Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

University libraries, budgets, and open access

by PhilipJ on 27 November 2008

I’ve been playing with numbers in my head based on the statistics from my home institution – the University of Toronto – relative to publications, the real cost of open access publishing, and the U of T library’s annual budget for journal subscriptions.

It turns out that U of T is listed as an institution on some 6470 publications per year (averaged during 2000-2004, data from Thomson Scientific), and as of 2005-2006, the U of T libraries (spread over a couple of campuses) have a periodicals budget of just over $10 million per year (see section 7, “LIBRARY ACQUISITIONS COMMITMENTS” in the 2005-2006 budget). For the rest of this article, let’s assume the American and Canadian dollars are roughly equal in value (which was the case until a couple of months ago).

At present, that $10 million a year largely goes to closed-access publishing houses (not just the Elseviers and Macmillans of the world, but also the much-loved not-for-profit societies which publish journals as well). This gives the university students, faculty, and staff access to the literature both on campus and off, via the internet. While this in principle works well, journal subscription costs have been skyrocketing, and university library budgets have not been able to keep up (and I surmise things will only get worse with the hit to university endowments recently). The breadth of subscriptions will surely fall in the coming years.

What, then, if the university decided to embrace the open access movement entirely? This is obviously a pie-in-the-sky idea, but bear with me, as the result is interesting.

Subscription costs would obviously be nil for an open access journal: we are all free to access the content of an open access journal via the internet, with no restrictions on who can read the content. In contrast, the author would pay to publish the article. This is perhaps the biggest resistance from scientists (and I’m sure the situation would be similar in the arts, or law, or what have you) to the open access movement, many feeling they don’t have enough funding for students or experimental equipment as is, and couldn’t possibly afford to pay to publish as well. I can appreciate this argument, though some progress is being made as you can specifically request funding to cover open access publication charges from some of the granting agencies.

(Also, let’s be honest, the current situation of paying for page charges and to have colour figures means the author is already paying to publish, and sometimes non-trivial amounts.)

The funding supplied to the library for journal subscriptions could instead go towards paying for the publishing costs in open access journals. Using the PLoS journals as our benchmark, premium quality publications would cost around $2500/article (the current fee to publish in PLoS Biology or PLoS Medicine), while the bread-and-butter publication costs are maybe closer to those of PLoS ONE — $1300/article.

Let us imagine that 10% of the publications coming out of U of T are of the premium variety, while 90% are your more run of the mill papers, and that there are open access journals in which to publish them. Using the current costs from the Public Library of Science, 650 premium papers would run around $1.6 million dollars, while the 5850 “bread-and-butter” papers would cost an additional $7.6 million each year. This is already less than the 2005-2006 periodicals budget of slightly over $10 million!

Let’s further assume that the economies of scale would kick in if universities around the world decided to embrace this philosophy. This should lead to an overall lowering of the publication costs, all the while bringing access to academic literature to everyone with an internet connection. It is also easy to imagine the costs being even lower, as the collaborative nature of academic work means many papers now have authors from multiple institutions, all of whom could share in the cost of publishing. (Determining the rules for who-pays-what would be tricky, but should be doable.)

There are probably some key issues I’m missing here (the most obvious one which I’ve even mentioned is that we need open access journals to publish in!), and my idea is prefaced on the assumption that universities are the significant driving force in the academic literature game, but I think the take-home message is reasonably clear, at least using the University of Toronto numbers: we could already afford going entirely open access.

I certainly wouldn’t feel bad if Elsevier and their ilk went out of business given the exorbitant increase in subscription costs and the non-obvious reasoning why, and I’m sure the societies could come to embrace the open access movement, which would bring the majority of high quality journals into the fold.

So, what’s the hold up?

Update — Peter Suber’s commentary (showing my conservative estimate of how much it would cost is potentially much higher than would be the case) is well worth a read.

