates’ papers rather than relying on journal reputation. (Might they also take access into account? Probably not.)

  • Copyright law might be changed to insist that publications coming from government-funded research be treated as are publications coming from government employees (namely, open: as I understand it, government employees aren’t allowed to sign over copyright).