The cost of peer review and electronic distribution of scholarly journals

Stevan Harnad harnad at ECS.SOTON.AC.UK
Thu May 22 08:38:18 EDT 2008

         ** Apologies for Cross-Posting **

On Thu, 22 May 2008, N. Miradon wrote:

> The current issue of Nature has correspondence from Dr Raghavendra Gadagkar.
> The abstract of his letter (available at [1]) compares and contrasts
> 'publish for free and pay to read' with 'pay to publish and read for free'.
> To read the letter in full will cost you USD 18.
> N Miradon
> [1]
> Nature 453, 450 (22 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/453450c; Published online 21 May
> 2008

Here is the part you can read for free:

     Open-access more harm than good in developing world
         Raghavendra Gadagkar
         Centre for Ecological Sciences,
         Indian Institute of Science,
         Bangalore 560012, India
     The traditional 'publish for free and pay to read' business model
     adopted by publishers of academic journals can lead to disparity
     in access to scholarly literature, exacerbated by rising journal
     costs and shrinking library budgets. However, although the 'pay to
     publish and read for free' business model of open-access publishing
     has helped to create a level playing field for readers, it does more
     harm than good in the developing world...

It is easy to guess what else the letter says: That at the prices
currently charged by those Gold OA publishers that charge for Gold OA
publishing today, it is unaffordable to most researchers as well as to their
institutions and funders in India and elsewhere in the Developing World.

This is a valid concern, even in view of the usual reply (which is that
many Gold OA journals do not charge a fee, and exceptions are made by
those that do charge a fee, for those who cannot afford to pay it).
The concern is that current Gold OA fees would not scale equitably if
they became universal.

However, the overall concern is misplaced. The implication is that
whereas the user-access-denial arising from the the unaffordability
of subscription fees (user-institution pays) is bad, the
author-publication-denial arising from the unaffordability of Gold
OA publishing fees (author-institution pays) would be worse.

But this leaves out Green OA self-archiving, and the Green OA
self-archiving mandates that are now growing worldwide.

Not only does Green OA cost next to nothing to provide, but once it
becomes universal, if it ever does go on to generate universal
subscription cancellations too -- making the subscription model of
publishing cost recovery unsustainable -- universal Green OA will also
by the very same token generate the release of the annual user-institution
cancellation fees to pay the costs of publishing on the Gold OA
(author-institution pays) cost-recovery model.

The natural question to ask next is whether user-institution costs and
author-institution costs will balance out, or will those institutions
that used more research than they provided benefit and those
institutions that provided more research than they used lose out?

This would be a reasonable question to ask (and has been asked before)
-- except that it is a fundamental mistake to assume that the *costs* of
publishing would remain the same under the conditions of universal Green

It is far more realistic to expect that if and when journals (both their
print editions and their online PDF editions) are no longer in demand
-- because users are all instead using the authors' OA postprints,
self-archived in their IRs -- that journals will convert to Gold OA
not under the current terms of Gold OA (where journals still provide
most of the products and services of conventional journal publishing,
apart from the print edition), but under substantially scaled-down terms.

     Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged
     Transition. In: The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of
     the Electronic Age. L'Harmattan, pp. 99-105.

In particular, all the current costs of providing both the print edition
and the PDF edition, as well as all current costs of access-provision
and archiving will vanish (for the publisher), because they have been
off-loaded onto the the distributed network of Green OA IRs, each hosting
their own peer-reviewed, published postprints. The only service the
peer-reviewed journal publisher will need to provide is peer review

That is why Richard Poynder's recent query (about the true cost of peer
review alone) is a relevant one.

As I have said many times before, based on my own experience of editing
a peer-reviewed journal for a quarter century, as well as the estimates
that can be made from the costs of Gold OA journals *that provide only
peer review and nothing else today*, the costs per paper of peer review
alone will be so much lower than the costs per paper of conventional
journal publishing today, or even the costs per paper of most Gold OA
publishing today, that the problem of the possibility of imbalance between
net user-institution costs and net author-institution costs will vanish,
just as the the subscription model vanished.

Alma Swan has forwarded the link to a JISC-funded study of such questions
being conducted by John Houghton (Australia) and Charles Oppenheim
(UK) (in the context of UK research, where there are, I assure you,
author-institutions that are every bit as worried about current Gold
OA publishing fees as Developing World institutions are) and RIN has
released a study:

Alma also forwarded this study, by RIN:

Peter Suber has pointed to Fytton Rowland's 2002 estimates of the
cost of peer review alone:

     Rowland, F. The Peer Review Process. Learned Publishing, 15(4) 247-58.

Peter writes:

     "Rowland does a literature survey to determine the costs of peer
     review (see Section 5).  He concludes (Section 7) that it's about
     $200 per submitted paper, or $400 per published paper at a journal
     with a rejection rate of 50%.

     "I'm not in a position to vouch for the results, but it's the only
     paper I've seen trying to answer this narrow question.

     "Note that the paper came out in 2002 and doesn't reflect the latest
     generation of journal management software.  This matters because
     steadily improving software (including open-source software) is
     steadily taking over the clerical chores of facilitating peer review,
     and thereby reducing its costs."

I would add that even at $400 per paper, that would make peer review
alone cost only 10% of the average price of $4000 that Andrew Odlyzko
estimated was being paid per article in 1997 (i.e., the total collective
contribution summed across subscribing institutions) and less than
a third of most Gold OA publishing fees per article today.

     Odlyzko, A. (1997) The economics of Electronic Journals.
     First Monday 2(8)

Stevan Harnad

If you have adopted or plan to adopt a policy of providing Open Access
to your own research article output, please describe your policy at:

     BOAI-1 ("Green"): Publish your article in a suitable toll-access journal
     BOAI-2 ("Gold"): Publish your article in an open-access journal if/when
     a suitable one exists.
     in BOTH cases self-archive a supplementary version of your article
     in your own institutional repository.

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