Why the price of scholarly publishing is so much higher than the cost | Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

“In an efficient market, competing providers of a good will each try to undercut each other until the prices they charge approach the cost. If, for example, Elsevier and Springer-Nature were competing in a healthy free market, they would each be charging prices around one third of what they are charging now, for fear of being outcompeted by their lower-priced competitor. (Half of those price-cuts would be absorbed just by decreasing the huge profit margins; the rest would have to come from streamlining business processes, in particular things like the costs of maintaining paywalls and the means of passing through them.)

So why doesn’t the Invisible Hand operate on scholarly publishers? Because they are not really in competition. Subscriptions are not substitutable goods because each published article is unique. If I need to read an article in an Elsevier journal then it’s no good my buying a lower-priced Springer-Nature subscription instead: it won’t give me access to the article I need.

(This is one of the reasons why the APC-based model — despite its very real drawbacks — is better than the subscription model: because the editorial-and-publication services offered by Elsevier and Springer-Nature are substitutable. If one offers the service for $3000 and the other for $2000, I can go to the better-value provider. And if some other publisher offers it for $1000 or $500, I can go there instead.)…

Björn Brembs has been writing for years about the fact that every market has a luxury segment: you can buy a perfectly functional wristwatch for $10, yet people spend thousands on high-end watches. He’s long been concerned that if scholarly publishing goes APC-only, then people will be queuing up to pay the €9,500 APC for Nature in what would become a straightforward pay-for-prestige deal. And he’s right: given the outstandingly stupid way we evaluate reseachers for jobs, promotion and tenure, lots of people will pay a 10x markup for the “I was published in Nature” badge even though Nature papers are an objectively bad way to communicate research.

But it feels like something stranger is happening here. It’s almost as though the whole darned market is a luxury segment….

How can funders fix this, and get APCs down to levels that approximate publishing cost? I see at least three possibilities.

First, they could stop paying APCs for their grantees. Instead, they could add a fixed sum onto all grants they make — $1,500, say — and leave it up to the researchers whether to spend more on a legacy publisher (supplementing the $1,500 from other sources of their own) or to spend less on a cheaper born-OA publisher and redistribute the excess elsewhere.

Second, funders could simply publish the papes themselves. To be fair several big funders are doing this now, so we have Wellcome Open Research, Gates Open Research, etc. But doesn’t it seem a bit silly to silo research according to what body awarded the grant that funded it? And what about authors who don’t have a grant from one of these bodies, or indeed any grant at all?

That’s why I think the third solution is best. I would like to see funders stop paying APCs and stop building their own publishing solutions, and instead collaborate to build and maintain a global publishing solution that all researchers could use irrespective of grant-recipient status. I have much to say on what such a solution should look like, but that is for another time.”

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