Monday, January 23, 2012

#openAccess Costs Less: Think about it.

There are a few good examples as to why we continue to submit papers to non-open access journals. Sure open-access publication costs are high, but many researchers, even the under-funded hospital epidemiologist, should be able to gather up Departmental, Divisional or other resources to pay the publication costs. I think it's a matter of choice. Importantly, even if the research is called "unfunded", it is likely receiving hidden funding through paying of fellows' salaries or the opportunity-costs of less time spent actually doing "infection control." That is to say, someone is paying for the research.

"An implicit although obvious subtheme of Moneyball is that resistance to innovation is driven by job insecurity" - Nate Silver 

There is a new article in the Atlantic by Laura McKenna that further describes the situation, and I think it's worth a close read.  She describes the status quo very accurately:

1) Academic research is funded by national grants and/or subsidized through the university or hospital and the scientist is given "release time" to conduct the research.

2) The paper is then submitted to an academic (non-open access) journal.

3) These journals are housed and subsidized by universities (think ICHE and University of Michigan or AJIC and Columbia).

4) Journals are then edited by faculty members, who spend subsidized time editing the journal for not enough $$ to cover their time.

5) The "home" university provides offices for the editorial faculty and staff.

6) Papers selected for review are sent to faculty at other universities and are thus subsidized by these other universities, who support their peer-review activities.

7) If accepted, the manuscript is further reviewed by the editor and sent to the journal for publication

8) The publisher, to cover printing costs, sells the rights to JSTOR or other services and makes a tidy profit.

9) JSTOR then sells the papers back to university libraries for huge fees; said to be $45,000 initially and $8500/year just for the arts and sciences collection at JSTOR. If the general public (or non-university affiliated ICP) wants to read the article, they have to pay perhaps $38 to read it.

I will directly quote from her conclusion: "Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public -- which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system -- has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs."

I would say that ALL of these costs, both visible and hidden, dwarf the one-time publication fee and would suggest that the reason we publish is to communicate our important findings with a wide audience.  If universities can't support open-access publication fees to the extent that they already silently fund closed journals, and I would suggest if they did, the pub costs would drastically decline, then I wonder if the research is even worth doing.  We easily spend 10 times more time (and money) collecting and analyzing the data, but can't cover the publication fee?  Hogwash.


  1. Philosophically I support open access. But the key question to me is what is the real cost of publication? I have a hard time believing that for BMC journals it's $1600. So is open access just a different ("non-profit") way of ripping us off?

  2. I think we should try to find out why it costs $1600 and if that amount is fair. Only then can we say whether it is a rip-off or not. I think open-access journals need to innovate more on their pricing models perhaps by giving discounts to Universities that house editorial offices or publish more than a certain threshold of articles or provide hours of peer-review. For example, when I peer-review an article for BMC-ID, UI should get credit for that effort through reduced publication costs.

    The average "unfunded" study must cost more than 15 or 20k in hidden costs - ie if we add up how much time we, our fellows, or statisticians etc all donate for an unfunded paper. Seems funny that we can't find $1600 to pay for publication. I think we need to rethink our own financial models as much as open access journals must innovate in their pricing models.

  3. Wow! I made a huge erroneous assumption--BioMed Central is actually a for-profit company and is owned by Springer. So open access or not, a big publisher wins. It appears that BMC has published about 100,000 papers over the last decade. If the publication fee averaged out to $1,000, that's $100 million. This is now starting to make much more sense. I think it's highly unlikely that Springer is publishing papers for little profit.

    A medical library director at another academic medical center told me last week she is now totally opposed to open access because on average the library can purchase 4 journal subscriptions for the publication cost of 1 open access paper. As she said, "that's just not sustainable."

    So I will revise my opinion and say that I am philosophically in favor of not-for-profit open access.

    1. Ok, so that would be $10 million per year ASSUMING that there are no costs. Lets say the cost was $500/paper for editorial and server fees, etc. That would be $5 million profit per year from how many journals?? Seems like not a lot of profit. In any case, at least in 2008 when Springer bought BMC, it was the only for profit open-access provider.

      OK, so lets take that $10 million annual cost estimate and compare it to the NIH budget (leaving out CDC, AHRQ, VA, FDA. USDA etc etc). The NIH budget is $31.2 billion in 2009 (leaving out the $10 billion ARRA money). So what is $10 million compared to $31.2 billion?

      That would 0.32% or 0.0032.

      So what about the for-profit journals? Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer, had combined operating profits that exceeded one billion dollars in 2008 - much more than $10 million.

      Another issue that we haven't discussed is the conflict of interest inherent with the closed journals that receive support through Pharma ads and special issues. For example, I suspect there is a bias against publishing papers showing nafcillin is superior to "name your drug on patent" at the editorial-board level given the amount of support at these society-run closed journals. I will leave that post for another day.

      I also don't think this discussion should be about profit. I am in favor of hard working people making a fair profit. I am more concerned with the lack of access to papers and also the conflicts of interest inherent in Pharma (and Society) funded journals.

      We have made huge efforts to remove COI from physicians, with more work to go, but we have made few efforts to remove COI from our academic journals. You can't have it both ways. Sorry to get all black and white, but I see little hope for the future of public health if we have unbiased physicians being fed biased clinical data on which to make medical decisions.

    2. Additional comment: From what I can tell, PLoS does not allow pharma or device ads. However, 49% of AMA revenues came from advertising in 2008 and reprints of a single article can bring in $700,000 (see ER Dorsey J Med Libr Assoc. 2011 July; 99(3): 255–258.) I don't see obvious ads at BMC-ID when I download a PDF, but it does appear they allow banner ads (see I block flash and other plug-ins on my browser, so I don't see those ads, but most probably due.

      I use ClickToPlugin ( to block annoying ads. Works on safari, probably other options for firefox or windows.

  4. Several years ago, I gave Internal Grand Medicine Grand Rounds on Open Access, and in preparation read a great deal about publishing, interviewed librarians, and reviewed our medical school library’s budget. All of this was quite eye opening.

    For years the academic publishers, which are primarily multinational corporations, have raped libraries with exorbitant subscription fees and practices such as bundling, which forces libraries to purchase journals they don’t want. Talk to any librarian about publishers and you are sure to get an earful.

    A piece in The Guardian last year by George Monbiot begins as follows:
    “Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won't guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers.” He describes academic publishing as pure rentier capitalism (“monopolizing a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it”). See:

    I would favor the establishment of a non-profit, open access publisher of journals, such as the National Library of Medicine, whose overarching goal would not be to maximize profit, but rather to maximize availability of information. This would have the potential to break the stranglehold for-profit and professional society publishers have on libraries and researchers.

    1. And here's a piece published in Slate yesterday on academic publishing:

      Gotta love the labeling of the publishers as "the evil textbook cabal"!

  5. It is hard to argue with your call. I would say PLoS is pretty close to your ideal but I am not sure about their profits. I still think waiting for the perfect but still submitting to for-profit closed journals is not the right way to go. I think open and minimal profit is a better than closed and huge profits, but I guess I'm the minority. I also realize people have to get promoted. I wonder if Departments and Colleges could help this along by favoring publishing in open-access journals or counting PDF downloads in their promotion/tenure reviews.