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Open access and academic journals: the publishers respond

Fees charged by academic publishers to access research journals have caused no small amount of consternation among readers…

Much of academic publishing has shifted online but that has created new costs, the publishers say. Flickr/rosefirerising

Fees charged by academic publishers to access research journals have caused no small amount of consternation among readers of scholarly research and fuelled the rise of the Open Access movement.

As part of a series on Open Access, The Conversation asked two top journal publishers – Wiley (which operates Wiley Online Library) and Elsevier (publishers of The Lancet and Cell) – for their side of the story.

Wiley’s answers were provided by Steven Miron, Senior Vice President of Scientific, Technical, Medical and Scholarly, Wiley.

Elsevier’s answers were provided by Dr. Alicia Wise, Director Universal Access, Elsevier.

What is your position on Open Access databases and institutional repositories like those at MIT, Harvard, and other academic institutions?

Wiley: Researchers publish their work in a variety of ways. In deciding how best to do so, they can choose rapid communication methods to their fellow researchers or slower, more formal publication in a high-status journal.

We support the idea that researchers should be able to publish their work wherever they wish to achieve their intended aims.

The decision to submit a manuscript for publication in a peer-review journal reflects the researcher’s desire to obtain credentialing for the work described. The publishing process, from peer review through distribution and enabling discovery, adds value, which is manifest in the final version of the article and formally validates the research and the researcher.

This process requires investment on the part of the publisher and we wish to recover our investments and ultimately profit from them. Naturally, we are concerned that posting the final versions of published articles in Open Access and institutional repositories lacking viable business models may have an adverse impact on the business of scholarly communication. We also recognise the desires of academic institutions to showcase the work of their faculty and are engaging with them to find mutually satisfactory solutions.

Elsevier: We believe the voluntary posting of manuscripts (but not the final published article of record in pdf form) is an acceptable practice for authors, and that both institutions and publishers should respect their choices. As a matter of principle, we believe authors should be able to publish wherever they choose without undue restriction.

But when an institution mandates the systematic posting of manuscripts, it is important that we work with them to ensure that their requirements are sustainable for the underlying journal. That’s why we created agreements with funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, to enable authors to comply in ways that we believe will be sustainable. We’re currently setting up and testing similar agreements for individual institutions.

What are you doing to boost access to scholarly work?

Wiley: Wiley’s mission is to be a valued and respected provider of content products and services, in print and digitally, that help our customers achieve their personal and professional objectives while making important advances in knowledge and understanding around the world.

Our focus is on continuing to deliver high-quality content in multiple formats that can be accessed anytime and anywhere, through products and services. Wiley Online Library provides seamless, integrated access to more than 4 million articles from 1,500 journals, 10,000 books, and hundreds of multi-volume reference works, laboratory protocols, and databases, and delivered in excess of 150 million full-text accesses in the last 12 months.

Wiley offers a variety of options for gaining access to the content offered via Wiley Online Library, including negotiated licenses for institutional collection access, institutional subscriptions at the title level; Pay-Per-View and prepaid article tokens. Wiley customers choose negotiated licenses for access to journal collections because they are able to provide their users with access to many more journals than those to which they subscribe at a fraction of the regular price.

Collection licenses continue to increase as a proportion of our business.

The spotlight on individual consortia or institutions moving away from negotiated licenses portrays an unrealistic picture, from Wiley’s experience.

Wiley Online Library offers a considerable amount of content for free. Any user may search across all the content in the service and browse to the abstract or chapter summary level free of charge. Users may browse free sample journal issues. A number of titles offer free access to their backfile of older content and over a third of our journals offer the OnlineOpen option, which allows the author to pay a fee to ensure that the article is made freely available to all upon publication.

Wiley also participates in the Research4Life program, the Emergency Access Initiative, the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERii).

Elsevier: For starters, access levels today are quite high. In fact, 93% of academic researchers say they are happy with their access levels. There are still access gaps, however, and we’re working on closing these by, for example, crafting licenses that extend access to small business or secondary students or by populating online lending services. We also work with funding bodies and institutions on sustainable posting policies and showcase their research outputs.

We currently have around 1100 journal titles offering authors the option to sponsor open access to their articles. We also have 31 titles that offer a delayed access option and three author-pays journals. In the world’s poorest countries, we provide free or low-cost access to scientific information through Research 4Life, of which Elsevier is a founding partner and leading contributor.

Some have argued that the fees charged to access individual articles from most journals are too high. Why are those costs at the level they are at? What do those costs cover?

Wiley: The published version of a research article has been shepherded through a rigorous peer review process, validating its importance, authenticity, and credibility. Publishers bear the costs of organising that process and incorporate the revisions recommended through the peer review process, copy-edit, typeset in XML, add links to citations and make the article more easily discoverable through the many search engines used by readers.