  1. Bill Hooker    3553 days ago    #

    These may be of interest:

  2. Massimo    3553 days ago    #

    Or, at some point people may simply decide that for “run-of-the-mill” articles (which is like, what, 99% of them ?), uploading on some free, online repository (such as ArXiv) is enough, and that the official “vetting” coming from peer review (as in, one or two people having glanced at the paper and decided, sure, publish, I can’t waste more than 2 minutes on this…) is of too little significance to shoulder publication expenses, either as individual researchers or institutions.

  3. Alex    3553 days ago    #

    Pie-in-the-sky indeed! Sounds fine for publishing (and under the assumption that there are good open-access journals to do so), but how, in the interim, does one access the many closed-access journals that we depend on to find out what’s new? If the University Library isn’t paying for the databases, does the cost of retrieving an article (~$30+ usually, I think) fall on me only to then decide that, while the abstract sounded good, the article isn’t really all that relevant? I might add that, at over 500 articles already, that would easily put me in the $15000+ range, if not more, not to mention articles I don’t end up keeping.

    There are already a great many journals where crap gets published already, but in response to Massimo, you would prefer to make publishing even easier, and remove peer-review? Why not let “Joe the Amateur Scientist” publish his ideas on anti-gravity machines and the development of water cars?

    Yes, a bright future awaits us all.

  4. Massimo    3552 days ago    #


    I know exactly what you are saying but, look, we need not discuss hypothetical situations, here. ArXiv already does pretty much what I am proposing, and yes, any crackpot can (and occasionally does) upload nonsense.
    However, ArXiv is (at least in physics) an important, if not the primary channel of scientific communication, and is utilized and accessed daily by professional, respected scientists. Somehow, the community seems to be able to tell nonsense (at least the most egregious — mine is slipping through the cracks so far) from useful and respectable stuff. The latter gets cited, even in regular journals, whereas nonsense is ignored. So, in many respects it seems to me that the issue is not what “could” happen, but rather how to live with what is happening already.

  5. PhilipJ    3552 days ago    #

    Bill – thanks for the links! I was sure lots of people were thinking similar thoughts, and hopefully these ideas will gather a bit of steam.

    Alex – This was more of a play on numbers, not a process that I think will happen overnight. I do, however, think it is inevitable that the publishing industry move to an entirely (or nearly so — historical inertia might make the Natures of the world stick around) open access model.

    No, this was instead to show that given the current funding situation, a simple reallocation to OA instead of closed access subscriptions is doable right now. The infrastructure isn’t in place (meaning, as you’ve pointed out, the suitable places to publish, and that the closed-access journals that we publish in now are still needed for the foreseeable future), but the only real argument against the OA movement from scientists has been that it’s too expensive, and that just isn’t true if, as a collective group, universities decided to adopt an OA policy.

    Massimo – I’m with Alex, I’m not as down on the peer review system as some others are, and I think it still provides even just a simple check of the suitability of a paper in a particular journal. Perhaps trying to augment the peer review system so that it’s more helpful and relevant to the publishing system would help, but I’m definitely not interested in abolishing it.

  6. Eric    3552 days ago    #

    I think one big holdup would be that Open Access publishers aren’t really covering costs right now…so somehow they’d have to be subsidized by funding agencies, which is a less-than-ideal situation, I think.

  7. Alex Palazzo    3546 days ago    #


    Both you and Peter Suber underestimate the cost of publishing. First off let me say that PLoS Biology (last I checked) is charging $2500 per article WITH supplements from an endowment.

    Second, I’ve had multiple conversations with people who work at Cell (For example: There is a higher production cost and a higher higher handling cost per article for a high impact journal then one of the typical lower impact ones (Elsevier or otherwise). In fact handling costs go way up when you consider the % acceptance rate and all the work that goes into rejected manuscripts. In fact Elsevier looses money on Cell. They estimate that the cost per published article is about 10-15K.

    Now I’m pro OA, and I’ve been publishing in only OA journals as of late, but I think that we need to be realistic about the whole endeavour.

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