Could an iTunes-like model work with scientific publishing?

Many of you may remember a time when music-stealing was rampant on the internet.  Apple changed this situation by establishing a new kind of marketplace.
Now people pay for music and download it from iTunes.
What if there were a third party group, with an iTunes-like model, where scientific publishers would make papers available for purchase? Could this kind of model work?
Two arguments support this idea.
1.  Volume sales
2.  The cost of creation
Volume sales
Volume sales work like this.  Let's say a publisher sells 10 papers at $30 each.  This brings in $300.
That same publisher could also bring in $300 by selling 100 papers at $3 each.
They could earn the same of money but get materials out to more people.
Will the volume be there?  The experiment hasn't been tried.
The cost of creation
Many people have noted that most of the cost of creating a scientific publication is funded by taxpayers through government grants. The recording industry lacks that support, yet it seems to have survived the iTunes pricing model.
I made a table below that compares some aspects of the recording industry with scientific publishing  (you can click the image to see a larger version).
Granted recording artists and scientists, and their funding sources have different goals.  In the case of the scientific research the goal is to advance knowledge.  One would assume that access to knowledge is an important part of making this work.
One of our commenters noted that paying $30 a paper, is hardship for many.  Not only does this obstacle discourage students from using scientific literature, it prevents the public from accessing peer-reviewed work. It does seem that the taxpayers who fund most of this work should get a better return on their investment.
Another commenter volunteered that journal pricing practices aren't a problem because he could use his MIT and Harvard logins to get papers.
Certainly, a system where small companies and individuals rely on friends with library subscriptions is one way to get papers, but wouldn't a system that's less dishonest be a better one?

More like this

On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter imagines the fallout of HR 3699, a bill that would eliminate the requirement for free public access to NIH-funded research papers. Porter writes, "The reasoning behind this requirement is that taxpayers funded everything about the research…
The Backstory:  As it stands today,when one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides the funding for a scientific research project, and those results are published, they must be made freely available to public, within a set period of time.  The reasoning behind this requirement is that…
The University of Chicago's Randy Picker discusses the implications: Apple and EMI announced today that they would start selling higher-quality DRM-free music on iTunes at a price of $1.29 per track, 30 cents more than iTunes’s standard 99 cents price. This is an outgrowth of Steve Jobs’s Thoughts…
This morning, I learned that congress wants to reverse the advances made by NIH and go back to restricting access to scientific publications. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (New York) and Congressman Darrell Issa (California) are co-sponsoring a bill to restore the limits on public access to NIH-…

I think this idea misses a fundamental point - since we're already supported by the government, why does what we produce need to have a business model? Budding musicians need itunes sales to make a living. Scientists already make a living. We get rewarded for publications with grants and promotions, not due to sales of our papers.

If you're asking how journals should make money, I've got a different question: why do journals deserve to make money? What value do they add?

The journals do provide a service. They do the following things:

1. They maintain databases of reviewers and make sure that the reviewers get the reviews done. It's true that publishers don't pay the scientists for the time spent reviewing a paper, that time is paid for by the scientists' salaries. But contacting people and managing the project is a service.

2. They do typesetting and put the papers into the format that you see in a publication.

3. They do some copy editing.

4. They pay for the information management systems that are used for distributing the articles, managing reviewers, and they pay for web hosting.

There is a cost for the services that they perform.

Now, do they need to charge $30 an article to provide these services?

Perhaps not.

Hi Sandra - now here's a discussion worth having!

New funding models are great. To be clear, I just don't think OA is the most efficient way. I see great waste in it, and a lot of guise and deception on behalf of its lobbyists.

I think an iTunes model could be interesting. I would look at the way Spotify is funding their licenses too - might be an interesting comparison.

