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Open Access Fees

The “open access fee” is a charming little aspect of academic publishing where I have the option to pay, for example, $3000 to the IEEE, and then they’ll poke a hole in their paywall so that anyone can download a paper without paying. The fee is per paper. Here’s a list of some publishers’ fees. I find the specific numbers to be interesting. Why is Cell Press $5000, IEEE $3000, and AIP $1350? A few guesses:

  • One publisher set the fee to an arbitrary value and then the rest of them chose fees in the same ballpark, but a bit higher or lower depending on whether they want to appear to be more or less prestigious.
  • The fee is comfortably larger than the total expected future value of the closed access version of the publication.
  • The fee is set to maximize short-term profits.

Of course, the vast majority of academic publications have a total future value that is near zero. That is because nobody is going to read them, open access or not. Thus, my guess is that if very many people decide to pay the open access fee, it’s a major windfall for the publisher (not that they really need it — Michael Nielsen reports that in 2009 Elsevier made a profit of 1.1 billion dollars on a revenue of 3.2 billion dollars). On the other hand, there will be some publications that are downloaded a lot of times, and the publisher stands to lose out if these are open access. But my guess is that the percentage of publications whose future value exceeds $3000 is negligible.

A perhaps hidden advantage of the open access fees is that if people buy into the idea, it’ll tend to discourage some of the massive over-publication that is currently making the CS publishing system a not-very-fun place to be. But I’m guessing that most people will recognize the inherently bad value provided by these fees, and will not buy in. In CS, at least, the culture is to make papers available on personal and/or institutional web pages — in many cases this is permitted by publishers, though there are a lot of tricky details.

{ 12 } Comments

  1. Giuseppe Lipari | November 2, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Hi John,

    nice and interesting blog!

    I suspect the opens access fees are because they (the big publishers) are seeing their revenues decreasing in favour of pure open access publishers, so they are proposing a mixed model, where the authors can choose.

    I don’t think it makes much sense: the library of my university buys subscriptions to IEEE, Elsevier, Wiley and others (a huge amount of money!), and these subscriptions are usually bundles of many hundreds of journals.

    With this model a) the libraries will not take advantage of the mixed model b) the authors will pay for almost nothing because their paper is going to be available anyway through libraries subscriptions.

    So I really do not understand where is the deal for us (the taxpayers).

  2. Adam | November 2, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    In practice, what can a publisher do if I put my own papers on my website? Can they sue me for disseminating my own work?

    Another issue is that, in CS, authors do their own typesetting and the publishers do almost nothing – in my opinion they are almost worthless. In life sciences, publishers at least typeset (and, in good journals, help with editing). In CS, because conferences are so dominant, and proceedings are increasingly just digital, I see almost no reason why people would not just ignore the publishers altogether (and publish proceerings for example on arXive)

  3. regehr | November 2, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Adam, you generally retain the right to put your papers on your own web site, but as I said the details are complicated. For example, the IEEE does not permit you to distribute *their* version, but rather it has to be one that you prepare.

    I do not know of anyone being sued by a publisher over this.

    Regarding publishers being almost worthless, I’d put it much more strongly. Elsevier, for example, makes enormous profits. Yet most of the papers they publish are based on public funding, and also the reviewers are unpaid, and most editors are unpaid. So the relationship is highly parasitic. The professional societies like ACM and IEEE at least put revenues back into the community, mainly.

    Regarding putting papers into arXiv, there are two major problems. First, you can’t get a professor job this way, and once you get the job you can’t get promoted to associate or full professor. Second, there is no peer review infrastructure surrounding arXiv. I don’t think it will take too long to fix this second problem, but the first one is very difficult to work around.

  4. regehr | November 2, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Adam, I should have added that I completely agree with your sentiments. It’s just hard to get there from here, especially when Elsevier and friends are willing to spend some fraction of those billions to protect their comfy ecosystem. Also, academics are woefully conservative about changes like this.

  5. Adam | November 2, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    About peer review and arXiv. What if conference PCs still worked exactly as they do today, peer reviewed the papers etc, and then instead of sending the pdfs to publishers, just put a ‘conference proceedings’ file on arXiv?

    Ultimately, your credibility in academia comes from your reputation amongst your peers not your status with publishers.

    In fact, I’ve been told that some fields of CS have already made the move – for example, supposedly *all* important material in category theory happens on the categories mailing list. This is a nightmare for newcomers of course and can be applied only to certain disciplines. (BTW, can someone more knowledgeable in the subject confirm or debunk the rumour above?)

  6. regehr | November 2, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Adam, I think what you suggest (proceedings placed on arXiv) is a great next step. I haven’t seen it happening in systems or compilers, but it should definitely happen.

    But I’d also like to see the conference/journal system at least partially move to a more open and distributed model where peer reviewing can happen in an unscheduled, unstructured fashion, for example on arXiv. For example, I submit stuff on my own schedule, people review it on theirs, and then once a year conference chairs look over the papers that have attracted some interest and some good reviews by good people, and “bless” these as a conference proceedings. There are a lot of details to iron out, obviously.

  7. regehr | November 2, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I should add that I’m also perfectly happy with the USENIX model where all proceedings are freely downloadable.

    ACM, IEEE, and the big corporate publishers will have to adapt significantly.

  8. Lindsey Kuper | November 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    But I’d also like to see the conference/journal system at least partially move to a more open and distributed model where peer reviewing can happen in an unscheduled, unstructured fashion, for example on arXiv. For example, I submit stuff on my own schedule, people review it on theirs, and then once a year conference chairs look over the papers that have attracted some interest and some good reviews by good people, and “bless” these as a conference proceedings. There are a lot of details to iron out, obviously.

    One of the most important details would be figuring out how anonymous reviewing would work under those circumstances. If reviews were anonymous, how would anyone know if they were “by good people”? And it seems that double-blind reviewing wouldn’t be possible unless everyone submitted papers publicly and anonymously. (Of course, a lot of venues aren’t double-blind now.)

  9. regehr | November 2, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lindsey, this is a pretty interesting problem. How about, when I submit a review, I grant permission for a small group of designated “area editors” to know my identity?

  10. David Wagner | November 4, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Regarding IEEE, I’m afraid it does not appear to be correct that IEEE allows you to put your paper on your personal web site.

    arlier this year, IEEE changed its copyright policy to forbid authors from making the final copy of their paper available on their web page. The new policy states: “Authors shall not post the final, published versions of their papers.”

    I believe this is contrary to the interests of the scholarly community. See Matt Blaze’s blog entry for more elaboration. ( http://www.crypto.com/blog/copywrongs/ )

  11. Beetle B. | November 4, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    regehr said:

    “For example, the IEEE does not permit you to distribute *their* version, but rather it has to be one that you prepare.”

    David said:

    “I’m afraid it does not appear to be correct that IEEE allows you to put your paper on your personal web site.”

    In a sense, both are wrong, although David’s comment is more nuanced.

    From the FAQ (http://www.ieee.org/documents/authorversionfaq.pdf), we can see that:

    The IEEE allows you to put online the “accepted” version. This is NOT the version you submit (or the one you prepare), but the version after all changes (including the one’s suggested by referees) have been made.

    Technically, David is right in that you can’t put the final PUBLISHED version online. However, you can put the version that is final in *content*. Asking for more is simply quibbling.

  12. David Wagner | November 9, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the correction, Beetle B. I appreciate it.