Josie's Easter Weekend
If It's Spring, I Must Be Heading To MLA

Where Does The Money Come From?

In his comment to my note on Marty Frank's NEJM editorial, Marcus points to what he sees as the major flaw in Marty's argument -- that publication shouldn't be seen as something separate from the overall research process.  I think he's on the right track, although I'd give it a slightly different focus.

Marty questions the wisdom of diverting NIH funding from research grants to support the author-pays model of open access funding, and suggests the amount could be around $200 million.  Marcus responds that this is a false separation and diverting a "relatively small amount" of funding for publication should be seen as part of the same overall research process rather than a separate project altogether.

I tend to agree with Marcus in the abstract.   I find an appealing symmetry in the notion that the same sources that pay for the test tubes and reagents and animals and research assistants should pay for the dissemination of the results.  And on a per grant basis, the additional costs are indeed relatively small.

But then I think about the practicality of discussing these issues with the key decision makers at my institution -- one that is very focused on NIH-funded research and extremely concerned about the flattening of the NIH budget.    Even if Marty is only half right and it would only take $100 million to fund publication, I can see the faces of my VP for Research or Dean of Medicine getting more pinched.  They're thinking of the young investigators who are submitting their first renewal, or even their first grant as PI, and worrying about what's going to happen in the face of increasing competition for a shrinking pool of funds.  Why should those promising careers be jeopardized in pursuit of an open access goal that they're not convinced is warranted?  Marcus is right about the need to make hard choices.

Many librarians, on the other hand, have become very dismissive of the Biomed Central membership model.  They don't like the idea that the funding should come out of their budgets.  "It's nothing more than another subscription!"  Since few librarians are competing for NIH grants, the notion of taking a percent or two out of that pool to fund publication is eminently sensible.   But taking it out of library budgets is just wrong.

Peter Suber, in his comment on Marty's editorial, dismisses the Cornell study as "discredited".  I think that's a little harsh.  Whether one agrees with the specific numbers in the Cornell model or not, it seems pretty clear to me that an institution like mine, given the number of articles we publish each year, would pay more in publication costs, if it had to fund them, than it currently pays in subscriptions (or license fees) through the libraries.   The money has to come from somewhere.   

I tend to think that Marty exaggerates the negative impact of using NIH funds to cover publication costs.  But I also think that it's quite reasonable (again, in the abstract) for an institution to divert funds from library acquisitions budgets to cover those costs.  In fact, from an institutional standpoint, it probably makes more sense to do that.  After all, if an institution has been spending a million or three from the library to fund publication via subscriptions, why doesn't it make sense to use that same money to fund publication directly via open access?

Librarians who think that open access is intended to reduce the pressure on their budgets won't like that, of course. 



It's a little intimidating to have your comment and name both linked in the same sentence. I'll try to earn my keep in this comment session.

Librarians need to separate the ends from the means: Is the end merely a reduction in the serials budget? Or is it the spreading of knowledge? If the latter, we should not object to the idea of using serials budgets to support open access publishing directly.

With that said, I really do believe that publication should become a cost of doing business in grant applications. Many grants--from NIH and elsewhere--fund "overhead." There's lots of wiggle room in that space, perhaps enough to publish an article that anyone online can read.


I tend to be a bit more dismissive then Scott of both parties in this nonsensical (in my view) debate.

I agree with Marcus, to a point. I believe Marty does overstate his case a bit. And even if Marty’s numbers were correct, so what? Whether the money comes from Peter (author) or Paul (reader) will not change the cost of disseminating information (immediately). The issue never has been nor ever will be open versus closed access. The real issue is:

The inflation rate of scholarly publishing has far exceeded the average inflation rate for nearly two decades. Why is that?
What impact will the new technology (and methodology of payment) have on the scholarly publishing dynamic (will it increase or decrease the scholarly publishing inflation rate?)

The method of payment author pays vs. reader pays is a moot point and has no relevance in answering the above two questions.

The answer to the first question, lies in the inelasticity of supply and demand. Scholarly publishing is dominated by a couple of large conglomerates – who will go nameless, but you know who they are. This domination by a few companies gives those providers economic power to increase prices more then the average inflation rate (in other words, inelastic supply). On the other hand, the tenure system which fosters a publish or die atmosphere increases the demand for scholarly literature. This fact, in conjunction with the fact that most scholarly publications are paid for by third parties and not the end user, increases the demand for scholarly literature (in other words, inelastic demand). The result, an environment that gives pricing power to the provider and leads to an inflation rate higher than the average for all goods and services.

