Nature's special issue on the future of publishing

Nature Magazine's latest issue is a special on the future of publishing. There's a ton of great content, starting with the introduction and the Editorial:

New technologies allow a much greater and faster transition to a digital future, and this week’s special issue reveals that scientists are finding a multitude of ways to publish and access their research results. As this journal has noted before, the future of research literature will ideally be an amalgam of papers, data and software that interlinks with tools for analysis, annotation, visualization and citation. The need for common standards is as great as ever.

But it is demand, not supply, that will shape how scientists and publishers grasp these opportunities. For instance, a key reason that online open-access journals are now accepted as a mainstream (if still minority) method of publishing research is because of the mandates steadily introduced since 2001 by institutions and by research funders.

The issue features a story on the rise of predatory publishing, a truly outrageous case of using journal identity theft to scam authors, on the changing roles of libraries and open data, on licensing issues (paywalled, alas), on the future of scholarly communication (see also this comment), and many more.

However, my favorite article by far is Richard Van Noorden's meticulously researched look at the true cost of science publishing. His article covers almost all the important emerging data on the many aspects of the issue, and addresses most of the recent debates surrounding the cost of article processing fees, true publication costs, the debate on the added value of traditional publishers, and licensing issues. Richard was also a guest on the latest Nature podcast.

I'll highlight a few of the passages that most caught my eye, but I really recommend reading the whole thing. On the current debate:

The variance in prices is leading everyone involved to question the academic publishing establishment as never before. For researchers and funders, the issue is how much of their scant resources need to be spent on publishing, and what form that publishing will take. For publishers, it is whether their current business models are sustainable — and whether highly selective, expensive journals can survive and prosper in an open-access world.

On the current wide variety in the cost of publishing:

Data from the consulting firm Outsell in Burlingame, California, suggest that the science-publishing industry generated $9.4 billion in revenue in 2011 and published around 1.8 million English-language articles — an average revenue per article of roughly $5,000. Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry, so the average cost to the publisher of producing an article is likely to be around $3,500–4,000.... Outsell estimates that the average per-article charge for open-access publishers in 2011 was $660. ... But Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, estimates his journal's internal costs at £20,000–30,000 ($30,000–40,000) per paper.

On publisher profits:

Elsevier's reported margins are 37%, but financial analysts estimate them at 40–50% for the STM publishing division before tax. (Nature says that it will not disclose information on margins.) Profits can be made on the open-access side too: Hindawi made 50% profit on the articles it published last year, says Peters.... Commercial publishers are widely acknowledged to make larger profits than organizations run by academic institutions. A 2008 study by London-based Cambridge Economic Policy Associates estimated margins at 20% for society publishers, 25% for university publishers and 35% for commercial publishers.

On added value:

The key question is whether the extra effort adds useful value, says Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, UK, who last year led a revolt against Elsevier. Would scientists' appreciation for subscription journals hold up if costs were paid for by the authors, rather than spread among subscribers? “If you see it from the perspective of the publisher, you may feel quite hurt,” says Gowers. “You may feel that a lot of work you put in is not really appreciated by scientists. The real question is whether that work is needed, and that's much less obvious.” ... A more-expensive, more-selective journal should, in principle, generate greater prestige and impact. Yet in the open-access world, the higher-charging journals don't reliably command the greatest citation-based influence, argues Jevin West, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Earlier this year, West released a free tool that researchers can use to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of open-access journals (see Nature; 2013).

On the path forward:

More than 60% of journals already allow authors to self-archive content that has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, says Stevan Harnad, a veteran open-access campaigner and cognitive scientist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada. Most of the others ask authors to wait for a time (say, a year), before they archive their papers. However, the vast majority of authors don't self-archive their manuscripts unless prompted by university or funder mandates.

As I said, really excellent reporting, and is one of those things that goes a long way to justify for me the current cost structure of the Nature Publishing Group. Go read it all.