...and what we do with the margin. Learn more about the factors that influence our cost, how inflation plays a role across many facets of publishing, and why ongoing investment in trusted content delivers more value in the long run.
Subscribers often wonder what’s behind the cost of their ACS Publications journal package, what drives increases, and where any margin might go for non-profit publishers. The costs of maintaining the most trusted and reliable journal content are not well understood by community members, and this can lead to misunderstandings about the factors influencing cost and widely ranging expectations.1
In this article, we will identify some of the factors influencing our cost, including the ways in which inflation plays a role across many facets of publishing. Finally, we’ll help readers gain a picture of why their continued investment in trusted content is less costly in the long run.
An Investment in Trust that Does Not Scale
One of the largest costs we encounter is related to the efforts required to filter out the growing volume of content that does not meet our high standards. An even more challenging burden is catching and eliminating content that might be fraudulent or unfounded, the kind of science that is made up using AI, comes from paper mills, or may be backed by fictitious data.
As technology evolves and pressure mounts on the scientific community to perform, as measured by publishing output, we too must invest in improving systems and processes to ensure we continue to deliver the level of trust that our readers have come to expect. We must also account for the fact that machine screening is imperfect and balance its use with human review to maintain the scientific community’s trust. In fact, every paper that is flagged by machine readers is still reviewed by a human.
In addition to catching fraudulent attempts at presenting scientific advance, we also must be prepared to handle the ever fluctuating and increasing volume of inbound submissions. Top publishers like ACS receive far more submissions than they can possibly publish while still maintaining high standards for both readers and authors. We treat each author and submission with the respect and consideration it deserves, and while there is no cost to the author for an article that is submitted and later rejected2, there is a cost (human and machine) to the publisher.
For us, vetting content is at the very core of what we do to deliver value, and it is a continuous process. It happens upon initial review and throughout peer review up until the time of final decision. In addition to investing in systems that empower fast and helpful multi-person peer review, the secret to our ability to maintain trust still relies heavily on human expertise. Maintaining ACS’ unmatched standard of quality has a large impact on costs because the human time it takes to read an article, review supporting information (sometimes heaps of it), and determine its quality is not a cost in which there is an economy of scale. As volume grows, the human cost grows in proportion. Adding to the complexity, papers are becoming more and more interdisciplinary3 and data driven. The time and expertise invested in evaluating an article are growing, and the need is the same whether it’s the first paper or the ten-thousandth.
For an interactive graphic that allows users to explore the many steps we invest in, regardless of OA or Hybrid publishing, please check out our interactive map.
ACS Publications institutional pricing structure accounts for a number of factors. First, academics and non-profits receive discounted pricing compared with for-profit corporations. From there, institutional cost is then roughly tied to the degree of research that is undertaken and then their actual utilization of ACS content, with consumption of content being an influencer of cost in the academic world and a more important driver of cost in the corporate world.
When individuals at corporations use academic access, it drives costs up from multiple angles. There is lost ability to recoup our investment in content when corporations, who are developing extremely profitable products such as new drugs, use content but don’t pay their fair share for access. This is equally true when a corporate researcher utilizes academic access supplied to them as adjunct professor to aid in their corporate research efforts. This behavior may be doubly costly because in addition to lost opportunity that impacts overall cost, the added usage generated by corporate researchers using academic access can drive the academic subscription rates higher.
Just as the cost of theft in a retail institution drives up cost for all the paying customers, improperly licensed usage of ACS content drives up the cost for all customers, corporate and academic. It is worth noting that licenses explicitly prohibit allowing corporate usage of academic subscriptions, especially in instances when the academic institution is charging for this access.
Our customers can help us control this impact on cost by spreading the word. Librarians can help educate faculty on appropriate usage. Corporate researchers can help educate their employees and peers at other institutions on appropriate means of access. It helps to remind employees that in the same way their organization must monetize its intellectual property in order to generate operating revenue, non-profits must also monetize their products to continue offering solutions.
Technology to Ensure Trust Is Expensive
In addition to considering the human cost related to each article submitted, growing and evolving technology is necessary. That includes software and hardware solutions to facilitate the review process and to store and process information;4,5 power6,7 and bandwidth; facilities to house technology; engineers to build and maintain the infrastructure; and even tools and people dedicated to security and facility maintenance. These are all growing costs that are often experiencing higher than average inflation.
