Drawing on a recent analysis of APC pricing and movements within the commercial publishing sector, Gunnar Sivertsen and Lin Zhang argue that APCs have now firmly established themselves as the predominant business model for academic publishing. Highlighting the inequalities inherent to this model, they posit now is the time to consider alternatives.
In 2020 we estimate the annual revenues from article processing charges (APCs) among major scholarly journal publishers to have exceeded 2 billion US dollars. Alongside these revenues, a pattern of mergers and takeovers in the industry indicate that publishers find APCs to be an even more profitable business model than subscriptions. This has significant implications for research and researchers, as researchers who cannot make their country, institution or project pay are not able to fulfil their research, ultimately closing access to research.
In a recent paper, which we were (fortunately) able to pay to make freely available, we combined an analysis of global trends in scientific publishing from 2015 to 2020 with an APC price list. The price list covered journals published by the twelve major publishers responsible for 70 percent of the world’s scientific journal articles: Springer Nature, Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, MDPI, SAGE, IEEE, American Chemical Society, Frontiers, Oxford University Press, Public Library of Science, and Hindawi. We collected APC prices for the gold alternative (all articles in a journal are free to read) as well as for the hybrid alternative (individual articles are made free to read in subscription-based journals).
In 2020 we estimate the annual revenues from article processing charges (APCs) among major scholarly journal publishers to have exceeded 2 billion US dollars.
Visiting the publishers’ webpages to collect the APC prices provided interesting insights from the outset. Almost all journals from the twelve publishers now require or offer the gold or hybrid alternative against payment. The hybrid alternative is promoted not only among individual authors, but also by asking institutions or countries to sign “Read and publish” agreements. While such agreements seem to be efficient in reaching the OA goals of the public research sector, they also imply paying the publishing sector at both ends.
Most of the journals we analysed remain hybrid, but there are signs that the gold alternative is commercially attractive. The gold only publishers Frontiers and MDPI are taking increasing shares of the APC-based market and now dominate the pioneers of gold open access, Public Library of Science and BiomedCentral. Gold mega journals such as IEEE Access and Nature Communications are rapidly increasing their shares in the world’s articles. Traditional publishers with Springer Nature in the lead followed by Elsevier and Wiley are increasing their shares of all articles in the gold only Directory of Open Access journals, where the number of articles has doubled while the total revenues from APC have tripled between 2016 and 2020. Traditional publishers have also invested in gold only publishers. The owner of Springer Nature has acquired BiomedCentral and Frontiers, Wiley has acquired Hindawi, Taylor & Francis has acquired Dove, and Elsevier has acquired KeAi.
China is now the world’s largest payer of APCs.
Publishing is an inextricable part of the research process. As such, we consider the mainstreaming of APCs as a ‘paywall’ to perform research, using the same term as is used to characterise the subscription model in publishing from a reader’s perspective. The global trends towards paying to perform research seem less dependent on the OA policies of countries than on the dynamics of the commercial publishing market. Notably, we found that APC expenses have sharply increased among six countries with different OA policies: the USA, China, the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Norway. The increases are most dramatic in the four European countries collaborating in cOAlition S and thereby in practice supporting the gold and hybrid alternatives (as long as the latter is viewed as temporary). The USA has prioritised the green alternative (institutional repositories) by which paying APCs can be avoided in principle, but not in practice. We found Green OA decreased from 53 percent to 37 percent between 2015 and 2020. China’s OA policies are mostly advisory, not mandatory, but Chinese research policy has until recently had a strong focus on publishing in journals covered by Web of Science where the major commercial publishers dominate. For this reason, China is now the world’s largest payer of APCs. Taken as a whole, our findings show how the public sector so far has only been able to stimulate trends towards paying to perform research, rather than steering the sector to a specific end.
The six countries we studied represent more than half of the world’s scientific output. We also used the APC price list to estimate the global annual revenues from APC among the major publishers. They have been rapidly increasing and seem to have exceeded 2 billion US dollars in 2020, which, for comparison, is three times the annual budget of UNESCO. Insiders will know whether such a turnover provides profits in the industry, but the APC is a mechanism that must work in this direction.
Unlike subscriptions, APCs are not constrained by library budgets. It asks for payment from those exposed to the pressure to publish. Scientific publications are not only used to communicate new results. They are also used to document the experience and qualifications of researchers in contexts where they are assessed for funding, recruitment or promotion. Publications are important for careers. This might explain why our study also observed sharp annual increases in the APC required by individual journals, as well as large variations in the prices which seem to partly depend on the prestige of journals.
Without global regulation, APCs will depend on supply and demand like other prices, but also on affordability, thereby affecting the traditional norms of equal opportunities and sharing in science and, ironically, the more recent idea of Open Science. While intended to make the scientific literature more accessible, it is now reported that OA publishing fees deter researchers in the global south from performing research and our own study has already raised the same concern from an African perspective. In all parts of the world, APCs can be said to restrict research activity to institutionalised and/or funded activities. The admission to perform research in these contexts is sometimes based on questionable selection mechanisms, it also entirely overlooks unfunded research. In principle, funded science in the public sector should be open to new ideas and observations from the outside. However, research is rapidly closing around state-funded insiders, which is a dramatic change in the history of science and, for example, against the Open Science policy of the EU.
