Follow the money – what really matters when choosing a journal (UPDATED)

I was asked to highlight the core link to data on journals so it is here at the top

As academics we make choices about journals all the time. We choose where to submit papers. who to review for, eventually who to edit for, who to subscribe to, who to recommend to libraries etc. As in all decisions both ethics and practicality weigh in. We both want to choose a journal that is “good” in the way it treats people and to choose a journal that will help our careers (after all that is a big part of why we do things involving journals). Different people will put different weights on good vs helping our career, and that is OK and not the topic of this blog piece to comment on further, but I don’t think anybody is 100% at one end or the other. What I want to do here is unpack the “good” part in some detail (so I am explicitly not talking about all the career-oriented reasons to chose a journal like if its readership will be interested in your paper, time to publication, acceptance rate, etc). Here I am exclusively focused on what makes a journal a “good” citizen of the research community and then you can (and should!) decide for yourself how to weight that in a manner appropriate to your career stage and goals. This is a complex story and I’ve put a lot of research into so I hope you’ll bear with me through this admittedly long post.

If you are attuned to the blogosphere/twitter-ville you will notice there has been an enormous amount of energy championing the idea that good=open access and emotions on all sides (e.g. comment section here and a strong reaction to the methods used for pushing OA here – HT Smallpond) (I have a brief dissection of different types of Open Access in a footnote, but I don’t want to digress here since it is not my main point). But I want to start from first principles. In the famous film “All the President’s Men” which is a loosely fictionalized account of the corruption in the administration of the US president Nixon, the phrase “follow the money” was used. I suspect, though, that this basic idea has been around since the Roman Empire (sequere pecuniam?), and probably the dawn of modern city-states with Sargon and Amenhotep. So where does following the money take us with academic journal publishing? For starters we know three basic things about the publishing industry (Figure 1):

  • Revenues=expenses – this is a basic fact of all business. Unless you are a reserve bank you cannot create or destroy currency.
  • Revenues for journals primarily come from four sources: library subscriptions, individual subscriptions, author charges and advertising. The first two represent payment by the reader (indirectly in the case of libraries). The third represents payment by the writer. The fourth represents payment by 3rd parties. For most journals library subscriptions are the dominant source of revenue (to the point that some publishers like Springer don’t even bother with individual subscriptions anymore), although the well-known open access journals (eg PLOS, BMC) have the effect of shifting to a 100% author pays, 0% reader pays model. Society journals (e.g. Ecology) have the most balanced mix across the four sources.
  • Costs – include many factors including circulation costs (paper, printing, mailing, and now web pages), marketing and admin (including the pitiful stipends paid to editors in chief) but by far the two biggest are the labor involved in production (i.e. copy editing, typesetting, figure correction) and profits (in which I include money taken out of a journal to fund a society even thought this is not technically a profit). As an example Rosenzweig (editor of EER)  documents that the first category is less than 10% of total costs. Its hard to imagine that marketing and admin needs to be more than 10% either. Note that there is a giant subsidy by academics of contributing content and review for free (also not a topic for this post but see this if you’re interested: HT Meg). So we’re left with around 80% of the costs centered in labor-intensive production of individual articles and profits.

Figure 1 – Revenues have to balance expenses and the main factors on either side are shown (with font size) indicative of size in dollars.

I now want to pursue the revenue side a little bit. The best data I can find comes from American university libraries (which has an organization that surveys its members every year). The basics are shown in Figure 2:


Figure 2- trends in publishing. Data from American Research Librarians statistical summary 2004-2005 and 2010-2011 (no link – I actually had to use a physical library to look this up!)

Figure 2 shows several things. Start with books (in blue). The total $ spent by libraries on books and the cost per book (triangles and squares respectively) have tracked the rate of inflation closely (yellow) and as a result the number of books purchased has remained relatively constant (although the baseline year of 1986 represents a high point for libraries that we are only now returning to). Now look at journals. The cost per journal (red squares) skyrocketed from 1986-2000. To this point the cost per journal went up 250% while inflation only went up 50% – i.e. costs increased at a rate of 5x inflation. Total expenditures on journals (=revenues for publishers) did basically the same thing until 2000. In 2000 the $/journal plummeted while the total expenditures continued on basically a straight line increase.

You can probably guess the story here. Its when online publishing came home to roost. The publishers will tell you that eliminating print saved a lot of money driving down costs, but that is hooey – print and mailing is a small fraction of the total costs (see piece by EER editor Rosenzweig). The real story is that the publishers started “bundling” – libraries instead of picking their journals were sold bundles of 100s of journals they had not subscribed to before. This was essentially free to the publishers since the marginal cost of delivering an extra online journal to a library is zero. In principle libraries could still buy single subscriptions but the costs of single subscriptions were so expensive the bundles were the only practical option. You might say (and the publishers did say) “what a win for libraries” – more journals at less cost. But that statement is false – look at total expenditures on journals – it is still going up at 4-5x the rate of inflation. Even during the Great Recession of 2008-2010 when university and library budgets were decimated the publishers managed to keep revenue flat (the only such period of time in the 25 years of data). When you’re extracting increasingly more dollars at 5x the rate of inflation you are not helping libraries win! As evidence, the proportion of money libraries spend on books vs journals has dropped from 43% in 1986 to 23% in 2005. I very much doubt that reflects the librarians view that journals are now 3x (1/2 to 1/2 vs 3/4 to 1/4) as important as books. Bottom line – publisher revenues are going up at a rate of 4-5x the rate of inflation at a cost to other functions in the library and university.

What does the power of journal publishers to extract increasing amounts of money mean? It means journals are essentially monopolies. In the language of foraging theory, journals are non-substitutable. There is not a low-cost alternative to Nature (or to a specialized journal like Theoretical Ecology or Landscape Ecology). Or to be precise there are lower costs journals on these topics, but they don’t have the papers people want to read. In a monopoly world, the monpolists can extract much higher than inflation cost increases and this is just what has happened. And as predicted by economic theory and observed empirically, journal prices have gone up 4-5x the rate of inflation year after year.

