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Previewing PubPub's pricing and sustainability strategy

Published onDec 11, 2020
Previewing PubPub's pricing and sustainability strategy

PubPub started 8 years ago as a graduate student project to experiment with communicating research outputs in new and varied ways. Since then, PubPub has matured into an open-source platform that thousands of Communities, tens of thousands of Users, and millions of readers rely on every month to create, edit, publish, read, and discuss a diverse array of open content — from blog posts to journal articles, books, conference proceedings, reports, preprints, reviews, and community-driven experiments that defy categorization.

Our primary mission in developing PubPub has always been to empower more people to create and access more diverse types of knowledge. We see our technology as a tool to circumvent artificial and unfair barriers erected by rent-seeking gatekeepers by giving communities of practice agency over the creation, evaluation, and dissemination of their work and, critically, ownership over the tools and data used in knowledge creation. That’s why PubPub’s codebase is open source, why it’s free and easy to use, and why most of our best features have been developed in direct consultation with active Communities on the platform.

To accomplish our mission, we’ve always known that PubPub would eventually need to become sustainable on its own merits, so that we can commit to providing the service for the long term without relying exclusively on grants and gifts, which can be unpredictable, and sometimes distract from our core mission of serving the community. Over the last year, we’ve spent a huge amount of time — in retrospect, probably too much time — contemplating numerous sustainability and pricing models. We’ve recently landed on one that we think is mission-aligned, fair, and has a good chance of succeeding over the long term. Like always, we’d like to share our thinking with you, because we suspect that your ideas, feedback, and questions will make our plans far stronger.

Our Sustainability Values

We believe that it’s not worth violating our values on the path to sustainability. So, we’ve been working under a number of value-driven constraints as we’ve built out our sustainability model.

  1. Our mission demands that a full-featured version of PubPub remain free, forever, for anyone who wants it.

  2. Our mission demands that PubPub become sustainable, on its own merits, so we can fully commit to #1.

  3. Our sustainability model should not discourage knowledge creation, access, or experimentation, nor should it punish communities for success (however you measure it).

Community Personas

For the last 18 months, we’ve been discussing models and pricing with a number of our core Communities, and, over the last year, we’ve signed a handful of paid contracts with customers who wanted guarantees of support. Throughout this exercise, we’ve been transparent that our model is still experimental, and we’ve learned a huge amount. We’ve also recently begun looking more deeply at platform usage patterns, and discovered a few distinct types of Communities using PubPub, which we’ve fleshed out into the following profiles/personas. These aren’t meant to perfectly capture every type of Community on PubPub, but rather serve as a rough guide for how we understand our users while developing features and sustainability models.

Personal Sites

What: These Communities serve as the personal knowledge-making and dissemination site for individuals — often as blogs or personal repositories for researchers looking for a space to legally host accepted versions of papers.

Who: They tend to be self-organized and run by a single individual. They typically have no legal entity associated with them other than the person running them.

How: They do most of their work directly on PubPub. They sometimes use PubPub for internal document management in addition to publishing.

Why: They find value in how PubPub reduces the need for technical expertise or maintenance, choosing it over alternatives due to its ease-of-use and in support of its progressive values and non-exploitative business model.

  • Active Members: 1

  • Pubs: 10-50 per year

  • Communities: 1

  • Budget: Small

  • Main attraction to PubPub: Lower cost (especially maintenance), no technical expertise required, all-in-one functionality, values

  • Alternatives to PubPub: Wordpress, Squarespace, Ghost

  • Examples: Peter Suber, Scott Jacques, etc.

Grassroots Publishing Communities

What: These Communities tend to occupy a knowledge-making niche not served by more traditional publishers or formats. Sometimes they publish things that look like books or journals, but just as often their publishing output spans or defies common categorizations.

Who: They tend to be self-organized and run by medium-to-large central committees of practitioners, with large, loose networks of more occasional participants. They are typically independent organizations (if they have formal legal structures at all).

How: They do most of their work directly on PubPub. They often use PubPub for internal document management/discussion groups in addition to publishing.

Why: They find value in PubPub’s format flexibility, ease-of-use, and community features, which allows them to distribute the complexity of publishing across medium-to-large networks of participants.

  • Active Members: 10-75

  • Pubs: 100s per year

  • Communities: 1

  • Budget: Small to none

  • Main attraction to PubPub: Lower cost (especially maintenance), no technical expertise required, community features, flexibility, values

  • Alternatives to PubPub: Wordpress, Squarespace, Ghost, OJS

  • Examples: Cursor, DLFTeach, etc.

Independent/Unconventional Publishers

What: These Communities tend to occupy a knowledge-making niche not served by more traditional publishers, but often use traditional formats (journal, conference, etc.) to publish. They are usually run by independent organizations, but are sometimes a group embedded within a larger institution that needs to publish but isn’t the right fit for more traditional channels.

Who: They tend to be organized and run by a small centralized group of administrators, with larger networks of contributors who may or may not directly interact with the platform

How: They do most of their work off PubPub, but use it for review and hosting and would like to bring more of their work onto PubPub. Their work is often spread across a few Communities used to differentiate between various titles or projects.