The business model used to generate the revenues to pay for the process is entirely irrelevant to the above stated problem. The real question is; will open access decrease or increase the inflation rate of scholarly publishing? The answer to that question is unknown, at this time. It could very well be that open access could lead to a higher inflation rate for scholarly publishing by reinforcing the power of the two big players. Users would then be worse off then before. On the other hand, OA may be just the mechanism that will break the economic power of the two big publishing conglomerates leading to lower prices all around (irrespective of who pays the tab).

With that said, I do have one concern about open access. If authors pay, what mechanism will be put into place to insure that those individuals or organizations with the most money don’t game the system by paying publishers more money to publish their material? The library community focuses on NIH funded grants. NIH research represents a small minority of the research published each year. In the case of medicine, what would stop a pharmaceutical company (for example) from paying a little extra to insure that their study gets published first (or more prominently)? Or worse, what would stop a company from paying a publisher to insure that another company’s study is never published? It can’t happen you say. You have to remember that these studies mean money. An article in the NEJM (for example) can and does influence the stock prices of pharmaceutical companies on a regular basis. When billions of dollars in assets are in play, you can be sure there will be a very strong incentive to game the system.

As for the Cornell Study, rather then discredited it seems perfectly logical to me. There are always winners and losers in every system. Would anyone argue the point that there are far more readers then authors? Simple arithmetic would dictate that if you move to a system where a smaller number of people pay that group will then have to pay a larger amount per entity – all things being equal.

As for the belief that access to scholarly literature is so important it should be made available free to everyone, forgive me, I just don’t buy that. It is a nice sentiment, but completely impractical. Nothing in life is free. Someone has to pay for this service. There is a cost associated with the publishing service that will not disappear just because we wish it so. You can legitimately argue the methodology of payment (reader vs. author) but in the end, someone must pay.


Definitely someone must pay for publishing. I don't hear too much "information wants to be free" these days. The questions are, who pays? and how?

Mark D always performs a public service for librarians; we must learn much more about economics! The problem is that nobody knows what the future will hold, since we are in uncharted territory. I support philosophical arguments for OA strongly, but hopefully not so strongly that I could not change my mind in the face of evidence of unintended consequences. The jury is still out.

Peter Suber

Dear Scott,

When I said that the Cornell study was discredited, I gave two specific reasons why. It presupposes that all OA journals charge author-side fees and it presupposes that universities would pay all of them. Both assumptions are false. Fewer than half (47%) of OA journals charge author-side fees and already funding agencies pay far more of them than universities.

When you say that your institution would pay more in author-side fees than it now pays in subscriptions, you seem to be making the same two mistakes. If you have access to good numbers, can you take into account (1) that the majority of OA journals do not charge any fees at all and (2) that some large percentage of the remaining fees would be paid by funding agencies? When the Cornell spreadsheet is altered to take these facts into account, Cornell would pay less and I suspect that the same will be true at every other university. In any case, I hope you'll try it if you have access to the numbers and report what you find.

BTW, for the record, I advocate that universities should start to pay the fees charged by OA journals (i.e. by the subset charging fees). But the evidence to date suggests that universities will pay less in author-side fees than in subscriptions, not more.


Open Access Project Director, Public Knowledge
Research Professor of Philosophy, Earlham College
Senior Researcher, SPARC

T Scott

Peter -- Your point is well taken. The caveat in my remark is that my university would pay more "if it had to fund" the publication costs and, as you rightly point out, that may not be the case depending on where authors choose to publish.

But I was thinking less of current (or future) OA journals that may be set up in such a way that they don't have to charge article fees (as is the case with the Journal of the Medical Library Association) than of the challenges faced by the existing scholarly society journals. For them to eliminate subscription revenue and survive requires finding another source for that revenue and it is likely to come, in some fashion, from the research institutions, whether that be from grant funds or other sources. Part of the question, I think, is whether we can find a way to transition to open access that keeps the societies that depend significantly on subscription revenue from collapsing.

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