Where has this extra revenue gone? Well the balance must hold – revenue equals the sum of all the expense centers. The main cost is labor for production which almost by definition cannot have gone up much faster than inflation (in the long run wages go up by inflation and improved productivity but not more or you’re in an inflation spiral). In fact this same period has seen a great deal of outsourcing to India and other countries and speaking from personal experience, the overall quality of production services like typesetting and proofing have gone down. So I suspect these costs have actually decreased. The other costs are too small to really matter and in any case have mostly gone up at the rate of inflation at most (paper and web programming are all highly competitive markets). That leaves one great big screaming slot for all the extra revenue to go – profits!

And indeed the profits of scholarly publishers are obscene. Since most academics are not experienced readers of the business pages, let me give a little background. On the whole 10% is considered a reasonable profit level. Low margin businesses like groceries (see Jeremy’s excellent summer post on his family roots in this business and lessons learned for science) or highly regulated businesses like utilities make a bit less (5-7%) and booming, fast moving businesses like computer technology make a bit more (15%). And businesses with monopolistic non-substitutable products (certain technologies or pharmaceuticals) make 20%. Now I’ve already tarred academic publishers as monopolists so you might be thinking they’re making 20%. You would be sorely underestimating. The large for-profit academic journal publishers are making 35-40%!!!! (as this well researched piece on the Sauropod vertebra picture of the week blog shows but I’ve seen the same numbers in other sources like this) This means greater than 1/3 of every dollar spent by a library, subscriber, or author on a for-profit journal goes in the pockets of shareholders with no direct benefit returned. (Economic theory says profits are a reward for risk and innovation but ask yourself how much risk and innovation you see in academic publishing from large for profit publishers?)

So what does this mean for you, the academic making decisions about which journals to read, write and volunteer for? Let me follow the money for two more paragraphs, and then I want to turn to some topics other than money. It appears a good estimate of the total cost (including overheads for management, etc, but NOT profits) of publishing an article is about $3,500-$4,000 ON AVERAGE. So one thing you might want to think about is in choosing journals is who is paying that $3,500-$4,000. Do you want to pick a journal that is 100% based on charging libraries (possibly with some advertising) like journals from Elsevier such as Ecology Letters TREE or journals from Springer like Landscape Ecology, or journals based 100% on charging the author like PLOS one/PLOS Biology (i.e. all gold-standard open access journals) or journals that have a mixed revenue stream like most society journals (e.g. Ecology) or journals that are mixed but have 0% from the reader (aka the hybrid model where you pay an open access fee to unlock your specific article but the journal still gets revenue from other sources such as library subscriptions as well – e.g. the open access option on Elsevier or Springer or Wiley journals) . Or 0% from the author (mostly for-profit publishers, definitely not open-access or society journals, although many society journals have waivers for students). You might have strong opinions about which of these is the “good”, ethical route to go. Personally I am pretty indifferent. The $3,500 is constant – it is just moving the burden around for who pays. The only thing that matters to me is that people in developing countries who can’t afford access get access but nearly all models address this. Beyond that, this is not ultimately an ethical issue, but a practical issue. Do I have a grant that has funds that let me go to a 100% author pay journal. Do I not have a grant or am a student and would benefit from a 0% author pay model? I know other people have hugely strong opinions, and I respect those, but I don’t (cue certain specific vociferous commenters telling me why I’m wrong in 3, 2, 1 …)

Something I do have a strong opinion about is total cost. Notice that I emphasized “on average” on that $3,500-$4,000 figure. There is a wide variation in cost per article (or slightly more accurately cost per page since article lengths vary across journals). Some publishers, especially not-for-profit and newer online-only publishers can get an article out for $500-$2000. Other publishers are less efficient (say $5,000) and then add a 40% profit on top ($7,000). There are even some extremes like Nature that appear closer to $30,000/article (but recall they are doing a giant paper print run of full color and are able to defray these costs with large circulation and advertising revenues). For a great resource on journal costs (and much else discussed here) see this website by Ted Bergstrom. The total cost matters much more to me than who pays it. It matters for both practical and ethical reasons. The ethical reasons are obvious, the cheaper something is the more available it is to the non-rich and the less resources diverted from other worthy goals like teaching and research. The practical is not that different – the cheaper it is, the more people that read it. So in the end, I care much more about the total cost than how that cost is divided up.

There are other things to care about too (which again largely align on the ethical and practical dimensions as they involve how many people can read it). These include:

  • Self-archiving – in this day and age the single biggest factor in accessibility is whether Google Scholar can find a PDF that is not behind a firewall. Open access (specifically gold or hybrid forms*) are one way to achieve this. But a very functional alternative is what is known as self archiving (also called green open access* but I find this is not what most people are talking about when they just say an unqualified “open access”). Namely taking the PDF the publisher sends you and posting it on your website. That’s all it takes. And I would say right now when I use Google Scholar, I have to go through a pay wall about 50-60% of the time, and the remainder of the time I can get a PDF without the paywall with about 80-90% of this being thanks to self archiving (and <10% because of gold and hybrid open access). There is enormous variation in whether publisher contracts allow for self-archiving. Some flat out prohibit it, others allow it, and some are in between allowing you to post on a “preprint” (i.e. your Word file). A great resource is SHERPA/Romeo which tracks these policies for all journals. [ASIDE: And then there are authors who take matters into their own hands and post them on their websites whether the journal policies allow this or not (I’ve never heard of somebody being punished for this but for obvious reasons I’m not going to start naming such people here). I’m not in advocating this here in this public space, but if you wanted to take an aggressive, protest, slightly “risky” stance this makes more sense to me personally than refusing to review, etc.]
  • Value-added – as mentioned the main cost is the expert labor involved in typesetting, proof-reading, copy editing, figure clean-up, etc. Different publishers have squeezed this function to different degrees. In my experience this function ranges from little more than turning your submitted word document into a PDF all the way to still adding significant value. Several publishers have sent this function offshore which is clearly driven by cost-savings and not quality improvements. At the other end Science and Nature (and PNAS) do very substantial editing and enormously improve figures. Among the smaller journals, the three best value-added experiences I have had in recent years were at American Journal of Botany, American Naturalist and Evolutionary Ecology Research. Those experiences contrasted so strongly with my typical experiences with big publishers of most journals, that it made me realize just what I was missing. The editors greatly improved flow and clarity (not just typos) and actually caught instead of introduced errors in equations.
  • Availability of older issues – Have you ever tried to pull a classic article from 1970 or 1940? Unless you are at a rich university, your experience probably varied drastically depending on which journal it was published in. At one end are the big publishers who, having captured libraries into the bundle, are now shrinking the bundle by only including articles from say 1980 to present, and then making libraries pay extra for the older issues. I went looking for Volterra’s classic 1926 predator prey paper in Nature but my library didn’t have online access. I wrote a somewhat snippy note to the library complaining and got a nicer than I deserved note pointing out that getting full back issues of Nature (1869-1996) cost $84,000/year! (for my medium sized, medium wealth university and you better believe they charge bigger libraries more than that).That’s a lot of classroom microscopes! (and I was politely reminded that old-fashioned though it might be it might be cost effective to please walk over and use the print copy still on the shelves – what a concept!). Meanwhile if you want to look at most society journals, including Science, the publishers have given rights to these back issues to JStor a not-for-profit archiving service that delivers back issues to libraries at cost and to the developing world for free. Big difference!
  • Open data standards – an increasingly important issue in ecology is whether journals require the data used to be published and made available (usually as supplemental material or in a database). This has been standard practice with genetic sequencing and GenBank for years, and is slowly coming to ecology but there are still big differences in policies and enforcement of policies. (and I still know people who prefer to publish and people who prefer NOT to publish in journals requiring open data).

