Rated 4.5 of 5.
Level of importance:
Rated 5 of 5.
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Rated 4 of 5.
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Rated 4 of 5.
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Rated 4 of 5.
The ever-increasing cost of scholarly journals has long been a serious problem for academic institutions, especially those with flat or decreasing library budgets. The current article is therefore of particular interest for university libraries as well as researchers considering where to submit articles for publication.
Overall this is a well-researched and well-written article, but I do have some comments and questions regarding the cost and price calculations.
1. The “widely agreed per-article price of approx. US\(5,000” is presumably a global average, but institutions vary considerably in the amount they can and do spend on subscriptions, and individual journal prices vary enormously within and especially between disciplines. I appreciate that the authors are providing a “broad picture” introduction, but it would be helpful to acknowledge this variation.
2. Please clarify whether the term “OA journals” as used here refers only to completely open access journals (the traditional “gold open access”) or if it includes hybrid journals where authors can choose to pay a fee to publish an open-access article.
3. The authors cite Crawford (2019) in stating that “most”(71%) of OA journals do not charge APCs but “most” OA articles are published in the minority of journals that do charge fees (58%) – a sentence that could be more clearly worded as simply “71% of OA journals do not charge APC’s, but 58% of OA articles are published in the 29% journals that do charge fees” (I would quibble that 58% is “more than half” rather than “most”). This warrants further explanation, part of which again comes down to variation between disciplines, as Crawford points out:
…. biomed has the fewest journals, the lowest percentage of no-fee articles and the highest fees. STEM has slightly more articles and journals and somewhat lower fees. Hum&SS has far more journals, very few charging fees; more than three-quarters of articles are in no-fee journals and fees, where they do exist, are much lower (Crawford, 2019, p.3).
The variation would likely be even greater if social science and humanities journals were separated, but Crawford’s Table 1.5 gives a good snapshot, with OA “per article price” ranging from \)8 in library science to \(1,851 in biology. The latter is still notably less than the average \)5,000 per article price presented earlier on the basis of subscription prices.
4. I strongly suspect that publishers do indeed charge “what they estimate the market to be able to carry” rather than basing prices on the cost of publication. However, referring to this as a “value-based strategy” as opposed to “substitutability” (if I understand correctly, this means that subscription prices and APC’s are based solely on the publisher’s actual costs) is likely to alienate academics for whom “value” seems far more desirable than “substitutability”. Indeed, the price inflation is exacerbated not only by the lack of effective competition as the authors note, but by the common academic practice (at least in the US) of basing promotion and tenure largely on publication in “highly ranked journals”. Unfortunately a more equitable way of assessing the ideal balance of teaching, service and scholarship does not seem not to be forthcoming.
5. I also suspect there is more variation in production costs (especially overheads) than the authors allow, as well as in the quality of editorial services, reproduction, indexing, archiving etc., and the design, accessibility and features of the publisher’s platform. Again, working solely with average costs likely obscures a range of variation, although I appreciate the difficulty involved in obtaining the various costs that the authors calculate and the attempt to accommodate a range of scenarios. Nonetheless, the key question is whether journals with higher subscription costs and author fees actually cost more to produce; or to put that another way, whether there a significant correlation between cost and price.
6. A minor point: the finding that “in order to employ at least one 50% FTE of an in-house editor, a journal has to publish approx. 100 articles a year” is interesting, but what percentage of open access journals do publish this many articles a year? How does this compare with paywall and/or hybrid journals?
7. Some studies have compared various measures of journal “quality” with price (e.g. Bjork & Solomon, 2015) but going forward, it might be illuminating to compare journal “quality” (or at least proxy variables such as impact factor and citation rate) with both cost and price in OA and subscribed journals. Or maybe that has been done? If the assumptions that higher quality means higher price and vice versa were shown to be unfounded, we might see more equitable journal subscription prices and truly “open” open access journals.
In conclusion: Despite some caveats regarding price and cost calculations based on averages, the authors make a strong case of showing significant inflation in subscription prices and APC’s, making this a valuable contribution to the literature. However, I reiterate that calling inflated prices “value-based” and the solution “substitutability” is unlikely to gain traction with academics (and those who review us for tenure and promotion) for whom “value” is a far from pejorative term and “substitutability” sounds as if we are interchangeable cogs in a machine – I would suggest rethinking the terminology.