non-profit vs. for-profit open-access journals: what’s the diff?

A guest post by Ezra Zuckerman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder and deputy editor of Sociological Science.

Last week, Rob Walsh posted an interesting question over on Scholastica’s “conversation” blog about whether Sociological Science—a new open-access journal of which I am privileged to be a co-founder—will challenge the status quo in academic publishing, or at least in sociology.  It is an interesting question.  Certainly, I think it will.  To be clear though, this does not mean that SocSci will displace traditional options (which are based on a more “developmental” model, with multiple rounds of reviews and a tendency to err on the side of rejection).  Rather, SocSci presents a distinct alternative (with the editorial team committed to rapid turn-around and a tendency to err on the side of publication, but with post-publication debate) to complement the traditional model.  I hope that both models will be around to stay and that the presence of distinct alternatives will be healthy for the field.

And yet, while we think that journals with each of these approaches to peer review (as well as variations thereof) are viable, there is another question that is worth asking—i.e., whether all governance forms are viable and desirable, and specifically what is the role of for-profit versus non-profit ownership of journals.  This question has recently been made more salient because some for-profit publishers have apparently been starting open-access journals.  A notable example is Research and Politics.  See here.  This particular journal is following a somewhat different strategy than is SocSci (while we are open to some genres that the existing flagship sociology journals are not, our bread and butter will be articles that could also be found in existing flagship journals).  The real questions, however are: (a) is a for-profit open-access journal the same as a non-profit? (b) if not, why not?

The answer to (a) is most definitely, “no.”  When a journal is owned by a for-profit entity, its main goal is to make a profit.  This means that while it may seek to become a great publication outlet, this is a means and not an end.  And it will be willing to compromise that means, if it finds some other way (e.g., raising prices, directly or indirectly) to do so.  By contrast, SocSci is owned by a set of sociologists whose motivations for making SocSci great have nothing to do with profit.  You might say that we are out to burnish our reputations, but in that respect we are no different from any other sociologist when s/he seeks to publish a paper.  And so our goals in managing SocSci are aligned with those of our authors and of sociologists generally.  Our one and only goal is to put out a great sociology journal.  We succeed when sociology succeeds, and vice versa.

Ok, but then why-oh-why might a publisher such as Sage be interested in starting open-access journals?  Not only will it lose the revenues it usually makes from charging (libraries) for access, but it seems to be willing to subsidize publication fees (which are higher in open-access journals, to cover costs) for the first couple of years!  Why?

Putting on my competitive strategy hat (my main teaching responsibility at MIT), there seem to be two related reasons.  The first is what’s known as “product proliferation.”  This is a classic entry-thwarting strategy.  An analogy is Coke or Pepsi filling the soda aisle with all kinds of variations of soda instead of letting new entrants do it, and thereby gain a foothold in their market.  This is a defensive move.  The idea is that the incumbent uses its profits (and often its access to distribution, brand, and other assets) to pre-emptively fill up the product space and shut off the oxygen for would-be entrants.  In short, while Sage and others would prefer open-access to go away, they figure that second best is to try to prevent competition by doing it themselves and doing it in such a way that it does not cannibalize their existing (profitable!) products.  An implication is that you would expect for-profit open-access journals to adopt approaches that do not compete head to head with their existing franchises.  And giving away the product is exactly what you would expect if they are trying to undercut the competition and limit entry. It is not sustainable in the long-term; but in the long-term, the threat of entry will have abated and then they can go back to business as usual.

The second possibility is that this is more like a rear-guard action, analogous to traditional newspapers’ attempts to address the threat of the internet.  The point here is that they know that the old business model can’t work long-term and so they’re just trying what they can do to stem the tide.  So they put the content out there for free and hope they’ll figure out a way to make it work down the road.  We know how well this has worked out for the newspapers….

A slight variation on the last possibility is that they think that if they show that the newcomers can’t generate the relevant “content” on their own and that incumbents are in best position to do it.  But this is nonsense, as SocSci is showing.  With modern communication technologies (and great publishing partners like Scholastica), there is no reason social scientists cannot take matters into their own hands and do what we did.

So… social scientists of the world unite (into small teams like ours)!  You have nothing to lose but those forms that sign away your copyright!

Written by orgtheoryguest

February 26, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Posted in uncategorized

16 Responses

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  1. Great points, Ezra. When UNC decided to go with Oxford University Press as the publisher of Social Forces, one consideration was that OUP is a non-profit organization. It is a department of OU & is governed by a board of academics.


