the business side of PLoS One
Disclaimer: I am a proud author of an article in PLoS One and I am extremely biased.
Michael Eisen, one of the biologists who promoted PLoS One, has an interesting blog post discussing the economics of PLoS One. He wrote it in response to the discovery that PLoS One’s management gets paid *very well.* His response is a nice discussion of how PLoS One works as a business. And just for the record, I am not against anyone making a profit so long as they produce something that benefits the rest of us. PLoS One has really opened the door for a lot of scholarship to come out quickly and free to the public.
Back to Eisner:
If I weren’t involved with PLOS, and I’d stumbled upon PLOS’s Form 990 now, I’d have probably raised a storm about it. I have absolutely no complaints about Andy’s efforts to understand what he was seeing – non-profits are required to release this kind of financial information precisely so that people can scrutinize what they are doing. And I understand why Andy and others find some of the info discomforting, and share some of his concerns. But having spent the last 15 years trying to build PLOS and turn it into a stable enterprise, I have a different perspective, and I’d like to explain it.
The reality is, however, that it costs PLOS a lot more than $0 to handle a paper. We handle a lot of papers – close to 200 a day – each one different. There’s a lot of manual labor involved in making sure the submission is complete, that it passes ethical and technical checks, in finding an editor and reviewers and getting them to handle the paper in a timely and effective manner. It then costs money to turn the collection of text and figures and tables into a paper, and to publish it and maintain a series of high-volume websites. All together we have a staff of well over 100 people running our journal operations, and they need to have office space, people to manage them, an HR system, an accounting system and so on – all the things a business has to have. And for better or worse our office is in San Francisco (remember that two of the three founders were in the Bay Area, and we couldn’t have started it anywhere else), which is a very expensive place to operate. We have always aimed to keep our article processing charges (APCs) as low as possible – it pains me every time we’ve had to raise our charges, since I think we should be working to eliminate APCs, not increase them. But we have to be realistic about what publishing costs us.
I’ve argued for a long time that we should do away with selective journals, but so long as people want to publish in them, they’re going to have this weird economics. And note this is not just true of open access journals – higher impact subscription journals bring in a lot more money per published paper than low impact subscription journals, for essentially the same reason.