More on Commercial Versus Not-For-Profit Open Access Publishing

DLTJ featured a discussion last month on what I saw as the outcomes of “clashing values” between the interest of businesses and that of not-for-profit higher education. The discussion started with “Educational Patents, Open Access Journals, and Clashing Values” and continued with a focus on open access publishing specifically with “What Is BioMed Central?.” Here is a update on the topic in the form of an e-mail from Ray English and a press release from Marquette Books.

Ray English’s Perspective on Open Access Publisher Economics

Ray English is the Director of Libraries at Oberlin College (also notably the chair of the SPARC Steering Committee and 2006 Recipient of ACRL’s Academic/Research Librarian of the Year Award) sent an e-mail related to this topic to an internal OhioLINK mailing list. I’m grateful for his permission to reproduce it here:

Here’s some background on open access journals that I hope is helpful.

There are now three major open access journal publishers – BioMed Central, Hindawi, and PLOS.

BioMed Central and Hindawi are both commercial publishers that follow an author fee model. BioMed Central also has an arrangement that allows institutional memberships to cover all or a portion the fees. I would characterize both publishers as having reasonable prices and being focused on access to the literature, rather than profit maximization. Hindawi charges relatively low author fees, in part because they’re based in Egypt and have a lower cost structure. BioMed Central author fees are higher, but below the per article author fees for various “open choice” plans that are place for most commercial publishers. Hindawi reported that they had become profitable last year and BioMed Central has projected that they will
be profitable in the coming year.

PLOS is a non-profit publisher. They follow an author fee model, with institutional memberships, and they also have had a lot of foundation support. They report that their various journals are viable financially except for PLOS Biology, their flagship journal. PLOS Biology’s cost structure, which includes a great deal of content and value ads beyond individual research articles, can’t be supported by their current model of author fees and institutional memberships.

Those of you who are curious about the financial status of these three publishers may want to check out the podcast and PowerPoints from the recent SPARC-ACRL forum at ALA in DC. High-level representatives from BioMed Central, Hindawi, and PLOS spoke about their publishing programs and their financial status. The title of the forum was: “Course check: A conversation with three open access publishers aboutthe challenges of sustainability” The podcast and PowerPoints are not yet online, but should be up
before too long at: http://www.arl.org/sparc/meetings/forum.html [Jester's Note: they are available at http://www.arl.org/sparc/meetings/ala07/.]

There are many open access journals beyond those produced by these three publishers. The Directory of Open Access Journals now lists just over 2800 titles. They operate under a variety of business models. The vast majority of them are non-profit. A study done a couple of years ago found that under half of all OA journals charge author fees.

Marquette Books’ Open Access Announcement

Right about the same time I got Ray’s message, there was a press release by Marquette Books about their plans to begin publishing eight open access journals. Portions are reproduced here. With information like this being published, it is no wonder the open access publishing marketplace is awash in contradictory statements.

Marquette Books Goes “Open Access” with Communication Journals

Eight new scientific journals that focus on communication processes and effects will be available free of charge to scholars and the public in 2008, Marquette Books LLC of Spokane, Washington, announced today.

MB Publisher David Demers said he believes this is the first time a privately owned publishing house has made all of its journals open access. According to the Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org), almost all open access journals are published by universities or nonprofit organizations, which in turn receive financial support from tax revenues or private donations.

“At a time when most for-profit publishers are increasing the costs of their journals,” said Demers, “we decided to go the opposite route and offer all of our journals free of charge. We want the scholarship in our journals to be read by as many people as possible.”

[...]

To compensate for some of the loss of subscription revenue, Demers said the online portal through which scholars and the public will access the PDF content of MB journals will contain some advertising for MB’s scholarly and trade books. But he doesn’t expect sales of those books or institutional subscriptions to the hard copy versions of MB journals (priced at $85 for one journal and $35 for each additional journal) to cover the costs of making the journals open access.

“This is a long-term strategy,” he said. “We believe open-access along with our policy of allowing scholars to keep the copyright to their submissions will enhance the quality of our journals as well as our brand name.”

[...]

Demers said many higher education librarians are upset with publishers who charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year for journal subscriptions. “The best kept secret in book publishing is that journal publishing is the most profitable arm of the industry,” Demers said. “There clearly isn’t enough competition in this market.”

[...]

Most open access journals are available only in electronic form. But Marquette Books also will publish hard copy versions of the journals for libraries and interested individuals ($35 to $85 for a single journal subscription).

The eight journals scheduled for publication in Winter 2008 are Journal of Media Sociology, Journal of Global Mass Communication, Russian Journal of Communication, Journal of Health & Mass Communication, Journal of Media Law & Ethics, American Journal of Media Psychology, Journal of Communication Studies and International Journal of Media and Foreign Affairs. More information about the journals can be found at www.marquettejournals.org

[...]

Am I reading this right? “[Marquette Books Publisher David Demers] doesn’t expect sales of books [advertised through the journal portal] or institutional subscriptions to the hard copy versions of MB journals to cover the costs of making the journals open access.” So Marquette is choosing to offer the open access material at a loss? Just because they believe in the philosophy of open access? Count me as skeptical.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.ala.org/ala/acrlbucket/librarianoftheyear/englishspeech.cfm to http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/awards/librarianoftheyear/englishspeech.cfm on January 20th, 2011.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlawards/acrllibrarian.cfm to http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/awards/acrllibrarian.cfm on January 20th, 2011.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/awards/librarianoftheyear/englishspeech.cfm to http://www.ala.org/acrl/awards/achievementawards/librarianoftheyear/englishspeech on November 21st, 2012.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/awards/acrllibrarian.cfm to http://www.ala.org/acrl/awards/achievementawards/acrllibrarian on November 21st, 2012.

(This post was updated on 28-May-2014.)