Small scholar-led scholarly journals: can they survive and thrive in an open access future? (published as early view February 2016)

If you are citing my commentary or have not viewed the original article, cite this post as:



Library support in the transition to open access: membership cancellations

The purpose of this post is to shed some light on a specific issue in the transition to open access that particularly affects small and low-cost publishers and to suggest one strategy to address this issue.

In the words of one Resource Requirements interviewee:

So the other set of members that we used to have about forty library members , but when we went to open access online, we lost the whole bunch of libraries. Yeah, so basically we sent everybody ,you know, a letter saying we are going to open access online, the annual membership is only $30, we hope you will continue to support us even though there are no longer print journals, and then a whole flu of cancellations came in from a whole bunch of libraries, which we had kind of thought might happen but given how cheap we are, I have to say I was really disappointed when it indeed did happen especially from whole bunch of [deleted] libraries [for which our journal is extremely relevant]. I was going, seriously $30?

Comments: for a university library, a society membership fee, when not required for journal subscriptions, may be difficult to justify from an accounting perspective. $30 is a small cost; however, for a university the administrative work of tracking such memberships and cutting a check every year likely exceeds the $30 cost. With 40 library members at a cost of $30, the total revenue for this journal from this source was $1,200. A university or university library could sponsor this amount at less than the cost of many an article processing charge. The university and library where the faculty member is located have a support program for open access journals; clearly the will, and some funding, is there.

One of the challenges is transitioning subscription dollars to support for open access, as I address in my 2013 First Monday article. Following is one suggestion for libraries, or for faculty to suggest to their libraries: why not engage your faculty who are independent or society publishers to gain support for cancellations or tough negotiations and lower prices for the big deals of large, highly profitable commercial publishers that I argue are critical to redirect funding to our own publishing activities?

Here is one scenario that may help to explain the potential. If a library current spends $1 million a year on Elsevier’s big deal (not uncommon for a large university libraries; some pay more) at the current rate of profit of 37%, your library’s contribution to Elsevier profit is $370,000 per year. If your library could convince Elsevier to “make do” with a mere 36% contribution to profit from your library, that’s still a $360,000 contribution to Elsevier profit. The $10,000 difference would be enough to fund a $1,200 a year subsidy for 8 journals like this one to make up for loss of library membership / subscription revenue.

Here is how to calculate the potential for savings for your library and support:

  • The Elsevier 37% profit rate can be found in the 2014 Reed Elsevier Annual Report.The actual numbers (in millions) are 2,048 GBP revenue, 762 GBP adjusted operating profit.
  • Adjust as necessary using a currency conversion tool such as the Bank of Canada currency conversion service (daily and 10-year available). The actual numbers are substantial and hence important to this type of argument. 762 million GBP in profit is $1.17 million USD in profit as of today.
  • Take your library’s annual payment to Reed Elsevier.
  • Multiply by .37 to calculate your library’s contribution to Elsevier profit.
  • Use one or more other multipliers to calculate the savings possible through lower Elsevier profits, e.g.:
  • .36 to illustrate a drop in your library’s contribution to Elsevier profit of 1%
  • .20 to illustrate a drop in your library’s contribution to Elsevier profit to a “mere” 20% profit level
  • and so forth.

Similar calculations can be made with other publishers. I use Elsevier as an example partially because they are the largest scholarly publisher and partially because, as a publicly traded corporate, Reed Elsevier is required to publish this information. Fully private businesses (e.g. Springer, Sage) are under no such legal obligation.


Morrison, H. (2013). Economics of scholarly communication in transition. First Monday 18:6

Reed Elsevier (2014). Annual Report, page. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2015 from

This post is part of the Resource Requirements for Small Scholar-Led Open Access Publishing

Cite as: Morrison, H. (2015). Library support in the transition to open access: Membership cancellations. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Small scholar-led open access publishing

Update December 2019: the final report of this project is available here:

Morrison, H. (2016). Small scholar-led scholarly journals: Can they survive and thrive in an open access future? Learned Publishing, 29(2), 83–88.
For other posts on this topic, use the Resource Requirements category.

