Cost Profiles of Alternative Approaches to Journal Publishing

First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 – 3 December 2007

By Roger Clarke


The digital era is having substantial impacts on journal publishing. In order to assist in analysing these impacts, a model is developed of the costs incurred in operating a refereed journal. Published information and estimates are used to apply the model to a computation of the total costs and per-article costs of various forms of journal-publishing. Particular attention is paid to the differences between print and electronic forms of journals, to the various forms of open access, and to the differences between not-for-profit and for-profit publishing undertakings.

Insight is provided into why for-profit publishing is considerably more expensive than equivalent activities undertaken by unincorporated mutuals and not-for-profit associations. Conclusions are drawn concerning the current debates among conventional approaches and the various open alternatives.

Excerpts from the Conclusion:

For–profit publishers have higher cost–profiles than not–for–profit associations, because of the additional functions that they perform, in particular their much greater investment in branding, customer relationship management and content protection. The difference is particularly marked in the case of eJournals — a computed per–article cost of US$3,400 compared with US$730. This point is sufficiently significant that further examination is warranted.

…..The distinctive differences that remain in for–profit publishing are:

* higher–quality branding;
* more active marketing;
* more aggressive customer management; and,
* content protection.

But the primary beneficiaries of these features are the publisher and its owners. Only in the case of for–profit business units within not–for–profit associations are the owners closely associated with an academic community. Academic communities have little incentive to contribute to the funding of sophisticated technical features that are designed to support organistions’ strategic and marketing objectives rather than community service. In short, the ‘value–add’ that for–profit publishers offer appears to be of little or no benefit to academic communities.

For–profit publishers have long been successful intermediaries between the authors and accreditors, on the one hand, and the consumers of refereed articles and their support services, on the other. Since the advent of the public Internet, however, much has been written about the way in which it converts marketplaces to marketspaces, extends the reach of market participants, and creates the scope for disintermediation (e.g., Malone, et al., 1987; Brown, 2001; Howard, 2001). In the new context, are for–profit publishers still needed?