Monday, February 27, 2012

Elsevier numbers illustrate - once again - just how much more sense open access makes!

Elsevier today wrote a letter to the mathematics community, hoping to woo scholars away from the still-growing boycott, The Cost of Knowledge, now that Elsevier has publicly disavowed its support for the Research Works Act which would have forbidden the U.S. government from requiring public access to the results of research it pays for. In its letter, Elsevier commits to lowering the costs of articles in its mathematics journals to at or below $11 US per article. This sounds like a pretty reasonable step when you consider that this is just over a quarter of what Elsevier currently charges. However, when you compare this with the potential of open access, you can see how ludicrous this model really is today. If every research library in North America were to purchase a copy of an Elsevier article at $11, this would add up to $1,386 - more than it would cost to pay the PLoS ONE article processing fee for full open access to everyone, everywhere. Or, if an undergrad class of 150 students were required to purchase this article to read for class on a pay-per-use basis, the total would come to $1,650 - that's $300 more than what is needed to pay for the article to be fully open access through PLoS ONE - for access to just one class. In summary, this move by Elsevier just shows how ludicrous the current model is. Plus - why just math, Elsevier? There are many of us who signed the boycott who are not mathematicians!


In the section on pricing, Elsevier commits to lowering the costs of articles in its mathematical journals to at or below $11 US per article or 50-60 cents per page. 

As a for-profit corporation reporting to shareholders, I think it is reasonable to assume that Elsevier would not make such a commitment unless this cost was sufficient to not only cover costs, but return a profit. Does this mean that the current $37.95 charged for one article in Elsevier's Advances in Applied Mathematics is close to 4 times more than what Elsevier itself feels is necessary to recoup costs and make a profit? This does seem consistent with Elsevier's high profit rates.

If every one of the 126 members of the Association of Research Libraries were to pay $11 for an article in mathematics, the total would be $1,386. That's higher than the article processing fee for a fully open access article at PLoS ONE at $1,350 per article. In other words, a high quality, U.S.-based publisher working out of San Francisco (not a cheap place to live or work, I hear), can provide full open access for everyone in the world at less than it would cost to have one copy of an article at every large North American research library, at Elsevier's proposed reduced rate which is just over a quarter of what they currently charge. This is yet more proof that this old school business model of Elsevier's just doesn't make any sense any more, not even with this little modicum of tweaking after significant pressure from mathematicians like Timothy Gowers.

Another scenario: if an undergrad class of 150 students were required to buy a $11 mathematics article to read for class on a pay-to-read basis, the cost would be $1,650. In other words, the pay-per-view costs for just one class to read an article would exceed the PLoS ONE article processing fee by $300. Multiply that by all the millions of students in the world, and it's easy to see how the Elsevier model means either outrageous costs or needless barriers to mathematical knowledge, or, more likely (as things stand now) some of both.

The section from the Elsevier letter on pricing:
Mathematics journals published by Elsevier tend to be larger than those of other publishers. On a price-per-article, or price-per-page level, our prices are typically, but not always, lower than those of other mathematics publishers.

Our target is for all of our core mathematics titles to be priced at or below US$11 per article (equivalent to 50-60 cents per normal typeset page) by next year, placing us below most University presses, some societies and other commercial competitors. Where journals are more expensive than this, we will lower our prices, as we already have in recent years for journals such as the Journal of Algebra and Topology and its Applications, among others.

We realize that this is just part of the concerns about pricing -and we will seek to address concerns about the nature and composition of the large discounted agreements, through which most Universities now access journals - but addressing the base line pricing is a necessary first step.