We conclude that paying to perform research already seems to be more than commercially viable as a business model for the publishing industry. APCs have also been very effective in achieving higher rates of Open Access publishing. However, this new paywall for performing research is at odds with fundamental norms of equal opportunities and sharing in scientific work. It creates dependencies and closed doors among researchers. Alternative ways to promote Open Access should be discussed.
This blog post is based on the authors’ article, Should open access lead to closed research? The trends towards paying to perform research, published in Scientometrics.
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Excellent! I share these ideas completely. The firm establishment of APC has actually shown strong the multinational publishers are in the control of global knowledge publishing. We need empirical evidence to prove that, except China, the countries at the periphery are now more disadvantaged in terms of publishing in the open access era than they they were otherwise. Besides the enclosure of APC, OA appears to be getting more sophisticated than it should be; the microtechnologies are becoming inevitable in the movement but they are expensive for scholars from the poor countries.
This also closes the door on independent researchers. Not only will they have to contribute their time and effort at the end of the day after finishing off their regular jobs, but now will have to find a couple of (or a few) thousand dollars to get their work published.
I had a recent experience whereby, as an editor for Hindawi for several years, I thought my publication costs were covered. After my paper was accepted, I was informed that only HALF the costs were waived. I did not have the funds. I tried crowdfunding it, but I raised only 10% and then returned the money. I told them I could not pay and I assumed the paper was withdrawn. Surprisingly, 3 months later, as I was seeking another venue, which as indicated here, was very difficult, I received a message saying that the paper had been published. I still do not know how or why.
This is true for specific journals and publishers. Being good researchers we have to give our services to the journals run by the community irrespective to the journl matrices. Journal checker tools is a good option to find and publish the work in diamond open access journals.
A. Why do one publisher ask money for publishing the article?
1. Journal website hosting its management + editorial processing software + typesetting & its software
2. Manpower salary + building + local expenses
What we can reduce?
Reviewers as I know don’t take any financial support from the publishers. While no academic benefits directly, while these people are more responsible to the quality of the article as well of the journal.
If the publisher want they can reduce no.2 expenses to manage the APC and approachable to all the researchers. But for a profitable business all things are required.
B. Networking of the subject experts (a specific community) should be accessible to all publishers (a datbase of researchers). Instead of researchers look to the journals/publishers for publishing their work, I think they-publisher should look towards the researchers…
“We found Green OA decreased from 53 percent to 37 percent between 2015 and 2020.” This doesn’t seem to be discussed in the original article? Is it derived from the data in Fig 2? Would be good to know. Also, is it actually absolute Green, or just articles where Green is prioritized by WoS because Gold not available for prior selection?
Yes, it is indeed derived from the underlying data of Fig 2, but not discussed in the original article, as you say. These are estimates based on Unpaywall through InCites with a mechanism that we explained in the original article and that we have to rely on for such estimates. Thank you for your interest.
This is an interesting analysis, which provides some useful insights into the growth of APC-based publishing, thank you. You rightly identify a number of adverse consequences arising from the widespread adoption of APCs, but I think your figure of US$2 billion is a significant overestimate. As you acknowledge in your article, you have based your analysis on article list prices, but this fails to take account of the significant number of OA articles published under so-called transformative (or transitional agreements), and those subject to full or partial waivers. In the UK, for example, following recent agreements with Elsevier and others, we are approaching 80% of articles being covered by some form of transformative agreement. It is very difficult to separate out the revenue generated per OA article under these agreements, but in almost all cases it will be substantially less than the list price. From my own knowledge of the academic publishing industry I believe an accurate estimate would be closer to $1 billion rather than $2 billion.
We made similar observations a few months ago, but without a quantitative analysis.
Batterbury, S., Wielander, G., & Pia, A. E. (2022). After the Labour of Love: the incomplete revolution of open access and open science in the humanities and creative social sciences. Commonplace. https://doi.org/10.21428/6ffd8432.5e24d46d
Your findings are shocking, and stress the need to support the DORA agreement for research and career progression, to remove some of the need to publish in certain commercial journal outlets. Plan S also needs to instigate APC price caps, which they have not yet done.
It would have been worth reminding people that there is a whole commons OA movement that charges no fees and that labours, often voluntarily, for the benefit of researchers, but also as part of an alternative movement strongly opposed to what the big publishers are doing. You have confirmed that this is necessary. Our own journal is an example. https://journals.librarypublishing.arizona.edu/jpe/ No commercial pressures, volunteer run, university hosted, no article length or page limits, close editing, internationally recognised, open source software. It can be done.
But why not publish in a journal like this instead of a Springer journal? Here is my personal list of alternative journals, https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-decent-open-access-journals/ and the section on “Publishing and university teaching/research issues ” might be useful. I may not have caught all the candidate journals.
Unfortunately this article and study fails to mention the literally thousands of diamond open access journals. This is actually most likely the prominent model yet not even a mention. This is a disservice to the thousands who run such journals.
The study could have been published for FREE in any of the many diamond open access journals.