Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why $20 for a paper?

Last week's post about physics papers available without subscription lead to the issue of the typical price tag for a single paper download from a journal server - something between $19 and $30, depending on the publisher, but generally neither on the paper content, age, nor extent. Phil, one of our most constant readers and commentators, was wondering why he had to pay $25 for the download of more the than 70-year old, five-pages EPR paper (which is, actually, "Free to Read" in the meantime).

Essentially the same question was asked in a letter by a reader in the current issue of Physics Today. Thomas E. Phipps Jr. writes

Recently I had wanted to consult a one-page comment that had appeared in the American Journal of Physics 18 years ago. I could have gone to my local university's physics department library and copied the page for 10 cents. However, being 82 and lazy, I preferred to go online to the AIP website, where I discovered that the page I wanted was available for downloading at a price of $19. Oddly enough, I paid this. [...] But I wonder how such a pricing policy squares with some of the declaratory words emanating from AIP. [...] Simply put, what is not-for-profit about charging $19 for a one-page download of 18-year-old material?

He refers to the mission statement of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the publishers of both Physics Today and the American Journal of Physics, which says that AIP "serves physics and related fields [...] by serving [...] individual scientists, educators, students, R&D leaders, and the general public with programs, services and publications - information that matters."

Physics Today invited Fred Dylla, executive director and CEO of the AIP, to respond to Thomas Phipps, and here is part of his answer, which gives some insight in the prices involved in publishing papers in scientific journals:

It does seem inappropriate to pay $19 for a one-page download of an 18-year-old article. But one has to dig below the surface to understand the economics of scientific journal publishing as a context for the pricing of such journal products by nonprofit publishers. [...] Producing a high-quality, peer-reviewed archival journal such as AJP involves significant costs, including those for a reliable online platform that has made AJP and other member-society journals available to a much wider audience than did the former print-only subscriptions. AIP has also made major investments to digitize and make available electronically journal issues that were published in print long before the industry made the transition to digital. Those real costs are recovered, by and large, through institutional subscriptions paid by libraries and research institutions. The cost of producing one typical article is between $1500 and $3000. Considering the average journal subscriber base, a $20 price for a nonsubscriber to download an article is not out of line.

He further emphasises that AIP's journal server provides free access to online search and abstracts, that its prices are lower than those of commercial publishers, and that AIP invests its return in outreach services subsidised membership subscriptions.

Fred Dylla has an important point: producing scientific journals, making accessible back issues, and running index database and repository servers creates costs that are easy to overlook. Moreover, it's definitely true that access to scientific papers is much easier now than just 15 years ago: Back then, the only way to read a paper would have been a visit at the next university library that has a subscription - compared to that effort, spending $20 may be not that expensive. And the prize of a single paper download probably has to be balanced with the typical total number of downloads a library "buys" by its subscription fee.

But I there are two points that don't not quite convince me about this argument:

First, the "one size fits all" prizing is a bit odd: While $20 might be an understandable prize for a 100+ page review article that compares to a book, it's not straight-forward to see why a one-page short note should cost the same. Actually, this may be due to technical reasons and the capacity of current online payment systems, and could change in the future.

But second, the price tag at online papers is relevant only for potential readers without institutional affiliation providing access. There could be a substantial group of highly trained and qualified people outside universities willing to pay for the download of papers, because they want to read first-hand about scientific developments. Could it not even be profitable for publishers to grant access at a lower prize, a prize that invites to pay instead of saying "we don't want our papers being bought"?

I do not know if there are any market research studies related to this point, and if lowering the prize could indeed be more than compensated for by increased sales. I know that I would actually have already bought quite a few papers if the prize was lower. What about you? Did you ever consider buying a paper, but were discouraged because the prize tag said $20, instead of, say, $5.00 ?


  1. Hi Stefan,

    I am struggling to understand how education should not merit a "for profit scheme" that it becomes a bigger problem to administer the funding needed, versus the non profitability assigned to a higher road of access to information. What should be the cost, to those who are poor?