So, I have argued there are many dimensions of trade-off to think about when choosing a journal that is a “good citizen”: who pays, how much has to be paid, and other features like self-archiving, value-added, and etc (for example). To those of you who have read my posts on statistical machismo this attitude of mine is probably not surprising. Aggressive pushing of a one-dimensional good/bad axis doesn’t float my boat. Acknowledging the complexity and the ensuing responsibility to be informed and think (and recognize others may come out at a different point for valid reasons) does float my boat. Choosing journals is no different than choosing statistics in this regard.

So in the real world where you have finite time and can barely manage to get a manuscript written and have no time to spend 5 hours researching journal policies and prices, what should you do? I have two suggestions. First, I have assembled a table of data on many of these issues for many journals of ecology (available here as a google document) which I offer as a service for quick and dirty research. I hope this lives on as a resource for people to use. If people want to research journals not on the list or send me data on new columns (example I don’t have a column on open data policies) I would be glad to add them. You can use this as a quick tool to see where journals rank on multiple dimensions.

If you’re really tight for time such that you only have time to think about one axis, I suggest you think about the “follow the money” axis. This runs from society journals published by the societies or by non-profit (e.g. university press) publishers, through society journals published by for-profit publishers to at the other end purely for profit journals published by for-profit publishers and without society affiliations. These three categories are spelled out in the aforementioned spreadsheet. But it is often easy to guess – Ecological Society and university press journals are non-profit, Wiley-Blackwell usually equals society sponsored but for profit published, while Elsevier and Springer=for profit (and yes that is how much the industry is consolidated that there are only two big publishers producing most of these journals). I want to make three points with regard to my “follow-the-money” handy dandy single axis dimension for the lazy or time-pressed journal chooser:

  • There are a few that fall through the cracks of my big groups. Allen Press is I think technically a for-profit publisher but they were founded by university people to print academic journals for societies and they are small, service-oriented and reasonable cost (but currently only publish in fields outside of ecology at the present time to my knowledge). In the book world, Sinauer (and several others) clearly fall in this category too. Allen Press and Sinauer are both “good” publishers in my book (and many other academics I know). Big-for-profit and small-for-profit is an important distinction too (see here for a quantitative argument of how big for-profits are not representative of the whole industry or even most for profits), but it for the most part doesn’t play out much in ecology journals which has only the big (indeed mega-big) for-profit players.
  • Nearly all of the features I identified as important correlate with this one dimension. As clearly demonstrated in a nice article by Bergstrom and Bergstrom 2006, cost per journal article strongly breaks out by these three groups, as does cost increases over time. As a quick glance at my spreadsheet will show you, so do for the most part self-archiving friendly policies, JStor friendliness, and although I don’t know how to measure it, my experience strongly tells me that ironically the not-for-profit cheaper presses provide the best value added in editing. Again my aforementioned list of best editing experiences are at American Journal of Botany (society published), American Naturalist (university press) and Evolutionary Ecology Research (small not-for-profit), all among the cheapest journals around. Its amazing what lack of profit motive can do for you.
  • The one thing that is NOT correlated with this dimension is who pays (i.e. the conventional interpretation of open access). There are expensive for profit gold-standard open access publishers (OMICS and Hindawi presses come to mind with Hindawi speculated to pull down a 50% profit margin and there is a growing list of predatory gold OA journals by a variety of publishers) and there are very cheap, service-oriented not-for-profits (like Ecology) that have no open-access option at all (not even as a for fee add-on – although I quickly note that ESA has launched Ecospheres as a gold-standard open access journal before Don Strong gets mad at me). If you care about who pays you need to add this as a second axis as it is essentially orthogonal to the “follow-the-money” axis.

