Sunday, October 25, 2009

What is the (Real) Cost of Open Access?

After the transformation of Communications of ACM, I find myself increasingly interested in the articles that are published in CACM. As expected, one of the common ways to demonstrate my interest is by sharing the URL for the paper, on Twitter, on Facebook, on the blog, or by sharing the link with friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, CACM has a closed-access policy, effectively preventing anyone without a ACM membership or without a university account from actually reading the papers. Same thing for papers published in conferences and journals, but there I can typically find the paper in the home page of the author. For CACM, this is often not the case.

Needless to say, I hate closed access policies. While I can understand the shortsightedness of for-profit publishers, I fail to see why ACM has not adopted at least a "semi" Open Access model, making, say, the current issue of Communications of ACM available to the public. Or by giving public access to papers published 10 or 20 years back in the different journals and conferences.

The stated goal of the association is to promote the field. By restricting access, ACM simply does not work towards this goal!

The main argument that I hear is that publishing has some costs. But I am really trying to understand what are these costs. What is the magnitude of these costs? And who is being paid? Almost like the health-care debate, we are told that something is expensive but we have no idea of who ends up getting the money.

Let's examine the potential cost factors:

Printing: I understand that printing on paper has costs. But covering the the cost of printing seems easy: Amortize it across the print subscribers. (Or even abolish print versions.)

Servers for distribution: What is the cost of electronically distributing papers? The cost of running a server, should not be a concern. At the worst case, NSF should provide funds for that. I find it hard to think that NSF would turn down a request for funding a server that provides open access to scientific journals!

Submission handling: The cost of the submission website? I doubt that it is above $5K per year, per journal. Ask for a nominal submission fee (say $50 per paper) to cover this. The cost for the copy-editors? We can do much better without them, thank you. (Seriously, why do we still have copyeditors?)

Admin cost: The only cost that I can think of is the cost of the admin staff. But how much is it? I honestly have no idea! Is it so high that the ACM member subscriptions cannot cover the cost? I am trying to find the budget of ACM but I cannot find anything public.

Are there other hidden costs?

If anyone has pointers or extra information, please let me know. I am really trying to understand the real costs of high-quality electronic publishing.