Why is science publishing so damn expensive?

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I read this article today. It kicks off with a familiar complaint about the cost of journal subscriptions:

Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics (many of whom are also funded by public money) peer review it for free, and then journals charge users (again, many of whom paid for the science in the first place!) ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.

The article then goes on to suggest that Open Access is the answer, on the grounds that at least the science is then available to everyone. This is a common line of argument, but it glosses over the fact that OA journals charge a similar amount per manuscript to make their papers public – except it’s authors that are paying and not libraries.

So why is science publishing so expensive? Non-profit OA journals like PLoS ONE are devoted to reducing the cost of science publishing, so why hasn’t the OA fee at these journals been beaten down to zero?

The simple answer is that quality peer review costs money. As has been regularly pointed out, the reviewers and editors are largely free. However, the managing editors, editorial office staff, and the building they sit in are not. Editorial offices would barely be needed if authors always followed the author guidelines, if editors were able to spread the reviewer workload fairly and always to the right people, if reviewers quickly agreed and then returned high quality reviews, and everyone was fair, honest and objective all the time. In this peer review Utopia, the system would more or less run itself.

In the real world, running an efficient review process takes a lot of time and money*. The editorial office has to make sure that submissions are ready for review, check reviewers for conflicts of interest, resolve identity issues, and answer a few hundred emails per day. The managing editors monitor all papers in review and keep the process moving along. They also check over all decisions, confer with editors on issues arising, and ensure that accepted manuscripts comply with journal policies. Constant vigilance for misconduct is required. Doing all this quickly (as is now expected) takes even more effort.

So, next time you’re watching someone get upset about the high cost of science publishing, check whether they’re being chased for an overdue review or for better quality figures. If they are, they’re adding to the bill.

*journals also have to take care of typesetting, web-hosting, search tools and so on. See this list.

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About Tim Vines

I'm the managing editor of Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources.
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