FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

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Is an APC-based Open Access business model affordable?

The process of transition to open access (OA) involves reallocating those expenditures that are currently used for subscriptions towards covering the costs of open access publishing models.  This proposal has been outlined by the Max Planck Digital Library in its white paper.  Worries about higher costs in an APC (article-processing charge) system are often based on false assumptions and a lack of sufficient publication data.  However, the analysis shows that there is indeed enough money in the system.

According to the publishing industry’s own accounting we can assume the costs per article in the current subscription system to be approximately 5,000 euros.  The average level of APC among genuine open access publishers today is around 1,200 to 1,300 euros (see OpenAPC data collection). Since there are also many journals that do not charge APCs (in fact, about two-thirds do not), it is safe to say that the expenditures for scholarly communication in an open access world would at the very least not exceed the current spending level, and would most probably fall beneath it.

It is important to note that a given country or institution would not have to finance its entire publication output, but only those shares attributable to the corresponding authors from that country or institution.  In high-output contexts, these shares amount between 65-70% at the country level and between 40-60% at the institutional level (see MPDL white paper).  The significant implications of these cost allocations must be taken into account when calculating the costs of a transition to open access.

The large-scale transition envisaged by the OA2020 initiative is therefore possible without extra expense or financial risk.  Additionally, the newly available funds from the termination of subscription payments can be reallocated to establish alternative publishing models and services (community funding, society sponsorship, etc., e.g., Open Library of Humanities).

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Wouldn’t the APC model be another way of giving the big commercial publishers an opportunity to consolidate their market power?

The goal of the OA2020 initiative is precisely to overcome the big commercial publishers’ market power by overcoming the subscription-based distribution and financing model of scholarly communication, along with its inherent scarcity effect. It is the subscription system itself that is the source of this market power, and it is the most effective barrier on the way to open access.

The current system is a somewhat monopolized market in which a relatively small number of publishers control the copyright on the most valuable articles, and are thus able to charge above-average prices.  Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, economist, university librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer at the University of California, Berkeley, provides us with a thoughtful analysis of this issue in his blog post, “Economic thoughts about ‘gold’ open access”.  MacKie-Mason argues that gold OA may (in the worst case) leave market power unchanged, but there is no indication that it would increase the market power of big publishers or decrease competition:

“To strengthen the existing monopolists, something about the APC (article processing charge) model for paying the costs of publishing (instead of subscription) charges would need to raise the barriers to competition: that is, to give the existing firms increased market power. I don’t see anything about gold OA that does this.”

He goes on to point out that

“Gold OA doesn’t increase the power of the dominant publishers: they are already extracting profit-maximizing monopoly revenues from us, and switching to gold won’t increase the amount they extract.  And articles will be available open access to everyone.  So we’ll be better off than we are today in the subscription world.”

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The current subscription-based publishing business is very profitable, at least for some publishers. What if they simply resist shifting their business models to open access?

The transition outlined by OA2020 represents an offer to the publishers for an orderly transformation of their standard business model in the shift to open access.  Even before the piracy platform Sci-Hub entered the scene, there was sufficient evidence that researchers have increasingly been using other ways of acquiring publications, such as Research Gate, Academia.edu or Twitter via #icanhazpdf.  The lack of a subscription may be one reason for using alternative gateways to publications; convenience is another.  Even if the building of barriers to access and creating artificial scarcity (which is hardly a publisher’s goal) were a respectable business model in the digital age, such an approach in any case fails to prevent the dissemination of content.  And lessons about withholding content are available from other branches of publishing, such as the music industry.  One doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict that the subscription system will come to a natural end, sooner or later.  An unmanaged end would probably be more unpredictably disruptive, and could create damage to the meaningful core activities of the current publishing infrastructure.  Preventing such damage must therefore be in the interests of all parties involved in the process of communicating the fruits of research.

It is worth noting that the OA2020 approach is based on a very strong lever that has not yet been seriously utilized during the early decades of the open access movement.  The step-by-step shift in the allocation of libraries’ budgets ultimately leads to the withdrawal of monies from the subscription system, so that there will then be no alternative than to fully embrace an open access business model.

