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July 15, 2019 / jpschimel

Why does it cost $2000 to publish a paper? Or: the fiction of an “Article Processing Charge”

In the debates in academic publishing about subscriptions, pay-walls, and corporate profits, I often get puzzled responses from my colleagues and friends in the humanities and social sciences: “We run a journal out of our Department and its essentially free; editors and reviewers don’t get paid, so why is it so expensive for you?” I had a recent question from a colleague who was perplexed at my comment that it costs almost as much to reject a paper as it does to accept and publish one.

I think some of these views come from some deep-seated legacy from the printing days where running the presses was an obvious cost: copy-editing, printing, and mailing out hardcopy issues of journals. But that is no longer true—we don’t print journals and send them to libraries; we merely post them to the web. So why is it expensive?

What are the costs in modern academic publishing? The academic staff (reviewers and editors) generally do not get paid—we manage most editorial jobs as professional service[1]. Actual human copy-editing is mostly a thing of the past. Converting a raw manuscript into a formatted article is automated. So it seems like there are almost no specific per-article costs. So, shouldn’t publishing be almost free? Why do articles cost several thousand dollars to produce and publish?

The simple reason is that the main costs aren’t per-unit costs, but maintaining the technology operation to support processing articles. To produce an article, an author has to submit a manuscript—so the journal must maintain software to take in those manuscripts and allow editors to manage the review process. Managing editors have to assign submissions to handling editors, who have to select and invite reviewers. So there has to be a reviewer database, which will maintain contact information and reviewing history[2]. That database must keep track of invited reviewers and their comments through multiple cycles of revision and rereview. That must then interface with a system to take accepted manuscripts and do layout to convert those files into actual “articles” that are ready to post as published: formatting text into columns, getting figures and tables into appropriate locations, etc. And then you need to maintain the journal website to make available information about the journal (and how to submit papers) and to host the published articles. All that calls for complex applications that are effectively linked with each other—a lot of sophisticated IT that has to be developed and maintained by knowledgeable and skilled software engineers.

Then that software requires hardware support. Not only to host the review systems, but also then to host the journal and make the final products available, as well as maintaining the archives. That used to mean library bookshelves to archive published work—now it means server farms. Maintaining that hardware requires another set of engineers.

Those people need to get paid, as do the electricity bills for the server farms, and we need to take in money from subscriptions or author payments, so we need a financial services team—accounting, auditing etc. Then, let’s not forget the lawyers—we are dealing with business so we need legal services, not only to support management, but to help with academic conflicts: post-hoc battles over authorship (complaints that someone was left off), accusations of plagiarism, etc. Such cases are rare, but they do occur, and the bigger the operation, the bigger the needs.

To coordinate these different groups, we need professional management, led by a skilled business administrator. And of course, all these elements must be physically housed somewhere so there are costs associated with the real estate—offices and server farms.

Once you have the infrastructure in place, then you can consider the actual academic team that handles the manuscripts and decides whether to publish them. As I noted, the actual editorial costs are frequently minimal, because we rely mostly on volunteers to serve as reviewers and even as the associate editors who handle a paper or two a month.

Thus, when my colleagues say that they run a journal out of their department for “free” or on just a shoe-string budget, relying on sweat-equity and volunteerism, they are deceiving themselves [3].

Or perhaps, more realistically, they are only considering the academic work associated with the journal. In fact, in such cases, most of the operational and staff costs are covered by their department or their university, which provides the hardware infrastructure to host the journal; as well the maintaining the financial and administrative systems to allow the journal to exist. The direct costs remain small because they are handling a limited number of manuscripts, and most of the indirect costs are invisible, absorbed by the institution, including the salaries of the involved faculty.

But the department-supported model fails when submission numbers increase to a level at which academic departments can no longer subsidize the operation. As the scale of the operation increases, the scope of the of the IT enterprise grows, and with it, the administrative overhead. There are thresholds of size and complexity at which managing the operation requires new professional people and new layers of organization.

