by Emily Poznanski
The issue of free access, both the free and the access components, have a number of currents flowing through, such as its impact on economic growth, its egalitarian-ethical claims, professional advantage to authors, and other broad notions, such as the industry newcomer versus the traditionalist. The two terms, moreover, are often conflated into one brand, which in itself impedes presenting a clear view of Open Access as a publishing proposition and its position in the market, which is that of a professional scientific publisher with characteristics broadly identical to those of the traditional type. In particular, the emphasis on the cost structure, which arguable dominates Open Access marketing output, is skewed in an unhelpful direction.
Open Access for publicly funded research
Although the direct relationship between investment in research and economic growth has not proven conclusively, it remains the basis of government policy in many countries, as there is a strong belief that science-based research, supported by government funding, is one of the more important engines of growth.
There is also growing conviction that research, particularly one that is publicly funded, should be made available to all. This opinion is held not only by the public, and acted upon by the government, but also by various other stakeholders. National and local governments, research funding institutes, universities, libraries, publishers, researchers and the general public were all represented in a survey carried out by the European Commission and 90% believe (76% strongly agree and 14% agree) that publications resulting from publicly funded research should, as a matter of principle, be available free of charge to readers on the Internet. Moreover, in an opinion poll led by SOAP, dedicated exclusively to researchers, among 38,385 respondents 89% agree that their research benefits, or would benefit, from OA articles. So why is Open Access not the first choice for authors?
Growth of Open Access
In 2002, 34 OA journals were listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and currently there are over 9000. Since 2000, the average annual growth rate (published in the paper ‘The Development of Open Access Publishing from 1993 to 2009’) has been 18% for the number of OA journals, and 30% for the number of articles. Despite a jump in growth around the launch of BioMed Central and Public Library of Science (PLoS), Open Access output has been growing at a steady rate. But this does not necessarily tell the whole story. Taking a more global view, Richard Poynder recalls Derk Haank, CEO of Springer, at the end of 2010, saying that OA remains “just a drop in the ocean”, estimating that only around 2% to 2.5% of the world’s papers are being published in Gold or Hybrid journals, whereas the total number of research papers is growing at around 6% to 7% a year, so perhaps, in relative terms, OA is falling behind.
Funding as a critical component
In the previously mentioned SOAP survey, 22,977 of the respondents had published at least article in Open Access, of which 50.2% did not pay a fee. However, in a follow-up question, when asking how difficult funds to pay fees were, 8208 researchers answered, of which 54% said it was difficult. A similar voice is heard among researchers who had not published an article in Open Access – accounting for 29% of 38,358 respondents. Out of these, 42% had a specific reason and 4976 gave their opinion – 39% mentioned publication fees or lack of funding. Around 1/5 of researchers who have had experience with publishing Open Access said that funding or paying for publication fees was difficult (4432 out of 22977). A similar proportion is found among researchers that had not published an article in OA (1941 out of 11124). This is more than a negligible number.
How many journals charge fees?
To add to the complications, looking at research carried out on APCs, one can see that most OA journals do not charge fees. The popularisation of generating revenues through Article Processing Charges has been attributed to BioMedCentral and PloS, who started using the model around 2000. Since then the number of fee-based journals has grown from approx. 740 journals, to 4769 in 2009. And the number of articles published in them has grown at an even faster rate – in 2000, 19,500 and in 2009, 191,850.
The numbers could suggest that gold OA is the predominant Open Access publishing model, but the percentage of OA journals that charge fees still only remains around 30%. Walters and Linvill (2011) examined 663 journals of which 29% charged fees, and Peter Suber recently published a figure of 31%. However, the number of articles published in fee-based journals reached 49% in 2011.
Could it be the case that Authors and OA advocates are talking about different things? Authors who signal a problem with fees, refer to the smaller group of journals with high APCs and high article output, whereas OA advocates respond by referring to the group of OA journals as a homogeneous whole.
What are the fees?
The average APC has been estimated as £1727 plus VAT taken from the Finch report. However, Walters and Linvill (2011) examined 663 journals of which the average APC was $1,109 and median $1,300. A study led by Solomon and Björk, confirms that although leading OA journals tend to charge between $2,000 and $3,000 for publishing, the average APC was much lower – around $900 in 2010 across all journals charging APCs listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals
Groups that have difficulty with fees/funding
The subject areas, identified in the SOAP survey, where funding was the biggest problems were Biological Sciences, Agriculture and related sciences, Medicine, Dentistry and related subjects. These areas are covered by established OA journals, with high impact factors, that charge fees. Solomon & Bjork, found that the highest percentage of authors who had to pay the fees themselves were from Agriculture and Forestry, Business and Economics – the lowest percentage came from Health Sciences, Biology and Life Sciences. Moreover, 39.0% of authors from low GNP countries paid for APCs themselves, whereas only 10.7% of authors paid for APCs themselves from the higher GNP threshold.
