Report reveals the true cost of communication

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While it’s no secret that scholarly communication is a massively expensive business, actual costs have remained a mystery – until now. A report released late last year from the UK-based Research Information Network (RIN) put global costs at some £175bn and uncovered some surprising results.

‘Journal publishing and distribution are pivotal, but only part of the scholarly communications costs,’ observed Michael Jubb, RIN director. ‘Much larger hidden costs are incurred by readers in the search for, printing and reading of articles.’

According to the RIN report - ‘Activities, costs and funding flows in the scholarly communications system’ - by far the largest part of global scholarly communications costs, some £116bn, consists of research costs and writing associated articles.

While this is not a major surprise, the report also attributes some £16bn to the time that researchers and others spend in searching for, browsing and printing out articles. The cost of reading these articles come in at £34bn.

In contrast, the global costs of publishing and distributing the articles, were modest, coming in at £6.4bn. And providing access to articles through libraries worldwide was relatively low, costing only £2.1bn.

Clearly the hidden costs of scholarly communications are surprisingly high, but will potential industry developments, such as cash for peer review and open access, alter the figures?

‘We calculate that it costs £1.9bn a year for researchers to review journal articles, that’s a huge amount of money,’ explained Branwen Hide, liaison and partnerships officer at the RIN. ‘However, if publishers were to start paying this, it would increase their publishing and distribution costs, which would then be passed onto subscription charges.’

Mayur Amin, report contributor and Elsevier’s senior vice president of research and academic relations, believes that cash for peer review is not a likely industry development.

At a recent RIN conference on the topic in London, he highlighted how referees undertake peer review for a wide range of reasons. For example, the vast majority of referees feel they are ‘playing their part as a member of the academic community’ and also ‘enjoy seeing work ahead of publication’.

‘[Instead] we will see the continued investment in tools to help make the refereeing process more efficient,’ he predicted.

However, Amin believes recent industry moves towards open-access journals could bring change by making author-side publication fees a real possibility. As he pointed out, researchers would feel an additional monetary burden, but the development would spell good news for publishers and libraries, cutting global publishing, distribution and access costs.

At the same time, Amin also expects the ongoing migration to electronic-only publications to have a significant impact on the scholarly communication process. Based on his models in which 90 per cent of all journals are published in electronic format only, he predicts the global costs of publishing, distribution and access could plummet by £1.08bn. Meanwhile libraries worldwide would save £758m in providing access to journal articles.

Economy blues

But will the deepening worldwide recession alter the reported cash flows in the global scholarly communication system?

‘Globally there is the risk that library budgets will get squeezed as overall university budgets become increasingly constrained,’ said Michael Jubb of the RIN. ‘Major US universities are reporting falls of a quarter in their endowment income, and the prospect is that funding from public sources too will be tight,’

As he points out, universities and funding bodies could be looking more closely at cost efficiencies, which will have an impact on libraries and publishers. ‘Financial constraints may make it more difficult than it has been in the past few years to sustain big deals for the future,’ he adds. ‘Whether all this adds to the pressures to move towards, say, open access is not yet clear.’
And what about actual research funding? According to Jubb, the industry has yet to see any impact from the recession.

‘There is no indication that the increases in funding for research that we have seen across most of the world in the last decade are under threat; but that in itself imposes strains on the scholarly communications system,’ he warns. ‘More research means more articles being written, and over the past decades that has meant both a growth in the size of journals, and in the number of new titles. Whether that will continue as revenues become squeezed is not clear; and publishers are aware that it typically takes three to four years before a new journal breaks even.’