Costs of "Free" Electronic Journals
How low can the costs of electronic publishing be? One extreme example is provided by Paul Ginsparg's preprint server [Ginsparg]. It currently processes about 20,000 papers per year. These 20,000 papers would cost $40 to $80 million to publish in conventional print journals (and most of them do get published in such journals, creating costs of $40 to $80 million to society). To operate the Ginsparg server in its present state would take perhaps half the time of a systems administrator, plus depreciation and maintenance on the hardware (an ordinary workstation with what is by today's standards a modest disk system). This expenses might come (with overheads) to a maximum of $100,000 per year, or about $5 per paper.
In presentations by publishers, one often hears allusions to big National Science Foundation (NSF) grants and various hidden costs in Ginsparg's operation. Ginsparg does have a grant from NSF for $1 million, spread over three years, but it is for software development, not for the operation of his server. However, let us take an extreme position, and let us suppose that he has an annual subsidy of $1 million. Let us suppose that he spends all his time on the server (which he manifestly does not, as anyone who checks his publications record will realize), and let us toss in a figure of $300,000 for his pay (including the largest overhead one can imagine that even a high-overhead place like Los Alamos might have). Let us also assume that a large new workstation had to be bought each year for the project, say at $20,000, and let us multiply that by 5 to cover the costs of mirror sites. Let us in addition toss in $100,000 per year for several T1 lines just for this project. Even with all these outrageous overestimates, we can barely come to the vicinity of $1.5 million per year, or $75 per paper. That is dramatically less than the $2,000 to $4,000 per paper that print journals require. (I am using a figure of $2,000 for each paper here as well as that of $4,000 from [Odlyzko1] since APS, the publisher of the lion's share of the papers in Ginsparg's server and among the most efficient publishers, collects revenues of about $2,000 per paper.) As Andy Grove of Intel points out [Grove], any time that anything important changes in a business by a factor of 10, it is necessary to rethink the whole enterprise. Ginsparg's server lowers costs by about two orders of magnitude, not just one.
A skeptic might point out that there are other "hidden subsidies" that have not been counted yet, such as those for the use of the Internet by the users of
Ginsparg's server. Those costs are there, although the bulk is not for the Internet, which is comparatively inexpensive, but for the workstations, local area networks, and users' time coping with buggy operating systems. However, those costs would be there no matter how scholarly papers are published. Publishers depend on the postal system to function, yet are not charged the entire cost of that system. Similarly, electronic publishing is a tiny part of the load on the computing and communications infrastructure and so should not be allocated much of the total cost.
Ginsparg's server is an extreme example of minimizing costs. It also minimizes service. There is no filtering of submissions nor any editing, the features that distinguish a journal from a preprint archive. Some scientists argue that no filtering is necessary and that preprints are sufficient to allow the community to function. However, such views are rare, and most scholars agree that journals do perform an important role. Even though some scholars argue that print plays an essential role in the functioning of the journal system (see the arguments in [Rowland] and [Harnad] for opposing views on this issue), it appears that electronic journals can function just as well as print ones. The question in this paper is whether financial costs can be reduced by switching to electronic publishing.
Hundreds of electronic journals are operated by their editors and available for free on the Net. They do provide all the filtering that their print counterparts do. However, although their ranks appear to double every year [ARL], they are all new and small. The question is whether a system of free journals is durable and whether it can be scaled to cover most of scholarly publishing.
Two factors make free electronic journals possible. One is advances in technology, which make it possible for scholars to handle tasks such as typesetting and distribution that used to require trained experts and a large infrastructure. The other factor is a peculiarity of the scholarly journal system that has already been pointed out above. The monetary cost of the time that scholars put into the journal business as editors and referees is about as large as the total revenue that publishers derive from sales of the journals. Scholarly journal publishing could not exist in its present form if scholars were compensated financially for their work. Technology is making their tasks progressively easier. They could take on new roles and still end up devoting less effort to running the journal system than they have done in the past.
Most scholars are already typesetting their own papers. Many were forced to do so by cutbacks in secretarial support. However, even among those, few would go back to the old system of depending on technical typists if they had a choice. Technology is making it easier to do many tasks oneself than to explain to others how to do them.
Editors and referees are increasingly processing electronic submissions, even for journals that appear exclusively in print. Moreover, the general consensus is that this procedure makes their life much easier. Therefore, if the additional load of publishing an electronic journal were small enough, one might expect scholars to do everything themselves. That is what many editors of the free electronic journals think is feasible. As the volume of papers increases, one can add more editors
to spread the load, as the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics [EJC ] has done recently (and as print journals have done in the past). The counterargument (cf. [Babbitt, BoyceD]) is that there will always be too many repetitive and tedious tasks to do and that even those scholars who enjoy doing them now, while they are a novelty, will get tired of them in the long run. If so, it will be necessary to charge for access to electronic journals to pay for the expert help needed to run them. Some editors of the currendly free electronic journals share this view. However, none of the estimates of what would be required to produce acceptable quality come anywhere near the $4,000 per article that current print publishers collect. In [Odlyzko1] I estimated that $300 to $1,000 per article should suffice, and many others, such as Stevan Harnad, have come up with similar figures. In the years since [Odlyzko1] was written, much more experience in operations of free electronic-only journals has been acquired. I have corresponded and had discussions with editors of many journals, both traditional print-only and free electronic-only. The range of estimates of what it would cost to run a journal without requiring audiors, editors, and referees to do noticeably more than they are doing now is illustrated by the following two examples (both from editors of print-only journals):
1. The editor-in-chief of a large journal, which publishes around 200 papers per year (and processes several times that many submissions) and brings in revenues of about $1 million per year to the publisher, thinks he could run an electronic journal of equivalent quality with a subsidy of about $50,000 per year to pay for an assistant to handle correspondence and minor technical issues. He feels that author-supplied copies are usually adequate and that the work of technical editors at the publisher does not contribute much to the scientific quality of the journal. If he is right, then $250 per paper is sufficient.