I would also make note of some liberal prose above, when you say "Many people have noted that most of the cost of creating a scientific publication is funded by taxpayers through government grants." This just isn't true and is misleading. Many non-profits lose money on journals and must make up the difference with other dues. Also, we have made a distinction in this country that grant funding turns over all money and IP to the grantee, which is different from a contract, where the gov't and taxpayer retain rights to things. Grants are for activities worth encouraging because there is a free market gap. So unless you'd like to credit taxpayers for the cost of inventions that result from grant funding (even in some part), we have to do a better job of drawing a line between grant money and a privately-created product.

By Just saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

1. As you say, scientists do this for free. We also know the scientists in our field that are likely to review our paper. The database isn't that valuable a commodity.
2. Typesetting and formatting are becoming less and less relevant in the digital age. Besides, most journals have extensive guidelines for how figures need to be formatted before submission. Moving these elements around to make it look pretty on a page may add some value, but not much.
3. With the number of typos I've seen in papers lately (including in Nature and Science, this can't be a high priority. As in traditional publishing, when costs get tight, copy editors are the first to go.
4. For biology, pubmed and google scholar are all we really need for this. With the money universities save in subscription costs, they could pay for terabytes of web hosting.

I don't mean to argue that Journals are totally irrelevant. And yes, I'm arguing against all of your points, but I'm not saying they don't have some value. Other services you didn't list that I've heard are curation and determining relevance and impact. The thing is, all of these things (including the ones you listed) would likely be better served in the web age organically. And the journals' efforts at these things certainly don't justify the amount they charge.

BTW - to clarify your above post about small biz stealing or "using friends." We had a faculty member as part of the team - a very common arrangement for small biotechs.

Also, I would offer that about 1-5% of all subscriptions are sold at the cost of $30 per article. Instead, let's look at your previous example of Bone Marrow Transplantation. Yearly fee: $865. So if a school purchases this at $865 per year, and it contains 20 articles (as Dec did) 12 times a year, that's 240 articles divided by $865 - or $3.60. So if 99-95% of all subscribers pay this rate, isn't it more accurate to say that the current per article rate is $3.60 instead of using some small minority of purchasers as the norm?

By Just Saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

Kevin - the point about OA happening organically is a great one. If that happens, it would be fair for publishers to compete for a new model. I just don't think it's appropriate for OA advocates to lobby the Hill to enact a federal policy that artificially moves a market, particularly when they wheel out some "indignant public" or "maligned taxpayer." The bottom line is MDs and PhDs want access to this stuff. They are certainly smart enough to capitalize on new technologies to change the market for the better. Just leave federal legislation out of it (see: OA legislation and appropriations language over the last 10 years).

By Just Saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

@ Just Saying -

If that happens, it would be fair for publishers to compete for a new model

The trouble with this idea is that the rules are already rigged against competing models. I'm not talking about PLoS vs Nature, I view these as two business models for the same business practice. Here's what I want to do (note: I'm a 4th year graduate student). I want to publish my work on my blog. I want to post a western blot with all the background and be able to say "hey guys, wtf is going on here." I want someone in CA that's working on the same project to say "hey, I like your approach, can I help?" or "hey, your approach sucks, here's what you should be doing." I want to post what I'm doing, as I do it. And then when I have a complete story, I want to post THAT (linking to all my previous posts with the good data), and I want other scientists in my field to critique the work (peer review), anonymously or in the open.

But I can't do any of these things. If my competitors see what I'm doing, they may use my ideas and get a publication in a traditional journal, and then I'm screwed, but more importantly, my boss is screwed and can't use the stuff I did to get grants or tenure. All the stuff I wrote up on my blog doesn't mean squat.

The reason I don't think journals should charge so much money is because I don't think they add much value. I see Nature and Science and PNAS as essentially government subsidized companies. The VAST majority of the money they take in comes from public money, university subscription fees, authors paying to submit etc. As for how much an individual paper costs at the end of all of this - I think that's beside the point. The point is, why are we paying the journals anything when we could do everything they do cheaper and better?

But I can't offer a competing system because current institutional barriers (especially grants) are tied into this system.

