The most brilliant business plan ever


Take a look at the kind of profit you can make from various businesses. This is pretty good money.

profits

We all know Apple’s business model is to build cool gadgets with high end stuff inside that it then sells at a high markup for premium design and ease of use — they’re at least creating something novel. But what makes Wiley and Elsevier so profitable?

That’s the genius of it all. Their customers create everything, they charge the customers for the privilege of selling it to the publisher, and then they sell it back to their customers. Imagine if Apple did that: all of you homebrew computer people who buy components and assemble them into functioning wholes and trick them out with spiffy bells & whistles are contacted by Apple, who offers to take them off your hands if you pay them a few hundred dollars, and they then take your creation, polish up the case a bit, stick an Apple logo on it, and sell it in their catalog for a few thousand dollars.

Oh, also, when you buy an “Apple”, they require that you get shipped a broken Sinclair and an old Commodore PET. It’s part of the deal.

That’s how the scientific publishing houses operate. It’s a broken system that profits the middlemen.

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with the complaint, but I think you’ve conflated open access and subscription model publishing. I don’t have to pay to publish in most Springer and Elsevier journals (they’re tending to offer the option, but it’s an option). However, you’re right, they don’t pay me and I surrender the copyright. Then, to read it, you need a subscription that costs hundreds of dollars a year, or you have to be on the faculty of an institution that has an even more expensive library subscription.

    Open access, you pay to publish, but it’s free to read. Some legitimate open access publishers are actually not for profit; some open access publishers are scams. it’s a highly varied terrain, to say the least. The open access movement started as a reaction to the tyranny of Elsevier et al, and the good part of it still is. But until funders routinely build in publication fees, most of our output has to go to subscription journals because that’s all we can afford.

  2. Marc Abian says

    Journals should be nationalised (or internationalised), free to publish, open source and maintained by a fraction of the education funding that currently goes to subsidising this parasitic industry.

  3. says

    Maybe it’s the discipline you’re in, but the journals I’ve published in in the past all had rather substantial page charges.

  4. AlexanderZ says

    Apple already does it with apps.

    Can you maintain an open source journal with decent peer review? Are there any high regarded open source journals?

  5. Marc Abian says

    Decent peer review depends on who the editor sends it to. Why on earth would an open source journal have any difficultly sending the papers to the relevant experts in the field?

    I think PLoS is a fine. Personally, I don’t like judging papers based on where they are., and I think that’s something which needs to go. It’s locking scientists into these costly publishing models which impede the dissemination of research, all so some idiots can maintain their snobbery.

  6. opposablethumbs says

    It’s a neat trick – they have inherited a reputation for quality (I presume from the days when publishing meant dead-tree only, so there were expenses that demanded economies of scale) which means scientists want to be associated with them which means they can maintain a certain reputation for quality which means …
    .
    I happen to have chanced to have eyeballed a fair volume of opinions about one of these big publishers, and by far the most common drawback people mention is the price. Less wealthy institutions that aren’t rolling in endowments – especially those in less wealthy countries/those disadvantaged by exchange rates – just can’t afford subscriptions to journals essential to their work.

  7. says

    There are many reputable open source journals. PLoS and BioMed Central are two good open source publishers. Dove Press has some good journals too.

    PZ, I have never heard of paying page charges for a subscription journal. Some of them charge for color figures, and they try to sell you offprints, but publication is generally free. I’m surprised if it’s different in biology, you certainly don’t pay to publish in medical and public health journals. But they charge big bucks for subscriptions.

  8. says

    Here are the charges to publish in the Journal of Neuroscience, one of the most reputable journals in one field I’m involved in, and also the journal associated with membership in the Society for Neuroscience.

    Publication fees are reduced if the first and last authors are members of the Society for Neuroscience. The Journal of Neuroscience charges a publication fee for Regular Manuscripts of $1,090 (for members) and $1,285 (for nonmembers) and for Brief Communications of $555 (for members) and $750 (for nonmembers). There is an additional $25 fee if publication fees are paid by Wire transfer.

    You can opt to make your paper open access if you pay roughly twice those sums.

  9. nomadiq says

    This is appalling. And it’s completely a trap. I’m working on an idea now which I could publish in a journal or two operated by the above companies. Or I could just put it up on my blog, amend my current software to incorporate the new ideas and start distributing it. But I can’t. Two reasons:

    1) My community wont want to use the new software because its using methods that are not published.

    2) I’m early career and I’m shooting myself in the foot.

    So what am I suppose to do? I guess open access journals. But we need more of them. This work would mostly be out of place and buried in the current collection of open access journals.

  10. nomadiq says

    From the Journal of Biological Chemistry:

    JBC announced a new pricing structure, effective January 1, 2013.

    ASBMB member publication charges*
    Pages: $80 per journal page
    Color figures: FREE

    *Member discount applies if the corresponding author is an ASBMB regular member.

    Standard (non-member) publication charges
    Pages: $90 per journal page
    Color figures: $50 per figure

    Someone is living very nicely off someone else’s work. Actually everyone else’s work since these fees are mostly paid by grants from governments.

