Scholars, who do the bulk of the work involved in academic publishing, are faced with a choice: 1) give away your work to a for-profit journal to publish, or 2) pay a non-profit journal an article processing charge. Let’s look at the costs of publishing, both in terms of money and effort, incurred at every stage from the start of a research project until it finally appears in a journal, to discover where the costs come from, and who benefits most.
The initial costs of producing a scholarly article are borne by scholars and the universities or funding agencies supporting them. Scholars conceived the idea for the project, made sure that the work necessary for writing the article was accomplished, which can involve hours of management, pain-staking data coding, costly data collection, and/or many hours of data analysis, all on top of actually writing the article. On the day you finally submit your article for publication, you and the institutions supporting you have incurred all the costs for producing that work. What next? Well, we all know that we can’t sell scholarly writing. If we charged for it, few people would ever read it. But scholars and their universities want the work to be available to interested readers in perpetuity, and they also want some indication about its quality. So we give the article to a journal capable of determining its quality, and if they accept it, the journal handles its distribution. Ideally, scholars get what they want from this arrangement: the assurance that their work will be forever available to a wide audience, and that its quality will be certified by the editorial process.
Whether we chose a for-profit publisher or a non-profit publisher, the article must now be evaluated by one or two of the journal’s editors plus an additional 2-4 peer reviewers. Assuming it is eventually accepted, staff at the journal copy edit it, check that all the references are right, apply their house style so that it doesn’t look like a term paper, and distribute it. If it is rejected, the author will submit it to another journal, where the evaluation process recommences. So, in order for the scholar to get the credit and exposure they hope for, hours of skilled labor are required from at least 4 additional people. How is that labor paid for? At a traditional for-profit journal, this comes from the earnings the publisher makes from selling subscriptions to the journal. The publisher makes as much as 37% profit, which you might naturally assume enables them to pay a fair rate for the skilled labor that made the whole process possible. But, just as authors give their work to a journal for the honor of letting that journal publish it, scholars evaluate articles for the journal for the honor of doing so, or possibly for an honorarium that does not amount to a fair rate for the labor needed to do a thorough job. For the effort of recruiting some honorary scholar labor (a task that is also usually farmed out to scholars), proofreading, and type-setting your paper, the publisher takes control of your work so that they can charge your university money so that your students have the opportunity to read it. Honorary scholarly labor is the backbone of this system, and for providing it, your university has to pay for access to the final product.
The emerging alternative is to instead choose an open-access journal that does not operate by selling subscriptions. In this model, authors (or preferably their universities) typically pay an article processing fee when their paper is accepted for publication. Paying to give something away may seem suspicious, but the value of this fee depends on what the fee covers and what you get in exchange. Suppose you just want your paper to be publicly available, perhaps because it is a stipulation of your funding source or a rule of your institution. For-profit publishers charge huge fees to for a la carte open access to offset the decrease in income they would see from paid subscriptions if many author chose open access. This justification of the fee does not benefit the author at all. Non-profit open access journals charge lower rates designed to reflect the actual expenses incurred from evaluation and production of the articles. The published article is made freely available, so the university will never need to pay anything further for its students and staff to access the final product.
In terms of giving scholars what they want (i.e., credit and exposure), how do these publishing models compare? First, let’s agree that it is not really the publisher who provides the lovely feeling of esteem we get from having a paper accepted: that’s the editor and peer reviewers, who are respected colleagues. The process of editorial review is identical at for-profit and non-profit journals. The for-profit model adds nothing essential here. In terms of distribution of your article, there is no comparison between models: the non-profit open-access model makes your paper freely available to anyone, forever. The for-profit publishers will try their hardest to ensure that only the interested readers with a current university ID can possibly access your paper without paying for it. Anyone else will be charged a ludicrous fee, a fee which probably exceeds what your editor received for handling your paper!
So to avoid paying for the necessary services to evaluate and distribute your article represented by a non-profit article processing charge, you (with your effort) and your university (with their money) are willing to perform most of the work needed to produce an article, sign away control of it, and then buy the copy-edited and typeset product at a marked-up rate. Universities are arguably better off paying a non-profit publisher an article processing charge to procure the services they want to ensure access to an unrestricted finished product. This financial benefit for the university increases as more scholars and their universities choose the open-access model and less new content is subscription-restricted.