1) the public surely has a right to access articles for no or low cost if they've paid for the research.
2) Authors make the decision as to where they publish, and thus have the responsibility to know what rights they are giving to the publisher. They have options and can choose OA or publishers with low fees for individual articles requested by the public. Or they can choose to publish in journals that charge $30 for a single article. The latter seems unethical to me. Authors should accept responsibility for their decisions and publish so their work is most widely accessible. Authors control submissions, not publishers. Publishers can only choose among the submissions they actually receive.
3) A reviewer database is of minimal value, and in most journals is compiled by academic editors who are paid at most a small honorarium, if anything. Any good editor can find good reviewers using Google - there is no need for a reviewer database.
4) the publisher does provide the online system for submission and review and that has some value, but not a lot.
5) some publishers do copy editing, but it is questionable whether that benefits authors, or even readers. Authors can be responsible for their every word, and can hire their own editors if they need help expressing themselves in the lingua franca of science, English.
6) Publishers do provide typesetting, but self-publishing is inexpensive now.
7) Publishers produce paper journals, but those are no longer necessary or particularly valuable.
8) OA journals have fixed costs of at least $2000 an article, and usually authors pay part of that - the rest is subsidized in most cases. Long term sustainability of OA journals presumably requires that authors pay the full cost of publication. This is a reasonable cost of performing research and should be factored into funding of research. Research that is not published has effectively not been done, doesn't exist - so publication a necessary part of doing publicly funded research.
9) It is reasonable for funders to require researchers to publish in some way that makes the work widely accessible at reasonable cost. Guidelines or rules are justifiable. Legislation should not be needed to create access. All that is needed is that funders make their expectations known to recipients. Also, research institutions can require their researchers to publish there work in a way that makes it widely accessible at reasonable cost.
In sum, authors, funders and research institutions all share responsibility for ensuring access to research results. Publishers facilitate the process of disseminating research results, but with enough competition among publishers, including OA journals, sufficient pressure will be applied to ensure fair access, but ONLY if authors, funders and institutions who are the source of the research take responsibility for their publication choices.

By Rich Jorgensen (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

The comments from Kevin are telling - scientists *want* to share, and they want to share *incrementally*, as opposed to a whole finished document at a time. The current system breaks this, keeps smart revisioning approaches like developers already use from working, and creates so much inefficiency.

Forget about itunes, those wont solve the serials crisis and are just as susceptible to the constant price increases as the Big Deals. The real issue is that the work has already been paid for by taxpayers, and now private companies want to be able to lock it away from not only the public who paid for it, but the scientists themselves who actually did the work! This system made tons of sense when publishers were absolutely necessary for your work to get distributed, but the value added by traditional publishers is decreasing daily, all while their prices are increasing and billions that could go to funding research is siphoned away to pay for this byzantine system. When are we going to wake up and say, "We're not going to take it anymore!"

Hi there,

Indeed, what this discussion boils down to is the introduction and acceptance of altmetrics (cf. of all sorts, including and starting with content-rich data such as blog posts. From one side, the fact that you've posted blog posts about your research (plus some data) should be acknowledged as a valuable contribution. And from the other side, things posted on some blogs, or in a platform specially designed for this, should have some merit in terms of legal attribution - i.e. it should protect your research from being stolen and "properly published".

But as you so correctly put it - we can't do much until the institutions adapt accordingly. Or we haven't thought of a smart enough approach to get started at the very least.

Hopefully something will happen soon enough!

@Martin, Thanks for mentioning blog posts, I can see those as a sort of "radio play" for publications. My initial thoughts about having scientific publications be on a similar model as itunes, is that songs are a bit different in that they are often reviewed or played on the radio for those to get a sample. And as a researcher often time abstracts are not enough to tell me the information that I need. If we were to do away with the current publication system of libraries holding licenses, then I am not sure how productive I'd be as I would be much more careful about the articles I requested to risk the cost of getting an article that did not give me the prep that I needed.

Although I agree that the publication system currently is not fair for those who fund the research (taxpayers) and perhaps it also inhibits innovation as access is dependent on schools that can afford those licensing costs. However, I think that at least in Chemistry, if I needed to purchase individually the publication of the preps that I have looked through and tried, but did not work, those purchases seem difficult to justify.