    Howard Aldrich

    February 27, 2014 at 2:11 am

  2. Thanks Ezra, both for the interesting post, and for co-founding SocSci.
    You are right to say that for-profit publishers know their old business model is dying. And I believe they are just trying to take money from elsewhere. If revenues no longer come from libraries, let’s turn to authors (hence the intense lobbying to make sure funding agencies devote a big chunk of their budget to hefty author fees).
    The issue they have though is that 68% of OA journals do *not* charge author fees. So they’ll have to offer something to compensate for the price they charge. This ‘something’ could be status, but then they would have to move their top journals to an OA model, not journals they hastily launched to fill space. But then of course, top journals are those currently making profit…
    Also, this entry-thwarting strategy pursued by for-profit publishers has an interesting twist compared to Coke’s or Pepsi’s. Rather than filling shelf space, they go for the supply side and try to deprive OA journals of submissions.
    In the spirit instilled by Fabio on this blog ;-) I’d like to shamelessly point you to one of my papers where Sébastien Liarte and I analyze for-profit vs. OA journals. It is published in long-standing OA journal M@n@gement (vol 16, n. 5):
    Bill Starbuck has an interesting piece on publication in the same issue.
    Long live OA, long live SocSci!


    Bernard Forgues

    February 27, 2014 at 6:43 am

  3. I’m not sure we can take a statement like “Our one and only goal is to put out a great sociology journal,” at face value. It’s something a for-profit operation would say, too, and not just in publishing. “Our one and only goal is to make great cars,” GM might say. Only it’s not, of course. It’s also to make money (but it would be unfair to GM to say that making money is its one and only goal). If we agree that you are also to some extent interested in reputation and career, then I will insist that this cannot simply be incorporated into the “one goal” of making a great sociology journal. Surely we can imagine an editorial policy that puts individual careers before the discipline of sociology? How is that trade-off different from the trade-off between profit and content? In the case of individual authors, there are plenty of publishing strategies that clearly succeed without helping the discipline succeed. An editorial policy has to acknowledge the opportunities to compromise on quality for the sake of one or another set of local interests.

    I’m not defending for-profit as a such. I’m just saying that the (admirable) work of putting together a journal will usually have to justified in the end by appealing to extrinsic rewards. The intrinsic rewards simply aren’t enough to keep someone at it.



    February 27, 2014 at 2:14 pm

  4. I think you should take off your competitive strategy hat and see things in slightly less monochromatic terms. If SAGE wanted to just fill up the soda aisle with run of the mill own-brand OA product, why go to the not inconsiderable trouble of backing and developing a unique and disruptive journal like R&P? So they worked with some top academics to create a new and innovative type of product that has been warmly welcomed by the polisci community, removing some of the financial risk from the academics themselves. The devils! Btw, most subscription access journals are given away free for the first few years; and R&P does not require authors to sign over copyright.


    David Mainwaring

    February 27, 2014 at 2:55 pm

  5. Discussions of who is paying and who is benefiting need to pay attention to libraries.The profit centers for journals are libraries, not individual subscribers, and library subscriptions to top journals are often treated like cash cows. Your university and mine is paying more and more for for-profit journal subscriptions. This is money that could be spent on other things and is becoming a bigger and bigger issue at all but the most elite and well-endowed schools. Smaller schools with smaller budgets can’t pay price and academics at less well-endowed schools are cut off from access to expensive journals. The less-prestigious journals are removed from library budgets and lose their source of revenue. It really is a competitive market for library revenue and the big publishers have been exerting coercive influence to maintain their share of library revenue.



    February 27, 2014 at 3:43 pm

  6. David makes important points. If we want to do a strategic analysis of an industry, a good starting point is to understand the business model. Journals used to generate revenue via individual and institutional subscriptions (so each journal was a “profit center”). With online access emerging over the past 15 years, individuals largely abandoned subscriptions in favor of accessing journals via their library, so that anyone at an institution with a login or the right IP address could access journals to which the institution subscribed. Institutions generally don’t subscribe to journals one by one; they buy a package of access from publishers (e.g., Sage publishes ASQ, Journal of Management, Politics & Society, and a bunch of ASA journals). It’s much like the model for cable television (although institutional subscribers like small college libraries often band together to negotiate better deals as a group).

