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    Review of 'Assessing the size of the affordability problem in scholarly publishing'

    Assessing the size of the affordability problem in scholarly publishingCrossref
    Demonstrates heavy over-pricing based on perceived value of subscribed journals and author fees.
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    Assessing the size of the affordability problem in scholarly publishing

    For many decades, the hyperinflation of subscription prices for scholarly journals have concerned scholarly institutions. After years of fruitless efforts to solve this “serials crisis”, open access has been proposed as the latest potential solution. However, also the prices for open access publishing are high and are rising well beyond inflation. What has been missing from the public discussion so far is a quantitative approach to determine the actual costs of efficiently publishing a scholarly article using state-of-the-art technologies, such that informed decisions can be made as to appropriate price levels. Here we provide a granular, step-by-step calculation of the costs associated with publishing primary research articles, from submission, through peer-review, to publication, indexing and archiving. We find that these costs range from less than US$200 per article in modern, large scale publishing platforms using post-publication peer-review, to about US$1,000 per article in prestigious journals with rejection rates exceeding 90%. The publication costs for a representative scholarly article today come to lie at around US$400. We discuss the additional non-publication items that make up the difference between publication costs and final price.

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      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.


      Thank you very much for your thorough and helpful review. Please allow me to address your points:

      1. You are correct that prices probably vary considerably between journals. However, for a transition away from legacy publishing, only the average price is, initially at least, relevant. Moreover, it is clear from the way in which these numbers were derived that they do not allow an estimate of the variability. Nevertheless, I have now added a sentence that emphasizes the variability and that we cannot provide an estimate for it.

      2. We onlyuse this term once in the article and there we use it in reference to journalslisted in DOAJ. Thus, we use it in the definition provided by DOAJ: https://blog.doaj.org/2019/09/17/myth-busting-all-open-access-journals-can-be-listed-in-doaj/

      I have just added a statement to this effect.

      3. You are correct about the awkward sentence. We are now using your phrasing. We also emphasize the variability between fields now.

      4. The term "value-based pricing" is a technical term used by economists for this type of pricing strategy. We acknowledge the assistance of two economists in writing this article and they have been crucial for us to be able to adhere to the correct nomenclature. The term "value-based" thus merely denotes the strategy that aims to set prices to what the market can carry. Another strategy is the cost-plus strategy, where prices are set according to costs plus a projected profit target. We now refer to the cost-plus strategy early on to introduce the reader to these concepts. (Non-)Substitutability of the goods or services in a market is one of the key factors driving the decision between cost-plus and value-based pricing strategies.

      5. The reviewer is likely correct also here. The variation of costs in our scenarios is almost one order of magnitude with 3 main scenarios and 4 slightly different versions for each scenario leading to 12 different cost calculations. We are aware that there is likely more variation ou there, but decided to limit it to these 12 cases not only because we think these cases ought to cover a substantial segment, but also because providing even more variation would have made the article unnecessarily detailed and overly difficult to read, or to draw policy-level conclusions from.

      6. Difficult to say. However, publishers with several journals in their portfolio could share FTEs between journals and hence come to lie below our cut-off, which is stated for the journal-level. This is where ecnonomies of scale would come in which we have tried to exclude from our analysis, as they are both difficult to estimate and would only serve tolower our estimates even further from what they are now. It was our aim to be conservative in our calculations: if publishing were even cheaper than we write here, nobody would be concerned, but if it were more expensive, we would be to blame. Hence, we provide the numbers where we are certain that they can be realistically achieved, even without economies of scale.

      7. Excellent point. I have reviewed the literature of journal prestige as measured by the impact factor you mention and how it relates to methodological quality (i.e., reliability). This literature points towards an inverse relationship between prestige (IF) and reliability - the higher the prestige of the journal, the lower the reliability of its results: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00037/full Thus, IF or citations cannot serve as a proxy for quality, only for prestige and one would expect that higher prestige commands higher prices (whch would, in turn, mean that we currently pay more for less quality). There is anecdotal evidence that higher-prestige journals are more expensive than others, e.g.: http://bjoern.brembs.net/2019/03/new-england-journal-of-medicine-and-you-thought-nature-was-expensive/

      I hope I could clarify that the nomenclature we use (such as value-based,or substitutability) is the standard economist nomenclature for these aspects.

      2020-03-04 20:00 UTC

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