The Tetrahedron test case

February 1st, 2011

Tetrahedron journal cover image

Phil Davis’s recent post over at The Scholarly Kitchen on whether open access might save the academic world some money misses the point of the COPE initiative and Harvard’s open-access fund (HOPE). Davis speculates that for the case of one set of journals that happened to be mentioned in my colleague Bob Darnton‘s recent NYRB piece, HOPE would cost the university more than its current subscriptions, echoing a more general claim he has made in previous work that OA article processing charges (APCs) will cost many universities more than they now pay in subscription fees. In particular, with regard to Tetrahedron‘s $39,082 price tag, he says “Of the nearly 6,000 articles in the Tetrahedron bundle, Harvard researchers authored 22 of them in 2010.  Given that COPE will pay $3,000 for each article out of this fund, paying for open access would cost Harvard $66K in 2010, $27K more than its subscription price.”

Harvard’s HOPE fund, like all COPE-responsive funds, is intended to cover Harvard’s fair share of OA article processing fees.  Harvard is dedicated to doing its part to underwrite OA fees — but not others’ parts.  For that reason, it does not cover articles based on grant-funded research; the granting agency should cover that. (The same is true of the open-access funds at many other COPE-signatory institutions.)

For the particular case at hand, I found 24 articles from 2010 in the Tetrahedron bundle with Harvard affiliations using a Scirus search.  All of the articles were grant-funded (16 by NIH, 11 by one or more other foundations, 5 by companies; the sum is greater than 24 as some articles had more than one funder).  Thus none of them would have been eligible for HOPE funding; the HOPE fund cost to Harvard would have been $0.

But even if none of them had been grant-funded, HOPE covers fees prorated based on Harvard authorship.  Since only 65 of the 144 authors on these 24 articles were Harvard affiliated, it would have covered only 65/144 (about 45%) of the fees. The cost would be (65/144)×$3000×24 = $32,500. Further, it covers only authors at schools with open-access policies.  Of the 65 Harvard affiliates, only 22 were at schools with OA policies, so payment would be restricted to 22/144 (about 15%), so the cost would be (22/144)×$3000×24 = $11,000.

Of course, BioMed Central journals with similar impact factors to the Tetrahedron journals charge publication fees of $1820.  (PLoS journals with considerably higher impact factors charge $1350 or $2250.) Presumably, if the Tetrahedron journals were open-access journals, as hypothesized in the thought experiment Davis is implicitly undertaking, they would have to compete for authors with other open-access journals and would need to charge similar rates (just as Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports is doing relative to PLoS ONE).  Redoing the calculation with the BMC rate gives (22/144)×$1820×24 ≈ $6,700.  Even covering authors at ineligible schools, the cost would only be (65/144)×$1820×24 ≈ $20,000.

Two of the five bundled journals — accounting for all but 5 of the 24 articles —  are “Letters” journals publishing quite short articles of a couple of pages.  Presumably, they should require even lower APCs, reducing the likely cost further.

So, the upshot is that the cost to the HOPE fund for all of the Tetrahedron journals would be $0, and even if it were to cover the fees for grant-funded articles, the cost would be $32,500. Or $20,000. Or $11,000. Or $6,700. Or less.

The truth is that no one knows how much costs would be in a counterfactual open-access world with competitive APC fees. The kinds of calculations in Davis’s post (and this one and other previous work) are a kind of silly game. But given that the highest APC for an OA journal ($2,900 for PLoS Biology) is far less than the average revenue per article for a subscription journal ($5,000 according to the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable), it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the overall costs would be higher.  And we’d drop all of the access restrictions as a nice side effect.  Seems like a bargain to me.

But the most important point is that the idea behind COPE and the HOPE fund is not to save an individual institution money.  If in the long term COPE has the intended effect of shifting journals such as Tetrahedron to an OA model within a journal ecology based on an efficient market — a situation that we manifestly do not now have — and if under those conditions Harvard ends up paying a bit more, well, then the market has spoken.

By the way, the Tetrahedron bundle price is now up to $41,361.

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