An important justification for transitioning from a subscription based journal publishing system to an open access journal publishing system, has been that whereas printing and distributing physical copies of journals is an expensive process, the cost of digital publication and dissemination are marginal. In this post Shaun Khoo argues that whilst a shift to gold (pay to publish) open access would deliver wider access to research, the lack of price sensitivity amongst academics presents a risk that they will be locked into a new escalating pay to publish system that could potentially be more costly to researchers than the previous subscription model.
For decades, the cost of subscription journals has been rising faster than inflation. Struggling with this serials crisis, librarians have encouraged the development of open access journals. Under open access, anyone can access research articles, reducing the need for libraries to subscribe to journals. This might benefit libraries, but by opening up research budgets as a revenue source it also promises to boost publisher profits.
The dominant form of immediate open access involves the payment of an article processing charge (APC) to the publisher by the authors or their institutions. In theory, competition between publishers should apply downward pressure on APCs, as academics should at least consider price when selecting a journal.
But this has not prevented APCs rising faster than inflation. In fact, multiple authors have warned of a potential open access sequel to the serials crisis. This raises doubt as to whether there is really price competition in the open access market.
No evidence of price sensitivity
In a recent paper, I examined whether authors actually respond to price in journal selection. I expected that if authors are price sensitive then journals that introduce, or increase, fees should see some loss in article volumes.
Journals typically introduce an APC a few years after they launch, or, when ‘flipping’ from a subscription model to open access. Using eLife and Royal Society Open Science as case studies of new journals that have recently introduced an APC, I saw no evidence that fee introduction resulted in any loss of article volume. Then, I compared journals that flipped to open access and, again, saw no sign that journals that begin charging an APC lose authors.
Major commercial publishers also regularly increase their fees over time. I examined the effect of fee increases over time on the number of articles published by 319 journals from the four biggest APC-funded commercial open access publishers. Instead of higher APCs predicting lower article volumes, my statistical analysis indicated that higher APCs predicted higher article volumes.
Why price isn’t a deterrent
When choosing a journal, the most important factor is the journal’s ‘prestige’ value. This might be related to its impact factor, its editorial board, or if it is backed by a respected society or institution. These factors are commonly believed to be important for hiring, promotions and funding applications.
The importance of journal prestige for career advancement gives researchers a strong incentive to publish in the highest ‘quality’ journals that they can. And since higher quality open access journals are associated with higher APCs, it actually encourages authors to spend more on publishing.
Considering that publishing currently takes up a relatively small component of an overall (funded) research project it makes sense that APCs do not deter authors. A scientific paper takes months or even years of researcher time plus consumables and equipment. When authors have already spent tens or hundreds of thousands on a project, it doesn’t add that much to the overall cost to pay a $3,000 APC rather than a $2,000 APC. For authors lucky enough to have access to institutional or funder accounts for APCs, it is not even a cost they have to even consider. And if it means that the paper will appear in a more prestigious journal, it’s worth it to get that competitive edge in the next job or funding application.
Publishers go for gold
Open access now gives publishers huge opportunities to grow their revenue base. Having pushed multiple library consortia to cancel subscription deals, library budgets are exhausted and providing little revenue growth. As noted by Jisc, this has given them an incentive to seek additional revenue through APCs. Publishers know they have only 1% of research budgets giving them plenty of room to grow. With a portfolio of established, respected journals they are well-placed to expand their share of research funding by increasing the number and size of APCs they collect.
Centralising power with major publishers further enhances their price-setting power. Open access deals and mandates have a tendency to concentrate power in the hands of established major publishers because they are able to provide funders and libraries with the publishing capacity to meet authors’ needs. This may make negotiations easier, but it entrenches the position of existing publishers and enables rent-seeking behaviour as they publish an ever-greater share of the literature.
In this context, it is hard to imagine any downward pressure on APCs. Low-fee journals are associated with predatory behaviour, making authors increasingly wary of unfamiliar publishers and journals. In a market where higher fees help to indicate prestige and legitimacy, the profit-motive of commercial publishers and careerism of authors is perversely aligned.
