I am interested to know the cost of publishing an academic article. I do not mean in the simple sense of "what does a given journal charge an author to publish?" or "what does an association or publisher charge a library for access to the journal?"

Instead, I want to know the actual costs of translating a manuscript into a final publication (for web or print). This matters for open science - and open access specifically - because there is an enormous amount of debate about the financing models for open access journals. The two dominant models are one where the end-user pays (library, reader, etc.), which is often seen as antithetical to open science, and one where the author pays a fee after manuscript acceptance. Neither the charges paid by libraries nor the charges paid by authors necessarily illustrate the true cost of publishing an article (due to "prestige", between-publisher variation, profit margins, journal bundling, discounts, etc.).

So, what is the actual cost? And what are components of that cost (e.g., copyediting, typesetting, server space and internet bandwidth, etc.)? In short, if an author (or someone else) were to express academic publishing costs on a per-article basis, what would that number be?

migrated from openscience.stackexchange.com Aug 21 '15 at 20:36

up vote 53 down vote accepted

Ubiquity Press breaks down their £300 ($500) APC as follows:

Ubiquity Press' graphic showing breakdown of their APC. © Ubiquity Press

  • 38% indirect costs for things not related to the publishing of a single paper but which are needed for the business (£114 or $190)
  • 34% covers editorial and production aspects, which appears to be the costs associated with producing the paper, managing submissions, responding to authors, preparing proofs, typesetting, XML etc. (£102 or $170)
  • 16% is a waiver premium charged so they can offer 0 or low APCs to people who genuinely cannot pay (£48 or $80)
  • 8% is used to pay for indexing, archival (in case they go bust), DOI etc (£24 or $40)
  • 4% goes towards costs of billing you and taking payment (£12 or $20)

Depending on what you consider to be the actual publishing costs (here probably the 34% editorial & production costs + 8% Indexing & Archiving) you would be looking at ~ £126 or $210.

Ubiquity don't break their indirect costs down into server/platform costs; this all goes into the 38% indirect cost column.

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    This is excellent. I'm now left to ponder why APC's at general, high-profile journals (Science, PLoS, etc.) tend to fall in the $1000-$5000 range. – Thomas Aug 5 '15 at 20:40
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    @Thomas a combination of very high profit margins for the major publishers (30-40%+, higher than almost every other industry) and systematic incompetence and inefficiency. PLoS is a little different: they charge more in order to invest heavily in outreach, campaigning, and waiving fees for those who can't afford them. – Richard Smith-Unna Aug 16 '15 at 19:37
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    Is it ever written explicitly that those percentages sum up to £300? From what they write, they could sum up to £1, and the other £299 is their profit. – Federico Poloni May 2 at 14:31
  • I don't know how accurate this chart is. Now apparently the APCs of Ubiquity "start at only £400" according to the updated website, whereas according to this answer (written two years ago) it used to be £300. But the chart is identical! I'm not saying it's BS, but I would be stunned if over the course of two years, their APC increased by 33% and yet somehow the breakdown of costs would be exactly identical. – user2357 Aug 16 at 15:39
  • @NajibIdrissi The figure is in % allocation of the APC - I did the breakdown in currency terms on the basis of the GBP300 APC. It's not hard to believe that on average their costs remain roughly in the proportions stated in the figure, with each bit of the pie being a little bit large now because they charge 400 not 300 pounds. I doubt it's changed much otherwise I'd have expected Ubiquity to update it when they changed the section on APCs. – Gavin Simpson Aug 16 at 17:51

I know this doesn't refer strictly to the final version of a paper, but the arXiv pre-print server provides a useful bit of information to contribute to this discussion. According to its website, it receives around 76,000 publications per year. Its operating costs are on the order of $826,000 per year.

You do the maths, and it comes to just over $10/article. This is without any of the bells and whistles that come with traditional publishing, but provides a nice baseline estimate of what it takes to publish a research article online.