I have no intention of being prescriptive to others. But just to give an example, I’ll describe my own philosophy. I care almost exclusively about the follow-the-money axis and its correlates with a strong bias towards the not-for-profit end. That said I am not absolutist.  My ultimate goal is to get my research widely read, and if somebody makes money off of it, I can live with that. But, all else being equal, I choose the not-for-profit end. This ends up looking like a mixture with a bias towards not-for-profit.  I have coauthors who will only publish in or review for not-for-profits, but that is not me. And if I have no grants the who-pays axis  (not me end) becomes really important but otherwise, that is one dimension too many to try to optimize on over and above just trying to get my work accepted!  Anybody who wasted the time to look at my CV to see where I publish or review would see that it is a broad mix including many for profit journals but that I broadly aim for non-profits leading to a biased sample. As one example, until recently I was an associate editor for two non-profit and one for-profit journal (i.e. a mix but biased to non-profit)l. As another example,  when I went looking for a book contract I went to three not-for-profit university presses and one small for-profit high service press – Sinauer – and if I had time I would have added Wiley as my 5th – again a biased mix is where I ended up (book publishers are a bit different – see Figure 1 – but still take a look at book prices vs publisher type sometime walking through the exhibitors at a conference). Final example:some decisions are easy. Say I have a nice paper on seed size vs number or any other evolutionary ecology topic. If its not quite good enough for a general ecology journal. I have two choices. One (Evolutionary Ecology Research) is not-for-profit, cheap, etc. The other (Evolutionary Ecology) is for profit, very expensive, etc. Granted the 2nd one has a bit higher impact factor but when you remember impact factors are mostly driven by a few highly cited papers in each journal amidst an enormous variability in citation rates across papers, the odds that choosing one over the other will influence my readership or citation rates is small. This to me is an easy choice. Especially if you know the history of these journals and the fact that the first was a leading rebel in taking on for-profit obscene cost increases. Here ends boring you with my own thought processes.

So, what should you do with all this? That is up to you. That is my point. But be informed. Realize that open-access is at its core (until publishing papers is free) a debate about who pays, not how much gets paid and who profits. And follow the money!

* Technically open access means anybody can access the PDF (i.e fully proofed and fancy formatted copy) legally without paying. In practice there are three kinds of open access (OA):

  1. Gold OA – author pays 100% of the costs and article is available to anybody immediatley
  2. Hybrid OA – journal as a whole is not OA (i.e. is behind a paywall), and journal revenues derive broadly from library subscription fees, but the author can pay an additional amount (very often around $3,000) to make their one specific article open access (not behind the pay wall and freely available)
  3. Green OA – author has right to post article on their own website making it effectively OA with a little work. I called this self-archiving above.
  4. There are many other permutations as well, many being driven by government funders like NIH and NERC requiring open access where open access is given after say 6 months (non-profit PNAS) or 1 year (some for profit journals, usually only if required by the author’s research funder).

Although all of these can be accurately called open-access, I find that most people when they just say open access mean #1/#2 (gold and hybrid) which are 100% author pays (gold) or library pays and then author pays even more (hybrid – I’m not a fan of this!). So for the most part when I say OA here I am following this convention and meaning gold/hybrid. I discuss green OA separately as self-archiving.

I think it is also fair to say that OA has sort of become a muddled umbrella that started with good intentions but now includes predatory publishers making 50%+ profits and excludes some really worthy publishers. Any debate of OA really needs to start with a clarification of terms. Some people who say they are “for OA” really mean “for non-profit” when you drill into details. I hope this piece can help clarify the discussion.

PS – Thanks to Jim Bird, science librarian and Deb Rollins Head of Collections Services at UMaine for help tracking down journal price trend data and to all the UMaine library staff for doing what I think is a great job navigating this mercenary world on all us users’ behalf.

64 thoughts on “Follow the money – what really matters when choosing a journal (UPDATED)

    • Thanks Andrew. You are right Ecology (and many other journals, maybe even most) make certain types of articles OA. In many cases it is review and opinion pieces that are automatically OA and this is mostly self serving because these articles are the ones that drive impact factors (but this does not apply to your example in Ecology). This is yet another type of OA one could describe, but when it is not the author’s choice independent of article type and doesn’t apply to the whole journal, I think this is not at the center of what people debate when they talk about OA. Doesn’t mean its not a valuable service and that I don’t appreciate Ecology doing this.

  1. Great post Brian. I know you put a lot of time and effort into this one, and it shows. So much of what one reads on this topic comes from people with either vested interests or strong-but-poorly-thought-out opinions. A few questions and comments:

    -If I recall correctly, the profit margins at my family’s grocery stores were even lower than 5%. The grocery business is really competitive.🙂

    -Over at the Scholarly Kitchen there have been some lengthy and rather unenlightening comment threads recently on the issues you raise. As best I can tell from those threads, one way to defend the profit margins of big publishers is to dig into the nitty-gritty of accounting. That there are all sorts of quantities reported in a company’s annual report, different ways of accounting for various costs, different ways of allocating income and expenses across divisions of a company, and different ways of quantifying how well a company is doing (e.g., return on capital vs. profit before one-off expenses vs…). So that it’s naive to pick out one headline “profit” number from, say, Elsevier’s annual report and use that as a stick to beat them with. And it’s naive to compare any number from, say, Elsevier’s annual report with that from some other business in some other industry. As I say, I found those threads unenlightening, because everyone on them seemed very strongly committed to either defending or attacking Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell by whatever means necessary. It was like listening to dueling talking points on a political talk show. So I’m curious to get your thoughts on this line of defense.

    -Another problem with those threads at the Scholarly Kitchen is that people seemed to get caught up in debating how much big scientific publishers “really” make and whether it’s “too much” while totally losing sight of why we might care how much they make. One thing I like about your post is that you emphasize why we might care. I want to follow up on that, because it seems like there are several distinct reasons one might be concerned with the profit margins of big scientific publishers. They all come up in your post, or at least I think they do. I wanted to spell them out to make sure I’m understanding correctly.

    (i) High profit margins are a symptom of a monopoly, and monopolies are bad for various reasons. A monopolist has no competition, and so no incentive to improve its products or pricing, for instance.

    (ii) High profit margins are bad because if the publisher (the supplier) is making lots of money, that’s money that’s coming from the customers, and those customers are budget-constrained academics and academic libraries who could be spending that money on other things that would make science as a whole better. (Maybe this is just part of (i)?)

    (iii) High profit margins are just unreasonable, even obscene. They’re just not right. There’s such a thing as making too much money, no matter how the money was made and no matter what the effects on anyone or anything else.

    (Aside: I guess (iv) might be an argument that you didn’t make, but that I’ve seen made: that high profit margins of scientific publishers are illegitimate because they’re based on labor (peer review) and goods (articles) provided for free by academics. I confess I’ve never understood this argument. And (v) might be the argument that high profit margins must be bad for some reason, even if we can’t figure out or articulate what that reason is. That if you’re making that much money you simply *must* be doing *something* illegal or immoral. Personally, I don’t buy (v) either.)