For public knowledge, use public infrastructure
Open access is not developing for the best interests of researchers or the public that they serve. Instead, it has made the most progress in service of commercial interests, as publishers have recognised that they have enormous potential to extract ever-increasing rents from research budgets. There are a multitude of public non-profit scholarly communication options such as library and funder publishing or free open source publishing tools. Unless funders and institutions wish to infuse publisher profits with a growing share of research funding, they should be supporting public infrastructure and, most importantly, rewarding the researchers who use it.
This post is based on the author’s article Article Processing Charge Hyperinflation and Price Insensitivity: An Open Access Sequel to the Serials Crisis, Published in Liber Quarterly
About the author:
Shaun Khoo is a postdoctoral fellow at the Université de Montréal where he studies the neuroscience of addiction using rodent behavioural models. He is also founding president of Episteme Health Inc., an association of scientists that aims to provide free publishing for neuroscientists. His orcid is https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0972-3788.
Image Credit: Public Domain Images via Pixabay (Licensed under a CC0 licence)
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This is all true. But it assumes that the gold model is the only one available for going open access. The gold model was insisted upon by publishers to the UK Finch report on Open Access – because it was in their interests to do so, as this article rightly points out. Universities still end up paying, sometimes twice over, and all other open access initiatives are encouraged to go for this model with the lure of APCs. But there is an alternative – the Green model. This would be the preferred model for overturning the dominance of legacy publishers. It relies on universities establishing repositories in which are lodged copies of papers that are not subject to intellectual property embargoes inflicted by the legacy publishers and the associated APCs. As more universities buy into the open repository concept, and as more pre-prints and the equivalent (non-IP intrusive) copies of published papers are held in those repositories, so academics will have access to a wider and wider pool of papers, for free, and regardless of the prestige of the journal in which they are published. They can still go for prestige, but their papers can be accessed by other readers – particularly if there is an easily accessible button that automatically sends users a copy of the paper for personal study – without any APCs whatsoever.
I have been self-archiving my papers for years, but post-prints are not an effective route for achieving full open access. It also does not seem to result in journal cancellations, so it is unclear how it would help librarians.
All of my papers are self-archived with institutional repositories, but I am among a minority of scientists (maybe 20-25%) who self-archive. All major publishers, with the exception of SAGE, impose an embargo on post-print self-archiving. Institutional repositories also vary in terms of discoverability – if you are lucky, your IR will be using the right software and will be discoverable via Google Scholar (and therefore BASE and therefore unpaywall and oabutton). And you have to be even luckier to be at one of the 34 institutions with a repository that is a Pubmed Linkout participant.
Green could theoretically have already given us full OA with post-prints and preprints spread across half a dozen services and many many more IRs. But it hasn’t. It just creates extra work for people like me to post a less attractive version that is harder to find.
Not to be a broken record, but the “gold model” does not require APCs or other fees–and of journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals as of 1/1/2019, fully 70% (publishing 42% of the gold OA articles in 2018) do not have fees. No-fee gold OA, the dominant model for OA in Latin America, should be the preferred model everywhere.
In my field, gold OA is effectively APC-OA (we have no well-established fee-free OA journals) and I did take some liberties with the term in this article for effect. But yes I acknowledge that gold OA was not meant to mean APC-OA. However the dominance of big publishers and APC-OA journals has resulted in the impression among many academics that gold = APC. I think the (mis)use of the term is reflective of many people’s everyday experience with APC-OA being the most common form of gold or the only kind available to them.
For the most part, I prefer referring to journals descriptively (eg immediate OA, fee charging or fee-free) because it sidesteps the complexities of the classification system which in some places now spans green, gold, bronze, and platinum or diamond.
But I think we are in complete agreement about no-fee OA. It should be the dominant model everywhere. It’s why I am working on a startup fee-free OA journal. There are too many reasons why having academics pay to publish is a bad idea.
Convincing scholars to go the open access way is proving to be a bit hard.