But this is a new suggestion that I have heard about a new model for publications.

@STEM_Wonk - you're quite right there, when I just think of the amount of articles I thought might be interesting judging by the abstract, and then ended up discarding, or putting on a very low-relevance scale afterwards, the pay-per-article model becomes instantly useless.

I suppose the only other alternative would be a donation-based "name your price" model, similarly to what some musicians started doing since Radiohead. Though considering that in this case people would make their "donations" to the journals, and not the authors, it would be hard to motivate anyone to donate at all.. oh well.

@Kevin: Come to think of it, many researchers do exactly what you say, i.e. keep a blog diary of their research, and seemingly (?) without big issues. I imagine you can put a license of your choice on your blog posts, which would possibly make it illegal to copy your findings/approach (at least without attribution) - though that would not make it immune to being stolen. Then again, since most research is public either way (OA or not), you could probably sue a journal if they published something that someone else has stolen from your blog without attribution -> problem kind of solved. (I'm sure I'm missing some details ;))

By Martin B. (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

As someone who is now outside the university system but whose main reading material is still journal articles and who doesn't have access to a library nearby I have been continually frustrated by the cost of journal articles and subscriptions for something I already pay for as a taxpayer, the information is being produced for all of us. I understand that there are costs involved in distribution but spread over a larger user base and by giving access to a wider range of materials more readers might be drawn to the academic articles thus lowering the cost of distribution, I think an iTunes model would work

By Susan Owen (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

I love how people claim everyone has a "right" to research results. Sure, the PI can choose to eschew publication and can post their results on a website for all to see. Free access.

Yet, PIs *choose* to seek publication, and transfer the distribution rights to a major journal in order to have their science verified. This is a good thing. But you want the journal, that did a significant amount of work (or in your mind, minimal) to make the product available for free.

If this is the case, why not make free the drugs, device, products that result from patents and licenses that were funded via NIH or another federal source. Surely the taxpayer has a right to those products because they funded them too, right? We all paid for them already.

By Just saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

At the heart of the matter is who owns the research? When it comes to journals, OA advocates want to claim the taxpayer. Yet, when it comes to the products, they claim the PI retains the right to ownership and distribution.

The correct answer in both cases is the researchers retains all rights. In a grant arrangement, the taxpayer surrenders all rights. That is what distinguishes "grants" from federal "contracts." This was outlined in the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977. This is the law that laid the framework for which mechanism to use in what cases. In the case of most basic and clinical research, NIH chooses to use a grant mechanism. This mechanism is used by federal entities when they want to *encourage* an activity that may not otherwise happen without federal support. What happens with that funding after the grant period is under the ownership of the grantee. This is different than a contract or a coop agreement. Under these mechanisms, the federal government is buying something for its money, and retains the rights to the IP, etc.

This gets at the heart of why, technically, the taxpayer has no more a right to private journal articles as it does to the drugs or devices created with taxpayer money. If NIH would like to require that grantees post a public final report on the website, built for the layperson, that would perhaps satisfy any public desire (although there has never been any demonstrated). But if PIs want Science, Cell and Nature to not change their fancy nice journals, but want them for free, well someone is going to have to pay for them. I think it should be those people requesting the article in the current user-fee system.

By Just Saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

FYI - here is the codified language that I was referencing (Grants and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977). This is the code that governs what exactly grants are and who owns the IP. I've bolded the important aspects.

Sec. 6304. Using grant agreements

An executive agency shall use a grant agreement as the legal
instrument reflecting a relationship between the United States
Government and a State, a local government, or other recipient when
(1) the principal purpose of the relationship is *to transfer a
thing of value to* the State or local government *or other
recipient to carry out a public purpose of support or stimulation*
authorized by a law of the United States *instead of acquiring (by
purchase, lease, or barter) property or services for the direct
benefit or use of the United States Government* (read: taxpayer); and
(2) substantial involvement is not expected between the
executive agency and the State, local government, or other
recipient when carrying out the activity contemplated in the

(Pub. L. 97-258, Sept. 13, 1982, 96 Stat. 1004.)

