What are the strangest academic journals

What can a publication cost?

(May 16, 2014) Recently, new details came to light about the millions of dollars that flow to publishers like Elsevier. How expensive can academic publishing actually be?

(May 16, 2014) Before the big science publishers like Elsevier, Springer or Wiley sell their magazine subscriptions in large bundles to a university library, there is usually weeks of haggling. At the end there is basically a clause in the contract that obliges both sides to maintain confidentiality about the value of the deal.

But there are a few clues about the flow of money from science to publishers. A year ago, journalist Richard Van Noorden published a well-researched article on the costs of academic publishing. In particular, one number from his article has been cited again and again: If you divide the total income of the large scientific publishers (9.4 billion dollars in 2011) by the number of specialist articles published by these companies in the same year (1.8 million), the result that an average of about $ 5,000 (around 3600 euros) per item from the coffers of the scientific community flow to the publishing houses.

The millions are bubbling up

However, the burdens are unevenly distributed between different institutes, as a recent inquiry by mathematician Tim Gowers revealed. Thanks to British freedom of information laws, despite the confidentiality clause, Gowers was able to get the exact sums that universities in the UK are paying to Elsevier. The University of Cambridge alone, for example, transfers the publishing giant more than 1.1 million pounds (around 1.35 million euros) per year (see here).

More interesting than the absolute figures, however, are the noticeable differences between the institutes. The costs for access to academic literature are less based on the actual use of individual journals, the number of library users, or the size of the respective university. Rather, historical agreements are simply updated. Elsevier is still setting its prices based on the time when journals were only available in paper form in the libraries.

Both the average revenue per article and the large variance in costs that Gower's inquiries brought to light show that publishers can push through a “value-based” pricing model (see this article by Rick Anderson). For science, however, a “cost-based” model would be much cheaper.

What do you mean with that? Apple products are an example of “value-based” pricing. The electronic parts and the assembly of a cell phone in the Far East hardly cost Apple more than the cheap competition. But the typical Apple customer does not think about the low production costs when shopping - the only thing that counts for the buyer is the value that the chic iPhone has for him personally.

Fantastic profit

In the case of cost-based pricing, on the other hand, the buyer has a pretty good idea of ​​what the production may cost and he is only willing to pay a moderate mark-up on the production costs. Foods like milk and butter fall into this category.

With traditional magazine subscriptions, the prices achieved are well above the production costs, as the fantastic profit margins (typically 30-40%) of the major academic publishers show. Publishing scientific journals is therefore one of the most profitable business activities of all, if one disregards criminal undertakings such as drug trafficking or arms smuggling.

And scientists are still willing or forced to pay so much money for access to specialist literature - the price depends solely on the value of the product, not on the publishing house's production costs. The publishing companies and their investors naturally like such a situation.

With a different sign, this may even apply to Open Access journals, which charge their authors a publication fee. So authors must be PLOS Biology pay more than 2100 euros to appear there. Is that in proportion to the consideration that PLOS provides? In order to be able to assess this, one would have to know how much money the publishers spend on various aspects of their service, for example organizing the peer review, keeping servers ready, maintaining their databases, marketing measures and so on.


If you want to see these cost centers broken down, most Open Access publishers are just as tight-knit as the established old publishers. Is this perhaps because the publication process of an online article is actually dirt cheap today, and with it both the subscription fees and the typical "Article processing charges“Are Open Access Publishers Overpriced?

In this context, a quite new open access publisher called “Ubiquity Press” is interesting. Unlike its competitors PLOS, BioMedCentral or PeerJ, the publisher lists exactly what the publication fee is used for.

Ubiquity Press calculates that the actual publishing, i.e. the organization of the peer review and the online production of an article, costs the equivalent of around 100 euros. A further 115 euros per paper are calculated for indirect costs, i.e. the maintenance of the server and software infrastructure, marketing and other “business costs” (this sum is probably also the company's profit). Added to this are 85 euros per article for a support fund for authors from developing countries and other organizational costs. In total, this makes a publication fee of just 300 euros per article.

Note the discrepancy to the above figure of 3600 euros per paper, which the established publishers earn on average. Even the absurdly high profit margins cannot explain this difference. Are the calculations of the ambitious young company unrealistic or do the old publishers have higher costs due to their traditional corporate structures?

Probably both. Ubiquity Press may underestimate the organizational effort that is required to keep a qualitatively acceptable journal alive in the long run. In particular, the calculation apparently assumes that virtually all editorial services, e.g. reminder emails to defaulting reviewers, proofreading and the formatting of text and images, are carried out either fully automatically or by low-skilled service providers in low-wage countries - if not scientists in their role as Editorial Board Members do some of these tedious jobs for free.

On the other hand, the traditional publishers are indeed carrying ballast from the print era. Successful start-ups such as PLOS ONE already prove that with today's software and server structure you can publish thousands of articles per year with minimal personnel expenditure, with a quality standard that is usually acceptable.

Unpaid secretaries

Despite all the enthusiasm for inexpensive open access journals, there is one thing that scientists should clarify: the more new, lean online publishers keep the service of their employees to a minimum, so does the time it takes for scientists working in their Qualification as an appraiser or Editorial Board Member often slip into the role of an unpaid publishing secretary.

Because not all editorial tasks can be completely delegated to computer algorithms or to service centers in the Philippines. Adhering to consistent ethical standards, moderating disputes and complaints, keeping an eye on conflicts of interest of authors and reviewers - you need qualified experts for this.

Perhaps a closer analysis will reveal that some of the services provided by the publishers are worth a few euros more.


Hans Zauner



Photo: "InfoGibraltar", via Wikimedia (License: Creative Commons BY)

Last changes: July 13, 2014