Will lowering subscription prices for journals attract more customers?

  • #1
Wrichik Basu
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I have more than an amateur interest in experimental particle physics. I regularly follow journals like Physical Review and Nature to find new discoveries. Fortunately, Phys. Rev. Accelerators and Beams is open access; so is the Journal of HEP and the papers from collaborations like CERN.

However, I often find interesting papers which are not open access. Physical Review charges $35 for each paper; Nature charges a lot more. It is not possible for me to buy subscription to these journals. I have around 40+ papers listed that I found interesting, but are behind a paywall. (Phys. Rev. Lett. - $65, Phys. Rev. D - $65, Nature ≈ $138 annual subscription charges.)

MATLAB student version is $50; I bought it recently keeping in mind that the annual software maintenance cost is low (20% of purchase cost ≈ $10, doable), the license is perpetual, and I use the software often. MATLAB individual license is very costly, something that I will never be able to afford, but the student version has all the features that I require in my daily use.

Similarly, if the publishers of journals reduce the subscription price, won't it attract more people? I, for example, will be among the first to consider buying a subscription. There are many others I know who would do the same. Maybe the publishers can keep the price for academic license same, but if they reduce the price for individual access, I feel they will have a greater income.

What do you think?

All prices in USD.
 

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  • #2
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If they could make more money with cheaper access they would do that.
The subscribers are mostly academic institutions anyway, scientists at these institutions get access that way (or via certain websites that almost certainly break copyright laws...) and a few people who might sign up on their own don't make a big difference.

Why journals need to charge so much for mainly editorial services (but not peer review) is a different question.
 
  • #3
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First, $65/year for PRL (51 digital issues + 61-year archive) compares reasonably favorably with popular press magazines like Scientific American (12 digital issues + 4-year archive) at $40/year or Discover (12 digital issues + no archive) for $20. On a per-issue basis, it's already less expensive than magazines with far greater circulation.

Next, it costs real money to put a scientific journal together, even without paying peer reviewers. Elsevier has a profit that is somewhere between 18 and 36%, which is very high, but it's 18-36% and not 90% or 99%. There's not an order of magnitude or two that can be squeezed out of the production side. They have 8000 employees. AIP, which is non-profit, physics-only and 5-10% the circulation of Elsevier, has 313.

Finally, the history. Time was, journals cost maybe $200/year for print copies, and this was paid for out of the research grants. Every research group if not every faculty member had their own copy. Then the funding agencies said "why should we pay for dozens of copies?" and stopped paying. Most faculty said "we'll just use the copy in the library", and subscriptions fell like a stone. But since it costs roughly the same amount of money independent of the number of copies printed (international distribution is a different matter) all this did was move the burden from individuals to their university libraries. Now libraries pay $5000 and up. The more niche the journal, the more it costs. (Note I am describing, not defending)
 
  • #4
BillTre
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I have seen subscription offers for Scientific American that were very cheap, something like $10-15/year.
I have very few subscriptions now, but manage to get hold of many papers I am interested in as pdf's or preprints. It is often productive to just google the article's title. Often the author will have a copy for download on their website, a preprint server or in some other place like Researchgate.
 
  • #5
StoneTemplePython
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Next, it costs real money to put a scientific journal together, even without paying peer reviewers. Elsevier has a profit that is somewhere between 18 and 36%, which is very high, but it's 18-36% and not 90% or 99%. There's not an order of magnitude or two that can be squeezed out of the production side. They have 8000 employees. AIP, which is non-profit, physics-only and 5-10% the circulation of Elsevier, has 313.
For a slightly different description, consider the comments Munger made at the 2013 Daily Journal Shareholder meeting.

"Charles Munger" said:
Reed-Elsevier got rich on one of the greatest business models ever created.
They published scientific journals. They didn't pay a dime for the content, because
people want to be published. Didn't pay a dime for the reviewing and editing, because
the people wanted to do the reviewing and editing as part of their duty to science.

With content totally free, they published the journal and every library had to buy them,
and every leading scientist. It was just a total racket, and every year they raised the
price by 15 percent. Of course, they could then buy all these other papers. You could
say, “Why didn't we start in scientific publishing?” Well, the accidents of life didn't
present us with that opportunity.
n.b. there are likely a lot of costs (e.g. printing physical copies, marketing, 'sponsoring' academic things etc. are the usual suspects) that show up to distort that margin, as spending on these usual suspects is a way to reinforce your moat / entry barriers (loosely-- to preserve an absurdly high ROIC which is what the business owners really care about).