2. An editor of a much smaller journal thinks that extensive editing of manuscripts is required. In his journal, he does all the editing himself, and the resulting files are then sent directly to the printer, without involving any technical staff at the publisher. He estimates that he spends between 30 minutes and an hour per page and thinks that having somebody with his professional training and technical skills do the work leads to substantially better results. If we assume a loaded salary of $100,000 per year (since such work could often be done by graduate students and junior postdocs looking for some extra earnings in their spare time), we have an estimate of $25 to $50 per page, or $250 to $1,000 per article, for the cost of running an electronic journal of comparable quality.
All the estimates fit in the range of $300 to $1,000 per article that was projected in [Odlyzko1] and do not come close to the $4,000 per article charged by traditional publishers. Why is there such a disparity in views on costs? It is not caused by a simple ignorance of what it takes to run a viable journal on the part of advocates
of free or low-priced publications, since many of them are running successful operations. The disparity arises out of different views of what is necessary.
It has always been much easier to enlarge a design or add new features than to slim down. This tendency has been noted in ship design [Pugh], cars, and airplanes as well as in computers, where the mainframe builders were brought to the brink of ruin (and often beyond) before they learned from the PC industry. Established publishers are increasingly providing electronic versions of their journals, but usually only in addition to the print version. It is no surprise therefore that their costs are not decreasing. The approach of the free electronic journal pioneers has been different, namely to provide only what can be done with the resources available. They are helped by what are variously called the 80/20 or 70/30 rules (the last 20% of what is provided costs 80% of the total, etc.). By throwing out a few features, publishers can lower costs dramatically. Even in the area of electronic publishing, the spectrum of choices is large. Eric Hellman, editor of The MRS Internet Journal of Nitride Semiconductor Research [MRS ], which provides free access to all readers but charges authors $275 for each published paper, commented [private communication] that with electronic publishing,
$250/paper gets you 90% of the quality that $1000/paper gets you.
Electronics offers many choices of quality and price in publishing.
An example of large differences in costs is provided by projects that make archival information available digitally. Astrophysicists are in the process of digitizing about a million pages of journal articles (without doing optical character recognition, OCR, on the output) and are making them available for free on the Web. The scanning project (paid for by a grant from NASA) is carried out in the United States, yet still costs only $0.18 per page in spite of the high wages. On the other hand, the costs of the JSTOR project, which was cited in [Odlyzko2] as paying about $0.20 per page for scanning, are more complicated. JSTOR pays a contractor around $0.40 per page for a combination of scanning, OCR, and human verification of the OCR output, and the work is done in a less-developed country that has low wage costs. However, JSTOR's total costs are much higher, about $1 to $2 per page, since they rely on trained professionals in the United States to ensure that they have complete runs of journals, that articles are properly classified, and so on. Since JSTOR aims to provide libraries with functionality similar to that of bound volumes, it is natural for it to strive for high quality. This goal raises costs, unfortunately.
It is important to realize how easy it is to raise costs. Even though lack of price competition in scholarly publishing has created unusually high profits [Hayes], most of the price that is paid for journals covers skilled labor. The difference in costs between the astrophysics and JSTOR projects is dramatic, but it does not come from any extravagance. Even at $2 per page, the average scholarly article would cost around $25 to process. At a loaded salary of $100,000 per year for a trained professional, that $25 corresponds to only half an hour of that person's
time. Clearly one can boost the costs by doing more, and JSTOR must be frugal in the use of skilled labor.
Is the higher quality of the JSTOR project worth the extra cost? It is probably essential for JSTOR to succeed in its mission, which is to eliminate the huge print collections of back issues of journals. Personally I feel that JSTOR is a great project, the only one I am aware of in scholarly publishing that benefits all three parties: scholars, libraries, and publishers. Whether it will succeed is another question. It does cost more than just basic scanning, and it does require access restrictions. One can argue that the best course of action would be simply to scan the literature right away while there are still low-wage countries that will do the work inexpensively. The costs of the manual work of cutting open volumes and feeding sheets into scanners is not likely to become much smaller. At $0.20 per page, the entire scholarly literature could probably be scanned for less than $200 million. (By comparison, the world is paying several billion dollars per year just for one year of current journals, and the Harvard libraries alone cost around $60 million per year to operate.) Once the material was scanned, it would be available in the future for OCR and addition of other enhancements.
The main conclusion to be drawn from the discussion in this section is that the monetary costs of scholarly publishing can indeed be lowered, even in print. Whether they will be is another question, one closely bound up with the strange economics of the publishing industry.