So, how much does it cost to publish a scientific paper, anyway? I'm not only talking about how much it costs you. That varies from journal to journal, and from type of journal to type of journal. One aspect of most open-access publishing models is that the author defrays editorial costs. (Which model is, of course, open to abuse by the sleazy). How much does it cost the publishers themselves, and how much do they make on it? There's an excellent overview at Nature that tries to put some real numbers on these questions:
Data from the consulting firm Outsell in Burlingame, California, suggest that the science-publishing industry generated $9.4 billion in revenue in 2011 and published around 1.8 million English-language articles — an average revenue per article of roughly $5,000. Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry, so the average cost to the publisher of producing an article is likely to be around $3,500–4,000.
In case you were wondering why we have so many journals. And if you're still wondering, for some reason, try these numbers on:
Scientists pondering why some publishers run more expensive outfits than others often point to profit margins. Reliable numbers are hard to come by: Wiley, for example, used to report 40% in profits from its science, technology and mathematics (STM) publishing division before tax, but its 2013 accounts noted that allocating to science publishing a proportion of 'shared services' — costs of distribution, technology, building rents and electricity rates — would halve the reported profits. Elsevier's reported margins are 37%, but financial analysts estimate them at 40–50% for the STM publishing division before tax. (Nature says that it will not disclose information on margins.) Profits can be made on the open-access side too: Hindawi made 50% profit on the articles it published last year. . .
Might I add that scientific publishing, for all the upheavals in it, is probably a slightly less risky bet than drug discovery? I keep planning to do a big post on pharmaceutical profit margins - and when I do, it's going to sound like an accounting seminar - and this makes me want to move it closer to the top of the list.