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The open access movement believes that academic publications should be freely available to all, not least because most of the research is paid for by the public purse. Open access supporters see the high cost of many academic journals, whose subscriptions often run into thousands of dollars per year, as unsustainable for cash-strapped libraries, and unaffordable for researchers in emerging economies. The high profit margins of leading academic publishers — typically 30-40% — seem even more outrageous when you take into account the fact that publishers get almost everything done for free. They don’t pay the authors of the papers they publish, and rely on the unpaid efforts of public-spirited academics to carry out crucial editorial functions like choosing and reviewing submissions.
Academic publishers justify their high prices and fat profit margins by claiming that they “add value” as papers progress through the publication process. Although many have wondered whether that is really true — does a bit of sub-editing and design really justify the ever-rising subscription costs? — hard evidence has been lacking that could be used to challenge the publishers’ narrative. A paper from researchers at the University of California and Los Alamos Laboratory is particularly relevant here. It appeared first on arXiv.org in 2016 (pdf), but has only just been “officially” published (paywall). It does something really obvious but also extremely valuable: it takes around 12,000 academic papers as they were originally released in their preprint form, and compares them in detail with the final version that appears in the professional journals, sometimes years later, as the paper’s own history demonstrates.