As you move into the international, natural science universe, submission numbers and expectations for processing speed also rise. The journal on which I have been a Chief Editor (Soil Biology & Biochemistry) receives well over a thousand submissions a year, as do the journals of the Ecological Society of America. Yet, these are modest operations compared to a monster like the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), which publishes almost 20,000 pages of material each year[4].

We are now seeing a shift in financial models. In the classical model, libraries paid for subscriptions that covered production costs, making publishing free for authors[5]. The new model makes articles free to read (i.e. open-access) but production costs are covered by those authors.

The current versions of open access publishing charge authors of accepted articles an “article processing charge” (APC). But this terminology can be deceptive, if not downright dishonest. An APC is in no way the cost to an author to process their paper. Rather it is merely their fractional share of the total costs to manage the journal. Many of those costs (notably managing submission and peer review), however, are imposed by rejected papers.

Consider a scenario where a journal receives 2,000 submissions a year, but accepts only 30% of them. In an open-access mode, the authors of the accepted 600 papers cover all the costs of supporting the entire operation. Existing APCs often run around $2,000[6]. Those numbers suggest the real cost of running our hypothetical journal would be $1.2 Million. Of that, only a modest portion would be associated with either doing layout for the accepted papers or hosting them to make the journal publicly available (i.e. article-specific costs); the bulk of the total is associated with maintaining infrastructure and processing manuscripts, most of which are ultimately declined.

If you calculated an article processing charge that applied to every paper handled by the journal, rather than just those ultimately published, that charge would be only $600[6]. But could you do that—charge an APC to submit a manuscript, rather than to publish an article? That would make submitting a paper an expensive lottery ticket—pay $600 to have an article reviewed and considered for publication, but with no refunds if it were rejected. Would anyone agree to that? I’m sure many would scream about the ethics of it:  “You charged me $600 and didn’t even accept my paper?” Would anyone ever believe that journals weren’t just increasing rejection rates to make more money?

The alternative, when authors pay only if their articles are accepted, creates different dilemmas. One is the expansion of predatory journals, which will publish pretty much anything as long as an author pays. They become a form of “vanity” publishing, where authors pay to gain a measure of credibility for papers that deserve none. I’ve heard from colleagues who provided cogent arguments for rejecting a paper, only to see it in print later, effectively unchanged. There is also an ethical question: why should I pay to process someone else’s manuscript? Why should I pay $2,000 to publish my article when most of that money really goes to subsidize processing papers that are rejected? Shouldn’t they pay their share of the costs? Or for a really substantial ethical question: who should cover the APCs for authors who can’t afford to pay? As I noted in a recent post[8], many papers are produced after grants expire or by authors whose institutions or nations lack the wherewithal or inclination to cover those costs. Do those authors get shut out of publishing at all? It isn’t “open access” if authors can’t publish.

We are in the midst of a revolution in how to pay for academic publishing, but there still remain deep questions of how to spread the costs among readers, published authors, and authors of rejected papers. I see no truly fair way to allocate costs among these groups in an open-access publishing model. But the costs are real—$2,000 per published paper is a realistic value, even when the publisher is non-profit and when most editorial and review work is done as unpaid professional service. Importantly as well, this shift concentrates costs onto authors because in the subscription model, institutions that did little research still subscribed to a suite of journals (e.g. the California State University System or my alma mater Middlebury College) and so supported the costs of producing journals. They have no responsibility to support journals in an APC-based funding model.

Academic departments and institutions may choose to absorb those costs and so to subsidize publications, but as journals grow from individual small operations that a single academic department might host to the larger journal families produced by professional societies or by commercial publishers, those costs can’t be subsidized. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) publishes five journals and doing so was bankrupting the Society until it partnered with Wiley to streamline costs. The American Chemical Society, in contrast, publishes 61 journals and is one of the larger academic publishers in the world!