    EOL-(Encyclopedia for Life)

    Like Phil, it is important to me to try and get as close as I get to the author from a literature standpoint. You learn something about the author as well as the inception and development processes as they unfold for that individual.

    A certain "affinity" is created, while it may comparable to me about old architectural structures, it is about the "artistic authorial influence" left in the colour and finishings of the wood/designated research information.

  2. Hi Stefan,

    Nice article, bringing with it, more to think about. First, it looks that if I’d been willing to wait a few year, I could have saved a few dollars with the EPR paper as now it being “free to read”:-) I must say however if there was ever a paper that I felt worth the cost; this would be one of them. I suspect it must be one of the most often cited papers of all time. I am also very interested in this “free to read” concept that the Physical Review is exploring. Perhaps foundations such as those that Bill Gates is about to start and head up, should imagine themselves to be a major player in making much, if not all, free to read. I remember reading Gates expounding that the main difference between his philanthropic enterprise and the typical concept can be found in the spirit of the Chinese proverb:

    “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

    I would contend that making more freely accessible would be consistent with this philosophy.

    I also agree when you suggest that they should give some thought to drastically reducing the single download cost to private individuals. I would have thought, that with the success of online purchasing in related endeavors, such as Amazon, they would have recognized the untapped potential of the resource that they are currently squandering. This would seem to be the required first step in moving education beyond the confines of bricks and mortar, to have it no longer restricted by circumstance or privilege, yet rather only ability and desire. This should extend to all literature in general, limited only by what would be considered the average author’s lifetime. This is already recognized in the pharmaceutical industry, in relation to generic drugs and the duration of a related patents. Why shouldn’t education be considered any less a basic human necessity and subsequent right, as we consider health to be? A lot of talk is devoted to imagining how we can improve the future of the world in general. How do the powers to be still fail to realize that a large part of the solutions lie in front of them, requiring only the will and what would amount to a small investment in comparison to the benefit?

    Monasteries once preserved, yet hoarded, the knowledge that Guttenberg’s technology would release into Europe; which then yanked it out of the dire conditions manifested by ignorance. Today, the Universities and publishers possess, yet restrict knowledge, which must be likewise released by our new technology(s) to extend and continue this program of enlightenment to the world as a whole.



  3. The American Chemical Society recently e-mailed me. They are in desperate need of personal information for their statistical compilations.

    I e-mailed them back that my time cost $200/hr, minimum one hour and prepaid. Charge me for ACS publication access from my home computer? Kiss my ass, ACS.

  4. guys, just a brief comment before that wireless breaks down again. I keep wondering why nobody mentions what's to me completely obvious: if you want open access, scientific publications become a public service. public service has to be financed by governmental support. financing models like page or author charges are doomed to fail because they are just inappropriate. either way you turn it, it will go on the expenses of unbiased and high quality publishing for the merits of profit optimization. if you think about it more than three seconds you'll notice both isn't compatible with each other, that's the reason why science journalism is tumbling down into making and hyping sensations (just check Peter's 'This week hype's).

    as i keep repeating, there is a reason for the 'ivory tower' but it seems people have forgotten about it in the brave new world of neo-liberalism: scientific research takes place in a delicate environment and has to be protected from any kind of lobbyism or other disturbances due to financial pressure. we're all human and it's difficult enough not to be influenced by social or cultural trends, but at least one can try not to make them too manifest in the system we work in.

    i said the same to my dear husband who complained that the commercial publisher he's working for scrapes more and more scientific journals because they don't pay off, even though their content is potentially vital for some small and specialized niches. can't you see how dangerous this trend is? it establishes a selection process that is very efficient if perfect, but potentially disastrous if attached with small errors, because it can essentially kill branches on the research tree.

  5. A scientist from a middle class family in a country like India or China would find these prices atrocious. $20 is equivalent to 8000 Indian rupees for which price you can buy a whole compilation of Indian research papers. The price of science should not be set through the exchange rates for money. More importantly, scientific papers should not be sold. Knowledge and education should ideally be free.

