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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.

The future of AAA publishing: Opening a conversation

The Committee for the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing, better known as CFPEP, has invited me to start a discussion thread about how the AAA can best manage its diverse publications in response to a publishing environment undergoing radical change.  CFPEP invites your thoughts on strategies for keeping AAA publications as widely accessible as possible while maintaining a sustainable business plan.  We plan to continue the discussion for three months–after which we’ll see how it goes.

By way of introduction, I should say that I’m a relative newbie to CFPEP.  I’m playing catch-up with an accomplished group led by Deborah Nichols of Dartmouth.  For the past decade I’ve studied and written about how the world’s intellectual property regime affects indigenous peoples, but I also have a strong interest in the publishing industry’s struggles to adapt to the digital revolution and the growing power of the developed world’s IP regime.  During my term as director of the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences, I was able to bring to campus a number of leading thinkers in this field, including Chris Kelty, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Madhavi Sunder, and Peter Suber.

The fashionable adjective “overdetermined” has long struck me as pretentious, but it clearly applies to the business of publishing academic serials today.  I came to CFPEP favorably disposed to Open Access models and skeptical of for-profit approaches to journal publishing. I remain so but have since learned the following:

  • Publishing academic journals (even digital-only ones liberated from the cost of printing and moving paper) entails significant expense, including administration, copy-editing, type-setting, web development, hosting and archiving.  Revenues to support this must come from somewhere.
  • Many anthropologists, especially untenured ones, are fearful of any dramatic move that could damage the standing of AAA journals in established hierarchies of professional accomplishment.  Publishing strategies, in other words, are inseparable from metrics of productivity and academic impact.
  • Many people oppose the predatory practices of some for-profit publishers.  They are passionately committed to OA models for reasons both pragmatic and political.  Often, however, they don’t realize that a significant number of OA journals are based on the “author pays” model, requiring the author of accepted papers to pay for the costs of publication.  (Database with details here; developing ideas about OA’s business models here.)
  • The transition to digital-only publishing, which increasingly seems inevitable, raises difficult questions about how published work will be conserved/archived for posterity.  This is particularly complex for online publications that include time-limited ancillary material.  Digital archiving isn’t as easy or as cheap as many of us assume.  Think about it: printed books can be read centuries after their creation, whereas digital documents are quickly made obsolete by software changes.  Digital data need to be regularly migrated and converted to readable formats.  All this costs money.
  • The fiscal integrity of our principal professional organization, the AAA, today is inseparable from the financial health of the journal portfolio.  Unwinding the two will not be easy and shouldn’t be done precipitously.

CFPEP is exploring these issues this year and beyond.  We’ve just held the first of several planned webinars to which all members are invited to participate.  (The webinar, which considers the links between the changing publishing landscape and promotion/tenure, is well summarized in Tobias Denskus’s blog.  The webinar is fully downloadable for those who couldn’t catch it live.)

With CoPAPIA, we’ve also organized a double session at the annual meeting in Montreal.  This is intended as a discussion session for members, and the diverse presenters will be making only brief, informal statements.  If you’re interested in these questions, come and share your thoughts.

Or open the discussion now, by electronic means.  What questions should CFPEP be asking?  Where should the AAA publishing wing be in five years?  Ten?  How can we make attractive, academically rigorous journals available to the widest possible audience without committing financial suicide?

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