What is the cost of maintaining the body of scientific knowledge? Essentially, that is the query underlying the question of what does it cost to publish a scientific research article or a scholarly article in a respected, peer-reviewed journal? The question is not easily answered because it depends on a number of factors and on the answer to “Who pays?” Every aspect of trying to answer this question is thorny. Why ask this question? Because in today’s publishing environment—one on the verge of mandated open access worldwide—how much one should expect to pay becomes an important answer. Three reasons point to the “prickly” parts of the answer.
First, the definition of “cost” varies. Second, the product differs. Third, the business model used to determine a defined cost for a specific product alters the outcome.
Consequently, it is relatively easy to eliminate what is not included in the cost of publishing. In the current era, research is funded by government agencies, by industry, and by private sponsors who do not eagerly reveal the costs. In any case, most scientists do not typically fund their research out-of-pocket. Consequently, conventional practice is to assume that the costs of research are not included in the costs of publication even though the page charges to authors may be included in research funding under a budgetary line item like “editorial services”. Authors in academia write to secure promotion and tenure with salaries that support publication—but that portion of salary rarely is recorded then assessed a value and included in discerning the costs. Moreover, peer reviews typically are freely provided by scientists, again time and skill not assigned a resource value. Peer review costs that accrue to manage those reviewers may be borne by publishers, hidden in editorial and support salaries. Time spent when scientists, academics, librarians, publishers, and editors volunteer to develop standards of conduct, archival standards, or other accessibility aids in open access models also is not included in costs of making scientific or scholarly knowledge public.
Most simply defined, then, “to publish” means to make public. This simple definition has not changed over time, but the implementation of “to publish” scientific and scholarly literature has changed immeasurably in meaning over the lifetime span of one generation! Making ideas public assumes that authors can provide content, content is acceptable—it advances knowledge within the communities—and content is made retrievable and accessible to community members then built upon to extend knowledge. Costs to publish also depend on whether publishers are for-profit or not-for-profit, and whether the business model is individual acquisition, subscriber-based, or open access or a combination thereof. Delivery affects price as well whether the information is provided in print, electronically, or in a variety of combinations. Preserving that information in “databases” affects cost depending on who maintains it and whether that database is a physical library, electronic archive locally maintained, or kept securely “in the cloud”.
Before the Internet (1983), information was hand written as letters or printed on paper in journals. A study of the history of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/philosophicaltransactions/brief-history-of-phil-trans/ ) indicates that in 1665, this journal was the first to be published; it has been continuously published since. Knowledge was acquired in such scientific journals through periodic publication and eventually bound into volumes, accessed through printed indexes, housed in private collections (some of which became public libraries), and sometimes printed into books accessed through card catalogs. As a result, professional acquisition specialists, indexers, catalogers, subject librarians, and archivists, obtained (usually via subscriptions), organized, and safeguarded research knowledge in analog, print copies. These brick and mortar buildings with all the attendant storage shelves, cabinets, fire-prevention equipment, and so on, were costly homes for our advancing knowledge. The American Libraries Association began providing guidance on cost analysis for libraries in 1877, and it continues to analyze costs as libraries have moved into the digital age (http://www.ala.org/tools/atoz/cost-analysis ). It’s complicated.
Originally, disciplinary publishers bore the costs to produce printed journals, index them, and archive them. Aileen Fyfe, began the study spanning the 355 years of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, (http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/ ). In an interview (https://blogs.plos.org/plospodcasts/2016/04/18/the-history-of-scientific-publishing-an-interview-with-aileen-fyfe/ ), Fife outlines the progression of published research and the variety that evolved within the scientific communication enterprise. In most cases, though, the journal editor, then the editorial staff or committee vetted, mediated, and accepted papers, The depth of scrutiny depended on many factors, but the paper often was presented orally to society members in meetings before publication. To safeguard the body of knowledge and its accessibility, papers were published only once. The publisher’s domain also included upholding and defending copyright on behalf of authors as well as disseminating the journals via subscription services to libraries, institutions, and individuals. In addition, publishers marketed, disseminated, and kept metrics on the use of the articles—so called “value-added” services. Individuals who represented publishers and libraries worked together to standardize access systems, for example to uniquely identify books (ISBN, International Standard Book Numbers) and serials (ISSN, International Standard Serial Number) plus twelve other standards, and for the Internet access, the DOI name (Digital Object Identifier). In short, scientists and scholars who became publishers also became responsible for the long- and short-term integrity of the publications. Knowledge, including science, thereby accumulated in these publications which were archived, manually searchable, and accessible to all who took the time to find them.
