Wednesday, February 02, 2022

A closer look at the costs of EMBO publishing

There has been a lot of discussions on social media about the price that some publishers are coming up for publishing a paper in their journals - the so called article processing charges (APC). With some journals asking for values that are on the order of 10k and many scientists finding these values to be outrageous. Given that journals don't work to produce the research articles and get academics to do the evaluation, how can these journals claim the costs of publishing a paper to be anywhere close to 10k ? While I agree that these are outrageous values, I don't really believe that the price is mostly profit. A good source of information for the costs associated with running a publisher are those that have been disclosed by EMBO Publishing. Before we go into these I need to disclose that I serve on the Publications Advisory Board of EMBO publishing. I don't receive anything from EMBO and this is merely an advisory committee but it has given me some insight into what is a very real attempt from non-profit publisher to come up with an APC that is low and what they could compromise on their current set-up to achieve it. 

With that out of the way lets just look at the most recent numbers that EMBO has disclosed which were for 2019 (see here). EMBO has (or had in 2019) 17 professional scientific editors and 6 support staff, that handled a total of 5,766 submissions in 2019. That is on the order of 28 submissions handled per month per editor, 1.3 per working day. I don't know about you but making a call on 1 paper per day plus finding/chasing reviewers is not easy if you try to do it properly, even if you can make some rejections fairly quickly. From these they ended up publishing 472 (8%). This part is not totally transparent, for example maybe some of the submissions included the reviews and news&views articles that were ultimately also published. If that is the case then the total number published would be 681 (12%). It is also not totally clear if the submissions include also revision submissions. Regardless, this shows that the total of EMBO publishing ends up having acceptance rates that are quite low (10-20%). I should stress that I truly don't know the actual number. As we easily see, this rejection rate is really key for the high estimated cost per paper. 

The costs that they have disclosed includes ~2,5 million euro for the EMBO Press office, of which around 2 million is listed as salaries and benefits. The number of staff is there as well so you can guestimate the average salary for the 23 staff and you can also look up EMBO editor salary on Glassdoor to get an idea. I truly don't know what the salary is but I guess on average it could be on the order of 4-6k net per month. The other costs include 1,723,639 euro that EMBO Publishing pays to Wiley which in fact does the actual publishing. The majority of this cost is listed as "Wiley publishing services (incl. production, sales and marketing)" (1,281,552 euro). This is certainly a place where costs are not very transparent, at least to me, and where profit to Wiley is included, likely with a decent margin. I certainly don't know enough about finances to figure out but Wiley is claimed to have around 30% of operating profit margin but for the purposes of some later calculations, lets assume that maybe 50% of these costs are profit that could be magically removed (e.g. EMBO sets up their own publishing infrastructure). Finally, EMBO also lists 1,342,374 euro in "surplus" which is re-invested into some publishing related actives like the EMBO Source Data project, other pilots trying to innovate on the publishing side and back to EMBO itself which further supports EMBO program activities (fellowships, etc). 

With these numbers then the total cost includes the 4,225,920 of actual cost and the 1,342,374 for EMBO activities (5,568,294 euro total). So if you don't take anything out of this, you would need a price of 11797 euro for each of the 472 paper published in 2019 to finance this. If you exclude the EMBO surplus that would be 8953 per paper and excluding 50% of Wiley costs it would get down to 7127 per paper. Even without anything from Wiley you would only get to 5301 per paper. Of course, you can also argue that the salaries costs could be lower but what can't really be argued is that academic editors can do this for "free" since that is time that most likely is even more expensive and less efficient. 

So the 10k APC number certainly contains parts that can be reduced but we are not talking about a 1k per paper cost. For that you would need to change the rejection rates and this is what really starts mattering in the end. If you go to maybe something like 50% acceptance rates which could correspond to something like 2000 papers published in this case, then the APC could be somewhere on the order of 1500-2500 euro. Keep also in mind that submission numbers would tend to decrease over time if the impact factors go down with higher acceptance rates (yes, some people still care about those). Of course, this scales across multiple journals and this is where the big publishers are just taking advantage since the overall acceptance rate across the large portfolio of journals is much higher than 10% and high acceptance rate journals (e.g. Scientific Reports) can cross-subsidise low acceptance rate journals (Nature). 

It is important again to keep in mind that all of these prices per paper have been there for decades but were paid via journals subscription charges instead of APCs and therefore they were not transparent and people were not really paying attention. In the end, the discussion for me is not really around the 30% savings we could have by pushing the publishers to lower their prices, but more about how we go about doing the filtering (i.e. target audience) and subjective evaluation of value to science (i.e. impact). Revolutions are not real solutions in academic publishing. If you propose a solution that requires a majority of people to change their habits in the span of 3 years it is dead on arrival.