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Why not simply (re-)integrate scholarly publishing into universities and research institutions?

Although this strategy has been steadily articulated in recent years, there is little visible evidence so far that it will be adopted on a large scale by researchers, universities and research institutions.  It seems to be an attractive idea in theory but it has only limited uptake in the practical world.

Publishing is, after all, a specialized task involving costs, organization and a certain level of professionalism; this requirement can be met in-house where appropriate and desirable, but it makes just as much sense to outsource this process to those centres of competence that the commercial and non-commercial publishing houses typically are.  We have to ask ourselves honestly whether we could really do without the professional scholarly publishers, considering the ongoing growth and specialization of scientific output. OA2020 aims at preserving the long-standing exchange relationships between publishers and the scholarly world and at preserving the publication services of publishers, which should be remunerated in a fair and appropriate way as before.  The disruptive element of the transformation is directed at the financial streams and the business models only.

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Will authors from under-funded institutions (e.g., in the “global south”) be at a disadvantage?

Research institutions that have modest funds (such as many of those in the so-called global south) are actually at a double disadvantage under the current subscription system. Firstly, their research output is practically non-existent as it is (see Worldmapper), and researchers from the global south are de facto excluded from the research publications that originate in wealthier contexts, and especially from the prestigious journals.  This is not a problem arising from open access.  Further research is needed to determine whether an article processing charges (APC) model would actually be even more detrimental to research output from under-funded institutions.  Secondly, these countries are denied broad access to scientific output since it is locked behind expensive paywalls.  In a gold OA world, at least the problem of restricted access would be eliminated, and this would facilitate and boost scientific research in otherwise less well-resourced institutions.

Additionally, institutions in lower-income countries would be able to redirect towards publishing services those funds saved through the elimination of subscription costs, and this may foster their scientific output.  Waivers and subsidies for subscriptions granted to such institutions can be redirected to cover APCs or the costs of alternative and regional open access models, such as SciELO. The establishment of such regional non-APC-based OA-publishing models and the support of local and regional OA publishers and journals could be a very practicable way, particularly but not only for under-funded institutions.

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How does OA2020 relate to the green route to open access?

Every model that is designed to increase the amount of openly accessible research articles is laudable.  The green road to open access has brought a lot of progress, and has been reasonably successful in its own right.  Although green approaches have been around for the past 20 years, they have not led to any progress regarding the subscription system. On the contrary, subscription spending has steadily increased during this period.  There is no indication of any delegitimization of the prevailing distribution- and financing conditions by means of the green route to open access. The green approach has not proven to be an effective tool to overcome the publishers’ market power, to bring down prices and to establish open access on the grand scale.

After pondering the limitations of the green OA approach, Jeffrey MacKie-Mason – economist, university librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer at the University of California, Berkeley – comes to a similar conclusion in his blog post “Economic thoughts about ‘gold’ open access”:

“I’m not against green OA where it is reasonably efficient. But I think we’ve been trying it long enough now that we can see plenty of (informal) evidence that it is not going to be effective for much scholarly research. And I don’t see any evidence yet that it will reduce publisher market power enough to lower prices even where it is effective.”

The OA2020 initiative aims to tackle the source of publisher market power and ever increasing prices – the subscription system – directly, through the orderly transformation of the existing corpus of scientific journals from the current system to open access.

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High-impact journals such as Nature threaten to charge article processing charges (APCs) in the region of 10,000 euros and beyond. How will we deal with that?

In contrast with the current subscription system, the advantage of an APC-based business model would be price transparency, as for the first time there would be “open price tags”.  Currently, decision-making about directing resources to purchase research output come from different people (librarians, funders) from those (researchers) who decide where to submit papers.  A switch to pre-publication APCs rather than post-publication subscriptions will lead to researchers taking a view about prices.  This leads us back to the question of competition.  Economist and university librarian, Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, gives a thorough analysis of this in his blog post “Economic thoughts about ‘gold’ open access”:

“There are some simple and lovely reasons why competition would work in a gold OA world when it doesn’t in a subscription world. The most important is that the person deciding where to submit an article will have some reason to care about the price the publisher is charging.”

