Jessica Litman delivered a paper today to a rump crowd of SI students and faculty about the economic costs of law journal publishing. Her thesis was that the major costs for law school publishing are mostly externalized as the cost of the faculty who perform the research. The actual production and editorial costs of the journal is a fraction of the total cost of production. Given this fact there seems to be no economic reason to suppose that an open access model would do any harm.
To reach this conclusion she uses a hypothetical law journal as an example case. The budget for this journal comes to about $40,000 for printing, which is offset by subscription, royalty, and subsidy spending. Next she estimates the first copy cost, or the cost of research production, and arrives at $311,150, $300,000 comes from faculty salaries, $6000 from students for legal notes, and $5150 for editorial student labor. Clearly the cost of faculty labor is the highest part of the whole, so what’s the problem for open source?
The discussion afterwards was lively and started to answer that very question. Litman had hoped to get some similar numbers for journals in other fields but instead the talk started by asking whether the external costs should be counted in the first place because they wouldn’t be any different in an open source publishing model, and then proceeded to try to describe the perspectives of all the players involved in the publishing business. Who really benefits from academic publishing? Professional societies certainly generate a lot of revenue through journals. But the harder benefits to measure are the indirect ones such as prestige and reputation. As Yan Chen put it, the central problem is one of coordination - how do you get everyone in the system, from non-tenured faculty through those who have tenure, to risk moving from the current journals to a new open access system.
A paper called “The Economics of Open Access Publishing” is available from the Wayne State law school web, and has more detail on the complete argument.