  11. knowknot says

    - As a person who has a vested personal interest in certain areas of research, the name “Elsevier” has become equivalent to “Satan” to me.
    – There are members of my family whose potential well-being depends on real work being done. Knowing what may be effective (or even promising) in terms of actual research is huge, especially since meaningful knowledge in the real and present wild is often behind the curve, even in terms of readily accessible research.
    – If/when knowledge is inaccessible for any good reason, I understand. When it is inaccessible simply because companies (aka, people, for those of us in The States) who produce nothing have a stake in masking it, it seems nothing less than evil.
    – I can’t imagine how frustrating the current situation might be for those rarer minds whose brilliance would be enhanced by easier access, for the good of many.

  12. faustus says

    When I saw the title of this article “The most brilliant business plan ever” I knew it was going to be about acdemic publishers. It is a ludicrus system.

  13. wcorvi says

    My girlfriend, a professional writer, was horrified that I had to pay them to publish (and not the other way around). She called Astrophysical Journal a “vanity press”. The worst is, now I even have to typeset my own articles. Virtually NONE of their subscriptions are on dead trees, so the costs are negligible, leading to huge profits.

  14. says

    This is a massive self-inflicted wound for which academia has to bear at least some of the responsibility.

    Back in 1985 when I attended Library School the professor teaching the serials class explained (from personal experience) how science journals which had functioned as a small-scale cottage industry would sell a title such as Journal of Physics for, say, $150 a year. Then Elsevier (who started this crazy) realized that the accreditation requirements for the schools and the publishing requirements in many faculty/tenure contracts included the titles of specific journals. Elsevier bought the journals then jacked up the price by orders of magnitude every year until Journal of Physics cost $1,500 then $5000 and on and on. It’s not a question of the “reputation” of the title, it’s a question of accreditation and tenure requirements. Academia can make this major drain on its resources disappear by re-writing its own requirements to direct faculty to participate in open-source journals and/or create such as needed. It’s over 30 years since Elsevier created this “business model.” Academic institutions themselves have made the demand for the Journals what an economist calls “inelastic.” You have to have it or you die (institutions lose accreditation, faculty lose tenure). This looks more like an abusive marriage than a bad business model.

    (BTW, the exact prices and price increases of the journal are from imprecise memory. These are not unrealistic, even if not precise).

  15. AlexanderZ says


    Marc Abian #5:

    Decent peer review depends on who the editor sends it to. Why on earth would an open source journal have any difficultly sending the papers to the relevant experts in the field?

    Because I assumed open source would not have enough funds for non-volunteer work. That is, until I looked at the publishers you and cervantes have mentioned and saw that they exist on ads and article-processing charges (respectively for PLoS and BioMed Central).

  16. says

    Peer reviewers are not paid. I review maybe 15 or 20 articles a year, I don’t get a dime. Doesn’t matter if it’s subscription or open source.

    PZ, those page charges for neuroscience are approximately the typical full price to publish in open access medical and public health journals. You should publish in PLoS, because it would be the same price and everybody would be able to read it.

  17. gmacs says

    PZ @9

    Wow, and the best part is that a membership in SfN does not get you free access to articles. I thought it would. I was wrong.

    Not even my institution’s library proxy will get me in. I have to be on my school’s network to look at J. Neuroscience articles.

    And I have no end of antipathy for Wiley and Springer paywalls.

  18. Bernard Bumner says

    Funding agencies in Europe are increasingly demanding open access publication, and presuming that we want to continue publishing in appropriate and top-tier journals (as required by the institution to which we belong), then we have to pay. Our lab is fortunately rich.

    It would not be so bad if we didn’t have to perform the jobs previously done by trained proof editors and typesetters, before having to correct the proofs twice because the journal has still managed to botch the transition from properly formatted digital manuscript to digital galley proof.

    And then you realise that you’re sharing an issue with other work, capped out by a Name, and which should never have passed review. Thus diminishing the credibility and rigour you’re supposedly buying into.

    Anyone else recognise that?

  19. nutella says

    You didn’t mention that a significant portion of the research reported on in these journals is supported by the taxpayers. So they are charging us extra to see the results we have already paid for.

    @sadunlap is right: The professions and academic institutions have given the presses their power and can take it away by measuring professional achievement in a way that doesn’t give monopoly power to a commercial entity. Who is pressuring them to change this?

  20. madtom1999 says

    22 nutella
    The internet perhaps. My father died with a nearly finished book. His publisher had managed to explain to him how a previous book ( that he had presented fully formed in printing ready format) would cost so much more to be an e-book and shaved his already slim royalties even further.
    As a result his unfinished book will be presented on the internet for free without peer reviewing (and alas pictures unless I can find them). If its any good then it may gain some momentum, if not then so what.
    It will cost me a lot less to host it for 10 years than a subscription to some rip-of journal and will be licensed so that plos etc can use it but no one can charge for it.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Where’s Informa (which owns Taylor & Francis)?

    Maybe it’s the discipline you’re in, but the journals I’ve published in in the past all had rather substantial page charges.

    In my discipline, many journals have page charges if your manuscript has more than a reasonably high number of pages; almost nobody, I’m sure, ends up paying them. Color pictures, however, often cost authors 900 US$ apiece.