    Big publishers are kind of like HBO: they offer a set of diverse journals and aim to have some “must have” items included, although those must-have items will vary (like The Sopranos, Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm). It is not at all in the publishers’ interest to intervene in the content or operation of their top journals, any more than HBO would ask Larry David to be more likeable. I have literally never heard a financial issue raised by ASQ’s publisher, or experienced even the remotest nudge, and I would guess you would hear the same from the ASA journals.

    Just as there are many kinds of OA, there are many kinds of for-profit publishers. At least one is renowned for its high margins and rapaciousness (definitely not Sage), and as an author I have been contacted by them to cease and desist from posting PDFs of my papers, pointing to the paragraph in the author agreement forbidding this. Whatever. But for the record, authors retain their copyright at ASQ (and many/most Sage journals), and are allows to post pre-publication versions of papers (e.g., at SSRN, as Kovacs and Sharkey did).

    One rationale for have a mothership (whether for-profit or not, like Oxford) is that they have economies of scale for services that are useful for journals (e.g., accounting, page composition, copyediting, copyright clearance, subscriber services, creating a professional webpage, useful practices for keyword optimization). It doesn’t make sense for every journal to do this for itself.

    If a journal wants to be more than a glorified blog, it requires funding from one source or another. The standard for-profit journal model charges libraries, so that researchers at subscriber institutions (which is likely to include the vast majority of potential readers) accesses the journals for free by logging in. The open access model typically charges authors. (PLOS Biology is $2900; PLOS ONE is $1350 for this in higher-income countries: When published, articles are then freely available to the public without paying subscription fees.

    So: I don’t think the for-profit/non-profit and open access/traditional distinctions map cleanly onto rapacious hegemons vs. public-spirited angels. [I note that Olderwoman weighed in while I was writing this, and agree with her points, but want to emphasize that not all publishers are rapacious. And one might imagine that the $1350 per-article fee from PLOS ONE would be prohibitive for researchers from non-rich institutions.] As a reader, I want to know if I have enough assurance of quality to trust that a publication is worth investing my time. As an author, I want to know that the review process will make my work as good as it can be, and reach the right audience. I think those are the more useful issues to discuss.



    February 27, 2014 at 4:03 pm

  7. Thanks for the interesting replies. Let me focus on what David wrote though, since it seems to be the main issue:

    I am confused why you think it’s inappropriate to analyze Sage’s entry into a line of business in strategy terms. Are you saying that Sage might be willing to enter a new line of business (i.e., open a journal) even if it expects to hurt Sage’s overall ROI over the long-term? I am not referring here to the ROI of the new journal by itself, and I’m not talking short-term. It is a basic feature of a corporate (i.e., multidivisional) strategy that one might choose to lose money on one business in order to support the others. And re your comment about how “most subscription access journals are given away free for the first few years,” this is not surprising even in a standalone business as long as this will facilitate a profitable position in the long-term—though this can only work because you are charging prices to someone [e.g., libraries]. But insofar as a business line is never expected to make money (e.g,.an OA journal such as R&P), it can’t make business sense unless it helps Sage’s ROI overall. And the only apparent logic is that it supports the rest of your franchise, one way or another. Put differently, you say that R&P is meant to be “disruptive.” Really? Do you expect it to hurt any of your existing franchises? And if so, which ones does it threaten? My sense is that one of the reasons why R&P is following a different model is precisely because it is not in Sage’s interest to promote the idea that OA journals can work as standard journals. What am I missing here?



    February 27, 2014 at 11:58 pm

  8. Thanks Ezra. Your position seems to be that for-profits (and the likes of CUP, OUP?) should not innovate, take risks and experiment with new publishing models such as open access. You feel that this new landscape can only be created by non-profits, which in HSS often means groups of highly-motivated academics working with limited resources. You feel that for-profits are operating in these spaces not because they believe they are financially viable, but because they want to scorch the earth of competition to their subscription cash cows before it gains strength. In this view, journals like R&P are just so much expensive chaff fired out to disorient the grassroots innovators.

    I disagree with this angels v demons view of the developing journals environment. The fact that the market place for journals is changing is no secret. For-profit publishers will seek to diversify and build new types of journals. As far as R&P is concerned:

    1. Disruptive. Maybe I didn’t use the management school definition of the term; what I meant was that there are at present no other journals like R&P in political science. R&P combines accelerated peer review, a rigorous open data policy, short-form articles, continuous publication and open access. It responds to the needs of a section of the political science community, especially those working in more quantitative areas. It will augment rather than hurt existing political science journals, and as political science research practices evolve I suspect there will be other journals like R&P launched by non- and for-profits alike. For-profits, including SAGE, are also launching more traditional-looking OA journals, such Big Data & Society, and experimenting with a range of different OA funding models. This diversification would be a strange strategy if the for-profits are trying to smear OA journals as odd, awkward beasts that are destined for failure.

