Open Access = Authors Pay

The market of scientific publications is such an organic mess, there’s no end to topics that can be beaten over their heads. This post is about “open access” publications. Lately there has been a push back against publishers that keep their content behind pay walls, coupled with a big favoritism for publishers that offer their content in “open access.” There’s no such thing as free lunch, ever. That’s the case here too. If readers don’t pay publishers of “open access” content, someone needs to pay. Guess who?

That’s right!, authors pay.

Open access is a great story. Who doesn’t want “open”? Anyone who is against “open” is  for “closed”, and that is bad — “closed” means barriers, secrets, etc. Ah, rhetoric… an ancient Art that will never cease to be relevant as long as we are Humans. The rhetoric surrounding the word “open” makes for an interesting essay in and of itself, but I won’t do it here.

Publishing is not free of costs, unfortunately. As anyone who has been involved in organizing informal workshops knows, there’s a non-trivial amount of time that one has to allocate to collecting and compiling papers, even if it’s just for placing them off a web site. If, on top of that, one wants to make the formats uniform, there’s more time involved in defining the templates, and making sure the authors follow them. If one wants to produce a nice book-like thing, there’s time for the production of the cover, the TOC, an index, etc. If one want to go one step further and make sure there are no spelling mistakes, labeling inconsistencies and other sorts of typographical mishaps, there’s more time in proof-reading. And if one wants to keep bibliographic information (meta-data) and send it off to services that keep track of that, there’s even more time for this. What researchers in their right minds want to spend their time doing these things?!?

No one. That’s why scientific publishers exist.

Publishers need to make a living, they need to get paid to do the work they do. So far, the dominant business model for scientific publishers has been paid subscriptions for access to the content. For centuries, they have been making their money from University and Industry Libraries, for the most part. Individual subscriptions are only a tiny portion of their revenue.

Unfortunately for them, more and more individuals who aren’t associated with any well-established institutions seem to want access to this content. The market seems to be changing, and these publishers aren’t really prepared for mass consumption of their products.

Enter “open access”. Let’s ignore the name for a moment. The business model of these publishers flips the old business model around: the content is made free for anyone who wants to access it. Instead, the authors pay. Charges vary from $250/page to bulk fees per article in the order of $4,000 or higher.

I have been approached by these “open access” publishers to be involved in several roles — author, editor. Call me old fashion, but the thought of having to pay $4,000 to publish my work has been a conceptual barrier for me to do it. Wait, what?!, I’m doing all the work to produce knowledge that other people may want to acquire, and, on top of that, I have to pay for it to be published?! No thanks, I’d rather hang the abstract off my blog and send the paper to whoever asks. (Handing over all content to Google for free, so that they can monopolize the capitalization of this content out of advertising without channeling the money back to authors, also doesn’t appeal to me)

Furthermore, authors paying publishers to publish their papers seems like a very slippery slope in the long run. What happens to good work that comes from authors who don’t have that kind of money? What happens to the field when the only authors who can afford to pay are those working in powerful institutions that have a lot of money? Again, no thanks.

Plus, let’s look at the numbers. With paid content, my University Library pays, say, $20,000 to each one of the big dozen publishers for access to their entire content. With “authors pay”, each of those publishers would be receiving a lot more from the collection of researchers in my University! — probably as much as 50x more. Again, no thanks.

I’m not arguing against “open access.” If it were truly “free of charge” for everyone involved, I would be its strongest advocate. But it’s not. Things are never black & white like the rhetoric behind this debate seems to indicate.

Recommended reading: this article in Nature which discusses the topic in all its glorious details.

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6 Responses to Open Access = Authors Pay

  1. And yet the Journal of Machine Learning Research has risen to the top of its area with an open access mantra, leaving Springer’s Journal of Machine Learning in its dust. It helped that most of the editors resigned from the latter to join the former. I think the same would happen in PL if we weren’t so bound to the conference system.

    What do ACM and Springer provide? Yes they get all the PDFs together and enforce formatting guidelines. And they have archival value in keeping those old but still good papers behind paywalls so that they are mostly to forgotten while new but perhaps less worthy papers are easily googled. And while we might not make money handing over our papers to Google, we definitely don’t make money handing them over to ACM, Springer, or IEEE. Any researcher today would be crazy to leave dissemination of their paper to these organizations!

    In the long term, I think papers are on the way out as the primary way of presenting research results. Getting any eyeballs on Hackernews with a paper is extremely painful, while good web page essays and videos have potential to go viral. One could argue that we are academics to be judged by our bibliographies, but we are increasingly judged on the former rather than the latter.