By Just Saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

Thanks Mary,

Someone else sent me a link to it on Twitter. I'll definitely give it a try and see if it will work for my bioinformatics class.

As of April 2008, the public does have some access to results of taxpayer-funded research. As detailed at, scientists must submit to PubMed Central the final version of any research paper arising from NIH funding, upon the paper's acceptance for publication by a peer-reviewed journal. (PubMed Central is a free, full-text digital archive of biomed/life sciences literature.)

"NIH Funding" includes:
--Any direct funding from an NIH grant or cooperative agreement active in Fiscal Year 2008 or beyond,
--Any direct funding from an NIH contract signed on or after April 7, 2008,
--Any direct funding from the NIH Intramural Program, or
--An NIH employee (as an author, one presumes)

Shifting gears--another strike against moving to an iTunes or OA model, at least from the journals' point of view, would probably be the loss of ad revenue, especially for supplemental issues. I suppose they could follow the Hulu model, in which ads are embedded in the files. Yuck.

Many publishers in the sciences allow authors to post "self-archive" copies of their papers on their individual or institution web sites. That is how you make your published work available to the public for free. Google "sherpa romeo publisher policy index" and click on the first link, where you can look up the self-archive policy of any journal or publisher. Currently, the journal Science allows authors to archive post-prints (version that appeared in the journal), whereas Nature only allows you to archive pre-prints (submitted but not yet reviewed manuscripts). I make it a point of only publishing in journals that allow archiving of post-prints.

By Silent Bob (not verified) on 11 Jan 2012 #permalink

A model for scientific publishing based on an iTunes model has already been put forward; it's called iPubSci and was designed to provide easy, affordable, and legal access to the scientific literature. Essentially, it is designed to blend the best features of PubMed with an iTunes type purchasing interface. Most importantly, it would make available at a very affordable price the millions of articles that the for-profit publishers are currently selling at $30-$35 apiece. Those of you who are interested in this concept can read my original article "iPubSci: An Alternative to Unaffordable Science Journals" on the Xconomy Website; it can be accessed at…. More information on iPubSci, including the feedback we received from various groups within the scientific and publishing communities, can be found on the iPubSci Website itself at If you support the iPubSci model we ask that you share the iPubSci links with others to help support this new model!

Thanks Stewart!

So, we know there are two services that do this sort of thing. iPubSci and DeepDyve.

This kind of refutes the argument that this sort of thing would be impossible to do.

Hi Sandra, just to clarify this; iPubSci is a detailed description of a novel publishing model that (unfortunately) does not as yet exist. It was proposed to try and generate interest among several deep pocket companies to move forward with actually putting this into practice. Apple, for example, would be a great company to do this. There is a strong need for affordable access to the science literature at small biotech companies, those working for non-profits, people looking for medical information on various diseases, patent agents, and a number of other groups. One key point that should not be overlooked by anyone contemplating new publishing models is the need to deal with the for-profit publishers that have a monopolistic hold on a large segment of the existing literature. While there is much to like in the various open access models, I have not yet seen any explanation from open access advocates for how they would provide access to these legacy publications. The open access model provides an alternate path moving forward, but does not solve the problem of accessing these older papers. Thanks, Stewart

Hi Sandra,

This is to let you know that, perhaps to your surprise, there is an iTunes model for scientific publishing that exists, launched only recently, and very much works. And in fact it has a number of benefits over iTunes which sit very well with scientific publishing.

For a couple of examples go to;; There are PhD students in biology from India, an MIT professor, a physics professor, a working physicist and half a dozen more from various universities around the world acting as both authors and editors. New authors are joining each month.; a site for science news with over 400 science journalists and writers from around the world. They are in the process of migrating to this system.

Obviously it is quite small at the mo, but it is growing week by week.