    2. R&P is ‘never expected to make any money’. Who said that? I don’t imagine for one minute that SAGE expect R&P to turn a loss for all time. Clearly, given that this is a new model for HSS, the time from launch to profit is less easy to determine than was once the case for subscription journals. But to claim that it was built as a loss-maker is pure speculation. If the for-profits are building for failure then it does beg the question of why they are all then effectively replicating the same demonstration to the community at not insignificant cost both financially and in terms of their reputation among the academics they work with.

    My view is that a competitive strategy perspective seems to have taken you down a narrow path of good v evil in which all for-profit actions are slotted into a pre-written narrative. I know we are going to disagree on this, but my feeling is that it’s a much more complex environment.


    David Mainwaring

    February 28, 2014 at 9:55 am

  9. David: There is a lot in your reply. Here is what I think are the main points and my responses:

    a. I never said that for-profits are devils and they should not experiment. I think the profit motive can be wonderfully productive and I’m sure that you and your colleagues are not motivated by profit alone (like us, you care about your names, and I’m sure you care about putting out great journals for their own sake. And btw, I wouldn’t be in this game if it didn’t provide a livelihood for me and my family). All I was saying is that the profit motive has distinctive effects, and was analyzing them. (As for publishers like OUP or CUP, my sense is that they largely operate like they are for-profits. But I don’t know enough.)

    b. I didn’t say that the *only* effect of a journal like R&P is to make entry of non-profit OA journals less likely– and specifically those that enter the space of mainline journals– but I continue to maintain that that this is one of their effects, if perhaps just a(n important) side-effect. (You yourself confirmed my other point, which is that you would never launch a journal in the space of one of your franchises). Imagine you are the co-founders of Sociological Science but instead you are political scientists and it is prior to our launch. And then we see what Sage has done with R&P. Do you think you are more likely to launch now or less likely to launch? I can tell you from our own experience that the answer is “less likely.”

    c. I don’t follow your bullet point 2. You make it seem like Sage is someone else and is folly to speculate about what makes it tick. But you are Sage. So, how was the launch of R&P justified? How did you get the resources necessary for launching the journal if you have no idea how it will make money? As I said in my original post, it is not inconceivable for a firm to start a business line with no current plans to make money– as in newspapers starting online versions in the 90s– but it is not sustainable. And it would be irresponsible for Sage managers not to have *some* plan now for how that might happen in the future. So, if you say that the business case for R&P will not be based solely on its ability to support/defend Sage’s money-making franchises, how do you guys plan on turning it into a profitable franchise in its own right? R&P would need to change how it operates at some point in the future. How?

    P.S. The word “feel” or “feeling” shows up three times in your post. This is actually one of my pet-peeves lately. Everyone seems to be talking about their views in terms of emotion (I “feel”) rather than cognition (“I think” or “I believe”). While subtle, I *think* this is not a healthy development, as it threatens the very basis for discourse. Sure there are feelings involved. But let’s leave them off the table please and imagine that we are analyzing a situation in objective terms such even though we come in believing different things about a given issue, there is a chance– however remote– that we will agree in the end. If it’s just your feelings and my feelings, then there is no basis for such a shared view.



    February 28, 2014 at 11:47 am

  10. Engaging stuff! So:
    – I don’t recall confirming that a for-profit publisher wouldn’t launch an OA title in the space of one of its existing journals. This depends of course on the definition of ‘space’ – something like R&P both is and isn’t in the space of SAGE journals like Political Research Quarterly or Party Politics or European Union Politics. A researcher might decide to write up their work as a 4k word piece for R&P rather than an 8k word piece for one of those other journals. I don’t think – for a variety of reasons – that any new OA title can immediately take *exactly* the same space as an existing, well-established traditional journal.
    – Do I think that there is space for another R&P-like journal in polisci? Yes, absolutely, whether that’s from a for-profit or a not-for-profit. If I had been developing a similar idea as a not-for-profit would I have been alarmed by R&P? Possibly, although as I’ve said, I truly believe there to be room for multiple journals using these new approaches and there are at least two R&P-like polisci projects at different stages of development at present.
    – R&P business model. This has been quite clear as far I as can see: waived APCs for two years, then a per-article charge made on acceptance (accompanied by a system of waivers for ECRs, non-affiliated researchers, researchers from the Global South, etc). We don’t yet know what the level of the charge will be, but presumably it makes some kind of sense to determine that nearer the time that it will be levied (I don’t work for SAGE, so I’m not privy to conversations about price level).