  6. Not only from India or China.. My former Italian institute didn't have access to some journals that I needed for my research, and so occasionally I paid those prices out of my own pocket. Compared to some of my living costs, that $20 was equivalent to a half-month of my fruit and vegetable expenses.

  7. Hi Bee,

    I do not believe "Ivory Towers" as libraries should be thought in such context.:) A library does not discriminate between an individual with money or many, without. Does not discriminate on gender or colour.

    I was thinking about Brazil's recess attempts at "open access" for their public. Restrictions within countries "that control" what it's citizens should see. We know capitalistic approaches can influence politics, governments move it's population to regard the future in new ways?

    Should we not consider the internet as a library with all it's books, some of course divided into it's categories, fiction or otherwise? How are these funded?

    Communally based perspectives developed accordingly in the development of the internet.

    Yes, "science sections" in the catalogues. "Not Even wrong" has it censure system so I do not think there is "freedom there:)" It cost you something that is not monetary. Polices he has adopted "that are" just the way it is. Sorry, I like my namesake, while I work and study.

  8. Authors have some control over this, just by placing their papers on the arXiv (even years after publication).

    Does anyone know of authors having any problems with journals not wanting their journal-published papers being placed on the arXiv?

  9. Dear all,

    thanks for your comments, and especially for pointing out the huge problem of access to literature for less well off countries and people!

    I know that some publishers offer special subscription fees, and that publishing fees for open access journals can be reduced or waived. For example PCM Physics states about article-processing charges that they "routinely waive charges for authors from low-income countries." But this is for sure a big problem...

    Amara, did you get back the money for the paper from your institution?

    Dear Bee,

    If you want open access, scientific publications become a public service. Public service has to be financed by governmental support.

    That's roughly the model now used by CERN or the Max Planck Society: As I understand it, these institutions have covered the publishing fees required by Open Access Journals for the scientist they employ there (probably by a bulk or flat rate model). Thus, authors at CERN or the MPIs are encouraged to publish in Open Access Journals, and the cost is paid by the institution, which is financed, again, by public money.

    Hi anonymous,

    I think net even Science and Nature mind if you put some version of papers that have published with them on the arxiv (probably as long as you do not use the PDF files of the journal itself...), but it doesn't help so much for older stuff.

    Best, Stefan

  10. Great topic Stefan; I don't have any deep comments, but I'll add my 2 cents. I get most papers I need (mostly, Icarus) for free -to me anyway- through my institution. I do need to be physically in the institution, however, as I cannot access the papers for free from my house.

    Bee, I understand exactly what you mean by "neo-liberalism", but many US readers may not (I don't think it's a term widely used here), so you may want to define it.

  11. Dear Stefan,

    I know, but I think you don't get the point. The fact that the researchers themselves get reimbursed for the publication doesn't solve the problem, it shifts it elsewhere. Reimbursement for travel doesn't improve the quality of flights either. The whole process is still subject to the usual capitalistic games, institutions will want to save money, publishers will want to make money. To put it bluntly, both sides are in the first line interested in financial advantage, not scientific quality. Gee, just go into the next store and look at the magazines you find at the register - capitalism left alone does *not* optimize quality. Just try to eat an average ice cream in the USA, 95% is from the Nestle family and outright disgusting, the remaining 5% are even worse (I'm choosing ice cream because for obvious reasons there aren't many import products in that category).

    How long until open access journals will consist of 40% advertisements? How long until I get spammed every day with offers and announcements etc. I do already receive an rapidly increasing amount of 'HEY, PUBLISH WITH US!' emails. More of that sort comes with snail mail. It is the same issue as with print magazines, it doesn't afford to sell it for the production cost - it would get way too pricy, just read your own blog post, so you need alternative financing. Whatever that financing looks like, if left to the usual dance it will go on the expenses of quality, because quality is just not a factor that scores high. It is easily outrun by popularity, advertisement campains, and dirty deals among large companies. Science is not immune to this, and it is hopelessly naive to assume so. That's why I keep saying there is a reason for the ivory tower.

