Comments on “On the marginal cost of scholarly communication”

by Thomas Arildsen

A new science publisher seems to have appeared recently, or publisher is probably not the right word… is apparently neither a journal nor a publisher per se. Rather, they seem to be focusing on developing a new publishing platform that provides a modern science publishing solution, built web-native from the bottom up.

The idea feels right and in my opinion, Standard Analytics (the company behind could very likely become an important player in a future where I think journals will to a large extent be replaced by recommender systems and where papers can be narrowly categorised by topic rather than by where they were published. Go check out their introduction to their platform afterwards…

A few days ago, I became aware that they had published an article or blog post about “the marginal cost of scholarly communication” in which they examine what it costs as a publisher to publish scientific papers in a web-based format. This is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion of what is actually a “fair cost” of open access publishing, considering the very pricey APCs that some publishers charge (see for example Nature Publishing Group). In estimating this marginal cost they define

the minimum requirements for scholarly communication as: 1) submission, 2) management of editorial workflow and peer review, 3) typesetting, 4) DOI registration, and 5) long-term preservation.

They collect data on what these services cost using available vendors of such services and alternatively consider what they would cost if you assume the publisher has software available for performing the typesetting etc. (perhaps they have developed it themselves or have it available as free, open-source software). For the case where the all services are bought from vendors, they find that the marginal cost of publishing a paper is between $69 and $318. For the case where the publisher is assumed to have all necessary software available and basically only needs to pay for server hosting and registration of DOIs, the price is found to be dramatically lower – between $1.36 and $1.61 per paper.

Marginal Cost

This all sounds very interesting, but I found this marginal cost a bit unclear. They define the marginal cost of publishing a paper as follows:

The marginal cost only takes into account the cost of producing one additional scholarly article, therefore excluding fixed costs related to normal business operations.

OK, but here I get in doubt what they categorise as normal business operations. One example apparently is the membership cost to CrossRef for issuing DOIs:

As our focus is on marginal cost, we excluded the membership fee from our calculations.

However, in a box at the end of the article they mention eLife as a specific example:

Based on their 2014 annual report (eLife Sciences, 2014), eLife spent approximately $774,500 on vendor costs (equivalent to 15% of their total expenses). Given that eLife published 800 articles in 2014, their marginal cost of scholarly communication was $968 per article.

I was not able to find the specific amount of $774,500 myself in eLife’s annual report but, assuming it is correct, how do we know whether for example CrossRef membership costs are included in eLife’s vendor costs? If they are, this estimate of eLife’s marginal cost of publication is not comparable to marginal costs calculated in Standard Analytics’ paper as mentioned above.

We could also discuss how relevant the marginal cost is, at least if you are in fact

an agent looking to start an independent, peer-reviewed scholarly journal

I mean, in that situation you are actually looking to start from scratch and have to take all those “fixed costs related to normal business operations” into account…

I should also mention that I have highlighted the quotes above from the paper via here.

Typesetting Solutions

Standard Analytics seem to assume that typesetting will have to include conversion from Microsoft Word, LaTeX etc. and suggest Pandoc as a solution and ast the same time point out that there is a lack of such freely available solutions for those wishing to base their journal on their own software platform. If a prospective journal were to restrict submissions to be in LaTeX format, there are also solutions such as LateXML and ShareLaTeX‘s open source code could be used for this purpose as well. Other interesting solutions are also being developed and I think it is worth keeping an eye on initiatives like PeerJ’s paper-now. Finally, it could also be an idea to simply ask existing free, open-access journals how they handle these things (which I assume they do in a very low-cost way). One example I can think of is the Journal of Machine Learning Research.

Other Opinions

I just became aware that Cameron Neylon also wrote a post: The Marginal Costs of Article Publishing – Critiquing the Standard Analytics Study about Standard Analytics’ paper which I will go and read now…