Producing journals, the core of academic societies and professions, requires knowledgeable, professional IT, financial, and management people, people who have to get paid, even when the Editorial team works as volunteers. That money must come from somewhere, and ultimately there are only two possibilities: the producers or the consumers of academic articles; authors or readers. Historically, we’ve relied on readers—libraries subscribed to journals. Academe and Governments are increasingly requiring that we shift to relying on authors who pay APCs.

Yet, most of the cost to publish papers is not actually associated with producing any specific article, but with managing the infrastructure; maintaining the journals to assimilate and review the manuscripts. In an APC-model, the more selective a journal becomes, the higher the costs to those authors whose papers are ultimately accepted.

This creates new patterns of stress and obligation that will migrate into academic careers in new and complex ways, ways I am not confident our institutions have envisaged. If I choose to publish in cheaper journals, which might have higher acceptance rates and hence be less prestigious, will my colleagues hold that against me at tenure or promotion? If I have a paper that deserves to go to a high-profile, high-impact, expensive journal, will my University cover those fees? Will the Institutions that are pushing the drive to author-pays, open-access publishing models ensure I will always have the resources to publish in the best journals for my work? Personally, I lack confidence. Libraries have had centuries to develop, in their DNA, a vision that their job is to make material available to readers. That they will now have to transition that vision to recognizing an equally fundamental, financial, responsibility to support their institutions’ authors, will not, I fear, come easily.

——————————————-

[1]Typically the Editor-in-Chief or the team of Chief Editors who run the journal do get paid but this is typically effectively a stipend, rather than a salary—it probably rarely exceeds 1-2% of the total costs of running a journal.

[2]It’s important to know whether you asked that reviewer to review another paper last week! I can’t keep track of even just who I invite, but the journal Ecology has over 100 associate editors who are all looking for reviewers; before inviting a reviewer, you need to be make sure that they aren’t already handling manuscripts for other editors.

[3] Another colleague who runs a humanities journal relies on donation and grant funding to cover costs–it comes to $1500 per published paper.

[4] And JACS is only one of 61 journals published by the ACS.

[5] Although many journals produced by professional Societies have used a mixed funding model, with page-charges in concert with subscription fees.

[6] When the Ecological Society started Ecosphere the APC was $1250, although it was later increased to $1,500. It was only ever as low as it was was because it was partially subsidized by ESAs existing management and financial structure. That was already in place to support the Society’s “traditional” subscription-based journals. If Ecosphere was a free-standing operation, the APC would have been higher.

[7] You could separate costs associated solely with accepted papers—e.g. the layout and journal hosting systems, so that there might be a $500 submission charge to all manuscripts, with an additional $333 publication charge to only accepted papers. But while that would reduce the cost to publish, it would still be a high price to submit.

[8] https://schimelwritingscience.wordpress.com/2018/12/09/open-access-or-pay-to-play/

11 Comments

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  1. Kristin Antelman (University Librarian, UCSB) / Jul 15 2019 5:10 pm

    A couple comments:

    – Current APC prices reflect the two-decade+ transition from subscription prices that were directly related to the cost of publishing to subscription prices that reflect what the market will bear. Thus, some APCs represent a share of the total costs of publication, but many others represent what the market will bear based on demand to publish in the title. For example, it is only marginally relevant what Cell’s share of Elsevier’s publication costs is; an APC for Cell is unlikely to be less than the current $5000 anytime soon – and if Cell were fully OA there’s no reason not to believe Elsevier when they say the APC would “have to” be very much higher.

    – Your point about how it’s not in libraries’ DNA to ensure their institutions’ authors are published is a good one. While we worry about how to pay for the transition (because we believe the research should be open but we are also committed to buying what’s not yet open or never will be), we may not be well positioned to navigate the cultural transition. We may in fact not be the best player in the research-to-publishing ecosystem to bear responsibility for ensuring all authors can be published in the best possible venue. That sits on our plate now (to the extent it sits anywhere) because everybody realizes that’s where the money (even if not enough) currently is.