    Is my list (i)-(iii) about right? And if so, can you clarify how much you weight them? Personally, I appreciate (i) and (ii) but don’t buy (iii) at all.

    -Question: if we support society journals just because they’re society journals, what incentive do those societies, and the publishers with whom they contract to do their publishing, have to innovate? For instance, as far as I know it wasn’t the folks who run society journals who first came up with online ms handling systems. Indeed, some society journals, like Oikos, were extremely slow to adopt such systems. I don’t think this question undermines the points made in your post. I guess it’s just an additional point that makes the issue of “which journals should I support?” even more complicated. (EDIT: Another example: back when I was pushing the idea of “PubCreds” as a reform to the peer review system, I met Joe Esposito, a publishing consultant who blogs for The Scholarly Kitchen. He told me that PubCreds was a neat idea, but that it wouldn’t happen until someone figured out how to monetize it. Subsequent events have proven him right, or at least have been consistent with that claim. Owen Petchey and I didn’t get anywhere in our attempts to get ecological society journals to explore starting a PubCreds-type system. But PubCreds or something like it is now part of several new for-profit publishing initiatives, like Peerage of Science.)

    • Re there being a lot of versions of profits – that’s an obfuscation technique by publishers. Having spent 10 years in business, there are very standard ways to report profits that are comparable across industries. I (and the sources I used) use the standard ways which is profits before tax and debt that everybody uses to talk about profit (and the sources I used pulled them straight out of the companies own reports). As for the fact that there are various overheads not being attributed, you can certainly play games with where you assign overheads, but again the numbers are pulled from the companies own reports using their own preferred allocations of overhead. If you look at the Bergstrom & Bergstrom article, for-profit journals cost 5x as much as non-profit on average (with mixed in between). That tells me plenty of overhead costs are being allocated into the journal pricing. You can’t publish a number to make stock holders happy and then have another number to make your paying customers happy. I have very little sympathy on this front. 40% is a true, accurate, meaningful and representative number that fits all the norms of standard reporting.

      As far as reasons I care about non-profit – it pretty much comes down to your (ii) for me. And in the end, I don’t even care so much about profits (as I noted I am happy to have Allen Press or Sinaeur make a profit). And I am not even allergic to Elsevier Wiley taking money when I publish in Ecology Letters. What I care about are:
      – publishers focused on delivering value and service instead of extorting monopolistic rates
      – total cost (of which profit is only a piece but a big piece)
      It is now been conclusively and repeatedly demonstrated these two points are strongly linked to for-profit vs non-profit status (I’m not an economist so I don’t care about market theories of why – I’m a macroecologist and good with a correlation – and the correlation is strong!)

      We academics have a choice and when we put the choice in for profit companies that make journals that cost 5x as much, it is effectively saying our campuses and libraries will pay that monopolistic rent instead of something else. I would rather have the something else.

    • Thanks – spreadsheet updated. I had a hard time finding data on TREE, I think maybe because the company has been recently bought by Elsevier and they’re switching over to the general Elsevier policy (which matches what you describe).

    • Great question. My sense is that as long as you don’t rub the publisher’s nose in it, there’s not much profit and terrible PR in going after an academic to take down their own paper from their own website. I’m not sure I know of a specific documented case of somebody being forced to take something down, but I am sure it happens. But I also know lots of people who have never been called on it. In short I don’t think what you describe is common. It’s not currently like the music industry which has gotten very aggressive against “pirating” (which is not a very comparable situation since the proper analogy to the music industry would be forcing the artist to take down a recording of their own song from their own website – it doesn’t have great optics).

      • Thanks for the answer. For sure someone has been forced to pull out papers from personal website. At the same time, I think that it is an easy solution to make accessible current publications and really give a push in the right direction for availability of publications. I upload my pubs on my website without a second thought. If they want to force a number of people not to do it, well good luck with that, and the PR will be terrible.

        The post was very informative, thanks for that, and I largely agree with your pragmatic considerations.

      • I pretty much agree with what you’re saying. My memory is hazy but I do think I heard of one case where somebody got an order to take down, but I think they were also being kind of in your face to the publisher (such that if the publisher didn’t act it would be implicit approval). I think it is really rare (just based on the number of PDFs I find through google scholar if nothing else).

      • Great post, Brian. An an extremely important take home message!

        As with all good analogies, however, the music industry one is broken😉

        Money tends to be made in this industry these days through concert revenue (tickets & merchandising). More and more musicians (or more likely, their record companies) make their music ‘freely’ accessible, through YouChoob, Spotify, Vimeo, etc. (although there are associated ad revenues). So they can and frequently do link directly from their website to their output.

        So, to continue the musician-academic analogy, it’s like saying academic publishers would make most of their money more by organising conferences where we would talk about our greatest published research, with the publishers selling tickets to the audience (attendance fees) and t-shirts with “McGill’s Magical Macroecology Tour” and your shining visage plastered all over them. I’d buy one!

        As for publishing pdfs directly on personal websites, I’m kind of against it. If we’re going to get moralistic about publishers’ practices, we (as authors) should absolutely not sign a copyright transfer agreement in good (or bad) faith, then break the terms of that agreement by posting a pdf on our personal/institute website. It’s great to have a clear stance about access to articles, but don’t be a hypocrite about these things.

        One simple solution is to clearly write “please email me for a pdf copy” by your list of articles. Distribution in this way is permitted in all copyright agreements I’ve ever come across. I’ve even seen someone who coded links on their site to automatically send an email asking for specific articles, so interested readers didn’t even have to worry about writing any text, just one click and wait by your inbox (can’t who this was, sorry). You don’t even have to walk as far as the library to pick it up (heaven forbid)!

      • Hi Mike – a perfectly valid and principled perspective on contracts.

        I think science is (or at least I am) in big trouble if my funding depends on how well I sell tickets on tour and push the merchandise with my mug on it!

