open access


Incentivizing Open Access:

Why Scholarly Publishers Should Let Me Learn About Cellular Mitosis for Free

By: Taylor McGrath


It is known that most publishing companies find themselves straddling the sometimes vast canyon between making money and creating texts or content that the world “needs.” It’s the mission to civilize — behind the business of books is the compulsion to contribute to the world, to stimulate the consciousness of humanity. Most times, however, the world doesn’t want what publisher’s think the world needs. That is, until you ask a professor to intervene. Even a modestly sized university may have a general studies course that sits one hundred students. Each of those students receives a syllabus, upon which is printed a list of required textbooks. If the students are freshman, they’ll be lured into the campus bookstore and pay the $200 for the brand new textbook, unreturnable after the cellophane has been torn into. If the student is a seasoned veteran of the college textbook trade, they’ll turn to the internet and find the cheapest book rental website and then give the book back at the end of the semester. Or, if the student got into college on scholarship and loans and didn’t take out more than enough to cover groceries and their monthly car insurance bill, they’ll go without. They’ll bum off their fellow students or try and find PDF versions of the textbook online. College textbooks are notoriously expensive, and in a society that promotes higher education as the only authentic path to the middle class for low income high school graduates, buying course materials can be a very real obstacle. When the difference between failure and excellence could be as simple as access to a textbook, it’s a publisher’s responsibility to scrutinize their mission to civilize. The compromise that the market is looking for is currently emerging: open educational resources. Open access textbooks and other free educational resources are key to the making higher education attainable to low income students. Scholarly publishers can and should aid in the creation of open access educational materials.

There is tangible evidence that creating open access materials doesn’t automatically correlate to a decrease in print sales. The strongest argument against creating a free book is that people won’t pay for something they can get for no cost. It makes sense – but it isn’t true. In a study entitled “The short-term influence of free digital versions of books on print sales,” the authors found statistical data that suggested the exact opposite. The study consisted of 40 titles from various publishing presses, and the results were promising: “[D]ata indicates that when free e-books are offered for a relatively long period of time, without requiring registration, print sales will increase” (Hilton & Wiley). The “relatively long period of time” that the authors refer to was 8 weeks, which doesn’t differ greatly from general seasonal sales of a new release. Once the free e-book has gained enough attention, people start to find it more valuable. The more valuable it is perceived to be, the more people are willing to pay for the print version of the product. In fact, open access textbooks can serve as marketing for the material product. Enough people will read it because it’s free; after enough people read it, people will want to buy it. As Hilton and Wiley discuss in another article, “Free: Why Authors are Giving books away on the internet,” even the people putting pen to paper can see the value in letting books become openly available. “A growing number of authors are using free digital distribution of their books in order to increase the visibility of their work.”  This can apply as readily to academics as it can to fiction. More professors reading and agreeing with a scholarly resource means more recommendations made to other professors, means more sales.

This idea is especially true given the inherent freedoms and limitations of open access materials; they necessarily have to be digital, which means advertisers can enter into the equation.  As Chris Anderson suggests in “Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business,” a product offered at no cost has an edge in the market that nothing with a price can match: “From the consumer’s perspective, […] there is a huge difference between cheap and free. Give a product away and it can go viral” (Anderson, C.). Of course, viral doesn’t matter unless someone, somewhere is exchanging money, which is where the three-party system comes into play. Digital platforms, much more than the traditional printed books, open up opportunities for third party investors, or advertisers. If, say, even five modestly sized undergraduate institutions decided that they were going to have their general studies biology course be taught from an open access textbook, that’s still enough eyes to merit attention from advertisers. This is a reality by which magazines maintain their existence; as Anderson puts it, “They’re not selling papers and magazines to readers, they’re selling readers to advertisers” (Anderson, C.). Ads aren’t socially acceptable in printed books, but everyone is used to them on online platforms. They are expected. And advertisement revenues can make up for the cost of digital conversion, even if one disregards the data that suggests open access textbooks increase rather than decrease print sales.