Why: They find value in PubPub’s ease-of-use, combined with deep support for academic standards that allows them to publish complex academic products with relatively small staffs.

  • Active Members: 10-25

  • Pubs: 50-500 per year

  • Communities: 1-5

  • Budget: Modest

  • Main attraction to PubPub: Lower cost (especially maintenance), no technical expertise required, simple discussion, submission, and review pipelines, simple depositing functionality, hosting, academic standards support

  • Alternatives to PubPub: Wordpress, Squarespace, self-hosted OJS, Janeway

  • Examples: San Antonio Review, punctum, Criminology Open

Established Publishers

What: These communities occupy an established knowledge-making niche.

Who: They are typically run by medium-size teams, with multiple people interacting with PubPub at various points in the production process. They are often embedded within a large organizations (e.g. a university, corporation, or foundation) or may be considered an established organization themselves (e.g. a scholarly society).

How: They do most of their work off PubPub, but use it for review and hosting. Their work is often spread across many Communities used to differentiate between various titles and projects.

Why: They find value in PubPub’s flexibility and KF’s support/consultative staff, which allows them to dip their toes into the future and experiment with new forms of publishing without disrupting their existing business models.

  • Active Members: 10-50

  • Pubs: 250-1000 per year

  • Communities: 5-25

  • Budget: Large

  • Main attraction to PubPub: Lower cost (especially maintenance), no technical expertise required, flexibility, dedicated support

  • Alternatives to PubPub: OJS, Janeway, Fulcrum, Manifold, Aries,

  • Examples: MITP, APA, AAS, Goldsmiths

Institutions and Enterprises

What: These communities represent a large, dynamic set of knowing-making people and groups, typically connected by geography (e.g. a University) or affinity (e.g. an independent research lab or company). Their output runs the gamut from internal-only collections to blogs and repositories to

Who: They are typically run by a central administrative team at the larger organization that offers PubPub as an option to smaller teams within the larger organization. Often times, they will start with a single community as a test and then expand their offering to the rest of their institution/enterprise. This is sometimes top-down, and sometimes bottom up.

How: Workflows vary from institution to institution and Community to Community. When the publishing output is less traditional (course, lab site, department notes, etc.), most work will be done within PubPub. When the publishing output is more traditional (reports, journals, etc.), the work will be done mostly off PubPub.

Why: They find value in PubPub’s flexibility and KF’s support/consultative staff, which allows them to support a large amount of diverse types of collaboration within their organization on a single, cost-effective, and self-serve platform without needing on-site technical expertise or support staff.

  • Active Members: 10-1000+

  • Pubs: 500+ per year

  • Communities: 25+

  • Budget: Large

  • Main attraction to PubPub: Lower cost (especially maintenance), no technical expertise required, flexibility, dedicated support

  • Alternatives to PubPub: Pressbooks, Blackboard, Google Drive,

  • Examples: No perfect examples yet, but we’re in a number of discussions with Communities that fit this persona

Proposed Pricing/Value Model

The typical way the academic publishing industry charges for publishing software is by usage — typically, a cost per article/object published. We have always avoided this approach, because we feel that it does not align with our values of encouraging experimentation and not punishing communities for their success.

Outside of academic publishing, technology companies tend to charge for Software-as-a-Service products in three (often blended) ways: by feature, by seat, or by workspace. For the same reasons we rejected output-based pricing, we’ve rejected purely feature-based pricing. While there are some features we think only the more established publishers truly need, it would be antithetical to our mission to make knowledge creation accessible to withhold any core features from Communities who can’t afford to pay for the highest tiers. We explored both community-based and seat-based pricing for PubPub and signed a few contracts against both of those models. But our conversations with partners about these models left us feeling unsatisfied for reasons that weren’t quite clear, until we dug a bit more into the data of how people actually use PubPub today, and how they derive value from it.

As the above Community personas make clear, neither the number of seats nor the number of Communities is a good proxy for how people value and use PubPub. For less conventional publishers, PubPub is valuable because it allows them to spread the work of publishing around to a large network of users. Thus, charging purely per-user would actually have the effect of making PubPub less valuable by making it more costly for communities to spread the work around. On the flip side, more established publishers tend to have small core teams that do most of the production work. They get the most value from the fact that PubPub allows them to do lots of different types of publishing, often experimental, from the same platform. In this case, charging purely per-community would make PubPub less valuable by making experimentation more costly. We also heard feedback from partners at non-profit institutions in particular that it was hard for them to budget for anything with a variable cost, and they would vastly prefer simple, flat-rate pricing. Finally, in the course of writing our personas, we also realized that we were under-valuing one core feature that all of the partners we’ve signed contracts with had in common: access to our team for support and consultation in setting up and running their Communities.