    Can you maintain an open[-access] journal with decent peer review? Are there any high regarded open[-access] journals?

    Yes and yes: the PLoS journals, the BMC journals, PeerJ, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Geodiversitas…

    Decent peer review depends on who the editor sends it to. Why on earth would an open[-access] journal have any difficultly sending the papers to the relevant experts in the field?

    Exactly.

    You can opt to make your paper open access if you pay roughly twice those sums.

    What the fuck. The quote you provide already reads like the publication fees for an open-access journal. I had never heard of a paywalled journal that charges authors to publish a single page!

    now I even have to typeset my own articles

    Wow. That’s still rare.

    Because I assumed open source would not have enough funds for non-volunteer work.

    Oh, that’s charmingly naïve. Not only are reviewers never paid, even the editors of the journals are almost never paid – and when they are, it’s a symbolic sum like 250 $/year.

    We review papers for each other, and because membership in an “editorial board”* looks good on a CV. That’s why this system hasn’t collapsed.

    * Has nothing to do with editing. It’s just a list of people that are preferentially sent the manuscripts that a particular journal receives.

    a membership in SfN does not get you free access to articles

    Did somebody shit into their brains?

    What is that society for? Do members at least get to participate in the presumably annual meeting for less hallucinogenic prices?

    And I have no end of antipathy for Wiley and Springer paywalls.

    I sit in a big institution in Germany and don’t have access to Naturwissenschaften (Springer).

  22. gmacs says

    David @ 24

    What is that society for? Do members at least get to participate in the presumably annual meeting for less hallucinogenic prices?

    Yes, we do. And we get to register earlier for hotel booking. Also, to submit an abstract, an author has to be a member (which almost goes without saying). Other than that… nope, not sure what it’s for. I know some people who only bother renewing membership on years when they know they’re going to the meeting.

    Oh, wait! I also have a membership card!

  23. gmacs says

    Another gripe I have is that if they no longer print on dead trees, why do they feel the need to be so fucking stingy in the methods section of most papers. I care more about that than some of what I read in the discussion. I may actually want to try to replicate something, or get tips for my own experiments there. Or, maybe… just maybe… I want to see how you did your experiments so I know whether to trust your conclusions.

  24. Rey Fox says

    Yeah, I don’t think I had to pay a fee, I remember seeing the Open Access option and thinking that would be noble, but I’m a post-graduate hobo, so no go. I think they might be sending me a copy of the issue though, for framing perhaps.

  25. Ichthyic says

    And I have no end of antipathy for Wiley and Springer paywalls.

    I spent some time looking at whether the hacking community had ever tackled those paywalls, since it would be much more “social justice” oriented than hacking the movie publishing industry.

    nope. not enough interest AFAICT.

    I’d be happy to be shown to be incorrect. really.

    it really is past time hackers started chipping away at this.

  26. gmacs says

    Ichthyic @ 28

    I spent some time looking at whether the hacking community had ever tackled those paywalls, since it would be much more “social justice” oriented than hacking the movie publishing industry.

    IIRC, there was someone who did that with Ebsco, and some district attorney went after him so relentlessly he killed himself.

  27. says

    @gmacs #29

    IIRC, there was someone who did that with Ebsco, and some district attorney went after him so relentlessly he killed himself.

    You’re thinking of Aaron Schwartz and it was JSTOR. He was a co-founder of Reddit, co-author of RSS and had a history of clinical depression. He downloaded about 4 million documents from JSTOR and MIT.

  28. Ichthyic says

    It’s also not what I’m looking for. one offs (pardon the bad pun) aren’t going to have a lasting impact on this issue.

  29. AlexanderZ says

    cervantes #19:

    Peer reviewers are not paid. I review maybe 15 or 20 articles a year, I don’t get a dime. Doesn’t matter if it’s subscription or open source.

    David Marjanović #24

    Not only are reviewers never paid, even the editors of the journals are almost never paid – and when they are, it’s a symbolic sum like 250 $/year.

    THE HELL?! This is insane. I’m surprised journals have any expenses at all. I’m surprised they haven’t convinced the scientists that running their own servers for them/making their own paper also looks good on a CV.
    I’m astonished and outraged. It’s beyond insane – it’s cuckoo for lollipops!!!

  30. Aaron says

    I don’t say this to disagree with the fundamental claim that publishing houses are terrible, but the comparison here isn’t really a good equivalence. It’s four companies that produce physical products, and then three whose end product isn’t something that exists in the concrete (not counting paper copies, but that is not their bread and butter). Companies that make physical products have naturally lower profit margins, because lots gets eaten up in supply chains management, commoditization, and inventory.

  31. dahduh says

    It is outrageous that academic publishers will typically demand non-affiliated researchers $30 for a single paper; when they have added almost no value whatsoever. The authors do their own typesetting and their colleagues to all the hard work of editorial review, and the research is usually funded for the public good. But then you have the publisher acting as gatekeeper and actually _preventing_ dissemination of the finished product. Fortunately a lot of authors post PDFs on their own website or arXiv (at least in the physics world). But it is time for these decrepit institutions to go away.