27 July 2005

The high cost of publishing

Once, I had a conversation with an aspiring writer of fiction who simply could not wrap her head around the idea that scientists write all these technical articles, submit them for publication, and don't get paid for it. She has "cash per word" as her model for writing and publication, which is a standard one in much of publishing.

If she had problems understanding that, I wonder what she would make of these things called "page charges."

A brief digression into the economics of publishing. Publishing is kind of weird, because the more copies of something you make, the cheaper it gets per copy. That's because the initial set up of printing presses, proofs, and so on require a lot of work and chew up the bulk of the expenses. But once those are set up, running more copies off is pretty much an automatic process with little extra cost.

This little fact of printing matters a lot for scientific journals. Even some of the top journals, highly read and cited around the world, print only a few thousand copies. To make matters even worse, the level of quality expected is phenomenally high -- archival, acid free paper, often requiring high resolution photographic plates (sometimes in colour), highly demanding typesetting and proofreading requirements for mathematical formulae, and so on. How do journals manage to continue publication? For one, they often charge institutions subscription rates that astonish people outside the field (think the cost of a new truck or so). Some are subsidized by a scientific society. A few have sufficient readership to run ads. And some have these things called "page charges." Essentially, pages charges are a fee the author must pay to have an article published. That's right, you have to pay the publisher instead of the publisher paying you, the standard model for most of the rest of the publishing world.

I mention all this because I'm having my first real run-ins with page charges for a couple of manuscripts I've submitted. I received a letter from one journal informing me that my article, if accepted, was estimated to run 13 pages, and I would be expected to fork out 700 Euros should my paper be accepted for publication. My first response was, "What the heck's the exchange rate on a Euro?" A quick internet search later, I was sucking in breath as I realized I had put myself on the hook for US$841 and change.

At this point, the paper hasn't been accepted, so I might not have to pay. But if it does, I'm not sure where the money to pay the pages charges will come from. Many granting agencies allow "publication costs" as an allowable expense, and even have a line item in proposal budgets for it. But if you don't have a grant (like me), well, things could get a little tricky.

In other news, I'm off to the beach this afternoon to collect animals and check on this season's crop of ascidians. If they're at the point I think they are, I will suddenly be very busy very quickly with those guys.

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