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Time is Money: Why Scholarly Communication Can’t Be Free – A guest post by Mark Carden

10th February 2015
By Guest Author

Mark Carden Headshot 12Mark Carden is a recruiter and consultant specializing in publishing, digital content and educational technology, with a background in sales & marketing, library software, information systems and project management.  He is an Associate with Mosaic Search & Selection. From 2010 to 2012 he was head of global sales and marketing at Publishing Technology; prior to that he led Ingram Digital in Europe from 2007 to 2009.  He has worked in the library and information world for over ten years, including holding senior positions at OCLC, Dynix and Innovative Interfaces.  Previously, he worked in senior information technology and project management roles, notably at Barclays Bank, NatWest Life and Accenture.   He has a BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Oxford University.

“It is completely unacceptable for a journal to charge a submission fee,” declared an academic at a recent conference, “since sending out an article for review costs absolutely nothing.” There were nods of agreement and dark mutterings of dissent – in equal measure – since this fundamental misunderstanding about costs is central to an ongoing conflict between academia and publishing.

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It is indeed true that sending an author’s manuscript out for review has no incremental financial cost, not even the price of a stamp these days. But what it does cost is time. Editorial assistants and in some cases paid professional editors spend time reading submitted manuscripts, making judgements about their quality & suitability, assigning them to reviewers, managing the review process and channelling feedback to authors. All of this time costs money in salary and opportunity costs. The publisher has also invested time (and money) building up a journal’s reputation in order to encourage author contributions, working with academic editors, and developing & maintaining a peer review panel (even if the panel itself consists of volunteers).

In academic institutions and commercial enterprises the link between time and money are viewed differently. Historically, academic budgets and headcounts have been fixed well in advance, and time spent by post-holders on activities has been loosely monitored. Salaries are considered to be a sunk cost, resulting in a weak relationship between the time spent on a project and the cost in terms of employee’s time. By contrast, fixed budgets means that the spending of any additional money has been tightly controlled. In many businesses the opposite applies; here the key concern is the cost of labour, and how this expensive resource is being applied. Put simply, when an academic or a librarian considers attending some 3-day conference in Harrogate, a supervisor’s main concern is likely to be the cost of travel & accommodation; conversely, in business, the first concern is is usually “Three whole days – can we afford that much time?”

In my own experience of selling software to libraries, I’ve found that institutions might spend well over 500 person days of effort on their selection process. The salary cost of those days probably adds up to over a quarter of a million pounds, often more than the purchase price of the software. Suppliers meanwhile, constantly assess labour costs, asking themselves if the 30-90 days of work that a bid might involve outweighs the profit from the sale. Meanwhile ‘real’ costs, like travel and equipment, are almost negligible by comparison..

This profound difference in attitude drives a conflict between academia and publishing. The perception that a large portion of the workflow of commercial publishers ‘doesn’t have any costs’ creates suspicion and resentment among some academics and librarians.

The ‘no costs’ fallacy is based on the idea that for a commercial publisher, manuscripts are free, peer review is free, editorial boards are free, and electronic dissemination is free. In reality, there are very considerable labour costs in managing all of these ‘free’ resources and in providing additional editorial & marketing services to take the article from the researcher to the reader. Furthermore, the technology infrastructure to support editing, discovery and dissemination has to be developed and maintained (by the publisher or a third party) and this is also a significant cost.

I am not suggesting that all is well in the commercial relationships between business and academia. Journal pricing has been a particular problem. The common assumption has been that these journal prices were rising rapidly through profiteering by those publishers who controlled key titles and could price monopolistically. Doubtless there is some truth in that; the large profit margins of some commercial publishers suggest that they don’t have sustainability concerns. For many society publishers, however, falling membership and conference revenues force them to rely more heavily on subscription revenue or risk insolvency. There has also been a disproportionate rise in skilled labour costs things are getting cheaper but tasks are getting more expensive. The explosion in the number of authors and articles has also been a significant factor driving the aggregate cost of scholarly communication.

Publishers seem to have been profoundly unsuccessful in explaining these very real (and continually rising) costs to both academics and librarians, precisely because of the lack of a shared understanding of the costs of the time that businesses put into the publishing process.

Publishers could have done more work over the past 20 years or so to engage with academics and librarians over the economics of scholarly publishing. Even now, it is not too late for publishers to at least strive to communicate the work that they undertake within the publishing process, and what this costs; if only to justify realistic publishing (and submission) charges to authors. As we see so often in the relationship between publishers, librarians and academics, a more open and genuine conversation is necessary in order to better explain why time is money.

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