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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 29, 2013

The Price of Publishing

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Posted by Derek

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.

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Anonymous on March 29, 2013 9:52 AM writes...

WOuld love to read about profit margins in pharma!

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2. Dave on March 29, 2013 11:09 AM writes...

I think there's also a cost associated with published aritcles which isn't/can't-be measured, and that's the time required for a scientist doing research to dig through all of the published papers (discarding the non-relevant ones). That cost increases as more "junk" papers are published, and as more papers are published which are poorly indexed, thus increasing the number of false hits when someone is searching for a particular piece of information. Of course, since this cost is borne by the scientists doing research, and not by the publishers or authors, it's often not accounted for.


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3. Molecular game on March 29, 2013 12:13 PM writes...

Scientific publishers remind me of the Levis and tool sellers to the gold-seekers (guess who these guys are...) some time ago in history. Couldn't find a role for the peer-reviewers in that comparison yet.

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4. Patrick on March 29, 2013 12:56 PM writes...

As a note, STM (or for Wiley - STMS) stands for Scientific, Technological, Medical, and Scholarly.

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5. Alex on March 29, 2013 2:27 PM writes...

I think the answer will vary by a few orders of magnitude depending on whether you ask PeerJ or Elsevier :-/

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6. Anthony on March 30, 2013 2:34 AM writes...

Journal publishing is lucrative enough for scammers to have set up fake journal websites to collect author fees.

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7. Anonymous on March 31, 2013 8:45 PM writes...

My personal favourite is a non-print journal that does not charge publication fees, but after the proofing process ,the publisher, requests $3750 for open access, which will otherwise be made freely available within 6-12 months after electronic publication. Now that's a business model...

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8. emjeff on April 1, 2013 6:48 AM writes...

Oh no! Do you mean some people have gotten together,have detected that a need exists for a product, raised money, and then invested in equipment and people in order to provide this service, and then MADE A PROFIT??!! Scandalous!! How dare they make a profit! And of course, a few crooks get into the mix, so let's decide that the entire publishing industry is comepletely illegitimate.

Sheesh, you people are amazing me...

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9. bruce quinn on April 1, 2013 1:01 PM writes...

In addition to the new article in NATURE on the cost of publishing, very recently the New England Journal of Medicine ran a set of four articles on issues pro and con with open access publishing (Feb 28 2013): The title contents page for that week is:

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10. Heteromeles on April 12, 2013 10:52 AM writes...

Just to point out, this is the very definition of a vanity press. For those who don't know, vanity presses in fiction are those where the author pays to publish, and then the press sells the books. Typically these books suck, and the press makes the money off the author. In commercial publishing, where the author gets paid for the work (!), and can keep the copyright(!), the profit margins are often 5% of sales or less.

There are a couple of problems with academic publishing in the broader sense: who pays, and why. The "who pays" part is that the money comes out of your pocket (if, like me, you're in the poorer sciences where there isn't a lot of grant money), or it comes from a grant or employer. As with US medicine, a system where the employer pays is ripe for abuse, and that's why there are such enormous charges on articles.

Are such costs necessary? Probably not. I've heard quite a few scientists whine about how they have to make their articles camera ready and still pay to publish them, something that argues that at least some academic publishers have off-loaded almost all their production process onto the writers themselves. There's absolutely no reason that a group of scientists can't set themselves up as a peer review panel, appoint a couple of editors, start taking articles, and publish the articles online for free, or through something like Lulu, Smashwords, Amazon, etc. at cost for those who want paper or other editions. Publication is trivial--all you need is a pdf to publish on Lulu for example, and Word will generate that pdf for you. Google's a good search engine, and you can easily set up a free blog (if not an inexpensive website) to make all the articles available where anyone typing in a search string will find them. That's how much it truly costs to publish.

So, what do you get when you publish in a journal these days? Cachet. Impact factor. You don't get durability for your old papers, because if a commercial journal folds, all those papers become assets that will be sold off to investors, and there goes everyone's ability to reprint the articles.

Ultimately, it is a vanity system, where scientists and their employers are paying to enhance their reputations as a way of keeping their jobs. While I can't blame businessmen for taking advantage of the system, we live in an age when college costs are going through the roof and grants are drying up. Therefore, it's wise to ask whether we have a moral duty to enrich academic publishers, or whether we should switch to something that's cheaper and more accessible.

Anyone can publish these days, and you when you can choose between putting your papers on the web in an afternoon, or wait over a year to publish in a journal (and give up all ownership of your work), it's really worth asking whether we should continue to support the status quo.

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