  2. Oh wow. Brian, would you consider breaking up something like this into multiple posts? It’s a bit much to digest all at one sitting…

  3. I think it is bizarre that with those kind of costs (not including profits), reviewers are not getting paid, say, 50 dollars per paper reviewed. Assuming a 30% acceptance rate, 2 reviewers (not including associate editor) and a cost of 3,000 per paper there will be more or less a 10-15% increase in the (still very obscure) costs (if we scale up to Nature costs per paper, well…). If we include profits it is very strange that the community of reviewers is not doing more to bring some money home, just for acknowledgment from publishers more than monetary reasons.

    • I agree with you, although I tend to think pay for reviewers is a no hoper and not my top priority (and it would probably cost $30 to cut the $50 check), but it would be a very interesting and very simple/clean/use-the-market solution to the growing decline in # of people willing to review.

      • I see Jeremy, but the publisher is out of the loop. They are making money and let Editors and the community at large deal with the problem of reviewing and offer a valuable product. The problem has been discussed at length and I am not offering a solution I do not have.
        Some money from publishers would be great and I’d be certainly down with that.

    • I think one problem there is that 50 dollars is nowhere close to proper compensation for PhD-caliber professional work of 4-8 hours. Think ten times that amount approaches the recommendation of academic trade union here in Finland.

      And even if payment is small, it still changes the task essentially paid consulting work, so are you then allowed to do that using your employer’s (university, grant-giver) time, equipment, and facilities?

      I think peer review must stay purely academically motivated.

      • I would agree for non-profit. For profit, I do not know why my work should be only academically-motivated.
        Certain things occur just because people (publishers) take advantage of the usually (except when they give crappy or incompetent reviews or they wait 5 months to get back the review after they “promised” to do that in 3 weeks) good nature of academics.

        If they pay me 150 dollars for reviews I take the money. That will have zero influence on my review, but hey, I want to get paid to work in academia, the moment there is no money I go elsewhere, since I have basic needs like shelter, food etc.

        Janne, there is an interesting point about using facilities, and I do not have an answer.

        At the end, my point is not about the money itself, I hope it is clear.

  4. Sorry for nitpicking: Ecology Letters is Wiley, not Elsevier (it’s wrong in the blogpost AND your google-spreadsheet)

    Besides, a great piece of work. thanx Brian! This is very informative and will help me a lot in the future.

      • I’ve also seen that Ecology letters in published by Wiley together with “the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)” (, so it has a society association (missing in your table). I don’t know anything about the history, level of society involvement or profit status though.

      • Thanks Tobias. My understanding is that CNRS is a French government funded research center, not really a society. So the analog in the US would be being sponsored by Los Alamost National Labs. Also, I suspect the link has weakened over time now that Michael Hochberg is no longer editor. I think I will leave no society in the spreadsheet for now unless somebody wants to contact me making a case for CNRS as a society.

        Their journal prices also look more like a for profit than a mixed journal too. That said, I have nothing against EL and have published there several times and am working on a piece to submit there right now. As I hope I’ve made clear this is not a black-and-white issue nor a single one player out issue. It is a pervasive issue that I hope there is a net balance tipping on for the good of our universities and libraries.

      • Thanks Tobias. I have added a warning in the metadata on the spreadsheet. I also find this is not a topic that lends easily to the one dimensional color scale used. People should definitely double check anything in Sherpa/ROMEO by looking directly at the web page of the journal of interest.

      • Ok, I only saw that they have a “Society information” link on the journal page – as I said I know nothing more. Really nice and balanced post anyway, and a topic I’m interested in. I actually have a spreadsheet of my own with profit/non-profit status, society info, OA-costs, sherpa/romeo label etc, but without the detailed cost information that you have included.

  5. Great post! After reading through, I wanted to check out your google spreadsheet and it was tough to find with all the good links you provide. For those looking to use it as a resource for a quick and dirty analysis, maybe you could highlight the link or create a specific post for it?

  6. You say Allen Press “currently only publish in fields outside of ecology at the present time to my knowledge”. I think you will find that ecology articles get published in Herpetologica, Herpetological Monographs, Journal of Mammalogy, Journal of Parasitology and Rangeland Ecology and Management. I am sure there are others… Here is their publication list- Great article by the way, keep up the good work, and pleased that you got to explore the seldom-used library stacks!

  7. Brian, thanks for an excellent post! About commercial vs.non-profits: academics should not be naive with these labels. Just because someone says they are “not-for-profit” does not make them automatically noble society-saving selfless entities. They just call the profit “surplus” instead, and before lauding them for altruism one should find out how they spend that surplus? Does it go into subsidizing student participation in conferences, or does it go to 300k salary raises for the “non-profit’s” executives next year? There are many clever ways to extract personal income from a “non-profit” you control, and you can be sure that happens, a lot (just try to ask if you can see an itemized balance sheet from your favourite “non-profit” – do they just give it to you?).

    Without defending the rent-seeking nature of monopolist businesses, at least with commercial operations you know where they stand, and the public companies are legally obliged to be pretty transparent too.

    • Quite agree – the “surplus” societies pull out of journals can equal the profits not-for profits pull out, although money going to a society is probably more socially useful than money going to a shareholder who has nothing to do with academia.

      But as I noted in my response to Jeremy. It is not so much the for-profit vs not-for-profit in and of itself that calls to me. It is the fact, and this is strongly empirically established across many academic disciplines that not-for-profit is a very convenient signal of MUCH cheaper journals, journals that do go up in cost as fast, and other relatively friendly features like JSTOR archiving etc.(and most of these things are otherwise opaque to an author unless they spend time doing research)

      • And as I said, some institutions prove me wrong (Allen Press was the example used). So I heartily invite Wiley, Elsevier and Springer (the big players in ecology and evolution) to prove me wrong as well. Become value and service focused in the same way as the not-for-profits (or small for profits) and I will happily retract this article.