One of the largest unseen and growing expenses are the behind-the-scenes costs to develop and maintain technology to combat AI, fake data, plagiarism, theft of content, and paper mill content. These costs continue to grow each year, as we must adapt as fast as fraudulent behavior changes.
Additionally, maintaining old content costs more each year. As our back catalog grows, so too does the infrastructure cost to maintain the catalog. We also add enhanced metadata to our content in order to facilitate ease of discovery. We do that routinely for new content, but we also evolve historic content to current standards by updating and adding new data to old articles.
Our content, new and old, continues to fuel the most influential discoveries in the world, from new cures for disease to modern solutions for sustainable energy. We continue to invest in systems that enhance our capability to deliver information that fulfills our organizational mission of improving lives.
One such example of this continued effort is the acquisition and upcoming integration of ChronosHub. It will help us to improve the overall submission system and overall author journey, making it a one-stop place for authors to get everything they need to submit an article to ACS Publications, regardless of preferences around open publishing.
Costs of Maintaining a Top-Quality Workforce
In order to manage hundreds of thousands of submissions and the publication of more than 80 of the most trusted journals, ACS Publications must of course compete for and retain top-quality employees. Our operations require more than 1,000 employees and contractors who must also earn a living. Our employees support editors in keeping journals running smoothly and in making sure exciting science is known by the wider community. They support authors through the publication process, answering questions about open access and processing, and in technical editing. They ensure your journal subscriptions are delivered and discoverable in the library and via search tools your patrons prefer. They keep our buildings clean and safe and so much more.
The cost of staffing,8,9 caring for our community by offering health insurance,10,11 and maintaining facilities12—to house both staff and technology—has outpaced inflation in many regions, and the cost to maintain facilities looks likely to continue topping inflation for 2024. We continue to innovate and build in-house efficiencies that help us lessen the impact to the cost of our products. But as a global entity with staffed offices all around the world—including Columbus, Ohio; Washington, DC; Oxford, UK; Singapore; Delhi, India; and beyond—the cost of our services will certainly be changing due to global inflationary factors.
Volume of Subscription Content Continues to Grow
At ACS, we focus on ensuring that we deliver the most trustworthy content while enabling the market to drive the degree and rate of transformation toward open access. Despite our growing volume of open content, our total collection of subscription-access content also continues to grow. Open Access has not replaced the subscription because not everyone participates in open access. Some countries and even individuals still strongly prefer to publish in hybrid journals. To fulfill our mission of being a top trusted provider of information that improves lives, we empower communities to make their own choices around open and hybrid publishing.
Institution by Institution Differences
ACS strives to offer similar pricing to similar customers, but it is important to be aware that an individual institution’s unique circumstances and choices may impact cost. For example, a notable increase in the number of articles downloaded may result in price change. Likewise, a change in the institution’s research focus, as indicated in a Carnegie/related classification change or by new degree offerings, can cause an increase or decrease in subscription cost.
Finally, an institution’s choices related to bundling of additional services can also dramatically influence cost of individual products quite favorably. Even certain licensing requirements, regional legislation, and regional economic factors can impact cost.
Our Margin Is Invested in Giving Back
ACS Publications is the publishing arm of a non-profit.13,14 That means our margin (the revenue we make that exceeds operating expenses) does not go to shareholders. Those funds are invested in our mission by giving back to education and research—often to the same institutions who subscribe. Our financial information is public, so anyone who is interested can see what we do with revenue. You might be surprised to find your organization listed on the form 990 (starting on PDF page 41) as a recipient of a substantial cash grant for research.
Within ACS Publications, we also invest our margin heavily in sponsoring programs that empower our community to make education and information more widely available. We provide free open access publishing in the most economically disadvantaged countries and for authors at subscribing primarily undergraduate institutions. Costs to cover diamond access to ACS Central Science also come out of revenue. To help encourage authors to be aware of and consider open access publishing, in 2014 we offered $60 million in open access publishing credits. Finally, ACS participates in Research4Life, giving no-cost read access to individuals in more than 80 of the most financially challenged countries.
From the many invisible costs that go into publishing the world’s most trusted research to giving back to the scientific community through grants, it still is our subscription revenue that covers the overwhelming majority of our expenses that makes everything we do possible.
- With the exception of authors who opt in to zero-embargo green open access. Authors choosing this option pay a fee up front, before the editorial decision is made. To find out more about this option, visit our zero-embargo green open access page or read more about why we added this option on our Axial blog.