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Support Your Scientific Society Journals

Why do scientific journals need to advertise – particularly to scientists?

My inbox has been flooded in the last 2 weeks with advertisements from Elsevier, Cell Press, Wiley-Blackwell, PLoS, etc., about the 2011 Impact Factors for their journals. WTF??  Why do they need to advertise to me?

Oh right, they want me to submit papers to their journal.  What do I get for this?  It must be impact – that must be why they are advertising primarily with their impact factors.

Many authors never really think about the business aspects of scientific publishing.  Almost all scientific publishing is a business, no matter how much we might not like that.  It is necessarily a business because people must be involved, and thus must be paid so that they can earn a living.  Papers do not magically appear in journals.  Managing editors, copy editors, publishers and office staff that keep the papers flowing through the system are all essential to the scientific publishing process.  Even for completely on-line/paperless journals, these people still are essential.  Who do you think processes all those papers, makes sure the journal has a consistent look and feel across articles, and keeps the website going?

This then necessarily begs the question, “What’s the best business model for a scientific publication?”  The next question that pops into your head should be, “Best for who?”  I hope the answer is best for science and society.

Once one starts asking these questions, the myriad trade-offs involved in scientific publishing clearly emerge.  We start with the premise that nothing is free, so some kind of revenue stream must be generated from scientific publishing to keep the system going.  So where should the money come from?  Who pays?  And what other activities might that money be put to instead of publishing papers?  Remember it’s a trade-off!

One traditional business model is a professional society supporting a journal and typically being published in partnership with a non-profit (e.g., university presses) or for-profit publisher.  Individual and institutional subscriptions for the journal are the primary source of revenue to fund the journal.  Modest page charges paid by authors (usually based on a per-page charge – today’s charges typically range from US$30-80/page) also support the journal.  This model has many positive features: (1) the society supports the community of scientists and builds a professional network; (2) the society is primarily in charge of the peer-review process, and thus maintains the scientific integrity and ethical standards of the field and of science in general; and (3) the journal supports the activities of the scientific society, along with direct dues to the society.  The primary downside of this model is that the journal subscription fees are the main revenue stream to support the journal, and so access to the journals are limited to subscription holders and their affiliated members. This was not an issue when all journals were printed and so had to be physically housed in libraries.  Anyone visiting the library could read an article.  However, the advent of digital publication has radically changed these expectations and privileges.

The other traditional business model was for for-profit publishing houses to publish journals directly without any scientific society involvement.  The primary revenue stream here as well was individual and institutional subscriptions, and authors would also pay page charges.  The institutional and individual subscriptions for these journals are typically 4-6 times higher than for society-sponsored journals.  Page charges are typically high as well, relative to society-sponsored journals.

Ten to fifteen years ago a new model emerged – the Author-Pays Open Access model.   This is also sometimes called the Gold Open Access model.  In this model, the author or the author’s institution pays a flat fee to publish a paper, and for this fee, the paper is made freely available to anyone.  Since the only revenue stream in this model is the author’s fee for a paper, these fees are typically quite high.  For example, the 2011-2012 fees for a single paper in the PLoS journals range from US$1,350 for PLoS One and US$2,900 for PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine.

Many authors are quite taken with the Author-Pays model, mainly because of the Open Access features of the publication.  Once the fee is paid, anyone can access the paper, and the journal archives the papers in perpetuity (assuming of course the publisher stays in business).   However, most scientists have not carefully considered what this business model does to science and science publishing.  Many of the virtues and vices of this business model have been debated extensively (e.g., see here, here, here, here, and here).

In both the unaffiliated for-profit publisher and author-pays models, the publishers must drive traffic through their journals, and what they market to authors is “impact”. For all their perverse effects on science and science publishing, the impact factor is used primarily by publishers as a marketing ploy.  Thus, the entire scientific community has changed the essential way it structures and evaluates quality based on a corporate marketing ploy.  Is that any way to run science or evaluate science?

I’m a scientist, which means I’m a professional cynic.  For all you people out there thinking how great author-pays open-access is, and why you want to publish in journals with high impact factors, consider the entire package.  How much science will you get done if you must pay US$2,500 for every paper, or your institution must pay 4-6 times more money for subscription fees?  And what are the consequences to science of using a corporate marketing ploy in determining where to publish your work?

Which is best for science?  Journals published and supported by professional scientific societies!

What publishing model is best for supporting science infrastructure?  Journals published and supported by your professional societies!  This is the most inexpensive model for authors, and for our universities and other scientific institutions.  That leaves more money to do more research!  This model also ensures that science publishing is beholden to the interests of science and society and not the profits of the publisher.

What should you demand from your society-supported journals?  Green open-access policies!  This means that authors have full rights to deposit their manuscripts in their institution’s publicly available archives and on their own website for distribution.  With this, anyone with access to the internet can have full access to your papers. (Don’t forget to deposit your data in a public data repository as well.)

What should you demand from your supporting institution?  Facilities and policies for supporting green open access to your scholarly products.  For example, Harvard has an excellent policy for green open access of all scholarly works produced by Harvard faculty and students.

Remember, all this involves trade-offs.  Maximizing one aspect of the system necessarily minimizes others.  Complete and unfettered open access comes at a very high price for science – literally and figuratively.  Publishing in society-sponsored journals is the optimal balance of these trade-offs.



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  1. “I’m a scientist, which means I’m a professional cynic. ” There are lots of other ways to conduct scientific arguments. Why is cynicism necessary to make your point? My appreciation of open access has very little to do with impact factors.

    • What is it about open access that you like besides everyone can read every paper? My point here in these posts is that one must also consider what comes along with this under various models. I think everyone being able to read every paper is a great goal. However, how to get there is the question. Imagine yourself becoming very successful and publishing 5-6 papers a year. Can you even afford to do that under the Gold open access model? Other ways of accomplishing “everyone can read every paper” must be found, and my point is that it is most cost effective and best for science by having this run by scientists. Thanks for reading.

      • At least one other way to get universal access has been found by PeerJ. We’ll see how that works out.

        The other two benefits of open access are authors’ rights and Linus’s Third Law: you don’t need a backup if enough people are sharing your work on the internet. As long as somebody has a copy of a paper under a copyleft license, people can freely share it and benefit from the research.

        • Joel,

          Thanks. I hadn’t seen the PeerJ site. I completely agree with your two other issues – author’s rights and making sure that the paper will always be around. In fact, that’s what much of the original post is about. For example, imagine that you publish a paper in a Gold Open Access journal. That paper sits on their servers. If they go out of business, who assures that your paper is available in perpetuity?

          As an Editor, I am also keenly aware of maintaining the integrity and scientific quality of the peer review process (that’s what always motivates my “cynic” comments. I have to be the eternal skeptic.). Author Pays Open Access has an inherent conflict built into the peer review process – every paper that is published is money in the bank. That conflict does not exist with society journals. In fact, most society journals have a maximum number of pages they can publish each year.


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