      • And to your unspoken point – being a bit slow this morning – Peerage of Science could well be (is to date) another “for-profit” proving me wrong (but it does fit my small is an exception model)

      • Ah… guess it is fair people take anything I say in an unspoken PoS context, even when I try to speak as just a person. Self gone, not a human anymore, CEO stain unwashable…

        PoS is not a publisher, it is a service provider that charges fees from publishers, so it is somewhat tangential to the issues you analyse in the article. But yes, PoS seeks both commercial sustainability and serving best interest of science, following its articles of association. Please complain loudly if it ever fails at the latter (failing at the former means there is nothing to complain about).

        In any case, never retract this article! It will be widely read and commented.

      • I spent 10 years in business as a fairly senior executive myself. I certainly didn’t imply what you wrote. I was just trying to give a nice nod to PoS. Business is easy to knock (and often they make themselves easy to knock) but this world would be a mess without business (just ask pre-Glasnost Russia how long they waited for staple foods). But I expect you get criticized often in academia in a rather unthinking way.

        I once heard Peter Kareiva say that businesses are the keystone species of the human world. Conservation and ecology can’t really afford a knee-jerk dismissal of business. I just happen to think more specifically, after careful research, that large for-profit publishers in academia are in general not serving academia’s interests and we have the power to change that.

    • Sorry, meant to be self-sarcastic and joking, comes out wrong without the smile and mock sadness accompanying that line in person. Did not want to accuse you of anything.

      You are right on both points. Business is a natural thing, and self-organizing non-centralized system for exchanging things for other things is far better than alternatives. Just a few short years ago I was very strongly anti-everything-commercial (due both social and ecological issues), but I am glad I entered the world as I now see a more nuanced picture. Not all profit is evil.

      But also, scientists really need to understand that they have the real power in this particular equation and have to start acting that way too – the decisions we (the scientists) make define the publishing industry, the industry does not define us unless we allow it. Especially people with power and secure positions (looking at all tenured professors out there) have responsibility.

      • no big disagreement here, but most of the time the tenured professors are last-author on a graduate students paper. This still implies a strong incentive to submit to a journal with a high impact factor for the student. However, considering other journal aspects other than IF as Brian puts out could still be done and could lead to an improvement of publisher behavior.

  8. Very interesting.
    Has anyone done a similar list of evolutionary journals?
    For example, the leading three, I believe, in terms of specificly evolutionary journals, are Evolution (published by Wiley for SSE, the american society), Journal of Evolutionary Biology ( Wiley, for ESEB, the european society) and BMC Evolutionary Biology. BMC is gold OA (afaik), the other two have hybrid models with discounts for society members (OA is ~1000 $ I believe), and at least in Evolution you can self archive after 1 year. There is also the new gold OA Ecology & Evolution which has a discount for both society members and another discount if you were reviewed and rejected by a bunch of journals, including the society journals and Evolutionary Applications.

    Thanks again for the great post and for clarifying things!

    • Hi Yoav – don’t know of a similar list for evolution journals. I have a few in my list (and I’m happy to add more if anybody sends me a spreadsheet with the data matching my columns).

  9. Thanks for the nice comments! We try very hard for excellence at every step at Am Nat and the manuscript editors will be glad to hear that they are appreciated.

    We are definitely not for profit (but trying to be not for loss as well).

    I do have some quibbles with your spreadsheet though–the society is the “American Society of Naturalists.” If by “self-archiving” you mean allowed to post a typeset PDF on your own website, we should be “green” as we’ve always allowed any reuse by authors (depositing a manuscript in PubMed is “yellow” after embargo).

    We’re entirely on JSTOR from the paper posted today back to 1867–so 0 years? Maybe you aren’t including the Current Scholarship part of JSTOR? A subscription/membership is $40 unless you want paper ($20 for students); and our OA prices range from $0 (ASN student lead authors) to $1400 (no ASN affiliation, no institutional subscription). I understand if that’s too complicated for the spreadsheet though but we’re trying to keep the prices as low as possible–so it all got complicated.

    It’s a great service to try to break it all down, Brian!

    • Hi Trish,
      I have changed your self-archive status to Green although I doubled checked that Sherpa/Romeo where I took this from still says you are yellow because there is a 12 month embargo in posting on your website. If that is wrong you may want to notify them (and it wouldn’t shock me if they had other UChicago Press journals wrong).

      As far as prices I have listed a full price paper subscription and non-member OA because those are the only things everybody provides to give a fair comparison.

      However you raise an important point which is that discounts on subscriptions, OA and author charges are often available either automatically or by request to students and this is yet another dimension where the not-for-profits shine (as exemplified by your data!)

      • Following up – Sherpa/Romeo also says AmNat only allows posting of a preprint (see You should definitely follow up with them. I don’t know the exact status of Sherpa/Romeo but I believe they do play some role either formally or as an aid to authors in conforming with the British government’s open access requirements.

      • Thanks, Brian!

        I’ll check it out. We have allowed authors to post their own edited and typeset PDF on their own website for longer than I’ve been around. I think one part of the confusion is what “green” OA means. Funders mostly seem to say that green means a deposit of the manuscript in PubMed–and the U of C Press does ask for an embargo and a manuscript file in PubMed, so if they are focused on helping authors meet funding requirements, their definition would be correct.

    • What you say matches my own recollection on a paper published in 2008 (AmNat was very self-publishing friendly before others were even addressing the issue).

      You raise a good point that archiving is not a one dimensional problem despite the one-dimensional scale in Sherpa\ROMEO. As you say most national policies are focused on medical research and things like PubMED. In Ecology I think self-archiving on one’s own website is by far the most important factor.

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  11. Thanks Brian, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I think you are dead-on to focus on bundling and profits. But you stop short of discussing competition / market mechanisms at play here, on which I would love to hear your thoughts.

    As I understand it, large profits (distinct from large revenue, or “rents”) are a symptom of market inefficiency / inadequate competition, right?

    I think your argument shows that the move from individual readers subscribing to journals to libraries subscribing to journals (employer-pays?) made a huge difference in the market forces. If all journals depended on individual reader subscriptions, we would never have the proliferation of journals or the rise in costs — readers would just cancel subscriptions. But libraries seek to be comprehensive, while readers have finite bandwidth, so you can sell a lot more to libraries. When you don’t disclose prices and you bundle the best with the worst, it’s hard for libraries to back out.