It depends to an extent on how technically-savvy the author community is, and thus what services they need or do not need to be done for them.

For computer science journals, the cost of production is extremely low because authors can typically be expected to do their own typesetting.

An efficient, peer-reviewed, top quality journal can thus be run at a cost of just $6.50 per paper. There is an excellent, detailed breakdown of this figure given by Stuart Shieber about the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) here.

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    Might be illuminating to get the perspective of the Journal of Statistical Software which has been running out UCLA for well over a decade. AFAIK main cost was a RA running the editorial desk plus custom programming. But JSS is about to move ... – Dirk Eddelbuettel Aug 15 '15 at 21:33
  • I agree, that would be very illuminating. The more data from a variety of journals and disciplines the better! – rmounce Aug 17 '15 at 13:29

The closest thing that I was aware of (before reading the other answers - thanks for these) was a report about SciELO. It states that, for Brazilian journals within their portfolio, it costs about USD 200-600 per article from submission via peer review and publication to dissemination and archiving.

It also gives a more detailed breakdown:

Considering the overall operation of the SciELO Brazilian collection, including the costs related to technical co-operation for the development and interoperation of the other national and thematic collections, the online up-to-date publication of the entire collection averages about US$90 per each new article. This estimate includes the actual publishing of the new article ($56 per article, or 62% of the total cost); the operation of the SciELO network portal ($4.20, or 5%), which provides access and retrieval to all of the collections, journals, and articles; SciELO governance, management, and technical co-operation ($2.90, or 3%); the development and maintenance of the technological platform ($22.70, or 25%); and the marketing, dissemination, and expansion of the network ($4.20, or 5%). Alternatively, if the complete editorial flow, from the reception of manuscripts, the peer-review process, editing, and the online SciELO publication, is taken into account, the total cost for each new SciELO Brazilian collection article is estimated to be between US$200 and $600.

The cheapest journals are typically those controlled directly by academics themselves, although they're not necessarily the most efficient.

Some universities run their own OJS instances, either in house or with some external contractors. Hosting often relies on existing infrastructure and staff time is often borrowed from employees the institution already has, so the costs are rarely easy to calculate, but we can figure out the order of magnitude.

For example, take the University of Bologna and the University of Milano: they publish 28 and 23 journals respectively (mostly in humanities), for a total of over 400 and over 600 articles per year respectively (according to DOAJ). For context, this size is comparable to top 15 publishers of OA Italian publications, where the biggest pure OA publisher has around 600 articles per year and the others vary between 500 and 2000.

They're both run with approximately 1 FTE "reserved" employee or less, as far as I know, which costs around 30 k€/year considering the national contract and pension contributions. Additionally they spend a few thousands euro/year on technical support. Even if you triple that amount to account for inefficiencies and unstated costs, that gives you less than 200 €/article in costs. Of course it's just an example for their case.

Some other publishers (typically public research entities or consortia) are transparent enough that we know their costs to provide certain services. See for instance:

"The Cost of Publishing an Electronic Journal" is an old article, but it is still worth a read.

In short: with 5 papers per issue, the cost per paper is around 1000$, for a law journal.

By comment: the price is probably lower for fields where authors are using latex or similar text processing tools.

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    Can you include more of the relevant information from the article, such as the cost breakdown? – HDE 226868 Aug 6 '15 at 14:34
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    Adjusting for inflation, that's 1500 USD today. The paper considers 2 to 5 articles per issue typical -- different from most other disciplines. – henning May 3 at 7:24
  • Why does the number of papers per issue make any difference to electronic journals? (for that matter, what does "issue" even mean...) – Flyto Aug 28 at 14:43

As one might expect, the price of publishing depends on how good a job the publisher wants to do.

