I’m staying out of the scuffling on this one. If you follow the science blogosphere at all, you should know by now that everyone is apparently up in arms over the recent Nature article detailing the finances over at PLOS (a follow-up from Nature’s Timo Hannay is here). While many are accusing Nature of deliberately publishing a “hatchet job”, I’ll leave any determinations of intent or malice up to the individual reader.

What’s interesting to me though, is getting to see what’s happening with the economic models of the various open access journals.
—article continues—

As Philip Davis notes at The Scholarly Kitchen, the financial results for PLOS (and for BioMedCentral for that matter) confirm the thesis put forth by Joe Esposito (discussed here). The idea is that for open access journals to be independently profitable, or at least sustainable, one needs to streamline and eliminate the editorial process (and hence the overhead costs) as much as possible. The financial success of the BMC offerings, as well as PLOS One illustrate this nicely. The problems come in when you start trying to use author-pays models for highly edited, highly-selective journals. Since you’re rejecting the vast majority of the material that comes in (and getting no revenue from the process), the financial burden falls on the very small number of authors whose work you are publishing, or in the case of PLOS, on outside funding agencies making contributions. The author-pays model has its strengths and those strengths are emphasized in publications like PLOS One, but not in journals that follow the traditional route taken by subscriber-pays publications. Esposito argues that there’s room in the market for many business models, including hybrid models, and that the business model and the type of publication have to be in synch, rather than trying to force a business model into a situation where it doesn’t fit.

It’s certainly good news that PLOS has found a way to cover their costs and continue the noble experiment they’ve undertaken. I’m not sure how good the news is for other publishers interested in experimenting with open access and author-pays models. Publishers and societies may not be able to drum up the large amount of donation funding needed to keep a highly selective journal in the black. They may not be all that interested in running streamlined, higher-volume journals to cover costs. It’s also very unclear how many of these type journals the market will bear–if every publisher starts one, will there be enough material/interest to continue to cover costs in other ventures?

On a semi-related note, Time Magazine recently published an article whining that not all of the new applications available for the iPhone are going to be free. MacUser has written a nice rebuttal, commenting on the odd perception that everything should be free:

“The whole point of payment is that you give someone money to take care of a problem that you don’t want to do yourself. You could save a bundle of money by not hiring people to cut your grass, for example, but then you’ll have to use the time you’d rather spend doing something else mowing the lawn yourself. Just as you could save some cash by developing a word-processor yourself, but heck, in the long run, it’s probably cheaper to let Microsoft do it for you.

This is economics at its most basic. Seriously. It doesn’t get any more basic than this.”