Journal subscriptions are negotiated, but article processing charges are fixed prices

Scientific publishing is moving to open access. This means that it’s moving from a subscription, reader-pays, to an author-pays model (normally termed article processing charges, or APCs).

This will have a couple of impacts:

1. Institutions which publish more and read less lose to institutions which read more and publish less. Thus, research universities will probably lose out to the pharmaceutical industry (as I’m sure that the pharmaceutical industry is proportionally reading a lot of papers, but not publishing as much).

This is not a big deal, but I thought I would mention it. Some people seem to be very angry at pharmaceutical companies all the time for not paying their fair share, but it’s a tough business and part of the point of publicly funded research is to enable downstream users (like pharmaceuticals) to flourish. Moving to APCs seems to be another move in supporting pharma (probably smaller biotech upstarts being the biggest beneficiary). Teaching-focused universities will also benefit.

2. More importantly, though, the move to APC (article processing charges) instead of subscriptions is also a move from a product that is sold at a variable price to one that is bought a fixed price.

Variable pricing (or price discrimination) is a natural feature of many of the markets that look like subscriptions, where fixed costs are more important than marginal costs (in this case, the extra cost of allowing access to the journal once the journal is done is, basically, zero).

Plane tickets and hotel rooms are less extreme cases where the price will fluctuate to attempt to charge more to those willing to pay more (typically, the wealthier; but sometimes the people willing to pay more and those counting their pennies are the same people, just in different situations: sometimes I really want a specific flight, other times I don’t even care exactly where I am going).

So, in the subscription model, some institutions will pay more. Maybe it’s not fair, but hedge funds such as Harvard will get bilked, while poorer institutions will be able to negotiate down. In the APC model, everyone will pay roughly the same (there may be some discounts for bulk purchasing, but not the variation you have today and it may even be the large institutions which will negotiate down, while the smaller players will pay full price).

Many publishers have policies to favor publications from very poor countries, charging them lower APCs. Naturally this is a good policy, but it will not be fine-grained. Universities in Bulgaria (EU member-state with a GDP per capita of 7,350 USD) are considered as wealthy as private American research universities. They will be expected to pay the same for their PlOS Biology papers.

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