Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Level Playing-Field For Publishers

Stuart Shieber has an interesting paper in PLoS Biology on the economics of open-access publishing. He observes the moral hazard implicit in the separation between the readers of peer-reviewed science and the libraries that pay the subscriptions to the publishers that make the peer review possible. His proposal to deal with this is that grant funders and institutions should make dedicated funds available to authors that can be used only for paying processing fees for open access journals. After all, he observes, these funders already support the subscriptions that allow subscription journals not to charge processing fees (although some still do charge such fees). His proposal would provide a more level playing field between subscription and open access publishing channels. Below the fold is my take on how we can measure the level-ness of this field.

Underlying Shieber's argument, and that of a related blog post is the idea that subscriptions pay for peer review and other services such as copy-editing that add value to the author's work. The question that both beg is "how effective is the subscription at paying for these services?" Shieber points to hyperinflation in journal subscriptions. Clearly, the costs of providing peer review and the related servicces have not been the cause of this hyperinflation. Elsevier makes a billion dollars a year in profit from journal publishing. None of that profit pays for peer review; it is accounted for as a cost before profit is computed. ACS pays its executives enormous salaries, but the executives don't actually review the papers or copy-edit them.

If there is to be a level playing field, the question should be how cost-effective the various publishing models are at adding value to the author's work. At a time of constrained budgets, the more cost-effective model should have a great advantage.

Here is an example of the calculation we need to do, taking Elsevier and PLoS as examples simply because I have the numbers handy. Elsevier publishes less than 400K peer-reviewed articles a year. Elsevier's revenue from journal publishing is about $2400M, so the average paper costs the academic community at least $6000 to process. Thus the average Elsevier paper costs the community more than twice as much as the most expensive PLoS paper (The processing fees for PLoS journals vary from $2900/article down to $1350).

This measure, effectively revenue per paper, is interesting but not really useful. It assumes that each paper is equally valuable, which it clearly isn't. We need to normalize the cost by the quality of the papers whose quality we are paying to enhance. Eigenfactor is described as "A measure of the overall value provided by all of the articles published in a given journal in a year", so it would be a suitable measure for this purpose. An initial attempt at this normalization would be to divide each publisher's aggregate cost by the product of the number of papers and the average eigenfactor of the publisher's journals. This would be called "Quality Adjusted Processing Cost" (QAPC).

Alas, when I tried to get the data to normalize the costs I ran into two problems:

So it would be more work than I can do right now to compute QAPC numbers for various open access and subscription publishers, but my guess is that the average Elsevier journal's eigenfactor is significantly less than the average PLoS journal's, and the average PLoS article processing cost is less than $2900, so that PLoS is likely to be far more than twice as effective at turning community dollars into added value than Elsevier. There is likely to be a significant return on the investment in computing QPAC numbers.

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