  2. crista says:

    @Sean: the ACM now has an option for open access. I heard the fee is $1,500 to authors. As far as “open access” fees go in the publishing industry, this is in the low end of the spectrum. That’s what Google is volunteering to pay regarding its employees, link above. Will you pay that fee for each of your papers? I won’t.

    Also, an insight on the finances of JMLR:

    If needed, I can put numbers on how much incorporation, exempt status and tax accountants cost. It’s not a lot, but it’s not zero, and it’s a recurring headache — every year you have to file tax returns. It’s great that the editor of JMLR takes it all on her back. Would you be willing to do that, or run a journal on donations? Maybe some people would, and when that happens, that’s great.

    • Thanks for the link, this is very useful! I think you are more negative on the results than the article is, but the article also seems to have its own One point made there, that the largest cost, peer review, is donated is true in all scholarly journals. And no one is talking about funding peer review! So we have the incidentals; the editor, the servers. One only needs accountants if one incorporates (e.g. accepts donations); if everything is done via volunteer donations, I don’t think that’s necessary at all. Alternatively, the project could be hosted by another non-profit who is already incorporated and in this area. The Wikimedia foundation is already into encyclopedias, dictionaries, books…why not papers?

      Sites like Avrix, citeseer, DBLP, somehow manage to cover hardware and software costs; I doubt they are trivial, but not a huge deal. Our own lab developed academicsearch, and of course their is Google Scholar from our competition. If I may be so bold, all of these are as useful or more useful than Digital Library, which is not my first stop for finding papers anymore. I only go to the DL to find articles that are very old (pre 90s) and obscure.

      What else do we need beside archiving and peer review? Well, there are paper copies, but it seems like the same deal that Microtone gives to JMLR would be available to us.

      I have also heard of a startup or two that are aiming to disrupt the academic publishing sector, though they’ll have a hard time competing with almost free. When I read ACM’s new open access policy, I just realized how out of touch they were, that they appear to not get what is out there or what is coming. Microsoft and Google + the universities aren’t going to blindly write checks forever. In my opinion, it will be amazing if ACM’s publishing business survives into the next decade. Change seems to be inevitable.

  3. crista says:

    @sean, publishing JMLR is not free of costs — they’re just absorbed by the editor personally, with in-kind and monetary donations, and with unofficial support from MIT. I am slightly negative on the sustainability of this model, because I have experience with creating and running non-profits with almost no budget for community support, and I know how much of a personal headache that is. I doubt I would ever do it again without formal institutional support (i.e. without people being paid).

    WRT hooking on to other non-profits: Wikimedia runs on donations too, as most non-profits do; it’s far from being an all in-kind operation:
    (page 54)
    That’s a several million dollar operation!

    In the case of Wikimedia, there are people being paid. In the case of JMLR, nobody (except perhaps the accountant and temps) gets paid. If someone can pull that off, and sustain the endeavor with donations over a long period of time, that’s great.

    The ACM and the IEEE are non-profits too, but they don’t operate on donations; they operate on membership fees and, most importantly, subscriptions to their publications — not from individuals but from Libraries. Their role is exactly that: to support the community by publishing papers and promoting conferences. They’re very old organizations, though, much older than Wikimedia, so changing them requires tenacity, patience and persistence. The $1,500 fee is a funny number. I think it reflects the ACM’s insecurity more than anything: it is basically the “safe”, relatively low number that the commercial publishing industry uses. While everyone is happy that the ACM now has this option of “open access”, the fee is being questioned quite vigorously, and I suspect that explaining it from here on will require the ACM Publications Board to clean up their act.

    That article in Nature is spot on: what are the real costs of publishing and what is waste? But people need to understand that there are costs (see Wikimedia’s budget!), instead of demanding/expecting that everyone else (including e.g. accountants and admins) work for free, and then getting very surprised when things don’t work like that.

  4. crista says:

    I should add, though, that even if the cost of publishing a paper were to be, say, $25, asking the authors to pay is the most perverse option of all! It’s completely outrageous to demand that the people who do the work also pay for it to be officially published. It would be like requiring that the people who write Wikipedia articles would be the ones solely responsible for paying Wikipedia’s operation.

    • I completely agree about the “pay to play” journals, which even when not basically scams or helping fulfill pointless publishing requirements, completely undermines their credibility.

      There are many forces at work now and I believe change and disruption is inevitable. However, I see greater problems in our community beyond publication management: its role and influence, inclusion and diversity (e.g. more participation from non-academics), the perverse incentives of academia and academic publishing, as well as decline of interesting publications in the name of lofty scientific standards. Systematic solutions would probably disrupt publication management as collateral damage, rather than being a central focus. Let’s sit back and watch.

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