The costs of running an online open access journal

Topic lead: Andrea Chiarelli, Susan Murray, Ivonne Lujano
Last updated: 05/06/2023

Online open access journals may have to cover a range of costs, for example web hosting, a domain name, DOI registration, plagiarism checks and, potentially, staff and facilities. Journals also need to think about recurring yet infrequent activities, such as updating their platform and technical infrastructure every few years. Finally, one-off costs such as branding and promotion may be incurred in some cases.

Running an open access online journal is not dissimilar from running a business. Broadly speaking, the journal’s manager or owner will need to consider a mix of fixed and variable costs. The former mainly arise from the social and technical infrastructure required to run the journal, while the latter are related with the number of articles that are published. To complicate matters, other costs will apply occasionally, for example a need to renew or update the journal’s technical infrastructure or ad-hoc marketing activities.

Fixed costs

Salaried staff tends to be one of the highest costs incurred by journals. Similarly, estates tend to highly affect monthly bills, including costs such as offices, internet connections, telephones and more. Staff and facilities are not a concern if a journal is run by volunteers using space and services that have a different primary use: for example, this is the case if a journal is run by an academic using their university device(s) and office. However, these costs should not be ignored, as a change in the journal manager’s circumstances and affiliation may swiftly affect the journal.

Some information technology (IT) costs must be covered by virtually any journal, such as web hosting, domain registration, website maintenance and the submission management system (unless this is open source, although its maintenance should always be accounted for). Additionally, journals are likely to have to cover several membership costs, including Crossref as a starting point. Other memberships or annual service fees may also apply, such as iThenticate (plagiarism), CLOCKSS (preservation), COPE (publication ethics) or COUNTER (article statistics).

Although it is difficult to provide estimates that apply across geographic regions, costs beyond staff and facilities are likely to add up to a few thousand dollars at most. There comes a point, however, where the number of submissions exceeds the amount of work that a small group of committed volunteers can shoulder, leading to the potential need to hire dedicated staff. Should a journal reach this size, sources of income to cover fixed costs will become increasingly important.

Variable costs

Journals are responsible for peer-reviewing and publishing articles online. These activities require, once again, social and technical infrastructure. The social infrastructure is provided in the form of a peer review manager (salaried or volunteer) plus individual peer reviewers, who are usually unpaid. The technical infrastructure typically consists in the costs to register a DOI for the article and production (often in XML and PDF), plus, optionally, plagiarism checks.

Importantly, while fixed costs scale up linearly (e.g. two salaried staff members may cost twice as much as one salaried staff member), costs per article decrease based on the number of submissions, as long as the articles can be processed by existing staff and infrastructure.

Other costs

Journals can incur ad-hoc costs, for example for marketing and promotion (e.g. a travel or conference budget). In some cases, journals may opt to offer services that are relevant to their target disciplines, such as reproducibility checks or the hosting of live code (e.g. executable research articles). Whenever a specific and non-standard feature is considered by a journal, its cost should be included in the appropriate category, depending on its nature: for example, reproducibility checks (e.g. cascad) are likely to be variable costs (i.e. cost per article), while custom IT infrastructure to run code or visualisations on the journal’s platform may be a fixed cost (e.g. additional storage, compute time). Finally, some journals still print out their issues, usually on-demand and in small amounts. Such costs may be charged to the reader, but some journals opt to cover them from their own budget.

Making ends meet

There are several ways of raising funds to run small journals, including from organisations relevant to the journal’s scope (e.g. professional bodies, sector associations), from research performing organisations or via donations. Alternatively, some journals may opt to raise article processing charges  to cover their costs.

Clearly, the circumstances of the journal manager, their affiliation and location, the discipline(s) that the journal wishes to serve and any specific technical requirements will highly affect a journal’s costs and one’s ability to cover them. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to funding online open access journals, being aware of cost types and likely amounts is key to enhancing the chances of success of new and established titles.

Share this article

Download this article