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Re: Costs of publishing a journal

A few observations on an interesting post, which nevertheless reveals a certain naivete about the costs of publishing....

Can anybody answer these questions:

Is there any available data about showing proportion of peer
reviewers are paid for their work?
For scholarly journals, I understand the standard practice is NOT to pay peer reviewers at all. I would be interested in hearing from other publishers on this list if any of them know of journals for which peer reviewers receive payment, in cash or in kind (free subscription?).

What proportion of editors of scholarly journals are paid for
their work (or paid more than the <$1000 nominal fee)?
There is wide variation here. My guess is that most commercial publishers pay the main journal editors something and probably provide free subscriptions to the editorial boards of journals; some even subsidize the costs of the journal's editorial office, including staff and other costs. Among non-profit publishers, society and university press, i am sure there are many journal editors who receive no compensation in cash for their work, while it seems to be common practice among all publishers to provide free subscriptions for scholars who agree to serve on the journal editorial boards. I know of no source that provides this information, by sector or type of publisher, even in highly aggregated form. Does anyone else?

I studied under the founder and editor of a highly regarded peer-reviewed journal, who also happened to support Open Access strongly, and one of his points was that online publication applications had obviated the need for much of the staff to handle the workflow of publication. Submissions, queueing, distribution to reviewers, distribution throughout the decision-making process, and "publishing" the work online are all automated, so the actual cost of publishing a peer-reviewed journal can be quite low. The app he recommended was open source. Infrastructure costs (hosting) can often be footed by universities (his publication is hosted by a university which hosts many other journals).
"Automated"? Surely, that is a vast exaggeration. Yes, editorial management software creates considerable efficiencies in the processing of manuscripts from initial submission through to production. But the use of this software, even if it is available "open source," hardly comes without costs, in both initial training and in the constant input of data accurately. And remember that journal editors do not remain in place forever, so new editors need to receive the startup training. And to the extent that graduate students are relied upon to use these systems, they constantly are turning over, so the learning curve needs to be repeated almost every year by a new crop of interns. In our experience at Penn State, even the main journal editors often resist having to go through this learning curve; this is a drain on their time initially, even if it carries long-term benefits for efficiency. And we have had serious problems with changing editorial office staffs populated by graduate students, few of whom ever reach the level of efficiency of professional publishing editorial staff. These are all "costs" of running a journal. And if the university "hosts" the journal, this is also a cost, even if not charged directly to the journal. And in any true accounting of the cost of operating a journal, such costs need to be accounted for, not ignored because they get absorbed into some other part of the university's budget. This appears to be the way the impression is created that OA journals published out of universities are somehow much cheaper to operate. Much of this is smoke and mirrors, not reality.

As I recall, one of the only real questions in his view was whether to pay the editor and peer-reviewers, although he stated (anecdotally?) that most scholarly peer reviewers, board members, etc. are essentially volunteers (although they get career rewards for their work) -- I think he mentioned that there are a handful of notable exceptions among the big name commercial journals. I know there are numerous studies showing how commercial journals have much higher costs per page to publish than nfp and oa journals, but I don't know why exactly those costs are so much higher and I don't buy the handful of defenses/ apologies I've seen (tobacco use does cause cancer, global warming does exist, and so does commercial journal gouging).
Well, consider a simple fact: real estate in New York City (where most large commercial publishers have their offices) is much more expensive than real estate in the towns where many universities, like Penn State, are located. It is also true that commercial publishers, especially the largest, tend to cover more of the journal editorial office costs than non-profit publishers do; and a few even have professional staff who are trained scientists capable of conducting peer review themselves, and these staff thus are paid to be peer reviewers.

I suppose, since commercial journals don't have access to semester after semester of committed intern teams, which give university and library published journals an advantage, that is probably a factor. As an intern on a peer-reviewed journal, I worked with a team to digitize old print volumes of the journal (scan, ocr, copy-edit, html), to help re-design the journal, and to convert submitted works to clean html (with slight copy-editing duties), so I suppose these could be costs under other publishing models. In addition, all of the higher level work, the real editor work, was volunteered by scholars in the field and the journal's board consisted of international scholars, likewise volunteering their work.
That "advantage" comes with a cost, viz., as noted above, the need to train each new crop of interns. It is an open question whether the overall cost of using interns is greater or less than relying on professional publishing staff alone. At our press we have concluded, with respect to several journals we publish in the humanities, that the latter is less expensive overall.

As an aside: it seems to me that a huge advantage of library and university published journals, for students, is that grad student-interns get the opportunity to learn much more about what they are studying to become -- not just to become aware of the publications in their field and the work contained therein, but also to learn lots of highly applicable real-life lessons about some aspects of their upcoming professional lives (and the opportunities to network within the field are unique). Such an internship can be a much more valuable learning experience than the typical grad student term paper or presentation. In fact, the professor I mentioned above ventured that there should be a program to teach universities and libraries how "easy" and inexpensive it can be to publish peer-reviewed journals, since a journal can be run by a small core of committed faculty and staff (each giving some <30% proportion of their work-time), utilizing grad students for the grunt work and a rotating set of scholars interested in advancing their fields (and in their fields) to serve as board members and peer reviewers. One by-product of such a program could be a stiffening of the definition and quality of peer review in general, since one complaint I've seen published a couple of times is that few commercial journals have training or formal assessment programs for their peer reviewers.
I agree entirely with the educational benefit of using interns to help publish journals, or books for that matter. We run an intern program at Penn State Press as a service to the University and feel that this is part of our mission as a non-profit publisher. But we do this realizing that there are real costs to operating such a program, which may mean a net increase in costs for our publishing operation.

-- Sanford G. Thatcher
Executive Editor for Social Sciences and Humanities
Penn State University Press