    Hi Plato,

    I do not believe "Ivory Towers" as libraries should be thought in such context.:) A library does not discriminate between an individual with money or many, without. Does not discriminate on gender or colour.

    That was not what I meant. Most scientific libraries have always been open to the public, but little people used it. There was little additional cost, and copyright etc not actually an issue. Now with open access the scientific literature becomes a truly 'public' service, as public as it can possibly be, available for everybody on his home computer.

    What I referred to with the 'ivory tower' isn't library access but the way science is organized. Unfortunately, most people today regard the 'ivory tower' as something negative, the separation of the arrogant academics from the rest of the world. That's a complete misunderstanding. The academic research necessarily needs to be protected as far as possible from disturbing influence, that accounts for fashion trends as well as corruption, financial or idealistic pressure. That's what I mean with science lives in a fragile environment.



    PS: Been thinking lately about who watches the watchers with the outcome there are no watchers. What do you think about this?

  12. Hi Changcho:

    Bee, I understand exactly what you mean by "neo-liberalism", but many US readers may not (I don't think it's a term widely used here), so you may want to define it.

    Oh really? How embarrassing. I must have used that term repeatedly, now you're saying the majority of the readers didn't know what I was talking about. Will be careful the next time to make really clear what I mean. As a brief explanation: neo-liberalism is the believe that Adam Smith's invisible hand will lead us to collective and individual maximal happiness, and less government and a less regulated marketplace is necessarily better (which is known to be wrong since at least a century, but still plenty of politicians argue this way).

    Thanks for letting me know.



  13. Dear Bee,

    hm... I think I get your point. Even more so since I've just read very similar arguments in an opinion piece by John Ewing, executive director of the American Mathematical Society. It's in the current issue of Notices of the AMS, "Where Are Journals Headed? Why We Should Worry About Author-Pay" (PDF file). He summarizes

    We are therefore heading in the wrong direction. Scholarly journals are sick and they need attention. But instead of following a regimen of reasoned and disciplined remedies —instead of driving down prices by the steady, concerted actions of authors, editors, and librarians—we are bleeding the patient with open access models, trusting in miracles (that university administrators will shift funds from those with research funds to those without), and praying that publishers will repent their ways.

    That's a sobering view.

    Best, Stefan.

  14. Dear Stefan,

    Thanks for mentioning this article! It is a huge relief to me to see somebody else draws attention to this problem, and doesn't just get over-excited about open access. As he writes very clearly

    The result will be a distorted and ugly market, driven by some of the same forces that drive vanity publishing. This is what happens when a market is driven by producers instead of consumers.

    I just want to make that very clear: I am all for open access, as I believe knowledge should be freely accessible for everybody. After all, it is what our civilizations build up on. If the public has an interest in this becoming possible it should be financed much as research itself, i.e. by grants provided to manage, distribute and edit these journals. There is no way around this as there are way too many papers that are and will remain non-profitable, and profit is just not a good criterion in this case. It would probably have some good side effects (i.e. I guess many papers would suddenly become much more readable, as opposed to understandable only for a group of ~10 people worldwide), but it would have the drawback that topics which become uninteresting for maybe no other reason than stochastic fluctuations irreversibly die off because they don't get published - and who wants to work on something that doesn't get published because it doesn't sell well? Best,


  15. Hi Bee,

    PS: Been thinking lately about who watches the watchers with the outcome there are no watchers. What do you think about this?

    It starts off with a phrase. It then spreads out into society to become a mantra of kind. So following this phrase becomes important to reveal the deeper implications of George Orwell's book (1984), and the understanding that drove an author to write things which were motivated by his historical perspective. His life.

    Criticism of the concept of dystopias

    Just as some modern philosophers, political theorists, and writers have dismissed ideas of perfect societies or "utopias", many have also expressed skepticism regarding the likelihood of a real-life dystopia of the kind described by Orwell and others. Anthony Burgess however labelled Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four a Cacotopia claiming that 'most visions of the future are cacotopian'. Although there have been many absolutist states in human history, Gregg Easterbrook has argued that such societies tend to rapidly self-destruct or be destroyed by neighbors. Dictatorships and similar regimes tend to be short-lived, as their policies and actions are almost continually leading to the creation of new potential opponents.