Scholarly publications are costly to create. A lot of what goes into that high figure is the behind-the-scenes work put into gathering the information, writing it out, getting it peer reviewed, and getting it edited. Textbooks and other academic materials are long, and the repercussions for getting something wrong are perhaps more salient than in other book markets. However, there is no getting around the fact that the students are a highly exploited market for textbook sales. A report by U.S. News, entitled “How You’re Textbook Dollars are Divvied Up,” broke the list price of the average textbook down like this: the publisher receives, on average, 77.4 cents for every dollar the customer pays for the book. From there, “around 15.4 cents of every dollar went toward marketing the textbooks, 11.7 cents went to the authors, and the largest chunk—32.2 cents—went to the basics: paper, printing, and paying publishers’ employees” (Kurtzleben). After all those necessary costs are subtracted, 18.1 percent of the total price of the textbook goes straight into the profit margin. These are higher margins than found almost anywhere else in publishing, where often the discount to the bookstore accounts for at least 50% of the list price of the book. Of course, there are overhead costs to contribute to as well, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t wiggle room in the budget for the textbook. Reports by the United States Government Accountability Office offer that textbook prices have, indeed, far outpaced the inflation rate over time. In a 2005 report, the GAO states:

“In the last two decades, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation but have followed close behind tuition increases. Increasing at an average of 6 percent per year, textbook prices nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004, while tuition and fees increased by 240 percent and overall inflation was 72 percent” (GAO).

Even without the data from the last ten years, the damage is already done. Textbooks have followed the academic trend of becoming increasingly less achievable for lower income students, and the publishers are free to take advantage of the fact that they essentially have a captive audience of hopeful college students that have no choice but to pay as much as the publisher asks for. With that rate of inflation, the 18.1 cents per dollar going straight to the profit margin is far from surprising.

In addition, digital copies becomes less expensive to create over time. As the Kurtzleben’s study cited, roughly one-third of the cost of the book went toward production of the content, including paper and printing. In the digital sphere, there is no paper or printing; those costs disappear. There is a cost for converting the book into an e-book and making it available to the public, but for the most part that cost is a one-time expenditure, unlike its printed parallel. Once the book has made it onto web, the cost per set of scanning eyes exponentially decreases until it approaches zero. As Anderson’s article reads:

“If the unitary cost of technology (“per megabyte” or “per megabit per second” or “per thousand floating-point operations per second”) is halving every 18 months, when does it come close enough to zero to say that you’ve arrived and can safely round down to nothing? The answer: almost always sooner than you think” (Anderson, C.).

With production costs of creating digital content becoming close to negligible as possible and digital consumption of information increasing on the daily, the trajectory of the academic publishing industry’s model is fairly well laid out. Soon, it will be impossible to ignore that publishers aren’t following the market strategy of every large information distributors in the world — Google being just one of the many that could be named.

For scholarly publishers that don’t big names and giant warehouses, there are still options for funding open access publications. Terry Anderson, in “Open Access Scholarly Publications as OER,” gives several viable pathways for scholarly works to be made free to the public without undue burden being put on the publisher:

  • “[C]harging authors a publication fee
  • [S]ponsorship by a society, institution, government, or foundation
  • [A]dditional products or services sold, with the OA content given away as a sort of “loss leader” or as an inducement to purchase enhanced goods
  • [A]dvertising
  • [F]undraising” (Anderson, T.)

The processes involved in launching fundraisers, creating additional products, or finding sponsors take time, but in looking at the benefits both to the publisher and the consumer, the investment is worth it. Anderson’s study also states that, in the realm of academia, “OA articles are distributed much more widely and have equal or better likelihood of being cited by other scholars” (Anderson, T.). This means that smaller scholarly publishers have even more incentive to create free content.

The mission to civilize becomes complicated, as all matters of humanity do, when one takes into account that people are not born into society on a level playing field. To  reach that goal — to promote a healthy, vibrant civilization teeming with knowledge and understanding — one must alter their perception of how information is passed along and why it is important for information to be as accessible as possible to all. Why do libraries exist, after all? It is worth noting, of course, that not everyone has access to computers to get access to open educational resources. However, if institutions and publishing companies work together, the number of people who can benefit from educational publications can exponentially increase. And the truth of the matter is that the other side of the canyon is not as far away as it is perceived to be; maintaining healthy profit margins while opening access to educational materials is entirely possible. With the help of advertisements and the lightning-quick spread of information across the internet in this digital age, open access scholarly publishing is all but a foregone conclusion.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. “Free: Why $0.00 is the Future of Business.” WIRED, 25 Feb.

2008, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.


Anderson, Terry. “Open Access Scholarly Publications as OER.” The International Review of

Research In Open and Distributed Learning, June 2013, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.


GAO. “Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases.” United States Government

Accountability Office, 29 July 2005, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.


Hilton, John & David Wiley. “Free: Why Authors are Giving Away Books on the Internet.”

TechTrends, March 2010, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.


Hilton, John & David Wiley. “The Short-Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on

Print Sales.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, 2010,;view=fulltext. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.


Kurtzleben, Danielle. “How Your Textbook Dollars are Divvied Up.” U.S. News, 28 Aug. 2012, Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.