Moreover, the cost of accessing an individual article for customers paying annual subscription fees has steadily declined since journals began to be published online. Low cost options for individuals without access to library collections journals exist such as DeepDyve, with whom Wiley partners, which offers article rentals for as low as U.S. $0.99.

Elsevier: Elsevier and other publishers provide essential services to authors such as registration, validation, dissemination and archiving. As the number of journals and articles expand, our customers are deriving more value from their license agreements that provide access to more content.

When our customers do their analysis, however, they discover that the per-article cost basis on annual subscription fees is far lower than initially perceived. The average price paid per article downloaded has fallen substantially since the late 1990s. This is a result of our moving away from individual print subscriptions in favour of institutional licenses for a broader range of journals on SciVerse ScienceDirect, Elsevier’s online database for full text articles.

Some have argued that the internet has driven down production costs and prices should be cut accordingly. What is your view?

Wiley: Many expenses of initial publication are incurred regardless of how we deliver our products and services. Fixed expenses include: the costs of editorial offices, staffing and submissions, the management of peer review and production systems, as well as revenue sharing with society publishing partners who rely on this income to fund their professional development and other activities.

Savings due to online delivery, distributed printing, and other applications of technology, are met with new costs: investing in, maintaining, and improving the hardware and software infrastructure; 24-hour customer support; and innovative, valuable services like CrossRef (reference linking); CrossMark (certification of the Version of Record); and ORCID (author name disambiguation).

Elsevier: That’s a common misperception, but the reality is that the age of the internet hasn’t really changed the basic role and services publishers provide. Quality assurance through peer review, production, marketing, dissemination, and archiving of primary research findings still remain essential to the scientific community, also in a digital publishing environment. The costs of these processes won’t go away.

When we specifically look at production costs, it’s important to realise two things. First of all, print has not disappeared. We are printing less, but the upfront cost still exists. Secondly, the reality is that internet and digitisation of content is an added cost that publishers can rightfully recoup. Especially when you consider the substantial investment in technology enhancements to digitised content, the internet actually makes the production process more expensive.

Despite all this, the price paid per downloaded article has shown a dramatic decline.

Why do you place copyright restrictions on work published in your journals?

Wiley: Copyright facilitates international protection against infringement and plagiarism and provides redress for the author and the publisher against misuse so that the contribution can be made available to the fullest extent. It enables Wiley-Blackwell to maintain the integrity of content by facilitating centralized management of all media forms including linking, reference validation and distribution.

Copyright does not stand in the way of our mission to provide broad access to our publications through a wide variety of flexible access options — to the contrary, it enables it. We work hard to achieve a level of quality that can all too easily be compromised by those who misappropriate our content without any benefit to the authors, partners, and stakeholders who have invested in the publishing process.

Elsevier: Copyright law is not about restrictions – in this case, it is about providing a compensating reward to enable publishers to invest in high quality titles and innovative solutions to make the authors’ works widely available, discoverable and accessible.

How has the advent of the internet changed the industry?

Wiley: We are evolving from being a provider of content in static form to being a provider of dynamic new types of products and services our customers use to do their jobs, learn what they need to know, and live their lives. We are developing new ways to use our content in workflow solutions that help them achieve their goals. The bottom line is that we are now providing more access to more content to more people than ever before, with flexible product and business models that more closely meet the needs of our customers and reflect the value of our products and services to them.

New technologies enable publishers like Wiley to deliver content anytime and anywhere; create transformative ways for people to interact with content; address different learning styles; and engage with authors, readers, and partners. Yet the core of what we do remains unchanged: publishers facilitate teaching and learning; refine content into finished works; add credibility; promote scholarly discourse; validate research; help authors connect with readers; and help to transform information into knowledge and understanding. Publishers provide both parts of the knowledge economy – a trusted source of the information, analysis and context that leads to knowledge and a business model that rewards innovation, the preservation of the corpus of literature and the post-publication stewardship of the version of record of an article.

Elsevier: The internet provides our industry with great opportunities. From the early beginning, Elsevier has recognized and embraced these opportunities by investing in digital innovation, developing digital formats and services to provide easy access to quality information, in a way that consumers appreciate and value. Also, the internet allows us to create new business models that provide new sources of value for both users and authors.

So the internet has indeed changed the industry. From our perspective, it has changed the industry for the better. The digital age enables us to transform from being a content provider to being an information solutions provider, adding more value to the scientific community.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Geoff Henderson


    I am struggling to see why academic publishers need to exist, or understand the benefits they offer. Surely a centralised academic house could be the repository for academic papers.
    Perhaps if a significant percentage of charges were directed to a research fund that might justify some fee, or the running costs of a central repository could be met.

    But importantly I think, a university controlled repository should be holding the keys to academic excellence, and no one else.

