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More on AAA publishing: The matter of costs

Let’s pick up the expanding thread on AAA publishing by considering costs.  Coming up with a single figure for the AAA’s large publication portfolio is frustratingly difficult. There are complications such as sunk costs, various ways of calculating overhead, the complexities of the W-B contract, and the like. I’m an anthropologist, not an accountant, so I’ll stick to basics:

  • Production costs (2010): about $1 million. This includes copy-editing, layout, relevant IT work, printing, mailing of journals and Anthro News, and marketing of journals. Keep in mind that we’re talking about 31 different serials, albeit including a few that aren’t publishing actively at present.
  • Salaries and related overhead, i.e., AAA Publications staff (2010): about $1 million for salaries/benefits/equipment/offices.
  • Editorial offices (2010): about $300,000. In addition there is in-kind support from the journal editors’ home institutions.  Whether cost-conscious universities will continue to provide this level of in-kind support in the future is anyone’s guess.
  • Total annual cost (2010): roughly $2.3 million

At this point, I’ll bet that some readers are thinking: “What’s with this crazy huge budget? With open source software and a digital-only model, using cheap server space for hosting, I could reduce the cost of publishing each AAA journal to a couple of thousand dollars a year.” That was my thought prior to joining CFPEP.

Unfortunately, I’ve since learned that conversion to an OA, digital-only publishing model (i.e., one that abandons paper and toll-collection) doesn’t cut costs as much as one might hope. Sure, you lose the cost of printing, mailing, subscription management. That’s not trivial, but it’s not totally transformative either. It is liberating for new, modest-circulation journals, but more selective, large-circulation ones still cost money to administer and produce, and they are saddled with certain legacy costs (warehousing back issues, etc.) that will take time to wind down.

Skeptics may want to consult the many pro-OA publications that estimate such costs. Here’s one, a 2010 article in ArsTechnica.com, “The Economic Case for Open Access in Academic Publishing.”  Relevant quote: “For example, the estimated first copy costs for Nature and Science are $10,000 to $15,000 [per article], while the first copy costs for highly field-specific, low-selectivity journals is closer to $2,000.” That’s sobering for anthropology because our articles tend to be longer than STEM articles, meaning that they cost even more. Another study computed per page estimates: “Cost per page published in 2007 ranged from $184 to $825 (aver: $526). When the variable costs of print are removed these costs fall to a range from $90 to $652 (aver: $360).” For a dissenting view on costs and related variables, check out this.

Even if one discounts these estimates as inflated–and I find myself doubting the validity of such high figures–it means that the AAA would need to cut costs drastically to shift to OA mode. And with subscription revenues dropping to zero, that means that membership dues, plus the occasional grant, would pay for everything.  In 2010 AAA used $900K of membership dues to cover the costs of the publishing program. If AAA were to eliminate subscriptions, keeping the membership subvention the same, we would need to eliminate $1.4M in costs.  About $500K could be shed to eliminating print copies, but the membership subvention would still need to grow to twice its current size.

Are AAA members prepared to take on that cost?  I have no idea.

That’s not an argument against OA by any means. OA might still be the best alternative, especially given its ethical merits.  Yet it’s important to keep in mind that any proposal for changing the AAA’s publishing model has to contend with unforgiving economic and logistical realities.  The same is true for the status quo, which many feel is unsustainable.  Tough choices all around.

2 Responses

  1. […] It is in the spirit of making progress in the harvesting of low hanging fruit–wherein significant good can be done in an easy and inexpensive way–that I recently suggested a way in which the conference programs and abstracts of the American Anthropological Association could be made freely available online to all interested users as part of the HathiTrust Digital Library. My recent suggestion of this strategy was offered as small part of an important discussion of the future of the AAA publishing program that was begun on the AAA weblog. It can be found there attached to the first of two posts by Michael F. Brown. The first (on which I commented) can be found here and a second post, dealing with the expense picture for the total AAA publishing program, is here. […]

  2. Deb Nichols, chair of CFPEP, has drawn my attention to a parallel discussion about academic publishing and Open Access initiated by Gordon Mathews (Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong) in the website of the World Council of Anthropological Associations (http://www.wcaanet.org/blog/?p=27). This, in turn, links to a similar discussion in an Australian academic site (http://theconversation.edu.au/how-academic-journals-price-out-developing-countries-2484). Worth taking a look at these for a more global perspective.

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