According to MacKie-Mason, this competitive pressure on publishers can be achieved through libraries deciding not to pay the total of a proposed APC, but only a fixed amount; the difference should be paid by the authors (through their research grants, etc.). This way authors have an opportunity – for the first time – to see and evaluate publishers’ price tags.

In order to avoid exorbitant prices for OA publishing, institutions will also have to improve their data analysis and get a better understanding of their publishing output and cost distribution, define conditions for a fair APC market, and develop concepts to cap APCs and for co-funding schemes. It will also be crucial to implement mechanism to monitor and analyse costs to gain price transparency from the very beginning and avoid the same developments as in the current system. Initiatives like OpenAPC already document OA spending and can be used as a stepping stone to build upon. These are just a few of the practical steps outlined in the OA2020 Roadmap, which will be necessary for a cost neutral transformation to open access.

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What about the humanities and social sciences, since these authors often do not have sufficient funds, and publishing fees do not fit into their academic culture?

The humanities and social sciences would actually profit the most from the transition to a gold OA system. Under the current subscription system, the lion’s share of libraries’ expenditure on scholarly information is tied up in paying the overly-expensive subscriptions in the STM fields, leaving only limited budgets for the humanities and social sciences. The conversion of subscription-spending to article processing charges (APCs) would give a better a chance to those scholarly disciplines that have so far been recognisably under-funded, as liberated funds can be redeployed to cover open access publishing fees in these fields. Beyond that, OA2020 encourages other successful and sustainable open access financing models besides APCs. It becomes apparent that cooperatively-organized OA publishing systems, such as the Open Library of Humanities or Knowledge Unlatched, might work better for the HSS disciplines. The APC model is only one of various possibilities that might apply in this field.

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Won’t research-intensive institutions with a large publishing output be the losers in an APC-based model?

Research-intensive institutions usually have not only high publication outputs but also high costs in providing broad information access to their researchers.  Since the total costs for scholarly communication should be less in a gold OA world, the money that is already being spent on information should be sufficient to make up for OA fees in many cases, if not most, as demonstrated in analyses presented in the Max Planck Digital Library’s white paper.  Even for a very research-intensive institution, such as the Max Planck Society, expenditures will not increase.  It should be borne in mind that only the corresponding author share, which amounts to between 60% and 70% of papers from research-intensive institutions, is relevant for the calculation of OA costs.

For those research organizations that believe themselves to be disadvantaged or will actually rack up increased costs in a purely OA world, the transition period can be used to perform comprehensive data analyses on the publishing output as well as to devise and implement new funding schemes. Government agencies, research councils and funders can work on the necessary adjustments in the research landscape of their respective countries. Overhead funding mechanisms, which are used in some countries to support the library budgets, can be restructured. These adjustments and restructurings can be implemented during a transitional period to achieve the necessary fine-tuning, as the overall amount of money already in the publishing system is sufficient and need not be increased further. Guidelines for these necessary practical steps to prepare for the envisaged open access transformation can be found in the OA2020 Roadmap.

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How can we convert libraries’ subscription budgets to finance APCs and OA publishing services, given that many libraries have to deal with co-funding and dedicated budgets?

Given their expertise in directing funds and information provision, and their experience in negotiating with publishers, the research libraries in the world should be at the helm of the open access transformation.  Nevertheless, most of them are still deeply grounded in the subscription system and have yet to recognize and adopt the goal of transformation to open access publishing.  It is clear that the conversion and redirection of library budgets and the restructuring of workflows cannot happen overnight, and indeed it does not need to; the OA2020 initiative considers the transformation to be an emergent process rather than a single, instant shift.

Libraries can use the transition period over the coming years to devise new approaches to budget-management and to plan and implement the necessary changes. A guide to the practical aspects of this process can be found in our Roadmap.