This post provides some background and a status update on one the Resource Requirements for small scholar-led not-for-profit open access publishing project, flowing from the second objective of  Sustaining the Knowledge Commons:

2. an examination of the resources needed by small not-for-profit scholar-led publishers (e.g. needs for editorial or technical support)

Background and rationale

Up until the end of the Second World War, virtually all scholarly journals were published by scholarly societies. In the latter half of the previous century there was a tendency for increasing commercial involvement in scholarly publishing, and within the commercial sector a tendency towards concentration. Today, a very large proportion of scholarly journals are published by a small number of highly profitable large commercial publishers, particularly in the sciences, technology and medicine (STM) areas, while other areas of scholarly publishing, particularly social sciences and humanities publishing and monograph publishing, suffer from a lack of financial support.

In recent decades, one factor in the trend towards commercial publishing and outsourcing of the technical work of publishing by scholarly societies was the difficulty and expense of creating online journals in the relatively early days of the computer and the internet, up until the end of the last century.

The not-for-profit scholar-led sector of scholarly publishing is still very large and active in scholarly publishing; even many of the journals published by commercial publishers are actually partnerships with scholarly societies, or in effect scholarly society publishers that have outsourced some of the work to commercial companies.

It should come as no surprise that at about the turn of this century – about the time of the official start of the open access movement – the underlying conditions pushing scholars to outsource the work of publishing change, thanks to the internet. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were free online journals, but not that many; it wasn’t easy to publish online, for many people this required equipment, software and expertise that they didn’t have. Today, this is no longer the case. Anyone with a computer and internet connection can publish a blog, using free software.

This has led to what Edgar & Willinsky, reporting on a survey of over 900 journals using the open source Open Journal Systems, describe as a renaissance of scholar-led publishing. As I discuss in my 2013 First Monday article, the figures reported by the journals in this survey suggest the potential for a fully open access scholarly publishing system that costs a small fraction of what academic libraries (the major source of support for scholarly journals) currently spend, on average, for scholarly journals on a per-article basis.

The First Monday article reflects early stage research that the SKC project is intended to pursue to the next level by more fully articulating the needs and potential costs of a scholar-led open access publishing system. The next phase of research involves two separate paths: articulating the needs of scholarly journals (through interviews, possibly focus groups and/or surveys, followed by economic modeling) and university (usually) library-based journal hosting services.

Resource Requirements is the first phase of this research and involves conducting brief interviews with people involved with scholar-led journals that either are open access, or would like to become open access if the means can be found. These interviews focus on the needs of these journals expressed in qualitative terms, such as what work is done, who does the work (e.g. volunteers or paid staff, academic, professional publishing staff, support staff etc.), the technical work of journal hosting and support.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Small scholar-led open access publishing. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Sustaining scholarly societies and society publishers: key challenges for open access transition

A recent editorial by Diane Scott-Lichter in Learned Publishing summarizes nicely some of the primary challenges for scholarly societies to transition to open access that many have written about over the years.

I argue that if we want to see a successful and sustainable transition to open access that prioritizes the public good and scholarship per se it is timely to address some of these challenges. Society publishers have a track record of high quality publishing at relatively low cost. Many scholarly societies rely on publishing revenue to sustain the societies themselves and the important work they do, including support for scholars and advocacy in the public interest. The generally modest surpluses of scholarly society publishers that are used to advance scholarship are not the same as the money that flows through commercial publishers to private parties solely for their private profit.

How can these challenges be addressed? This needs a lot of work – comments, suggestions and research are needed and welcome. Here is one thought: if libraries and other open access activists were to engage faculty in the question of whether the high profit margins of a few large commercial scholarly publishers might be re-directed to more direct means of support for scholarly societies and journals, would this facilitate broadening support for open access – and possibly more radical transformation of scholarly communication – at our institutions? If as a faculty member I had a small fund to spend with spending options including article processing charges or things like society memberships, the benefits to myself and my colleagues of a lowest-possible-cost peer-review overlay publishing system using the institutional repository in order to direct as much money as possible to things like awards, grants, and public advocacy, I could see this being a powerful incentive towards this kind of radical change.


