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Journals Update: The AAS Journals Business Model is Sound

Thursday, November 15, 2012 - 14:58

My last two columns have looked at some issues related to the Society’s publishing business model. In July, I wrote an overview of the Open Access advocacy that has been taking place all year. And in September, I reviewed (at some length!) the value proposition of the scholarly publishing process generally. In this column, I want to try and impress you with the merits of the business model we use (and have used for 100 years). I will do that by addressing the two principal arguments I hear for switching to a pure open access approach. First, though, I want to remind you of the conceptual basis for the AAS publishing business model.

The AAS’ business model focuses primarily on two groups of stakeholders in scholarly research: those who produce research articles and those who consume (read) them in the course of their scientific investigations. We tend to label those groups as “authors” and “librarians” —the librarians being proxies for researchers studying the literature—since those are the customers we interact with in our publishing business. Crucially, those are also the groups in the academy that benefit most from the publication of research journals, and our business model entails getting revenue from each group, in the forms of fees from authors and subscriptions from libraries. We believe our approach is sensible and fair, insofar as it provides an appropriate way for the beneficiaries in the academy to acknowledge the importance of the value— intellectual and structural—that is added to articles by our publishing processes.

Let’s look at two of the main arguments for moving to Open Access.

Why not just go Open Access and do away with reader fees?

In the present climate, this is an obvious and reasonable question. There are two parts to the argument against this notion. One is philosophical, and it has to do with our model involving the two stakeholders. We think our model employs a good characterization of the beneficiaries of journal publishing, and we think that it is appropriate for them (both of them) to share the burden of paying for formal scholarly communication. To go wholly to Open Access would be to dismiss the inherent and sensible equity of that model. But there are even more compelling practical concerns to consider.
First, critically, it is more comfortable and sensible from a business management point of view for our journals revenue stream to be diversified, for the same sorts of reasons that it makes sense to have diversified investments in a retirement portfolio. Fluctuations in one source are buffered by relative stability in the other(s). Or in times when there is fiscal stress across the board, our revenues are not nearly so susceptible to single points of failure. That is straightforward enough; it is one aspect of business continuity planning.

In addition, there is also a non-trivial public policy concern. Pure Open Access requires that all the costs of publishing be borne by our authors. For many if not most AAS authors, that would mean that the author fee components of their grants would essentially double. At the individual level, that would probably be annoying if not outright painful. But at the community level, the AAS journals would need to take an additional $2.5 million out of the community’s research funding. In the present economic climate (particularly in regard to tax policy), it is unlikely that there would be an increase in overall research funding to compensate for doubled author fees, so those funds would have to come at the expense of other elements of the research process—like graduate students or post-docs or instrument components. In other words, it would come at the expense of the research process itself. The Society’s leadership does not think that’s a good idea.

Haven’t the taxpayers already paid for it?

When I talk with people about Open Access, there is inevitably a point in the discussion where I hear the claim that the taxpayers have already paid for scientific research and it is unfair for them to pay for things twice. Haven’t the taxpayers already paid for the journals? The short answer is no. Tax monies pay for a variety of things in the scientific research process—most importantly the conduct of the research itself—through the disbursement of funds via grants. In astrophysics, grants usually have a provision for the payment of author fees, but that only pays for part of the publication process. In the bipartite AAS business model (see above), revenue comes from two sources, one of which is the author. It is fair to say that the taxpayer has already paid for the portion of journal articles that authors pay for with author fees. But that is only about half of the article costs. (In reality the percentages fluctuate with the amount of articles published, and in aggregate, authors’ share is typically closer to 60% in any given year.) At any rate, in the AAS model, the other portion of journal articles is explicitly paid for by the people who read the article—be they scholars, journalists, or the general public. The taxpayer is not paying twice for the same thing; when they pay to read the AAS journals, they are paying for something different: the half of the publication process that has not been paid for out of grant funds.

It’s sound, and we should keep doing it

The AAS publishes its journals at reasonable costs, and we impose reasonable fees on the sectors of the community with the most direct stakes in scholarly publishing. The business model that we employ for our journals has served the astronomical research community very well for over a century, and we think it is worth preserving. We intend to continue using it until we are instructed to do something different.

Christopher Biemesderfer
Director of Publishing
American Astronomical Society
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