By the end of 2016 Nature.com published this article stating that negotiations between Elsevier and Universities in Germany, Taiwan, and Peru didn’t reach an agreement and those countries were suspending their subscriptions to Elsevier journals. This is sad, because although some may still have some access to the journals illegally through SciHub, it is very likely that this will have a negative Science impact in these countries.
In an ideal world all science would be free, and everybody would have OA to every research published. But our world is far from ideal, and, although we would like this to happen eventually, how likely is this to happen?
Ok. So what’s the data? We live in a world where everything costs money. When I think about publishing, I immediately think about paper, ink, and printing actual magazines. When I started doing research as an undergrad I remember going to the library to look for articles and take photocopies of them to read later (yes, I’m old like that). But besides for old articles, what’s the point to print science papers anymore, if they can be easily accessed through PDF and saved (or printed)? But even if you don’t print Science magazines, there’s still the cost of personnel. You need to pay editors and people to review those papers and choose which ones are going to be published, right? Wait, no, professors do it… for free! So what are exactly the publishing costs? I tried to look for this information on the internet, but wasn’t very successful…
Elsevier has been the most hated publisher for several years. But there are others big publishers out there. Actually this article from 2015 states that Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and Sage published more than half of all academic papers in the peer-reviewed literature in 2013. Elsevier doesn’t disclose the price of their publications, but do other publishers do? Not really. Also, it seems that neither PLoS nor BioMed Central also discuss actual costs of publication. A few years ago, the true cost of science publishing was discussed in this article:
The subscription prices are also not disclosed by the publishers. Libraries are also not allowed to release their costs. It’s tough to judge if prices are fair or not if you don’t know the numbers! I mean, how do you set the price for a journal subscription to begin with? Number of students and professors, kind like the electoral vote? The larger the number of people in a particular University, the higher the price? But what about number of journals? I mean, in a particular university there might be a lot of people, but they might access more other publisher’s journals. Maybe they have an average of downloads and then set the price?
So as the majority of research around the world is still published in journals that require subscriptions, one would think those publishers are the most profitable. Not exactly, at least according to this blog post from 2013, proclaiming that the OA Hindawi Publishing Corporation “has a impressive profit margin of 52%. Much better than Elsevier (36% profit margin on revenue in 2010)”. Of course, this is a single article and things may have changed since then.
One thing we do know is the publication fees for scientific journals. And we all know that publication charges are higher in OA journals. Regarding scientific access to everybody, one cannot argue with the premise of OA journals. But are we just going from a “pay to read” to a “pay to publish” model? That doesn’t seem to help researchers and institutions, specially on times of tight research budget.
The internet turned the world into a much accessible place to everybody. People said newspapers were going to die, but even with fewer and fewer people actually buying printed newspapers, they are still standing. With facilities and paid personnel. Newspapers evolved to stay alive. Academic publishing need to evolve as well. Can we reach a middle point where we can have OA to all, at reasonable prices for researchers?