One argument is that scholarly journals have a superior track record for quality in scholarly publishing at an average fraction of the cost of commercial scholarly publishing. As Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006) reported:

For example, in the fields of economics and ecology, the average institutional subscription price per page charged by commercial journals is about 5 times that charged by non-profit journals. These price differences do not reflect differences in quality as measured by number of recorded citations to a journal. For commercial journals the average price per citation is about 15 times that for non-profit journals. Similar price differentials are found across a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

Many scholarly societies rely on revenue from their publications and sometimes other sources such as meeting / conference revenue and grants to fund the work of the society. The work of these not-for-profit organizations that is supported by publication revenue includes (from Scott-Lichter):

Learned societies are advocates for their disciplines, and its members keep government bodies, funders,and the public aware of the issues relative to their fields. Advocacy areas often focus on funding, policy reform, education, and the workforce”


“Society grants, awards, scholarships, and internships supplement the work of funding bodies and schools. Grants support a range of activities from basic research to studying and documenting a discipline’s history. Awards recognize achievements and encourage advancement. They range from student travel awards to attend scholarly meetings to honoring public service or teaching to lifetime achievement for contributions to the discipline. Scholarships and internships support the development of students and faculty and aim both to cultivate qualified individuals working in the discipline and uphold the quality of the discipline. Again, the benefits go beyond the discipline”.

Like open access itself, these benefits from society publishing are in the public interest. We need to figure out how to support both scholarly societies and open access.


Bergstrom, T. C., & Bergstrom, C. (2006). The economics of scholarly journal publishing. Seattle: Retrieved August 28, 2011 from

Scott-Lichter, D. (2014) Learned societies: Resilience not reliance required (2014). Learned Publishing 27:2, p. 83-84. doi:10.1087/20140201

This post is part of the resource requirements project.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Sustaining scholarly societies and society publishers: Key challenges for open access transition. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Library-led journals using Digital Commons: 94% open access, none with article processing charges

A study by Busher & Kamotsky highlights one of the options for sustaining small scholar-led journals. Digital Commons is a software used by library institutional repositories and as a publishing platform, particularly in the United States. In Canada, the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems and Érudit are the most commonly used platforms. The authors found that of nearly 700 journals (now 900) using Digital Commons in 2013, “94% were open access, and none relied on article-processing fees”. Other statistics indicate the growth of both library publishing services and journals hosted. The authors suggest the rationale: “The library has been more than willing to support these journals with software, hosting, infrastructure, and often more hands-on editorial services. The investment has proven worthwhile: libraries have been able to expand their publishing programs even while other library budgets are shrinking”. The authors present several case studies of journals successfully using Digital Commons, and suggest that this is a useful model for new and niche journals.

Comment: the usefulness of this model extends far beyond the new and niche. For example, library-led publishing is now an option worth considering for journals that opted for commercial publishing services in the past couple of decades due to the limited options available for online publishing a few years ago. At least in North America, the majority of journal editorial boards could likely find several options for library-led publishing by canvassing editorial board members.


Busher, C., & Kamotsky, I. (2015). Stories and statistics from library-led publishing. Learned Publishing 2015 28:1, p. 64-68. doi:10.1087/20150110. Open access archived version here:

This post is part of the resource requirements project.

Cite as: Morrison, H. (2015). Library-led journals using Digital Commons: 94% open access, none with article processing charges. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Language editing

Language editing is one of the processes involved in publishing that can take more or less work. Some articles are submitted by writers highly skilled in the language of publication that have taken the time to ensure high quality of their work that require little or no editing. Other articles are submitted by writers that are less skilled, too busy for proofreading, or for whom the language of publication is not their native language.

There are different ways to approach language editing. For example, this service can handled by the publisher, by the author, or a choice can be offered.

