Savings through open access

Read time: 6 mins

The scientific community produces and offers original articles. The scientific community ensures peer review, a critical and anonymous analysis by experts and colleagues. The scientific community, lastly, buys the magazines. It's quite absurd - says Michael Eisen, an American - that the scientific community does everything and then only few others gain from this. The 'others' are the publishers of the 25,000 scientific journals recognized in the international metric system. There are three publishers - Elsevier, Springer and Wiley - who control 40% of scientific articles published in the world.
Michael Eisen is a molecular biologist at the University of California and, above all, a prophet of open access: i.e. the idea that everyone, and not just researchers, should have free access to the results of scientific research. This is not just an idea, he is also putting it into practice: in 2000, Eisen was among the founders of the Public Library of Science (PLoS): a non-profit American publishing company that publishes seven different scientific journals on the net with peer review and strictly open access.
In recent weeks, the open access issue has returned to public attention since President Barack H. Obama has determined that, in the United States, public agencies with a budget of more than 100 million dollars can only fund the research of scientists who are committed to publishing their results in open access. The complete and free access must be guaranteed no later than 12 months after the first publication. Although currently open access scientific articles represent only 11% of those published in the world, many analysts argue that this policy of complete openness will alter the foundations of a system that has become consolidated in over three centuries of activity. Elsevier - for example - is the publishing house that, almost four hundred years ago in 1638, regardless of the possible problems with Catholic authorities, published in Leiden, Netherlands the "Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Revolving Around Two New Sciences by Galileo Galilei, a prisoner in Arcetri."

In short, the shock is powerful and the implications for the communication system of science are remarkable. It is for this reason that, on Thursday 28 March, the British magazine Nature had a special insert with many discussions that analyzed the numerous facets of open access communication. The special insert was titled A New Page. The allusion to the next revolution venture in science communication could not be more explicit. The reasons that push Michael Eisen and many others to insist on complete and free communication of scientific results are many and of a different nature. Ethical: public research is carried out with taxpayers' money and its results should be available to everyone. Sociological: science is created, as Paolo Rossi the historian of ideas would say, by breaking down the "paradigm of secrecy" and accepting to communicate everything to everyone. Epistemological: if everyone can access everything in a world in which researchers exceed 7 million people, scientific progress can become faster and more extensive.

But there is also a purely economic dimension to the problem. With open access scientific community and the taxpayers can save considerable resources, as explained in a lengthy report by the editor of Nature, Richard Van Noorden. Resources that can be committed elsewhere. Meanwhile, the resources are really huge. According to Outsell, an analyst firm in Burlingame, California, the scientific publishing industry in 2011 had a turnover of at least $ 9.4 billion, publishing roughly 1.8 million articles in English. Basically, each article published produced 5.000 dollars. The Wiley company states that the gain which derives from publishing magazines, before taxes, is 40%. The Elsevier company boasts a 37% gain before taxes. On average, state the Outsell analysts, a publisher that is owned by a public association (such as Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) makes profits equal to 20% of sales, an academic publisher (for example the Chicago University Press) reaches 25%, while a commercial publisher (for example Nature) makes on average earnings equal to 35% of turnover. The actual cost to publish a scientific article in a paper magazine is between 3,500 and 4,000 dollars. And, in fact, Diane Sullenberger, executive director of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Washington, says that if her magazine were to become open access she would have to find a way to cover $ 3,700 per article. However the managers of Nature state that the cost per article for their magazine is between 30,000 to $ 40,000 per article. The difference is due to the fact that PNAS is a public company and Nature belongs to a private publisher. The costs of employees and associates. Furthermore Nature publishes only 8% of the articles it receives. But it still has to evaluate (with rather high costs) the remaining 92%. With reference to the subscription-based journals, the author doesn't pay anything. It's the reader (who pays the subscription) that forks out the money. When it comes to open access the conditions are reversed. It's the author that pays and the reader reads free of charge. So if PNAS were to become open access, every author (or group of authors) would be asked to pay 3.700 dollars. A considerable amount, but not enormous. And what's more it's the scientific institutions that pay, the same institutions that actually pay for the subscriptions. The system would save at least 30% of the costs. The situation is different for magazines like Nature. The cost for each article would be exorbitant. And only a few research groups could afford it. Even though publishing on Nature provides authors with a very high return (in the form of H index, index value). But the open access newspapers that are currently active actually make life easier for authors. It is true that an article published in a high quality magazine, such as Cell Reports, can cost the author up to 5,000 dollars. But the same article can be published on PLoS ONE or BioMed Central for only 1.350 (or, at the most, 2.250) dollars.

Let's face it, these are exorbitant prices. The PeerJ magazine allows its authors to publish an unlimited number of articles by paying only 299 dollars. Ok, now that sounds like the right price. For the simple fact that open access journals are, in general, only on the web and can thus bring down the price of paper and distribution. Many open access publishing houses, therefore, make money. Hindawi, which has a catalog of 523 journals with peer review, all of which are open access, makes a profit which amounts to 50% of its turnover.
All of these figures lead us to five, provisional, considerations:

  1. The open access system is extremely (up to ten times) more economic than the present 'payment' system .
  2. The convenience is such that, quite probably, private publishers will have to move towards open access if they want to survive. Regardless of government's decisions.
  3. Is it right for open access journals to ask for publishing costs that are up to ten times higher than the actual costs? 
  4. The open access system favors the network.
  5. It is quite probable that in the future there will no longer be scientific paper magazines.

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