When the original BOAI declaration on open access was published, one of its stated aims was to ‘save money and expand the scope of dissemination at the same time’ through open access publishing. The web offered distribution costs that the authors claimed were ‘far lower’ than print publishing and so OA was seen at least in part as something that could ease library budgets ailing from above-inflation journal subscription prices, all while making research available to the public. Arguably, the BOAI statement was quite measured in its focus only on distribution costs (which clearly are cheaper in an online world); but despite this, many people claim that the cost of publishing more generally should be less in an open-access world. Some advocates have even tried to calculate how much an article should cost to publish.

In a recent editorial by the CEO of the British Society for Neuroendocrinology, Sue Thorn argues that alongside affordability and access, some advocates were motivated by the idea that ‘publishers should be put out of business and science outputs published in some unspecified, non-profit way that would be less expensive.’ Thorn does not cite any examples of these kinds of arguments, so I’m not entirely sure what she means. However, it is clear that a certain amount of antagonism towards publisher pricing strategies — and their ‘staggeringly profitable’ business models — has also in part motivated the push for open access.

Financial matters have always been an area of dispute within OA debates, particularly over how much publishing should cost and how much profit should be returned to shareholders. Some people advocate for a more efficient publishing process (whereby an individual article is cheaper to produce) or a transparent market to inform purchasing decisions, while others argue for an entirely non-profit space or a restriction on the profiteering of large commercial publishers. Both of these are ideological arguments that either reflect faith in market outcomes to produce efficient results or distrust in markets and the need for interventions to generate healthier publishing cultures. (of course, this is not a simple binary for many people but a broad generalisation.)

Yet what gets lost in the debates about the cost of publishing is the nuance around what publishing actually is and who publishers actually are. Publishing isn’t a specific practice by a certain kind of organisation, but instead reflects a multitude of practices, business models, formats, political modes, and so on. But this diversity is obscured by the fact that publishing is also a highly concentrated industry. The skewed debate exists not just because publishing means a range of different things, but also because 5-6 publishers have a market share of roughly half of the entire academic publishing industry. This means that the way in which many researchers interact with publishers is largely influenced by the oligopoly, even though publishing represents a plurality of practices.

So when talking about the cost of publishing, it is easy to see why not-for-profit publishers and university presses get annoyed by the accusation that all publishing is profiteering. But it is equally easy to see why researchers do feel that publishing is an activity based on extracting labour and commodifying research for obscene profits. Both are correct in their own way, which is due to the influence that a handful of presses has on publishing more generally. This situation calls for greater specificity on the kind of publishing being discussed in order to inform arguments on the publishing cultures that we hope to nurture within academia.

Personally, I would be far happier with universities paying more to stimulate a global ecosystem of small, open, scholar-/library-/university-led presses than to an efficient academic publishing oligopoly making everything open access while tracking and monetising all of our interactions. I’m pretty sure that the former would cost less overall than the latter, but it would still be better even if it didn’t. This means that a reduction in costs (austerity) should not be the primary aim of the move to open access, but nor should the endpoint be mere open access to research at all costs. Instead, we should be nurturing the kinds of publishing cultures we want to see, both financially and in our publishing practices: those that value the labour needed to care for publishing and that work in harmony with research communities rather than extract from them.

Working out exactly what ‘care-ful’ publishing cultures look like should be the next frontier for open access advocacy, away from restrictive approaches to OA based on policy mandates and transformative agreements that merely strengthen the academic publishing oligopoly.