The Journal of Prenatal Medicine site offers some interesting language (that follows) on their directions for authors requiring language editing. Guidance is provided to authors on expectations and referral to services; however the journal itself does not take on this work. I see advantages to this author-centric language editing service. Authors who are just busy may decide it’s worth the time to proofread carefully to save a bit of money. Authors who need services can find the best deal economically, and may develop a relationship with a copyeditor who gets to know their work, the terminology used and stylistic preferences. If universities and funders expect authors to publish in international journals with a different language, shouldn’t they provide authors with language editing services? This type of work may fit very well with other types of work that is needed by universities. A copyeditor that gets to know an author’s work could also help with preparing grant applications and university communications services. Food for thought.

From the Journal of Prenatal Medicine site:

Pre-acceptance English language editing service

Authors for whom English is a second language should have their manuscript professionally edited or edited by a fluent English speaker before submission. This service is aimed to:
• improve grammar, spelling, and punctuation;
• improve clarity and resolve any ambiguity caused by poor phrasing;
• improve word-choice and ensure that the tone of the language is appropriate for an academic journal.
Please contact if you would like to receive the economic details of such services.
The service is paid for and arranged by the author, and use of these service does not guarantee acceptance or preference for publication.

This post is part of the open access article processing charges and the resource requirements projects.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Language editing. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

$1,300 per article or $25K / year in subsidy can generously support quality scholar-led OA journal publishing

Update May 14:the Austrian Science Fund published very similar numbers in 2012 – 20 articles per journal, €22,000 per year, €1,100 per article. See below for details and comments.
Second update May 14: see Stevan Harnad’s comments on the GOAL list Fair Gold vs. Fool’s Gold and my comments below.

This is one potential model for supporting small scholar-led open access journals, drawing on interviews and focus groups with editors. In brief, $1,300 per article (mixing CDN and USD, currently not too far off par) or a subsidy of about $25,000 per year can pay for the following for a small journal publishing 20 peer-reviewed articles per year:

  • $8,000 for a course release to hire a sessional to free up close to a full day per article for a senior academic to focus on the journal (e.g. academic editing, coordinating with the board)
  • $12,790 to hire a senior support staff for one day (7 hours) per week at a total of $35 / hour (including benefits) – tasks to include things like communicating with authors, copyediting, marketing and promotion which may include social media; this is over two full days per peer-reviewed article
  • $2,700 USD for top of the line OJS journal hosting (see the PKP site* for what’s included in Enterprise hosting)
  • $2,500 annually for various other costs (e.g. language editing, graphics)
  • $25,990 total. Assuming 20 articles per year, that’s $1,300 per article.

In addition to the modest costs, local advantages include the leadership opportunities, prestige and local profile-raising that come with leading a journal and local part-time job opportunities suitable for new or emerging scholars and the universities’ own graduates. A faculty with a few journals like this might consider combining some of the part-time positions into one full-time, i.e. 5 one-day support staff positions could add up to a full-time permanent job at a rate of $63,950 including benefits. This is a generous model. There are sessional positions at less than $8,000 per hour. The Canadian minimum wage is about $10 / hour, so the $35 / hour for support staff is a nice professional salary. OJS offers basic service at a third of what is budgeted here.

Austrian Science Fund 2012 data (thanks to Falk Reckling)

Reckling, Falk et al.. (2012). Initial funding for high-quality open access journals in the humanities and social sciences. Zenodo. 10.5281/zenodo.16462


For the time after the three-year initial funding period, the median costs assumed were
approximately €22,000 per year. As the journals aim to publish some 20 articles each
year, the medium-term costs were estimated at €1,100 per article on the average.
  • As of today, these figures translate to $22,000 CDN per year or $1,500 CDN per article at the 1.3632 exchange rate according to the Bank of Canada daily currency converter.
  • The journal-level peer review process described is worth having a look at as a potential model for assuring quality in scholarly publishing, another benefit of the subsidy model. Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council also has a journal subsidy program with journal-level peer review as part of the application process. It would be interesting to hear about other examples of journal-level peer review.
  • The Austrian Science Fund is looking for journals with an international visibility. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. Based on my interviews, funding tied to publishing local authors is too limiting for a number of journals. On the other hand, internationalization sometimes makes sense in the humanities and social sciences, but not always. There are some research areas in any discipline (sciences too) where important research topics are of necessity local, e.g. local history, geography, politics and culture. One suggestion for funders to be flexible to recognize the varying needs of different research communities.