    This often occupied my mind as I write articles and do my part to get as much factual information out there, so the public understands the full scope of what the government may be doing, without our our full knowledge and awareness. Understand it myself.

    ( let's apply this to who ever you like)What are the motivations for one who may think they are doing a good thing and challenging, the current system on arvix publications being moderated? That the moderators are influenced by a position they may hold?? The Watcher, not moderator, tells you that science has been done a disservice by thinking that a TOE is being implied and there is no scientific fact to support it? How wise that those of science have to be reminded and how wise that there is a service to the ordinary citizen that science is destroying itself by doing such things from a position of power?

    Honestly, the Watcher watches from a perspective and without the moderator, who is watching the watcher:)?

    So we are then again to a point about what shall survive.aenjt

  16. Hi all,

    To tell you the truth, the more I read here, including what has been referred to, the more confused I become. In the end it would appear what’s needed is to eliminate the middle men, which in this case are the publishers. In the end the only true function they serve is that of distributer. The content and what is decided deemed to be of value (peer review) is provided by the researchers themselves. What is truly required is that universities, research facilities and think tanks form an association among themselves that will replace the service(s) currently supplied by many outside agencies. It then needs to be understood that the whole system must be changed not just simply tweaked.

    I think the first thing realized to be eliminated is the paper version of the journals themselves. I don’t see this to be much of a loss in relation to what we are referring to. It is also one of the major costs in the current process as relating to production and distribution. However, what could be gained would be far more valuable then what’s lost. For instance all the references could be linked to what’s being referred. The content of peer review could be revealed as part of the paper. The submission, acceptance and rejection process would become more transparent. These potentials will all be lost if we insist on hanging onto the “ivory towers”. I think that even the prestige issue would be addressed better with such a system for with the transparency will come more scrutiny. Those that benefit will have earned the accolades and those that applaud will know why they do. It is true the “old ivory towers” would fall, yet the one built to replace it will be of more real value and less of perceived.



  17. Dear Bee,

    A public function can be also provided by not-for-profit organizations, rather than the government. As suggested by others, perhaps some university-like entities should organize scientific publishing and distribution.


  18. Dear Arun,

    Sure. I didn't say it should be 'organized' by the government, but funded. The problem with non-profit organization is that they are for the reason of monetary dependences prone to influence from lobbies, but if this is taken care of I wouldn't mind. In fact, governmental organizations themselves are often biased in different ways and subject to other problems (e.g. their interests might change with a change in government). The German Research Foundation e.g. does a very similar job. Technically seen, it is a private institution. As far as I know, they are mainly though not entirely governmentally funded, and they do a pretty good job distributing this funds through a very efficient referee process (Germany being what Germany is, they are too slow and inflexible, but that's a different problem). The point I was trying to make is that neither author fees nor page charges are imho an appropriate financing tool that will guarantee a high quality level. Best,


  19. Hi Phil,

    What are you confused about? I certainly don't want to 'eliminate' the publisher as a middle man. I hope it became clear from what I said here and earlier that on the contrary, I believe scientific journals did and do play a very important role in scientific research, and in opposed to what others seem to think it is not a role that becomes less important.

    Scientific publishers are a key ingredient to organizing the research in our communities. They gather, sort, filter, and categorize results and information. As I said earlier, I find it hopelessly naive to assume that all this will be done 'somehow' on the internet, by - I don't know - post publication peer commentaries, self-categorization, Wiki-Wiki grassroots democracy, or whatever. What I am saying is that one needs to take great care these functions that have traditionally been fulfilled by publishers still work with maximal efficiency even though they are facing new challenges now. Work needs capital. You can't do good work if you can't pay people. The financing question of scientific journals is therefore an important issue for the whole community. I do not think that the arXiv (or similar mostly self-organized institutions) can replace the work done by skilled editors (work done is meant to include organizing the refereeing process etc).