    • jpschimel / Jul 15 2019 5:35 pm

      The one set of journals where I actually know the actual finances were are those of the Ecological Society of America. There, for Ecology, with no profit and no intent to do more than cover costs, the real cost of a published paper (total journal costs divided by papers published) had been $3-4,000. I have no clue what the real costs are for a publisher like Elsevier, but clearly much lower than they were for ESA. When ESA partnered with Wiley, they were able to maintain costs while still providing a larger return to the Society. So for ESA, if everything were on the author-pays, open access model, $2 K is a reasonable number. I’m not surprised that commercial publishers would try to balance cost vs. demand. It’s a good reason to work with professional Societies, whose non-profit status means that aspects of their finances must be open.

  2. 4gravitons / Jul 17 2019 5:40 am

    I’m curious whether a model like high-energy physics uses (see here: https://scoap3.org/what-is-scoap3/ ) is at all plausible in other fields. We’re a small field, granted, but Ecology at least doesn’t sound too different in scale.

    • jpschimel / Jul 17 2019 8:45 am

      This is essentially the “flipped” model that UC wants to see–pay up front to support publications instead of after the fact to access them. It is very appealing. I suspect that the more coordinated nature of particle physics may have facilitated developing the SCOAP3 approach. Other academic fields lack the coordinated structure to develop such an entity. Funding levels tend to be much lower and more decentralized. Graduate students in ecology can sometimes go out and do good science with only materials you can buy at a hardware store, often without substantial grant money to back it up. And my own niche of soil ecology is supported by a wide array of sources, including NSF, USDA, DOE and others. No central coordinating bodies even within the US, let alone Internationally. Not even single core professional societies to take lead: Soil Science Society, Ecological Society, American Geophysical Union, Am. Soc. Microbiology as well as smaller groups: Soil Ecology, Int. Soc. Micorbial Ecology, etc. are all venues. So my hypothesis would be that the overlapping array of areas, funders, and participants makes the organizational dimensions hard. Add the avarice of several large corporations to that mix and it gets harder. But that’s just my hypothesis, and I have neither the data, nor the real expertise to test it.

  3. simonbatterbury / Jul 18 2019 3:28 am

    The flaw in your argument is the vast profits made by most of the ‘big 5’ commercial publishers – these clearly indicate they are doing very well out of their remaining subscription journals and [perhaps less well] from APCs. But I suggest $2-3000 a paper is still making them a profit, not just turning over. They also underpay or offshore their junior staff to keep up their 10-35% gross profit margins. There are literally hundreds of articles and reports complaining about this model, most recently in Vox. I know the figures for the Journal of Political Ecology which I edit with your UCSB colleague Prof. Casey Walsh. Official budget : $0. Paid staff: $0. Refereeing and layup system: OJS, $0. Cost of my time to shepherd and lay up a paper – between $300 and $500, a cost born by some hours I or Casey put in as part of our academic jobs [or sometimes at weekends unpaid]. Server space at UofA and very occasionally tech help from UofA Library: costs not known, but given gratis, courtesy of taxpayers and students at University of Arizona. We are all being taken for a ride by the commercial publishers, as I think I can show . I was most recently Professor at LEC, Lancaster U, where the British Ecological Society hosts some of its journals. At least they are a non-commercial entity. The APCs are high. They have just started a social science journal, People and Nature: there is literally no way most social scientists – most lacking STEM sized research grants – could afford the APC of $2000. https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/publications/journals/

    • jpschimel / Jul 18 2019 10:15 am

      1. Your analysis reinforces my comments: the real costs exist (e.g. your salary for the time you manage the journal; maintaining the computer systems) and are subsidized by the University. That works great, but, as I noted, faces scale issues. There is a limit to how large an operation our institutions are willing or able to subsidize that way. Single journals, our universities may be able to subsidize, but as individual journals grow they may well outgrow the ability or willingness of our institutions to do so. I note that J. Political Ecology published 41 articles in 2018; J. Ecology (British Ecol. Soc.) published 200; Soil Biology & Biochemistry published 361; and JACS published 2,466. Our Universities will not take on those loads without spreading and sharing the costs–by subscriptions or APCs.

