Free access publishing is awesome...but expensive. How do we pay for it?

I am a huge fan of open access journals. I think open access is good both for moral reasons (science should be freely available) and for more selfish ones (I want people to be able to read my work). If given the choice, I would publish all of my work in journals that distribute results freely.

But it turns out that for most open/free access systems, the publishing charges are paid by the scientists publishing in the journals. I did a quick scan and compiled this little table of how much it costs to publish a paper in different journals (here is a bigger table):

  • PLoS One $1,350.00
  • PLoS Biology: $2,900.00
  • BMJ Open $1,937.28
  • Bioinformatics (Open Access Option) $3,000.00
  • Genome Biology (Open Access Option) $2,500.00
  • Biostatistics (Open Access Option) $3,000.00

The first thing I noticed is that it is minimum about $1,500 to get a paper published open access. That may not seem like a lot of money and most journals offer discounts to people who can’t pay. But it still adds up, this last year my group has published 7 papers. If I paid for all of them to be published open access, that would be at minimum $10,500! That is half the salary of a graduate student researcher for an entire year. For a senior scientist that may be no problem, but for early career scientists, or scientists with limited access to resources, it is a big challenge.

Publishers who are solely dedicated to open access (PLoS, BMJ Open, etc.) seem to have on average lower publication charges than journals who only offer open access as an option. I think part of this is that the journals that aren’t open access in general have to make up some of the profits they lose by making the articles free. I certainly don’t begrudge the journals the costs. They have to maintain the websites, format the articles, and run the peer review process. That all costs money.

A modest proposal

What I wonder is if there was a better place for that money to come from? Here is one proposal (hat tip to Rafa): academic and other libraries pay a ton of money for subscriptions to journals like Nature and Science. They also are required to pay for journals in a large range of disciplines. What if, instead of investing this money in subscriptions for their university, academic libraries pitched in and subsidized the publication costs of open/free access?

If all university libraries pitched in, the cost for any individual library would be relatively small. It would probably be less than paying for subscriptions to hundreds of journals. At the same time, it would be an investment that would benefit not only the researchers at their school, but also the broader scientific community by keeping research open. Then neither the people publishing the work, nor the people reading it would be on the hook for the bill.

This approach is the route taken by ArXiv, a free database of unpublished papers. These papers haven’t been peer reviewed, so they don’t always carry the same weight as papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But there are a lot of really good and important papers in the database - it is an almost universally accepted pre-print server.

The other nice thing about ArXiv is that you don’t pay for article processing, the papers are published as is. The papers don’t look quite as pretty as they do in Nature/Science or even PLoS, but it is also much cheaper. The only costs associated with making this a full fledged peer-reviewed journal would be refereeing (which scientists do for free anyway) and editorial responsibilities (again mostly volunteer by scientists).

 
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