For Open Access Week, we reflect on a series of debates on the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication. This post covers: ‘Scientists or shareholders: Is profit fundamental to a sustainable model? The economics of publishing and sustainability’.

Writing on paper

As part of our Publishing350 programme to mark the anniversary of the world’s first scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, we held a series of debates on the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication. During Open Access Week we reflect on a couple of the sessions covering profit and sustainability in scientific publishing.

This first post covers: ‘Scientists or shareholders: Is profit fundamental to a sustainable model? The economics of publishing and sustainability’ chaired by Professor John Skehel with Mark Thorley, Liz Ferguson and Leighton Chipperfield as speakers.

Open Access week

Publishing is very profitable; it benefits society by returns to shareholders and support of charitable activities. But how sustainable is this? Provided that publishers deliver the services that funders require in a cost effective way, profit is acceptable and helps to fund innovation. But if the supplier has a monopoly then the market is dysfunctional, and some publishers have exploited this.

Under open access, funders are now buying services and have a choice of supplier. However, the choice is artificially limited to high impact journals because of how the reward system in science works: choosing to publish in high status journals comes at a cost.

Publishing services must be delivered in a cost effective way. Publishers should work with funders to develop an effective and transparent market for the services they provide so that researchers and institutions can make real choices about how to spend their scarce resources. Some learned societies have seen open access as a threat to their income streams and support for their disciplines.

Commercial vs. charitable

Commercial publishers bring benefits of scale and organisation to support, manage and finance the process of handling the three million articles submitted to journals per year. Many learned societies choose commercial companies as their publishers and they enjoy a responsive and well developed service and see revenues to support their activities. The profit made by commercial publishers has resulted in a great deal of innovation (digital science and open data, for example) and the infrastructure for delivering open access. They have also given rise to large scale collaborations such as CrossRef by providing substantial, upfront capital investment.

Learned societies are charitable operations and use their surplus to fund their objectives. Sustainability is therefore very important to them. Learned societies collaborate to provide better services to researchers and they benefit from the trust of the communities they serve. But they need to find new ways to diversify and fund their activities as the open access landscape develops. Enabling the dissemination of research is – and should remain – a vital part of the role of the learned societies.

How much?

The cost of processing articles (APCs) was a concern, particularly the huge range between the various journals and the lack of price sensitivity from authors. Hybrid journals often have higher costs than “born open access” journals which is why their APCs may be higher. Submission fees are a possible solution to this problem, but publishers seem reluctant to introduce them as they feel rejected authors may be reluctant to subsidise the costs of accepted authors.

The cost and affordability of accessing subscription articles and that prices are often being set based on past print holdings was also a major concern. One consequence of this is that learned society publishers often find it difficult to compete with the large commercial publishers who consume the lion’s share of library budgets. At the Royal Society we operate a transparent pricing system to ensure that for open access articles we do not receive both an article processing charge and subscription income.

In conclusion

There was general agreement that profiting from scientific communication was acceptable in principle, but that value for money must be provided. Any business not able to adapt to competitive pressures will quickly fail once a better alternative arises. Publishers face the challenge of how to transition from selling product to selling services and how to charge in an appropriate way in order to gain the trust of the community who both supply and consume. The reward structure in science helps to support the established journals from the traditional publishers as these are generally those with the highest prestige.

This is an edited extract from the full FSSC conference report.

Read more about open access polices and APCs at the Royal Society Publishing.


  • Ruth Milne

    Ruth Milne