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Economics of Open Access Publishing

by Andre on 29 June 2006

I recently got an e-mail from Pete Jumars, former president of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, regarding some of our recent posts on open access publishing:

I would challenge you to find an economic model that works for open-access publication, i.e., one that provides well reviewed, high-impact products on a sustainable economic basis. It costs my society (American Society of Limnology and Oceanography) roughly $2,500 to produce each published article, whether paper or electronic, including sending out the reviews, doing the editing and the compositing.

He also pointed out that the open access organization PLoS operates with the help of private grants.

Even so, I didn’t see any issue with sustainability in an author pays model given that $2500 (recently increased from $1500) is exactly the amount charged to authors for an article in PLoS Biology, but recent news from Nature suggests that it’s not that simple:

The figures show that PLoS lost almost $1 million last year. Moreover, its total income from fees and advertising currently covers just 35% of its total costs. And although this income is increasing — from $0.75 million in 2003–04 to $0.9 million in 2004–05 — it lags far behind spending, which has soared from $1.5 million to around $5.5 million over the past three years.

To stay afloat, the firm continues to rely on the philanthropic grants that launched the project: $9 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $4 million from the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, both based in San Francisco (see graphic). These covered 65% of the company’s operating costs last year, but are running out: at the end of last September, PLoS had assets of $3,393,265.

What does this mean for the economics of open access? Not much according to Paul Peters with Hindawi Publishing, who notes,

it is important to understand that PLoS is not only a publisher but also an advocacy organization working to raise awareness about open access. Since advocacy organizations are almost always dependent on external funding, it should not come as a surprise that PLoS cannot fund their extensive advocacy activities without charitable contributions.

Furthermore, according to Peters, Hindawi, a commercial publisher, has “already achieved profitability for the collection as a whole.”

This is good news for those that believe open access to the scientific literature is a worthwhile objective but who are worried that it is economically impracticable. At least, it’s a start, but will an author-pays open access model be able to compete head-to-head with the reader-pays model? According to Theodore and Carl Bergstrom*, that depends “on how much scholars care about broad distribution of their writings.” I would tend to think it matters a lot, but I guess that remains to be seen.

*For more information on the economics of publishing, I recommend Carl Bergstrom’s site. He also happens to be a theoretical biologist, earning him this week’s BioCurious stamp of approval for interdisciplinary studies.

  1. Matthew Cockerill    4427 days ago    #

    Re: the economics of OA publishing, you might also be interested in this book chapter:

    Chapter 11: Business models in open access publishing
    Available for free download here:

    from Neil Jacobs’ forthcoming book:
    Jacobs, N., Eds. (2006) Open Access: Key Strategic, Technical and
    Economic Aspects. Chandos Publishing

  2. Andre    4427 days ago    #

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to have a look!

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