The UK’s JISC (formerly Joint Information Systems Committee), a government-linked think tank for IT leadership in education, has just released a new article purporting to lay bare “the true cost of publishing in open access.” The implication of this title, of course, is that open access publishing does involve costs, including unacknowledged ones. But if so, how far?

The article quotes Research Libraries UK figures “that the UK’s universities now pay around £192 million [$300 million] per year for access to academic journals and databases: that is nearly a tenth of the total QR budget for research funding.” It details article processing charges (APCs), “probably the most familiar of the methods adopted by publishers seeking to recover the costs they incur when publishing content in open access. Usually, these are paid by the author’s institution.” However, it appears these aren’t doing much to reduce the financial burden of scholarly publications on academic institutions. As JISC points out, “the majority of APCs are being paid to the largest, traditional journal publishers who are receiving a substantial proportion of universities’ total subscription payments. One institution we spoke to recently spent more than £28,000 [$44,000] in annual subscriptions with just one publisher, and also published 12 journal articles with the same company.”

As JISC adds, “understandably, this is a big worry and many want either the higher volumes of APCs to be reflected in reduced subscription charges, or the price of APCs to be reduced to take account of existing subscription charges.” Since high APCs coupled with high journal prices effectively make scholarly open access even more of a burden on research institutions than the old practices, JISC is “encouraging publishers to consider ways to address these concerns as a matter of some urgency.”

The question is, what costs are we actually talking about? How real and inevitable are they? The Wikipedia entry on APCs quotes typical price ranges of between $1000 and $3000 per article. Conceivably, higher editorial costs for handling scientific articles could justify these, but with hundreds of thousands of hungry graduate students out there, to say nothing of the possibility of outsourcing this to Third World universities, why do I find this rather hard to believe? And of course, the scientific community has been one of the first to embrace digital publishing via PDF or other formats, for scholarly articles, so I doubt that printed paper costs are inevitable and insurmountable. And it’s hard for the publishers to justify granting open access in return for penalizing those same publicly-funded institutions via high APCs.

That is, of course, if you stick with the traditional journals with their high subscription fees. Perhaps anxious to avoid upsetting the so-called ‘”luxury journals,” JISC seems reluctant to advocate distancing scholarly publishing further from the established players entirely. But if institutions of higher learning are being squeezed this way, perhaps it’s about time.


  1. Higher education institutions still outsource the assessment of academic work to publishers. This perpetuates the intermediation of these publishers which inflates the cost of scholarly publishing. Scholars must publish in order to advance in their careers, including promotion, tenure and attracting grant funding.
    This relationship creates the curious situation where colleges and universities employ scholars to do scholarly work the product of which is then purchased by those same colleges and universities in the form of subscriptions and article processing fees. Institutions of higher education are both producers and consumers of the same product. They pay twice!
    So, the question arises as to whether dis-intermediation is possible and, if it is, whether that would be justified by the savings realized. Certainly ePublishing has brought the possibility closer but the major barrier is still cultural, not technical. Colleges and universities would have to create a very different culture than what has obtained for so long.
    This wouldn’t be the first instance of willingness to pay a heavy tax in order to avoid the difficult and vexing work of cultural change.

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