  2. scholastica

    logged in via Twitter

    Wiley basically says that the publishing process, from peer review through distribution and discovery, adds value - and they (Wiley) deserve to reap the benefits of the value that they create.

    The question that I and many others have though, is how much value do they actually create - and how much is that value really worth monetarily? Academics are the ones creating the knowledge and peer reviewing it - so how much value do companies like Wiley really add? Especially in an era where distribution…

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  3. Rita Kop

    logged in via Twitter

    In an era where technology facilitates most of the publishing process it is atrocious that publicly funded educational institutions have to pay for publications produced by their own academics. Publicly funded research should also be openly available and accessible to all, including tax payers who paid for the production of the papers. It is not the academic publishing houses who add value to the process, it is the academics who carry out the peer -review. If anyone needs to be paid it is the authors (or the institutions who pay them), not the publishers.

  4. Nicholas Parsons

    logged in via Facebook

    I think open access databases are a fantastic idea, but there are three issues that need to be addressed:

    (1) Managing the peer review process and ensuring reputable peer review for all submissions. I think finding a reliable team to manage the legistics involved in identifying reviewers, ensuring they conduct their review in a timely fashion, forwarding the reviews to the author/s and ensuring the reviewers comments are responded to, and to do all this for free, would be difficult. If they are…

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    1. John Lamp

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Nicholas Parsons

      I have good news for Nicholas Parsons:

      1) There are many models to replace peer reviewing. At the most simplistic level, why not have the peer reviewing managed by the learned academies? Organisations could publish via their own repositories, then nominate items for peer review. A system of version control could keep track of review comments with a minimal overhead.

      2) This is less of a problem than you would think, as well as being an active area of research. It's also tied in with your third point below.

      3) For many years there has been a protocol (Z39.50) which can provide for distributed searching of networked heterogenous databases. It's rigorous, a superset of an accepted ISO standard and any librarian will be happy to show you it working on their interlibrary search system. Why it's never made the leap outside the librarianship area is beyond me!

    2. Nicholas Parsons

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Lamp

      Thanks John. That sounds promising.

      Re point one, I've seen how a system of workflows can be used for peer review in the ANU's online repository. However, I think it would be preferable for a system of peer review if, wherever possible, it was not one's faculty members conducting the review. It should be possible in a majority of cases for reviews to be conducted by one's peers from other institutions, even internationally. So I don't think it's as simple as nominating a piece for peer review. The issue is in identifying who is best placed to conduct the review and determining whether they are prepared to do so. This is certainly not impossible (without publishers), but I think it requires some thought.

  5. Christian P. Robert

    logged in via email

    Nicolas: I have been in charge of various Statistics journals as editor, associate editor and referee, and always did this for free. So I cannot understand your comment (1). The best journal in mathematical statistics, Annals of Statistics, is handled by a learned society, with every actor contributing for free, and it does remain the best journal over the years... The most expensive journal in Statistics is Communications in Statistics, which costs about $9000 for libraries and publishes about everything that is submitted, for an impact factor of 0.351...

    Furthermore, the arXiv institution is now recognised by mathematicians and statisticians as the most effective depository. CNRS (France) and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS) are putting all their preprints and publications, respectively, on that free access depository. It works beautifully!

  6. Diane Lester

    logged in via Facebook

    I can't see that the conflicts of interests of these publishing executives on this subject have been declared. Why did The Conversation not require this as its policy says?

  7. Diane Lester

    logged in via Facebook

    Unfortunately, The Conversation forgot to ask the interviewees to declare their conflicts of interest, but fortunately, I located relevant information from the respective company’s annual reports.
    Elsevier’s most recent annual profit (mainly from journals) is more than a billion dollars. Wiley’s profit seems to be around 100 million dollars (it’s a much smaller company). These figures are remarkably high and could not be maintained if the publishers made content public. Open access journals have much lower profit margins.
    Mr Miron’s salary in the last year was 1.88 million US dollars which is, I believe, about twice that of an Australian university vice-chancellor. Dr Wise’s salary doesn’t seem to be public.
    Obviously, this information should be included as a footnote to the article. Otherwise, this interview is like having the chickens asking the fox why she likes minding the chicken coop.

    1. Delete account

      logged in via email

      In reply to Diane Lester

      As Dianne said, this topic doesn't make sense singularly - it is fair enough for them to make a profit if they put in some work. However, I personally believe that US$35 is far too high a price to charge for 7 pages of someone else's work.

  8. Greg Smith

    Unit lecturer, e-PR, University of Notre Dame Australia

    Publishers are hanging on to past "glory". If my work is ready, I want it published now. And I don't want to pay (sometimes) ridiculous fees. They've had it good for a long time. It's a bit like the record companies not wanting to sell material online. Sure, there needs to be due process followed with regard to peer review, but in many areas, speed is of the essence. That's certainly the case in my field (communications) where the game changes almost weekly.