The absolute minimum is around a few tens of dollars. This means the publisher passes copyediting and typesetting to the author, they don't do marketing, they don't attend conferences, they use Open Journal Systems (a free editorial management system that's rather less powerful and difficult to use compared to commercial ones), they don't do plagiarism checks, they leave running the journal entirely up to the editorial board, and so on. By "leave running the journal entirely up to the editorial board", I mean that they passively wait for instructions from the board and don't do anything on their own initiative. If you see a journal whose website looks like it hasn't been updated in years, that's an example. The publisher's staff-to-journal ratio is very low (or they simply don't have as motivated/confident/educated journal staff).

Including all of the above, the minimum increases to ~$500, still with wide uncertainties because a lot depends on human costs. If a publisher is based in a country like India for example, they can have significantly lower production costs than if they're based in the UK. The UK publisher can still outsource production to India, but they also have to pay their employees in the UK which is usually significantly more expensive than if they had been located in India. Acquisition costs is another big question mark, since again it depends on how good a job you want to do. Having PhD scientists as editorial staff (e.g. Physical Review Letters) makes things a lot more expensive.

I can't easily provide a source for this since it's based on my experience working in publishing. Still, you can get an indirect indication from article processing charges in open access journals. The absolute lowest non-zero APCs are a few tens of dollars (mostly coming from predatory OA publishers). Among non-predatory publishers the lowest APCs are a few hundred dollars. Ubiquity Press is such a publisher. When I visited them a few years ago they seemed to be taking the middle road, doing all the basic stuff but not doing the more expensive top end.

Note this excludes journals with $0 APCs. Journals that charge nothing generally have external funding. Depending on how much funding that is, they might be able to perform any or all of the activities described above.

  • Less powerful than which commercial software exactly? – Nemo May 3 at 6:22
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    "Leave running the journal entirely up to the editorial board" is a feature, not a bug. – Nemo May 3 at 6:27
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    Also, I agree on the first line. But for the rest you should at least check that it cannot be easily proven false. Publishers of APC-free open access journals exist, which also take care of marketing etc. The cost is often known. See for instance Open Library of Humanities (OLH): blogs.openaire.eu/?p=2940 – Nemo May 3 at 6:27
  • @Nemo such as Editorial Manager, which is more powerful than OJS (last I checked). Leaving a journal entirely to the editorial board is in my opinion a bad thing. Of course the publisher does not interfere directly with peer review, but there's also things like choosing which articles to feature on the journal's website, writing editorials, and find topics on for invited reviews. One can leave all these to the editorial board (and risk the editorial board doing nothing) or actively move them along. – Allure May 3 at 6:49
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    +1 If you see a journal whose website looks like it hasn't been updated in years – GEdgar Nov 4 at 13:43

Most of these answers deal with small jounrals. Most "glam" journals are much more tight-lipped about where all your money goes.

However, eLife (which aims to be glam publication) has had a go at this here and here.

They divide their costs into "technology and innovation" (22%) and "publishing costs" (78%). They further divide "publishing costs" into fixed and marginal (i.e. per article), and claim that per-article costs are £1,798. They claim that their APC covers only the per-article part of their costs, with the rest coming from the institutional funders (Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughes, Max Planck).

Of this about they say about 50% goes on paying editors. eLife is unusual in that not only do they pay their full time editorial staff, but they also pay 39 senior academic editors and 300 reviewing editors for their time (or actually I suspect they buy that time off their employers). This is about 18hrs per article of a professor level editors time I reckon. Seems generous even if that's 1 hour of a full time editor, 2 hours of a senior academic editor and 15hrs of a reviewing editor.

Then there is "Staff and outsourcing" being non-editorial staff "involved in handling submissions and published articles, and outsourced service providers" at about £350. If they publish 1,400 articles a year, I reckon this works out at about 10 full time staff on a postdoc type salary.

Finally there is "online platforms" and "fee collection and waivers". Each at just over £300.

These numbers are all approximate because I'm putting together stuff from two different articles, dealing with two different years and in some cases estimating from graphs.

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