    David Mainwaring

    February 28, 2014 at 2:24 pm

  11. On your first two points, I will let the interested reader decide what has been concluded. I certainly don’t see anything in what you wrote that is at variance with my original thesis.

    On the last point, there is a difference between a “revenue model” and a “business model.” We are focused on the latter, and the question is whether you can raise prices high enough (to various potential revenue sources– besides authors, the usual suspects are databases, advertisers, and the big enchilada that you are forgoing by going OA– subscribers/libraries) to cover Sage’s (opportunity) cost. Just saying your’e going to have some revenue keeps things very murky. The question remains how Sage will make money on journals like R&P. And note that you have not disputed my assumption that Sage would do nothing unless it is net-positive for its bottom line. So again, this means that either (a) it somehow has a recipe for raising prices down the road (on one or more of those potential revenue streams) to get a nice margin on R&P; and/or; (b) it is using journals like R&P to support its core franchises.

    P.S. I take it you work for Sage on a contract basis? I would still think that you’d be curious how/why Sage decides to invest in a new business line like this one, even if you are running it on a contract basis.



    February 28, 2014 at 4:41 pm

  12. SocSci charging APCs is a business plan, R&P charging APCs is ‘murky’. Let’s leave it there. (I don’t work for SAGE on a contract basis or otherwise.)


    David Mainwaring

    February 28, 2014 at 7:48 pm

  13. Great discussion between some heavy hitters! Erza Klein also significantly chimes in: This is really the question — how can academics maintain relevance in this fast-moving world? The academic publishing system is definigtely NOT keeping up with broader changes in society. Relevant journals will balance rigor with timeliness in publishing topics that are accessible and that people outside of the academy actually care about! What the right model of journal is… hard for this lowly post-doc to say — hopefully robust competition can help the market do what it does best.


    Sean McClellan

    February 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm

  14. I’m not an academic or a sociologist, but I am interested in the ideas of “for-profit” vs “non-profit”. So I’ll leave a thought, even thought it is quite late to the discussion (in internet time).

    I know it isn’t the way most academics think about it, but it seems work while to at least consider the academic department as a “for-profit” institution. It has to compete with other departments in its field and with other departments at its school for funding. The product they put out is (simplistically) departmental rankings. Of course, most of the employees of the department don’t really think of themselves as employees and certainly don’t think of themselves as working “for-profit”. Still, the senior faculty running the department certainly are aware of the need for funding and the need for a strategy to maintain or improve the department’s prestige. (Broadly in this I’m agreeing with David’s point that if we have already judged that “for-profit” == evil and “not-for-profit” == good and we are obviously on the side of good, then we might as well not have a discussion.)

    What is the motivation for a university or a department to let their faculty (i.e. their salaried employees, ) spend time on an open access journal? Presumably because it does enhance their prestige to some extent directly by raising the prestige of those involved and indirectly by giving their students and other faculty opportunities for more contacts. I think it is plausible that similar spillover effects might work for a “for-profit” publisher. Perhaps a good analogy is car manufacturers and parts makers who sponsor racing teams. The teams are a loss (I think), but also act as advertising, contacts, testing and new developments.

    To get back to the thought about for-profit vs not-for-profit. Part of the reason I’m interested in the distinction is that it seems much murkier than usually presented. Not-for-profit does not imply unconcerned with costs or uninterested in returns. A not-for-profit which can’t cover its own expenses is dependent on providing some type of return to whoever is covering the difference. A for-profit could be beholden to no-one if it were able to cover its own expenses (barring changes in the competitive landscape that change that ability). Of course, the later is not what people think of when they say “for-profit”, but I think (and feel) that that is mostly because they want to be able to draw a clear good vs evil distinction between non-profit and for-profit.



    March 3, 2014 at 10:42 am

  15. […] Open with their publishing partner SAGE. The news has been met with an interesting discussion and criticism about the partnership and the possible “cloning” of the open access sociology journal […]


  16. […] with their publishing partner SAGE. The news has been met with an interesting discussion and criticism about the partnership and the possible “cloning” of the open access sociology […]


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