Taking in feedback from conversations and our data- and experience-driven personas, we developed 4 simple PubPub plans. They’re a blend of Community- and feature-differentiated tiers that we think will lay out a path to sustainability for PubPub while upholding our values and fitting the budgets and needs of almost all of our Communities. Because they’re not strictly feature-based, it also allows us more flexibility in offering customization features like domains, consultation, or design to anyone, regardless of the plan they choose.

We’ve chosen price points for these packages based on a common proxy for value: how much time we estimate PubPub saves the different Community personas per month, on average. Based on the 10X principle, we’ve multiplied this by 1/10th of an hourly rate of $50/hr, plus the average cost of providing support for these types communities, determined by looking at our support ticket logs.1 We believe this value-based pricing approach allows us to be more flexible, more fair, and, most importantly, aligns our sustainability model with our mission. If PubPub isn’t providing you 10X the value of what it costs, that’s a very good signal that we’re doing something wrong.





For individuals, grassroots communities, and experimenters

For smaller independent and unconventional publishers

For larger publishers

For institutions, corporations, and anyone else who needs dedicated support



Up to 5

Up to 15












Custom domains

Included at minimum $5/month contribution




Multi-community management and analytics





Multi-community landing page





Non-CC licenses





Onboarding & training








Priority Email













Contribute what you want (with suggestions for common use cases ranging from $5 - $50/mo)

$175/month or $2,000/year2

$425/month or $5,000/year3

Custom, starting at $850/month or $10,000/year4

Reaching Sustainability


We estimate that PubPub will cost an average of $1,500,000 per year to develop, support, and maintain over the next 3 years. This figure is our growth estimate — it includes all overhead and assumes that PubPub will continue to grow at accelerating rates and that we’ll continue to develop new features rather than simply maintain the existing platform. The vast majority of this cost is in staff salary and overhead for engineering, design, product management, support, and partnerships. Computer equipment and cloud services makes up a small fraction of the budget, and can be scaled up quickly and relatively inexpensively to support continued growth.

Our goal is to generate roughly this amount of revenue via platform sales, services contracts, and membership programs within two years.

Growth Goals

Our goal is to reach sustainability within 3 years based on product sales, memberships in some special programs like our Community Publishing for Libraries initiative.





















































We believe that knowing the structure and values of who you’re working with is essential in mission-driven ecosystems.

Structure and Governance

PubPub is owned and operated by Knowledge Futures Inc., a US-based independent non-profit with a mission of “building technology for the production, curation, and preservation of knowledge in service of the public good." KFI formed last year to run PubPub, the Underlay Project, the Commonplace, and our four research programs, received its 501(c)3 non-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year, and transitioned from a fiscal sponsor to operational independence on July 1. Our intention is for KFI to ultimately be legally and meaningfully owned by a consortium of academic and public good institutions and communities of practice. We’re exploring multiple structures to make this aspiration a reality within the next 2-5 years. We are very open to feedback on how to make this possible, and are actively searching for board members and advisors. If you’re interested in helping, please reach out.

Core Values

As a mission-driven organization, Knowledge Futures cannot take steps to generate revenue in a vacuum. Even as a non-profit, doing so would lead us down a path of maximizing value extracted, rather than maximizing value provided. Late last year, our team wrote and codified a set of guiding core values, encoded in our openly accessible Handbook, to help us balance sustainability against our mission. These values are ACCESS: Accessibility, Conscientiousness, Curiosity, Egalitarianism, Systemic outlook, and Sustainability.


We believe that just because knowledge is available doesn’t mean it’s truly accessible. We put ourselves in others’ position to understand the barriers that prevent knowledge from being truly accessible to diverse groups around the world.


We value honesty and good-faith efforts to fulfill our duties and obligations as highly as success in its own right.


We approach challenges with an honest, experimental, problem-solving mindset. We bring an intellectual curiosity that explores problem spaces with openness and intrigue in ways that lead to important new ideas.


We acknowledge that all people deserve equality and fairness regardless of the individual circumstances of their life. We recognize that teams, especially distributed ones, are made of people who bring different perspectives, opportunities, and cultures that add to the strength of the team.

Systemic outlook

We prioritize solutions that tackle problems in systemic ways rather than iterating solely at the margins. We think systematically when we approach problems, rather than solely thinking locally.


We value solutions that are sustainable and durable for the long-term, even if they’re more difficult, over ones that are more expedient but less sustainable.


  • Scott: would pay bc I want to support PubPub

  • Jo: For a global feasibility reflection, here is a preprint a colleague and I just shared Bezuidenhout, Louise, & Havemann, Johanna. (2020, September 3). The Varying Openness of Digital Open Science Tools. Zenodo.

  • Rose: Started a website, managed peer review via email, bought $60 domain and hosting. Pro is a lot for me as academic on salary doing it out of pocket. Not sure if that’s viable. Organization definitely reasonable. Probably where APA fits in. Landing page and all those features really important to us. Enterprise makes sense — especially from institutional level.

  • Nick: what will KFG do?

  • Jo: Subsidization — doesn’t have to have a 0 price tag.

  • Jo: other issues…e.g. sending funds from kenya is hard.


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