Stevan Harnad’s comments on the GOAL list Fair Gold vs. Fool’s Gold : excerpts and comments.

To paraphrase Harnad: Fool’s Gold is paying for open access publication while still paying for the subscriptions system, while Fair Gold is what will emerge after all scholarly works are available open access through repositories. The sole immediate priority is mandating open access archiving. Comment: I absolutely agree that the immediate priority is open access policy and that all policy should be for green self-archiving, not gold open access publishing (with the exception of publishing organizations and publishing funders setting internal policies). I share Harnad’s concern with spending on open access publishing without cutting subscriptions. My perspective is that this takes money away from the research itself. Unlike Harnad, I do see value in a gradual transition as a collective learning process.

Harnad: re *(a) “top-of-the-line journal hosting”*: Obsolete after universal Green OA.

The worldwide distributed network of Green OA institutional repositories hosts its own paper output, both pre and post peer review and acceptance by the journal. Acceptance is just a tag. Refereeing is done on the repository version. Simple, standard software notifies referees and gives them access
to the unrefereed draft.

Morrison: I agree that this is optimal. The Houghton / JISC study found the repository-peer-review overlay to be the most cost-effective option (by far) for UK open access (as compared with gold open access publishing or just repositories). The journal as a format was optimized for print (hence the bundling into mailable issues); whether journals will be needed in the future is far from clear. There are signs of convergence in repository and journal hosting software and services. For example, many library scholarly communication services provide both types of support. Bepress Digital Commons repository software advertises that “A Digital Commons repository showcases the breadth of scholarship produced at an institution – everything from faculty papers, student scholarship, and annual reports to open-access journals, conference proceedings, and monographs”. DOAJ uses the Open Access Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) to harvest content from open access journals.

Harnad *(b) “a senior academic to devote just a little less than one full day per
article”*: This is a genuine function and expense:

The referees have to be selected, the reports have to be adjudicated, the author has to be informed what to do, and the revised final draft has to be adjudicated — all by a competent editor. The real-time estimate sounds right for ultimately accepted articles — but ultimately rejected articles take time too (and for a 20-accepted-articles-per-year journal there will need to be a no-fault submission fee so that accepted authors don’t have to pay for the rejected ones. (Journals with higher quality standards will have higher rejection rates.)

Morrison: thank you. I know you have years of experience as an academic editor, these details will really help with this research.

Harnad: *“(c) a part-time senior support staff at a nice hourly rate to provide
over 2 days’ support per peer-reviewed article”*:

Copy-editing is either obsolete or needs to be made a separate, optional service. For managing
paper submissions and referee correspondence, much of this can be done with form-letters using simple, standard software. Someone other than the editor may be needed to manage that, but at nowhere near 2 days of real time per accepted article.

Morrison: again, thank you. In retrospect I think I’ve overestimated the time for the support staff person. I am not sure that copyediting will be obsolete, but would agree that we should at least talk about this. There are probably areas where copyediting does not clearly benefit scholarship per se, for example re-writing to fit the style of a particular journal or translating the minor spelling and grammar differences of British/Canadian and American English. In situations where copyediting is beneficial, it makes no sense to include this in a blind review process. To minimize the risk of introducing errors, a copyeditor should work as closely with the author as possible. This is another area where it makes sense to work with a local copyeditor charging local rates in the local currency. It makes no sense, for example, for an author in the developing world to pay for copyediting services in the developed world if these services are available locally. Many authors can do their own copyediting and proofreading. If support services are provided to authors, local services that might be extended to help with grant and report writing might be the most useful, i.e. services that are institutionally rather than publisher based.

* Note that the main reason for using OJS / PKP in calculations is transparency of pricing. There are other hosting services and other ways to provide OJS hosting service.

