Income models for Open Access: Advertising

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As the volume of research information continues to grow, a journal’s reputation and the ability to attract the attention of readers are becoming increasingly scarce. This scarcity can provide a source of income, as long as these assets can be monetized via a business model. Affinity-based models, such as advertising and sponsorships, typically offer the most straightforward approaches for converting journal reputation into revenue.

Web-based advertising extends the traditional broadcast media model. In the case of an open- access journal, the Web site can provide free access to valuable content in combination with advertising messages. A publisher can sell its advertising capacity on its own—or, given sufficient demand, through a broker—to advertisers who wish to target the audience served by the Web site. Alternatively, a publisher can participate in an online advertising network, such as the affiliate programs offered by Google, Amazon, and others (described below).

2.2.1 Suitability

Advertising provides a viable income model where an online journal either draws a substantial volume of visitors, allowing the advertiser to reach a large audience, or where the journal’s audience is highly specialized, providing an efficient marketing channel for an advertiser targeting that particular audience. While online journals seldom experience enormous traffic volumes compared with more general Web sites, they typically reach highly specialized audiences. Many print journals have sold advertising for years, and there is no logical reason why such ads should not translate to the online version of the journal. This point can also be made to those who might object to online advertising for aesthetic or philosophical reasons.

There are several approaches to setting Web advertising rates. One method is based on the volume of ad “impressions”—that is, the number of site visitors who view Web pages displaying the ads. Impressions are typically measured and sold based on the cost per each thousand visitors (CPM). CPM rates are out of favor with some advertisers, who find it difficult to quantify the financial return of passive advertising. However, they can still prove useful to small market advertisers targeting highly specialized audiences. A second common ad rate uses a pay-for-performance model (sometimes referred to as a CPA or cost-per-(customer) acquisition model). Using a CPA model, the advertiser pays the publisher for each visitor that actually responds to the ad in some manner, typically by “clicking-through” the ad and responding to an offer (for example, by making a purchase or by registering for more product information, etc.).

Advertisers often prefer pay-for-performance models as they can predict their advertising return on investment and better manage their advertising spending. From the publisher’s perspective, however, CPM rates better accommodate the particular use patterns of academic researchers, who—engaged in the research task at hand—are less likely to interact with ads. Further, CPM rate-based ad sales typically offer more predictability of income. From a practical perspective, for existing journals with established print advertising programs, both the journal’s and the advertisers’ rate expectations will often be indexed to existing print advertising rates.

Web-based advertising raises a number of issues that open-access publishers should bear in mind:

  • User receptivity: While few users of any service in any medium will profess that they actually like advertising, academic users should have few objections to Web advertising that is relevant to the their interests (for example, lab equipment or scholarly monographs) and graphically unobtrusive.

  • Dual media ad packages: A journal published in both print and electronic formats might sell ad packages for both formats. This can be as simple as a bundled dual media price that entices advertisers to try web-based ads for the first time.

  • Ad sales capacity: Advertising needs to be sold and traffic managed, which requires the time and resources to do so. For a publisher with little or no staff support, operating its own advertising program might not be cost-effective unless it can leverage the effort with an existing ad sales program or out-source most of the effort to a broker (who will typically be paid only for results, on a commission basis). Alternatively, a publisher might participate in a networked advertising program (described below).

  • Site traffic reporting: If advertising is sold on a CPM basis, the advertiser will require accurate reports of a journal’s online traffic. While third-party online audience measurement services exist that monitor this type of traffic, they are too expensive for most nonprofit journal publishers. However, for targeted advertising markets, a publisher should be able to reach an accommodation with its advertisers to supply data from server logs to validate traffic figures.

The problem in converting print advertising revenue into online advertising revenue is that advertisers do not yet consider online visitors as valuable as print readers, and the CPM for online readers remains a fraction of that for print. This discrepancy results, in large part, from the greater competition for advertising revenues online. Advertising works well when relatively few entities rely on it, but—driven by supply and demand—less well when it needs to sustain many. A peer-reviewed journal in print has relatively few competitors in its specific field. Online, however, the journal’s advertising competes in a vastly larger market, not just against other peer-reviewed journals.