    If the market was entirely Gold OA, it seems we would have more real competition which might both control prices and spur innovation (at least on author-facing services, like the terrible journal submission websites). Clearly this hasn’t happened (peerJ and eLife being possible exceptions).
    Of course Gold OA journals have to compete with subscription journals as much as with each-other, so perhaps that hampers things. Or perhaps we are just on a transient?

    In a different vein, I loved your Value Added section, with minor quibble. For journals like Nature and Science, I highly doubt that the superior editing of figures, etc is responsible for the order-of-magnitude higher publishing cost or the major value added. I believe it is the front-matter that makes these journals both so much more expensive and so much more valuable (in terms of expected impact) than other journals.

    • Hi Carl – lots of good thoughts and it is good to focus on the market mechanisms. I would identify three issues with the market structure that cause the current pricing probelms:

      1) I think you are exactly right that the move to libraries pay has meant authors are decoupled from real costs. Either an individual subscription model or a full author pays publication costs model (either through the old page charge or the new OA all inclusive fee) would mean authors were much more sensitive to costs when they submit. I’m not going to submit to a journal that is so expensive non of my colleagues subscribe to it in that scenario. But as it stands now the costs are mostly invisible to authors when they pick a journal.

      2) Just in general opaque prices make it very hard for a market to be efficient! And the large for-profit companies do everything they can to make prices hidden including bundling and requiring libraries to sign non-disclosure agreements where they won’t tell anybody how much they paid for their journals. Yet when you go to many not-for-profit journal websites the library subscription fee is often right there on the website.

      3) I also think the monopoly aspect that I touched on cannot be avoided in the story too. Every library that has a PhD program has to have a certain set of journals (imagine the uproar if your library didn’t have Science, Nature, Ecology, Ecology Letters, BSE journals, AmNat, Oikos, etc). That gives a lot of power to extract high costs. The only real analogies to this are drugs (which have a monopoly due to patents) and certain technologies that feature lockin (think of the profits Microsoft and Apple extract). Its not a coincidence these industries are also at the top of the profit rate lists too. The only solutions to a monopoly are to regulate it (can’t see the governments regulating journal prices) or good citizens/people not motivated by profits. This I think is why we see such a disparity between not-for-profit and for-profit journals (recall for profit journals cost on average about 5x as much). Check out the story at the end of the Bergstrom and Bergstrom article I linked to for a pretty telling story of taking advantage of non-substitutability to maximize profits. Its in the section labelled “A Cautionary Tale” and describes how a 150 year old journal that had some of Darwin’s first publications is being run through a death spiral of ridiculous price increases leading to declining subscription rates just because it has name cachet.

      So I guess the raises the question of what can we do about it? For #1 and #2 I think the key is price transparency. Authors should know the prices. It might be a better incentive if they are paying the prices. But even knowing them is a good step. By highlighting the work of the Bergstrom’s and the website I am trying to do my piece towards this end. On #3 the only way to break the monopoly lies in the hands of authors. Given that there is a clear difference in behavior between for profit and not-for-profit we as authors have to reward the not-for-profits for their superior behavior.

      I 100% agree that the value added editing and figure redrawing are not the only reasons place like Nature and Science cost so much (although the figure editing is truly exceptional – they have full time professional graphic design artists). As you say the editorial material, news, article summaries etc up front cost a lot (a full time writing staff) and add a lot of value. And doing massive full color print runs which those magazines still do and few others do costs a lot too.

      Thanks for the great comments.

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  17. Great post! More to investigative journalism than just to another post in a scientific blog, that is what it is. I found this blog I don’t even remember how, but I have already added it into my favourites.

    I am a brazilian scientist, my PhD is in Plant Systematics and Evolution and currently I am a associate professor in a mid-sized public brazilian university. Our reality in an underdeveloped country is to get access to most of papers through the institutional subscription of journals.

    Sometimes the institution doesn’t subscribe a specific journal (and you really need that paper for the Discussion of a ground-breaking paper you are writing!). When this happens, I try Google Scholar. If even so the paper is not available without payment, I often send an e-mail to the corresponding author requesting a pdf copy. Until now, it has never failed. All the scientist I contacted to date sent me a copy and still said me thank you for be interested in his/her work.

    That is the way I and most of my colleagues did to get access to those “must reading” papers protected by paywalls. It is not the definitive solution, but it is an alternative.

  18. This is over a year late, but I hope it’s useful. There are two pieces of the puzzle missing here. First, the shift to online publishing imposed a whole new burden on publishers. Before, they just put the issues in the post and forgot about them (curation was the libraries’ job); now, they need huge complex websites for hosting the papers. Developing and maintaining these is a whole new costs that the publishers had to take on, and IT is not cheap.

    Second, you’ve crossed ‘content and review’ off on the expenses side. Sure, the editors and reviewers are not always paid, but the editorial office staff certainly are. Administering a round of peer review costs about $250-300. This also explains why the higher profile journals are much more expensive – their much lower acceptance rates mean that they have to review many more papers before finding ones that are acceptable. Nature and Science probably spend over $6000 on administering the peer review needed to get one paper.

    • Thanks Tim. Good to have on the ground facts from somebody who knows. But I think a couple of your points are relative/context dependent. For a startup publisher I can see a website as a major expense. But for an Elsevier or a Wiley who is spreading the cost across many years of many 100s if not 1000s of journals, not so much. Likewise, content is not free to academic journals as you point out, but lets say compared to non-academic journals or non-academic books, content is sure pretty cheap but we fail to see these cost savings in the journal prices (which is my real gripe – not to nit publisher costs – but to protest the publisher revenue cost balance for many but not all publishers in comparison to other industries).

      I think physical publishing costs of high-production-run glossy color has a lot to do with the high costs of high profile journals as well.

      And although I talk a lot about for-profit publishers as among the worst, I hasten to add, since I know your context, that I did say there are plenty of “good guy/gal” for-profit publishers out there like Allen Press or, just for example, Axios (even if Axios is only a piece of the publishing package). As was discussed in the comments, my issues is not for-profit per se, its using monopolistic power in a for profit context to extract extortionate profits.

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