To understand theory and experiments, authors physically searched library indexes and published collections, read papers, kept correspondences, and took notes. Authors bore the cost to find and manually copy an article; maintained a personal archive of cited papers (often on index cards numbered to correspond to a paper file cabinet); created and protected a written “chain of authorities” for research in a ledger of their experiments (including tables or records of raw data); and kept budgets of experimental costs then produced research reports. That is, authors bore the costs of obtaining support, collecting and managing data, writing and typing manuscripts, preparing images (halftones for photographs) or graphs or tables (hand drawn in India ink!), conversing over long distances by telephone landlines with colleagues and journal editors, postage, editing, preparing final manuscripts, and maintaining a personal archive over a long span of time for all this material. At retirement, university libraries would accept these personal collections of faculty to catalog and house them in perpetuity. For example, the writings and physical models of Linus Pauling reside in that collection within the Valley Library at Oregon State University. In short, authors became responsible for the long-term integrity of the content of their research reports.
Over time, the publishing business, the archiving system, and the research enterprise became ever more complex and less integrated—and less reliable to the researcher. Procedures lost standardization and policies became more blurred. For example, controlled vocabularies as key words (Think Library of Congress subject headings or the MeSH subject headings at the National Library of Medicine) became less in fashion than free-keywords used in titles and abstracts, even though a wise author combined both.
Integrity in research and publication became institutionalized at the bench and mandated in government agency. Peer review became formalized, double blind, then open and less formal with a variety of semi-automated processes. Publishing became highly manipulated and profitable for some (See Buranyi 2017). Others, especially university librarians and their institutions, became pushed to the brink of economic instability as subscription charges increased to unsustainable levels. Multi-media further “complexified” scientific communication making a variety of simultaneous reporting forms possible with digital dissemination either before, during, or after peer-reviewed journal publication occurred, forcing a reassessment of who should be responsible for what and a guess about how often the same research results have been published—and whether the results ever have been revised. The relatively simple act of citing a seminal journal article has become a major task to verify which version at which journal or archive is the defining work.
Sigh. So what does it cost a journal to publish a research article? In the pre-Internet era, we had a rule-of-thumb for publication: budget about two-thousand U.S. dollars and two years from the time following data analysis to bring a research report to publication. In the current climate, that question is not the correct one to ask and the rule no longer suffices. More prudently today, early in a research project—in the funding stage—savvy authors will target two or three key journals for their research, obtain the authors’ guidelines for that journal, and ask the editor to confirm in writing what the submission charges and the article page charges (APC) will be to publish. Those charges and any other editorial costs should be included in the funding application. When a query is submitted to an editor, also consider asking if special topic issues are planned, and what the wait time-to-publication may be once an article is submitted.
Finally, one year from this month—January 1, 2020—Plan S will become operational. Announced on September 4, 2018, Plan S stipulates: “scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.” Plan S was devised by members of cOAlitionS (https://www.coalition-s.org/ ), and an entire website on this plan to accelerate open access publishing is available at https://www.coalition-s.org/10-principles/ . The website provides guidance on how to implement Plan S, and public feedback will be taken on that website until February 8, 2019. The economic impact Plan S may have on traditional scholarly publishing, especially if it permanently prohibits the hybrid, open-access model of publication, has yet to be determined. Note that in paragraph 3 of the implementation guidelines (https://www.coalition-s.org/feedback/ ), cOAlitionS plans to “contribute to establishing” fair and reasonable article processing charges, including equitable waiver policies, and transparency in publishing costs and fees with a system to track them and the value added. Moreover, cOAlitionS stated that it will commission an independent study of open access publishing costs and fees. How leading publishers will respond is in the works (Sack 2019).
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Sack, John. 2019 (January 1). Plan S: The options publishers are considering. HighWire blog post available at https://www.highwirepress.com/resources/whitepapers/plan-s-highwire/ . To discuss the results of his survey of publishers, Sack will host a free webinar, “What leading publishers believe are the best options for Plan S”; register at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/62178878436529667 to include a debate of 20 publishing representatives and a subsequent white paper issued on the topic.
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