Michael Eisen doesn't hold back when invited to vent. “It's still ludicrous how much it costs to publish research — let alone what we pay,” he declares. The biggest travesty, he says, is that the scientific community carries out peer review — a major part of scholarly publishing — for free, yet subscription-journal publishers charge billions of dollars per year, all told, for scientists to read the final product. “It's a ridiculous transaction,” he says.
Eisen, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that scientists can get much better value by publishing in open-access journals, which make articles free for everyone to read and which recoup their costs by charging authors or funders. Among the best-known examples are journals published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which Eisen co-founded in 2000. “The costs of research publishing can be much lower than people think,” agrees Peter Binfield, co-founder of one of the newest open-access journals, PeerJ, and formerly a publisher at PLoS.
But publishers of subscription journals insist that such views are misguided — born of a failure to appreciate the value they add to the papers they publish, and to the research community as a whole. They say that their commercial operations are in fact quite efficient, so that if a switch to open-access publishing led scientists to drive down fees by choosing cheaper journals, it would undermine important values such as editorial quality.
These charges and counter-charges have been volleyed back and forth since the open-access idea emerged in the 1990s, but because the industry's finances are largely mysterious, evidence to back up either side has been lacking. Although journal list prices have been rising faster than inflation, the prices that campus libraries actually pay to buy journals are generally hidden by the non-disclosure agreements that they sign. And the true costs that publishers incur to produce their journals are not widely known.