What does it cost to publish, really?

I stumbled on an old Nature article (which was surprisingly NOT behind a paywall) and offers an interesting perspective. While the actual cost of storage of data (and hence consequent delivery of the data) has fallen down drastically, there is an urgent need to re-look at the established publication infrastructure and the high costs to access it.

The picture is also mixed for subscription publishers, many of which generate revenue from a variety of sources — libraries, advertisers, commercial subscribers, author charges, reprint orders and cross-subsidies from more profitable journals. But they are even less transparent about their costs than their open-access counterparts. Most declined to reveal prices or costs when interviewed for this article.

It is instructive to note that most large publication houses have an inbuilt mechanism for web page design, layout and then subsequent maintenance of the infrastructure, and I don’t think the actual costs would be too much. I think it involves most of the costs in maintaining a status -quo which means marketing and legal. When was the last time you say a redesign of Science Direct or your favorite paid journal? Journal articles are again commodotised, and their “perceived value” depends on how well it is “cited”. It means not much in real terms.

Apple, for example, makes valuable products because of perception around the electronic devices. Here’s a disclaimer- I don’t like them personally. But they hold value to a vast majority of people. It is because they have elevated the art of marketing by “reimagining” the same thing with every release, and you’d see that one-trick pony being re-used a lot of times. However, the total cost of ownership exceeds the one time purchase of the device as they lock you down in subscriptions.

Should the same conceptual idea be extended to the journals? Yes and No. Early in the career, the journals help importance because I needed articles for my thesis. In my current daily practise, I cherry pick them from my institutional subscription but I realise that not everything that gets published is kosher.

Therefore, the price of the product is far more than the value it offers, so most of the readers in resource limited economies go without them. Besides, it leads to an active culture of academic gatekeeping by the ones who appear to be privileged from the access.

Here’s another estimate (and I think they are clearly overstating it):

The few numbers that are available show that costs vary widely in this sector, too. For example, Diane Sullenberger, executive editor for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, says that the journal would need to charge about $3,700 per paper to cover costs if it went open-access. But Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, estimates his journal’s internal costs at £20,000–30,000 ($30,000–40,000) per paper. Many publishers say they cannot estimate what their per-paper costs are because article publishing is entangled with other activities. (Science, for example, says that it cannot break down its per-paper costs; and that subscriptions also pay for activities of the journal’s society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.)

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, we are looking at a sick industry with no oversight or internal cost controls. In the post pandemic era, we need to re-look at this financial model that benefits chosen few because of entrenched monopolies.