Print advertising typically represents a modest percentage of a journal’s revenue. Similarly, for open-access journal publishers, advertising will likely contribute a relatively modest income stream—perhaps 5% to 20% of total revenue.

2.2.2 Marketing an Advertising Program

When marketing to advertisers, a publisher needs to emphasize the strengths of its journal and the demographics it reaches. For example, a publisher should provide the following information, together with advertising rates, to formulate a rate card and media kit (resources to help prospective ad buyers evaluate advertising opportunities):

  • Readership/Circulation/Impressions: A publisher should indicate the approximate number of registered subscribers (in this case, those who have registered to receive the journal) and/or the number of page impressions that the journal generates. The former approach requires that a journal captures information on its subscribers, either by requiring registration to use the site and/or through user surveys. (Of course, any registration system should conform to the publishing organization’s user privacy and disclosure policy.)

Whether a publisher presents one or both of these figures will depend on a variety of factors, including how long the journal has been available online (for example, until the journal has been online long enough to build up traffic, the publisher may choose to emphasize the projected online readership based on the journal’s print subscription base).

  • Cost effectiveness: If a significant proportion of a journal’s audience represents a particular demographic, in addition to the specific discipline the journal represents (for example, researchers in a particular geographic region, researchers in the private sector, etc.), a publisher may want to adduce user statistics that demonstrate that advertising placements in the journal can reduce costs for advertisers who want to reach that audience.

  • Quality of readership: A publisher should provide a profile of the readers of its journal—for example, describing reader demographics, reader interests, etc.—both online and offline (when such data are available). These assertions will be strengthened when they are supported by detailed user registration information.

  • Other leading advertisers: Where possible, indicating prominent past advertisers in the journal may generate interest by increasing the credibility of the journal as an effective media outlet and by enticing companies to respond to their competitors’ advertising.

Some journals may be unwilling to accept certain types of advertising, for example, that which may be viewed as distasteful or not directly pertinent to the audience. While most journals would be unlikely media targets for such types of advertising, it is best to establish an explicit policy beforehand that identify any restrictions.

2.2.3 Advertising Networks

Context-sensitive Web advertising networks provide a simple way for publications to generate online advertising revenue. Although the amount of revenue generated will depend largely on the volume of the publication’s Web traffic, many of the networks target niche markets and thus encourage participation by smaller sites. The publisher is typically compensated on a per-click or a per-impression basis.

Publishers allow an advertising network to display context-sensitive ads—including text links, images, banners, pop-unders, dynamic highlighting, and/or video ads, depending on the provider—on the site by enrolling in the advertising programs and placing some JavaScript code on their web pages. Most networks serve the advertisements based on the content of the publisher’s web site, the geographic location of the user, and a variety of other factors. Most ad networks allow a publisher some control over which ads will appear on its site (such as excluding competitor ads and objectionable material), and some allow the publisher to select specific ads.

Besides Google AdSense (by far the largest network), online advertising networks include AdBrite (, AdToll (, Bidvertiser (, Casale Media (, Chitika (, Cliksor (, Kontera (, ValueClick (, and Yahoo Publisher Network (

The Amazon Associates program and the Barnes and Noble Affiliate program can provide an advertising revenue stream in a manner that some journals will find more attractive. The programs allow Web sites to create links to specific products, which could include books and other products relevant to a journal’s field or discipline. Additionally, Amazon offers an “aStore” Associates program that allows a journal to embed or link to an online bookstore on its site without any programming requirements. This approach also allows a publisher to focus on particular product categories, although not specific books.

These programs pay referral fees that can range from 4.0% to 8.5% of the product sales price. Assuming an average book price of $25, a referral fee rate of 6%, and site traffic of 100,000 unique visitors per year, approximately 3% of a journal’s visitors would need to make a purchase to generate $5,000 in referral fees for the journal.

2.2.4 Advertising Examples

Examples of self-administered advertising programs include:

  • BioMed Central ()

  • Other Voices, provides an example of a media kit for an open- access journal of cultural criticism from the University of Pennsylvania (

  • Oxford University Press offers a full range of advertising media for the scholarly journals it publishes ()

For examples of peer-reviewed journals using Google Adsense, see:

For an example of Amazon Associates program, see:

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