Also sir Tim Gowers' blog has some interesting stuff about his battles with Elsevier.
https://gowers.wordpress.com/?s=Elsevier

I get the impression that they won (mostly). I haven't looked closely at Elsevier or any publishers in a long time, but Munger's comments are still salient.
 
  • #6
WWGD
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I have more than an amateur interest in experimental particle physics. I regularly follow journals like Physical Review and Nature to find new discoveries. Fortunately, Phys. Rev. Accelerators and Beams is open access; so is the Journal of HEP and the papers from collaborations like CERN.

However, I often find interesting papers which are not open access. Physical Review charges $35 for each paper; Nature charges a lot more. It is not possible for me to buy subscription to these journals. I have around 40+ papers listed that I found interesting, but are behind a paywall. (Phys. Rev. Lett. - $65, Phys. Rev. D - $65, Nature ≈ $138 annual subscription charges.)

MATLAB student version is $50; I bought it recently keeping in mind that the annual software maintenance cost is low (20% of purchase cost ≈ $10, doable), the license is perpetual, and I use the software often. MATLAB individual license is very costly, something that I will never be able to afford, but the student version has all the features that I require in my daily use.

Similarly, if the publishers of journals reduce the subscription price, won't it attract more people? I, for example, will be among the first to consider buying a subscription. There are many others I know who would do the same. Maybe the publishers can keep the price for academic license same, but if they reduce the price for individual access, I feel they will have a greater income.

What do you think?

All prices in USD.
Doesn't your school have access for its students?
 
  • #7
Wrichik Basu
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Doesn't your school have access for its students?
Unfortunately, no. My institution doesn't offer research opportunities, and neither are the professors interested. So no one cares about journals.
 
  • #8
Wrichik Basu
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n.b. there are likely a lot of costs (e.g. printing physical copies, marketing, 'sponsoring' academic things etc. are the usual suspects)
In today's world, other than libraries, I believe no one keeps print versions. Besides, do journals like PRL and Nature need marketing?

My point is, publishers should not restrict access to knowledge for income. Take the minimum you require for publishing and paying your employees, but why overcharge? When scientists work day and night to discover something, they do not work for money but for the sake of broadening the boundaries of current knowledge. Publishers should not take advantage of this.
 
  • #9
ZapperZ
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In today's world, other than libraries, I believe no one keeps print versions. Besides, do journals like PRL and Nature need marketing?

My point is, publishers should not restrict access to knowledge for income. Take the minimum you require for publishing and paying your employees, but why overcharge? When scientists work day and night to discover something, they do not work for money but for the sake of broadening the boundaries of current knowledge. Publishers should not take advantage of this.
This is silly. Organization such as the APS and IoP are NON-PROFIT organizations!

Zz.
 
  • #10
StatGuy2000
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Unfortunately, no. My institution doesn't offer research opportunities, and neither are the professors interested. So no one cares about journals.
Your profile states that you are from Kolkata, India, and you state that your institution doesn't offer research opportunities.

So I take it you are not a student (or faculty member) of IIT or the Indian Statistical Institute? Or the University of Calcutta?

All of those schools I named are rated quite highly in terms of research, so I would have thought that research opportunities were available.
 
  • #11
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My point is, publishers should not restrict access to knowledge for income.
Are they the only people who shouldn't be allowed to earn a living? What about doctors? Should they be allowed to restrict access to medical care for income? Or farmers? Should they be allowed to restrict access to food for income? Or grocers? They didn't even grow the food themselves!

You're also shifting your position. In your first post you argued publishers would make more money by slashing prices. Two days later you're arguing they shouldn't be allowed to make money at all!

ZapperZ has a good point - the Society journals are not-for-profit, and even at $65 you think they are too much. That's after their profit has already been cut to zero.

In the last ten issues of PRL, about 80% of the HEP articles are open access, and 100% of the remainder are on the arXiv. So it's not like any results are being kept from you.
 
  • #12
Wrichik Basu
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So I take it you are not a student (or faculty member) of IIT or the Indian Statistical Institute?
No question of IIT or ISI. I am not so brilliant academically.
Or the University of Calcutta?
Not directly under the University of Calcutta (CU) but in a college affiliated to it. CU takes it up directly from the PG level only, before that it's all colleges which are just affiliated to it. The curriculum and question papers are set by CU, that's it. CU is not bothered with how colleges teach or what facilities they give to their students.
 