      2. Actual costs. When ESA was managing its own journals, the real costs were between $3,000 and $4,000 per published article and that for a non-profit with no outrageously highly paid administrative staff. The $3-4 K number was purely the total expenses on the journal divided by the number of papers it published. The British Ecological Society partnered with Wiley to produce Ecology & Evolution, whose APC is $1950 ($1560 if the paper is transferred from another Wiley journal following review so that E&E doesn’t need to repeat the review process).

      3. I don’t know what Elsevier’s real costs are and I in no way endorse their reported profit margins (30% or more). But my experience with ESA leads me to believe that something on the order of $2 K is not an unreasonable or even excessive real value. As I noted, ESA’s APC of $1,500 for Ecosphere reflected real costs and was partially subsidized. The debate should focus, not on whether such costs are “real,” but over how we cover them; we can also discuss whether a real cost of $1500 or $2000 is more reasonable, but if I’m writing the check, both those numbers are large.

      In the Social Sciences, a main approach has apparently been for Departments to subsidize the costs. In the Natural Sciences, we can’t or at least, don’t operate that way. Some of that is a function of having grant money, but some is a function of scale and the nature of our publication–numbers of articles and expected speed of turnaround. My Department would not subsidize Soil Biology & Biochemistry with its 1,000 plus submissions every year! But as noted in my previous post, we don’t always have that money and then the costs can be as problematic for us as for you.

  4. simonbatterbury / Jul 18 2019 8:15 pm

    Thanks . However “Thus, when my colleagues say that they run a journal out of their department for “free” or on just a shoe-string budget, relying on sweat-equity and volunteerism, they are deceiving themselves.” is not correct for moderately or low volume journals. I have been editing since 2003 on no budget and our journal dates back to 1994 as OA [one or 2 yrs after the internet really got going] and it is nicely indexed, too. Virtually the entire journal production system in Iberomerica, Eastern Europe, and France is OA and academic led. The anglophone journal system is exceptional with its degree of commercial control [which is getting worse, occasionally for the reasons you mention, but mostly because of mergers and acquisitions ]. Our limit is 60 articles per year, and we would have to extend our ‘community’ should that increase, but we are in a niche area so maybe it will not.
    Also, the OJS software [SFU’s Public Knowledge Project] and updates does all the functions of costly Manuscriptcentral and its competitors, as open source software that functions pretty well. Including holding databases of reviewers and tracking articles. If ecological societies used it, they would save money.
    I think one of the problems is the sciences work to a different beat, and STEM journals were monetized early and without forefronting the ethics of publishing, which continue to push us to consider our written contributions as part of a global knowledge commons, not as markers of personal or team achievement [you have to do this only in early career I think-publish in the ‘right’ journals]. The ‘Science and Nature’ culture is quite alien to a lot of people and was something of a joke in my science-led Department. Over time and before academics realized, many science journals were with Elsevier and competitors and charging as much as they could get away with. This was a deliberate strategy by Robert Maxwell, of Pergamon sold to Elsevier, who realised he was onto a big earner and could charge as much as the market would bear from subscriptions. Even in the ecological sciences there are plenty of people unhappy with this – especially in this journal where I know people personally. https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/13652664 .
    I have written on this for my discipline. https://doi.org/10.11143/fennia.66910 . One argument is that senior people need to consider junior colleague’s work in hiring and promotion without de facto lists of ‘top journals’ or ‘recommended journals’. I just read the work, and even reward candidates who take the time to practice good publication ethics. They can also reward journal production work, which is noted only as an esteem indicator in US tenure cases, not as a third arm of tenure in its own right.
    I have also produced a list of alternative outlets updated weekly. I set the bar for acceptable publication fees at $500. Readers should note that the major publishers are sneakily upping publication fees right now, anticipating Plan S coming in in Europe and forcing OA. Example is Sage Open [now from $480 to $800) and the entire MDPI stable, now with a floor of $975, in some cases more than doubling previous APCs. https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-decent-open-acess-journals/
    It is our job to consider publication venues as part of our commitment to good practice and ethical research, and not to accept high APCs as somehow desirable or an inevitable form of commercial predation to enable – for one thing – massive management salaries at Wiley, Elsevier, T&F etc. Which exist at present.

