Friday, 15 August 2014

A look at Nature's profits

Who in their right mind pays thirty-two bucks for a pay-per-view article?
I assume nobody. If you can understand a jargon filled peer-reviewed article on muonic neutrinos, the chances are you know someone whose academic library has access. But if that is the case why bother?

I would guess it is make the library subscription prices a bargain, after all one issue of Nature bought from the shop costs ten pounds (15 USD) whereas a annual personal subscription comes to 4 USD per issue. Namely the usual bulk sale. Apart from the small details that (a) in both Nature and Science the per issue cost printed on the cover (10 units of some currency) has not changed for decades and (b) newsagents do not sell New Scientist half the time, so will never sell Science or Nature.

As it turns out, a private university in Texas (Trinity University) with 2.5k students did a trial where the library  cancelled its subscriptions and used the saved money as a fund to buy all the 30$ articles students and faculty needed. Suprisingly, it was a success according to the article I found —wikipedia does not mention if they still do it, but it does say the library has an acquisition budget of 1.8 million dollars per annum.
Annoyingly, few numbers are given in that article, except for the number of articles bought in December 2007, which was a meager 220, meaning that, assuming the students were illiterate, each faculty read only one article per month. I think I can safely say that random articles of the internet are not to be trusted.

Nature Publish Group had a quibble with the University of California over its extortionate library subscription of over one million dollars per annum. Assuming that the pricing depends on the student population —I do not know if that is what they do, I am just guessing— the university pays seven dollars for each of the 160,000 students per year to access NPG articles. Which would mean that a library subscription is cheaper than pay-per-view if on average a student reads more than one NPG article for his/her whole degree. So my guess could be right.

Six dollars per year per student sounds like a bargain: it is one 33rd of the price of a yearly subscription, which sounded like a bargain to start with. So, they are loosing money and not making it, right? Actually, they still manage a 15-19% profit margin.

In the Select Committee on Science and Technology, there is an interesting (phantasmagorical) deposition by NPG (link) where they show some very weird figures:

  1. Annual income of Nature: 30M GBP
  2. Articles per year in Nature: one thousand (1/10 of those submitted)
  3. The "front half" (the intelligible bit) takes up 2/3 of the cost
  4. Editorial board: 43% cost
  5. conferences and overseas travel: 1%
  6. printing and distribution: 31%
Now, I fully see why it is called Nature: it is as badly organised as a biological system.
So they pay the editorial board 13 million per year to review one thousand articles. The worse case scenario is that they have 650 editors paid equally 20 k GBP pa. to review twenty articles annually. My guess is that there are many fewer editors than 100 (@ 100, 130 k GBP pa for ten articles per month), who get paid serious money (unlike the peer-reviewers) and go on loads of conferences.
That two thirds of the costs go to the nice summary articles that only people with the printed versions read baffles me entirely.
Basically, I thought these chaps were evil, but it turns out they just like spending money badly like the rest of us.

Update: my google search victim (NPG) is not the worst offender. It actually is Elsevier, which makes 34% profit margin, which "makes Murdoch look like a socialist" according to the Guardian...