Some pertinent points;

Anyone can use the system (from Fraxion Payments, You can join a site that is already working, such as the two above, a group can get together and get their own publication going, or you can do it all yourself on your own site. All you need is a WordPress site (which many scientists do) and away you go.

The site owner or authors set their own prices. Fraxion Payments has no control over this. All income is paid directly to the respective authors. Splits of income are possible, which is great for scientists that worked together on a paper.

Readers need only one account to access all material right across the network, and it is a "one click unlock" to access material which can be sold for as little as 1c, though on Science Works mag many scientists set prices from 8c to 10c. Again, it is their choice.

There is a catalogue which lists all articles in the network. You can find it here;

This isn't for everyone. Bluntly put, those who wish to give their work away for free will not like such a system. However, one big distinction must be highlighted. When the word "free" is used there is a big difference between "free no charge / gratis" and "freely accessible".

All the material on our network is, ironically, more accessible than if it was for free. Why? Because many of the scientists using our system have basically said they would refuse to give their work away for free. That is, they wouldn't be bothered to write their reports in the first place if there was no incentive for them, no exchange. By having a system where there in an exchange scientists are definitely encouraged to write more.

Aside; as a journalist many years ago I remember being told by my lecturer your aren't a professional writer until you have sold your work. A thought.

And asking someone to cough up a few cents for a paper with one click is hardly a big ask. Certainly it is nothing like the $30 you state other journals want for their papers.

Anyway, there it is. Happy to be grilled / answer any question people may have.

And if any of you happen to have a WordPress site all it takes is a plugin, no fee, to set this up. Takes about 1 min to install, 5 mins to learn how to use it. Simple really.

As a retired researcher, I no longer have institutional access to articles and can not justify spending $30-40 on an article that often times is not quite as useful as it seems.True I could visit a public university library but that is a rather long commute for me. I would certainly support a different model that was less expensive per article.

By Bob Snider (not verified) on 15 Jan 2012 #permalink

Hi Sandra,
In the mid-nineties I worked with a company called Information Quest. We worked with medical, technical and scientific publishers to move their data into the digital age. The content was searchable and downloadable and you could either buy a yearly license or buy papers/articles/etc. Back then, we would even fax it to you if you if you didn't have a license, we didn't take credit card payments online! This way, libraries could buy the license and students could use the service. I believe we had almost 20k journals. Yes, it was a little ahead of its time! It has been done but I'd like to see a newer, better model. There are plenty of these types of services in the tech world i.e. TechTarget, Insight24, etc. but I am challenged to find this in the scientific world. I will check out the suggestions from your other readers but I have yet to see a good model.

I would like to say that I welcome the "iTunes" model to article access, if we don't at least get some program running where access to ALL publicly funded material were available to the public in the near future. We need access to material, and these are possible solutions.

Programs like DeepDyve are resonable enough--except for when an article you need is not available through them, or some other current service.

That wall is extremely frustrating. I'm a grad student at a well funded university that happens to have licenses to most journals, whether physical or digital. Physical access would be no problem if I were in the country. However, even in this situation, where through my school fees I have helped to pay for such licenses, many of the electronic articles I need access to have artificial before or after access dates. For example, I need a Cell article dated 1990, and though electronic files are available via Cell for that year, the school license is 1995+. Another Cell article I need is from this year, but electronic access is restricted to one year before current.

I can't help but think that laboring in a lab that tries to publish in such journals is for naught when even the community that does have access constantly runs into walls such as these. How so often it is that people we know have run into these walls and valuable information is left unregarded. It is pitiful and depressing.

Would someone care to link Jason Swartz's JSTOR torrent file so that we could all just get back to work?

By Michael Avery (not verified) on 03 Mar 2012 #permalink

Funnily enough, I left a comment on your yesterday's blog post on the cost of scientific papers, before seeing this one.

As I mentioned, I'm CIO of an accelerator that received an application from a startup called RockYourPaper. They brand the business as "iTunes for Research Articles".

Check out their video at

By Dan Dascalescu (not verified) on 15 Sep 2012 #permalink