    • jpschimel / Jul 18 2019 9:36 pm

      As I noted in a response to another comment, SBB isn’t a large journal yet we still published 361 papers out of well over 1,000 submissions. That is a different scale that requires a different level of production than J. Political Ecology’s 41 or your 60 papers. Administrative overhead necessarily increases as the scale of production grows. How high it needs to go I really don’t know. My experience (i.e. seeing the real budgets) was with the U.S. Ecological Society of America, in which no one gets paid a fortune.

      Certainly a difference between many STEM areas and the Social Sciences is that we publish more papers. And in part because of that, even Societies often produce families of journals. Looking at perhaps the largest: the Am. Chem. Soc. they may have started with just JACS, but then came journals like Organic Chem., Inorganic Chem. and Physical Chem.; now they’ve got Bioconjugate Chemistry. The ESA produces “only” 5. So I suspect that some of the monetization of the sciences you note really reflects the growth in numbers of publications and the need for non-University entities (professional societies and private corporations) to take on managing the journals–and at the least recouping their costs for doing so (and then making corporate profit on top of that for commercial publishers). The monetization is at least partially a result of the scale of operations–our academic departments and universities won’t/can’t swallow the full costs of big operations as professional services.

      As for the “race for glory” in hitting high prestige journals, I agree with you entirely. When I was starting, I aimed to get papers into the high-status specialist journals in my field: Soil Biology & Biochemistry; Biogeochemistry; maybe even Ecology for something really special. Science? No way. The growing competition for jobs has pushed the pressure to aim for prestige. But Impact Factor is bullshit. Individual papers are good or bad; its individual citation numbers may not be horrible as a metric of a paper’s impact, but to say it must be a good paper because it’s published in a journal that has high average citation levels is analogous to saying that because I’m in a room full of billionaires, I too must be rich because they let me in the room. Doesn’t work that way.

      So what could keep publishing prices down? Certainly library systems had leverage to hold the line on subscription costs, but I worry that as we shift to author-pays models, we’ll lose them as the powerful advocates they have been. If they’re not paying, will they fight for us? Or will we just do the dance between cost and prestige and let individual academics do the negotiations with their decisions on where to submit? I doubt that will be very effective as the difference between even $1,000 and $2,000 isn’t very imposing when there is a choice between a “better” and a “worse” journal for a particular paper (for any set of criteria: editorial quality, focus, prestige, etc.). But the pressure on academics is to publish Open Access, rather than to publish with University-based or Society-based journals, which at least in the recent past had been cheaper than commercial journals (Bergstrom et al. 2014; PNAS 111: 9425-9430) and where there is more transparency on how they operate. But all the Societies I know have largely decided that they couldn’t afford to continue to manage their own journal operations and have partnered–most commonly with Wiley.

      In these discussions, we need to be sensitive to what are the subsidized costs of our publication operations if we are going to compare costs–in every University-run journal, there are a lot of hidden people and facility costs that a free-standing operation would have to pay for. Hence, University-run journals inherently receive a substantial functional subsidy in the forms of salary for staff who provide indirect support to the journal (from the custodians who clean the office to the departmental financial staff who enable money to flow, and on up to senior administration), computer support, and real estate (office space). As you move the operation up in scale to a level where our universities will not be willing to cover those hidden costs, all of a sudden the apparent costs, which must be picked up by APC or subscription, will jump to encompass them. It may not be that it suddenly got “more expensive” but now all the costs must be accounted for directly and paid for. I’m not at all surprised that if you are publishing 60 papers a year through a University, you can do it for $500 per paper or so.

      I can’t comment on the OJS system vs. Manuscript Central vs. Elsevier’s EVISE (SBB used Evise for a while and every editor hated it).

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