    You seem however to confuse the issue of financing with the issue of peer review, the latter one wasn't actually content of this thread.

    As to your remark

    I think the first thing realized to be eliminated is the paper version of the journals themselves.

    I very strongly disagree. As I have said earlier, confining information storage to electronic versions is a potentially irreversible mistake (putting the key in the trunk, remember that). Printing something on paper is still a considerably cheap and easy way to store information in an immediately accessible way (without further tools needed) for a potentially long time. Neither CDs nor microchips can so far replace paper in this regard.

    I agree of course that electronic versions have large advantages when it comes to referencing.



  20. Hi Bee,

    I understand you see as important the maintenance of the separate publishers and their journal’s. You point out their importance in terms of the promotion, organization and logistic issues of each discipline and their subcategories. It is hard not to acknowledge the important role they play and at the same time they form a stumbling block to the ambition that humanity has had for eons and that is the free and universal access to knowledge. Our technology is now at the point were we have the capability to not only accomplish this, yet also have it assembled and cross referenced in such a manner that it would actually serve to potentially have this knowledge expand at a unprecedented rate. It is evident that the journals and publishers are not just simply up for this challenge yet have priorities that run counter to its completion. For me it must be decided if knowledge is something that is public or private. If it is deemed private then we should all give up the dream; if public, then we should plan, organize, create and implement the system by which this will be accomplished.

    I think that corporations, government and the individuals can and should lend support in having this come to be. The very institute that you currently work for is an example of how this can be so. From the corporate side it’s seen as an opportunity to create and bring on stream new technologies. From the government side it’s viewed as a way to enhance the quality of the lives of there citizens and the place of their nation on the world stage. From the interested individual’s perspective it lends the opportunity to expand and enrich them. They all have something to gain; what’s holding this back is fear of what will be lost. In the case of corporations and governments it’s the fear of loss of control and advantage; for the individual, the reason for ignorance and their justification to act accordingly.

    So does this mean that these fears are real and justifiable and thus necessarily prevent this from happening? I would say not. The reason being is that they all have a commonality that takes precedent over their individual wants and fears and that is who they all exist to serve, which is humanity. So is it not time that we ask corporations to live up to their mission statements, the governments their principles and the individual’s their ideals? There are always reasons why not to do something yet is it truly reason?



  21. Hi Stefan,

    Just to let you know again how excited I am about this “Free to Read” concept initiated by APS. It does seem to give us a chance to access some material and yet they are in no way willing to relinquish their perceived ownership of the material. One can pay the $900-$1300 fee and have it free to read for all in perpetude and yet they stubbornly maintain their copyright. From their FREE TO READ FAQ:

    “Who retains copyright?”
    “The copyright to the article will remain with the American Physical Society.”

    Also when I try to discover if they have a list or index of what is “Free to Read” I didn’t discover one. When I clicked the link under the heading:

    “Can I get an RSS feed for only FREE TO READ articles?”
    “Yes. RSS feeds for FREE TO READ articles are available at”

    This leads to essentially no place that would allow me to find what I might be looking for. So they have made some available and yet don’t appear to be prepared to either widely promote or easy enable its access.

    However, this has given me an idea. Remember I was talking about perhaps compiling collections of classic and important papers that could be purchased at a substantially reduced cost. How about we take this one step further and this is where you and Bee could play a major role. Why not set up a private fund that would first compile suggested lists of classic and even current highly significant papers that would be perceived as such a group(s). Then, by way of your Lightcone foundation, as the vehicle, act to coordinate and expedite this. You could announce and set policies where (as a suggestion) you use 90% for the freeing of the selected group(s) and say 10% for the labour and administrative costs. I’ll tell you right now I have $100.00 earmarked (to begin with) for this if you start such an initiative. This of course could only first be done with the APS material, yet I suspect this could prompt others to make “free to read” available as not to miss out on the funding or be perceived as being more restrictive then APS. You could extend this further in terms of translation of papers. However I would see this as Phase 2. APS has opened the door that could be stepped through to buy freedom of knowledge. It is then only up to those who would accept the challenge.




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