Re: The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)

From: Jan Velterop <jan_at_BIOMEDCENTRAL.COM>
Date: Tue, 22 Jul 2003 10:42:38 +0100

As much of this exchange is about BioMed Central, here's some input from BMC

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Stevan Harnad []
> Sent: 22 July 2003 02:50
> Subject: Re: The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing
> Peer Review)
> [This is an exchange with someone at University-X who has
> *not* agreed to
> having his words posted, so I have abridged, paraphrased and
> completely
> camouflaged his points and his institution.]
> > PARAPHRASE: Open Access business models should be tried, and may
> > one day prevail.
> I agree, but I believe open access through self-archiving can and will
> precede open access publishing and its accompanying change in business
> model.

BioMed Central has no preference in this regard. Open access through
self-archiving is bound to stimulate open access publishing at source. The
very business model of BioMed Central supports self-archiving, or any other
kind of archiving or re-use of the articles published. All research articles
published in BioMed Central journals are truly Open Access.

> > PARAPHRASE: PLoS seems to have thought it through.
> > PARAPHRASE: BMC may be underpricing to gain more sponsors.

A reasonably large proportion of BioMed Central's cost structure is fixed.
This means that the true cost per article to BioMed Central is dependent on
the scale it is able to reach. Our calculations show that on the basis of
what we believe is an achievable scale (ambitious, but not overly so),
something in the order of $500 per article is feasible. Trends so far
support the assumptions in regard to achievable scale. We are not there yet,
however, but new journals (all of BMC's journals are new) have rarely in
history achieved a break-even point in 18 months (this is how long -- or
rather, short -- we have been operating with article processing charges).

> [snip]
> > PARAPHRASE: Perhaps in a few decades...

Definitely in a few decades, but most probably already within a few years
will the open access model be the prevailing one, at least in the biomedical
disciplines. Only a few years ago, the mood was generally dismissive of even
the desirability of open access. Now, open access, in whatever form, is
widely seen as necessary and the future of scholarly communication, although
there are still some practical difficulties to overcome. Major publishers
are already making reference to going over to open access models "when
necessary" and even contingency plans are being drawn up, according to
usually well-informed sources. The likelihood is that initially the authors
will be given the choice: pay and your article will be open access, or don't
pay and it will stay behind access barriers. The American Physiological
Society has recently announced the implementation of just such a choice for
their journal Physiological Genomics ( and others
are seriously discussing offering the same in the very near future.

> > PARAPHRASE: Your view that self-archiving needs to come first sounds
> > plausible, but $1500 seems closer to the pricing target
> than $500. And
> > the revenue per article is much lower than $500 when access is
> > unlimited.

I agree with Stevan's response below. Revenue per article for open access
journals is whatever the processing charges per article are. They relate to
cost. Whether or not the article is accessed more or less is of no relevance
other than that more is good for the reputation of the open access journal
in question and therefore its ability to attract submissions. Increased use,
citation, of an article increases its value (and the same is true, grosso
modo, of journals), but not its cost.

> The relevant figure is of course not the *revenue* per article (which
> is the old, reader-end view, based on the toll-access model) but the
> (model-neutral) *cost* per article. And to determine the size of that,
> we need to specify the price *for-what* per article? Every product
> and service being provided now (peer review and copy-editing, markup,
> paper version and its distribution and marketing, online version and
> its storage, distribution and marketing, online enhancements, etc.)?
> or just an essential subset of it?.
> [snip]
> > PARAPHRASE: BMC charges my University -- "University X" -- about
> > $500 x 10 = $5000 [actual figures altered so as not to identify any
> > institution, but ballpark is the same] for its yearly
> membership. (Our
> > faculty were not in favor of the deal.) About 20 University-X
> > researchers are already publishing in BMC journals annually so far
> > [actual figures altered, but ballpark is the same].

The basis of BioMed Central's business model is the Article Processing
Charge. This is sometimes interpreted as an 'Autor's Charge', but shouldn't
be. Authors should no more pay for article processing charges as readers do
for subscriptions (they rarely do, and certainly not for specialist research
journals). The ideal model in BioMed Central's eyes is that the cost of open
access publication is seen as an integral cost of doing research and is
consequently covered by research grants. In most cases, at least in the
biomedical areas, those costs are an extremely small proportion of an
average-sized grant.

Membership is not the basis for the BioMed Central economic model, but
merely a way of a) removing the financial burden from the shoulders of
individual researchers, and b) helping to kick-start a sustainable open
access model by making a clear commitment to it. Membership is not a
paradigm and doesn't need to scale up. As soon as the cost of publishing is
habitually included in the cost of a research project, and article
processing charges (APCs) are paid upon publication, the function of
membership may mean no more than an entitlement to discounts on APCs for
paying (a portion of) them in advance, based on expected numbers of papers
to be published by researchers from the member istitution.

> And if BMC should ever go belly-up (as many other journals, on-paper
> and on-line, have done before), those University-X (or other) authors
> who have published therein will nevertheless continue to have the
> peer-reviewed articles they published therein accessible to and usable
> by the world in perpetuum -- by simply self-archiving them, along with
> all their toll-access articles, in the University-X Eprint Archive.

This is true. It is practically the definition of open access!

> > PARAPHRASE: I hear that each article in the 95 BMC journals averages
> > one per month.

The average number of downloads *per article* published in the BioMed
Central journals is steadily rising and currently ca. 250 *per month* from
the BioMed Central server alone. Since all articles are also available from
other sources -- they're open access, after all -- such as PubMedCentral,
INIST, Potsdam University, and many self-archives and repositories, the real
number of downloads is likely to be appreciably larger.

Jan Velterop
BioMed Central

> I think that's a considerable underestimate. I'm sure that
> BMC open-access
> articles do not get, on average, more or less downloads and
> citations than
> other comparable-quality open-access articles (whether
> self-archived or
> published in open-access journals) -- which is, on average, a lot more
> downloads and citations than comparable-quality toll-access
> articles get (4.5 times as many, according to Laurence 2001
> )
> In other words, the impact-enhancing benefits of open access are not
> in dispute (whereas the instrinsic quality-level of BMC articles is a
> separate matter, on which I have no views, or information).
> The relevant question is this: Does University-X want, right now, for
> *all* of its researchers, the enhanced impact that open
> access is currently
> providing for only its 20 BMC authors -- or does it prefer to wait
> decades for it?
> Stevan Harnad
> NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
> access to the peer-reviewed research literature online is available at
> the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01 & 02 & 03):
> or
> Discussion can be posted to:

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Received on Tue Jul 22 2003 - 10:42:38 BST

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