  • #13
ZapperZ
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No question of IIT or ISI. I am not so brilliant academically.

Not directly under the University of Calcutta (CU) but in a college affiliated to it. CU takes it up directly from the PG level only, before that it's all colleges which are just affiliated to it. The curriculum and question papers are set by CU, that's it. CU is not bothered with how colleges teach or what facilities they give to their students.
And you have completely ignored all the counter arguments we presented to you against your faulty ideas.

Zz.
 
  • #14
Wrichik Basu
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And you have completely ignored all the counter arguments we presented to you against your faulty ideas.

Zz.
I have been reading everything quietly and absorbing the advice. You conclude this because I haven't replied there yet.
 
  • #15
ZapperZ
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I have been reading everything quietly and absorbing the advice. You conclude this because I haven't replied there yet.
Not just "there", but also here in this thread. Your faulty argument on at least TWO different points needed to be addressed and corrected: (i) that APS and IoP and many of the major journals that you mentioned (PRL, etc.) are non-profit organizations that make NO PROFIT on what they produce, and (ii) the point that Vanadium mentioned that many of these papers can be obtained for free! They do not hinder anyone wanting to put in a bit of an effort to find where such papers can be gathered.

Zz.
 
  • #16
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In the last ten issues of PRL, about 80% of the HEP articles are open access, and 100% of the remainder are on the arXiv. So it's not like any results are being kept from you.
Yeah, thanks to SCOAP3. But I do come across interesting papers in other fields too.
ZapperZ has a good point - the Society journals are not-for-profit, and even at $65 you think they are too much. That's after their profit has already been cut to zero.
But does it really take so much to publish? One article for $35? Or is that designed to discourage reading journals unless you are affiliated to some institution?
 
  • #17
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But does it really take so much to publish? One article for $35? Or is that designed to discourage reading journals unless you are affiliated to some institution?
Who are you to judge what their expenses are? They hire many full-time employees to produce such journals. You are now an expert in business expenses?

Again, this makes no sense! You are questioning something of which you have no knowledge on. Do you think this makes for a valid conclusion in anything, especially in science?

Zz.
 
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  • #18
russ_watters
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When scientists work day and night to discover something, they do not work for money but for the sake of broadening the boundaries of current knowledge.
This is naive. Getting paid is the baseline requirement of any job. All that other stuff is nice to have, but not a requirement.

For your overall take on the topic; sure if they lowered the price they could increase circulation. But not enough to matter. Technical journals by nature have a very limited potential audience.
 
  • #19
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But does it really take so much to publish? One article for $35?
I suspect if they didn't have a single-article option, you'd be complaining "They're making me pay $65 for a whole year when I just want one article!"
 
  • #20
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Why journals need to charge so much for mainly editorial services (but not peer review) is a different question.
Are you suggesting journals pay for peer review? I'm not sure that's a good idea.

Let's consider the society journals only for the moment. For every dollar they pay a referee, they need another dollar in income, so journal costs need to go up. At best, this is neutral - the university has to pay more for the journals, but less for their faculty (if they are being paid to review, the university shouldn't pay for that time).

In real life, there are other factors. One is that the journal now has to hire people to deal with paying small sums to thousands of referees (and the effort scales more with number of people than total dollars) and all of the tax implications of that. That means it won't be revenue neutral - more money needs to flow into the system to pay these people.

Then the question of "how much do we pay them" comes in - do they buy each hour of a professor's time from the university, so Columbia or Stanford get more than Kansas State or Arkansas? And will that have any impact on the journal's distribution of referees? Or do they have a flat rate, so that professors from Columbia or Stanford will get less incentive than n Kansas State or Arkansas, and will that have any impact on the journal's distribution of referees? I don't think we know what the impact will be, nor do we really know what a favorable outcome would be.

The existing system is not perfect, but it works well enough. I am not sure I would make such a major change without a better idea of what the consequences were.
 
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  • #21
BillTre
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Thinking that scientific publications should be a lot less expensive, and optimally free, is not something completely out of ordinary consideration. It has been advocated by many scientists, include Nobel laureates. In many ways, publishers like Elsevier seem quite predatory (not unlike parasites obtaining a living off resources from the general scientific enterprise), while other publishers, less so.

I think it would be interesting in this discussion of scientific publishing to consider the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and its history.