This post is part of the resource requirements for small scholar-led open access publishing project.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). $1,300 per article or $25K / year in subsidy can generously support quality scholar-led OA journal publishing. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from


From conference to newsletter to journal: a challenge to the emphasis on peer review

The reason for posting the following excerpt from one of the resource requirements interviews is intended to raise the question: is the current focus on the technical aspects of peer review out of touch with the communication / community aspects of scholarly communication of which formal publishing is arguably just one part?

This journal is one among the many thousands of small, scholar-led fully open access journals that would clearly meet all of the requirements for inclusion in DOAJ, including the peer review process. However, the peer-reviewed journal is just one portion of the rich history of the communication of this scholarly community, which flows from the conference(s) and early newsletter. Does it really make sense to separate the peer-reviewed bits from the larger history of communication among this scholarly community? I argue that it does not, that to fully understand the peer-reviewed literature it is important to know the historical context.

What about today’s emerging scholarly communities? I think I am seeing a narrow emphasis on the technical aspects of peer review, understandable in the context of open access debates but probably not optimal for scholarly communication and communities. This would be a good topic for further research, one that might appeal to historical researchers. There is probably a good deal of material within scholarly journals (there are often editorials about recent developments) and on the websites of scholarly societies. Current scholarly societies could be interesting to explore for researchers in anthropology or other social sciences.

In the words of the anonymized interviewee:

“we had a conference on this in [years several decades ago], at [our university], on the topic of we called it [our topic] and it was sort of a new field in [our discipline] and by the way we’re all [members of our discipline] it’s a multidisciplinary field now and I guess it always has been, but anyway we had this conference and people discovered that they’re breaking away from previously standard arguments / approaches [in our discipline] independently and in much the same direction and so it’s quite exciting to find that among the [less than 100] people that came to this conference that there was this commonality, and somebody said that we should keep in touch, and so we offered to set up this newsletter, and so we had a newsletter from [period of 5 years] but people began to send us manuscripts and people who didn’t need to publish in a refereed journal to get tenure sent us manuscripts and we began to get more and more articles and by [the end of the 5-year period] we said clearly there is a demand for the journal so we turned ourselves into a journal by getting ourselves an editorial board and establishing some procedures”.

This was a rich interview and content will be included in other posts. The purpose of this narrow excerpt is to focus on this challenge to the narrow focus on peer review.

This post is part of the resource requirements for small scholar-led open access publishing project.

Morrison, H. (2015). From conference to newsletter to journal: A challenge to the emphasis on peer review. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Wanting to be open does not mean we want to be open about everything

In planning interviews with editors of small scholar-led journals that either are, or would like to be, open access journals, I started off with the assumption that interviewees might want their interviews to be open, too, either as audio online or as transcripts. This would have been a deviation from the custom of confidential or anonymous interviews. Therefore, my approach was to offer the customary confidentiality / anonymity with the invitation to share the interview openly if desired by participants. None of the 8 interviewees to date has taken me up on the offer to make their interviews open. This makes sense. A journal might want to be open access, but some of the behind-the-scenes discussions around this decision might need to be kept private. There may be justifiable concerns about a revenue stream or supporting resource for the journal in the context of universities in tight financial situations looking for areas to cut. I’ll keep the invitation open, but for now will consider this a learning experience. In retrospect, this just makes sense. We can be advocates for both strong open access and strong privacy rights at the same time (I am very much for both); consider the intertwining of freedom of information and privacy.

This post is part of the Resource Requirements for Small Scholar-Led Open Access Publishing project.

If you are doing or thinking about doing research in this area, please let us know in the comments section.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Wanting to be open does not mean we want to be open about everything. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Closing Open Medicine: why we need to work at Sustaining the Knowledge Commons

A sad moment for open access: the closing of Open Medicine. Kendall, Maskalyk & Papelu’s final editorial provides a good explanation of the resources that we need to support scholar-led open access publishing: active participation in the form of academic editing, and financial support for the work involved in running a journal. This illustrates why we need to work towards sustaining the knowledge commons.

Morrison, H. (2014). Closing Open Medicine: Why we need to work at Sustaining the Knowledge Commons. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from