PLOS provides an example of how and at what expense scientific publishing can be done outside of the traditional profit making enterprises (Elsevier is an extreme example I think).
For PLOS publications, charges are paid by the author, the author's employer, or the author's funder. Access is open and free and there is a Creative Commons license:
the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.
The Public Library of Science began in 2000 with an online petition initiative by Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, formerly director of the National Institutes of Health and at that time director of Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center; Patrick O. Brown, a biochemist at Stanford University; and Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.[4][5] The petition called for all scientists to pledge that from September 2001 they would discontinue submission of articles to journals that did not make the full text of their articles available to all, free and unfettered, either immediately or after a delay of no more than 6 months. Although tens of thousands signed the petition, most did not act upon its terms; and in August 2001, Brown and Eisen announced that they would start their own non-profit publishing operation.[6] In December 2002, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded PLOS a $9 million grant, which it followed in May 2006 with a $1 million grant to help PLOS achieve financial sustainability and launch new free-access biomedical journals.[7]
At the time, I was not surprised that this failed, since there were not a lot of non-profit places to publish.

Now PLOS can meet its bills:
PLOS was launched with grants totaling US$13 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation.[13] PLOS confirmed in July 2011 that it no longer relies on subsidies from foundations and is covering its operational costs itself.[14][15] Since then PLOS' balance sheet has improved from $20,511,000 net assets in 2012–2013 to $36,591,000 in 2014–2015.[16][17]
In between the two (as already noted) are society run publications. These tend to be cheaper since they are "not" profit making. However, I was once in a smaller society that did its society publishing through a existing publisher and it was only kind of cheap for society members but rather expensive for anyone else. There was a constant battle between those running the society and the publisher on this issue. It was made worse because the papers published involved a lot of anatomy which involved lots of pictures and therefore more expense. Presumably, in on-line publications this would be less of a factor.

Among society publications are print publications and on-line only publications. One of my subscription is to Genetics (publisher by the Genetics Society of America, a large society). Being online makes it cheaper which was the reason this was changed.
Since I am now emeritus, I get a free subscription. Otherwise, there rates are:
1 Year2 Years3 YearsAuto-Renewal
(per year)
Regular$180$350$520$170
Industry$235$460$685$225
Postdoc$70$130$190$60
Postdoc + National Postdoctoral Association$84$158N/A$82
Graduate Student$47$89$131$42
Undergraduate Student$28$51$74$23
K-12/Community College Educator/MSI Faculty$43$81$119$38
Emeritus0N/AN/AN/A
This seems like a reasonable mix to me.
The graduate and undergrad rates seem quite affordable.
The top two rates seem not unreasonable for professionals in the field and most likely paid by grants money.

I would like for the whole of scientific publishing to move in the direction the PLOS of GSA models, but it seems unlikely because not all societies are able to do this, and a lot of established journals are high prestige journals that people will want to continue publishing in for either general exposure reasons (like Science or Nature) or for exposure with their comparatively small fields, and (my guess) a lot of journals are not traditionally run with the idea of making things cheaper for their readers.

Open access after a period of time (so that the profit makers can make their profits) also seem pretty reasonable since non-professionals can probably affor to wait a bit to get a look at the papers.
 
  • #22
ZapperZ
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Almost everyone that I know of that published on any of the APS journals tend to load their preprint to Arxiv. In fact, unless it has changed recently, you can almost make a simultaneous submission to an APS journal and to Arxiv. So there is seldom a hindrance to obtain any of the APS published paper. In fact, one can easily contact an author of a paper directly and ask for a copy of the paper if it comes to that.

This is in addition to the fact that many papers appearing there are already Open Access when the authors pay the extra fee to make it so.

Also note that even for tightly-controlled journals such as Science and Nature, there is never a prohibition to upload the manuscript to Arxiv AFTER the paper has been published. I've done it myself. Again, depending on the authors themselves, publications can be made widely available. The complain that so-and-so can't read a copy of such-and-such publication in Nature, Science, APS publications, IoP publications, etc... outside of the for-profit journals does not hold a lot of water. If a potential "scientist" give up THAT easily and THAT quickly in trying to find a paper, then the level of "tenaciousness" is missing in trying to solve the more-challenging mystery of Mother Nature.

Zz.
 
  • #23
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Are you suggesting journals pay for peer review?
I'm not suggesting that.
Also note that even for tightly-controlled journals such as Science and Nature, there is never a prohibition to upload the manuscript to Arxiv AFTER the paper has been published.
Yes, but some fields don't do it.
 

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