What level of fees is acceptable?
In a follow up to the SOAP survey, authors were asked how much they would pay to publish in Open Access. The most popular bracket was between $390 and $650. Overall, less than 5% of respondents accepted fees above $1300, and approx. 25% noted that they would pay less than $50 or no fee at all. This suggests that regardless of the fact that authors’ paying for the costs of publishing is not new phenomenon (previously “page charges”), a significant number are still not accustomed to the idea of paying to publish. Moreover, the average fee accepted by authors is well below the estimate used by the Finch committee.
The industry – scientific journal publishing – is still dominated by large publishing entities, and the low cost/ no cost OA publishing is the newcomer and challenger in that market. Open Access was seen initially as a response to the rising subscription costs. Now instead of charging libraries, OA publishers expect substantial fees from authors. Since most authors do not pay these high fees, where is the change? Authors, rather than librarians look now for creative ways to pay publishers? It seems that the problem has been displaced rather than solved.
Instead of waiting for APCs to reach an unmanageable level, perhaps the government mandates that require publishing in Open Access, should also specify that authors ought publish in the lowest-fee charging journals. That would force competitive pricing and bring it to a common, affordable level. It is a strange notion that people should be compelled by law to buy at the best price. Left to their own decisions, they usually do. Moreover, a journal is not a generic commodity. They are bundles of goods that include critical components, for example, prestige and access to a narrow group of select researchers and people who sit on or advise grant-giving bodies. Consequently, it may be the case that the stress placed by OA publishers on low cost as a market advantage is misdirected. Furthermore, the low cost structure offered by newcomers may not necessarily be an incentive for authors (cost for intuition, not author). Perhaps, like in other markets, the price differential reflects in their perception the quality of the goods on offer, and should be treated as a proper market signal to the producers. Low cost – if it is the case – might be more profitably promoted not as an incentive, but as a reflection of a technically advanced, low cost publishing approach.
OA publishers present themselves under a dual headline – free and accessible. The free aspect discussed requires careful qualification, and the accessibility, treated as a slogan, also has its own complexities. It is quite likely that the group that faces the financial barrier to OA publishing consists of three distinct subsets – the first, junior researchers (in terms of professional advancement, rather than necessarily age) who have not yet established their independent reputation, and the second subgroup – the scientists from those countries which have weak or sparse scientific institutions, and negligible grant infrastructure. And, thirdly, researchers working in new, often narrow fields of interest, untested professionally and with no obvious publication venue. If those two groups were indeed the effective target group of interest to OA publishers, then the effort which is directed at advocating access as a general public good, understood in broad egalitarian terms, is too wide in its formulation, and should be more narrowly directed at the specific needs of those groups.
Furthermore, it would appear that the role of OA publishers is in essence identical of the traditional one, namely to act as a forum and a conduit for transmission of scholarly output, professional promotion of authors and the advancement of specific areas of scientific interest. Therefore the primary role of an OA publisher would appear not to be different from the traditional type. Should they choose to be advocates of these groups it may be regarded as an additional and voluntary act of good will, which in itself may add to the reputation and commercial standing of the publisher.
The premonition that the scholarly exchange is moving into a new mode, namely the Internet based electronic publishing, may well be correct. One of the possible outcomes – contrary to the often promoted dichotomy of old and new – is a gradual merger of the traditional publisher with the aggressive OA newcomer who may prove better placed at trawling the market, and flexible enough to publish on the wait-and-see basis. For both, the cost structure and cost incentives, as well as the more general ethical issues of equity, appear to be of secondary importance, with the quality of the product – journal’s reach and prestige, remaining the primary objective.
 Online survey on scientific information in the digital age (Jan 2012)
 Highlights from the SOAP project survey. What Scientists Think about Open Access Publishing. (Jan 2011) http://arxiv.org/pdf/1101.5260.pdf
 Poynder, Richard. (2011). “Open Access by Numbers” http://poynder.blogspot.com/2011/06/open-access-by-numbers.html
 Laakso, M.; Welling, P.; Bukvova, H.; Nyman, L.; Björk, B. C.; Hedlund, T. (2011). “The Development of Open Access Journal Publishing from 1993 to 2009”
 Suber, Peter. (2013). “A misleading survey” https://plus.google.com/109377556796183035206/posts/K1UE3XDk9E9
 Björk, Bo-Christer; Solomon, David J. (2012). Open access versus subscription journals: a comparison of scientific impact http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/10/73
 Solomon, David J.; Björk, Bo-Christer. (2012). Publication Fees in Open Access Publishing: Sources of Funding and Factors Influencing Choice of The Journal http://www.openaccesspublishing.org/apc/preprint.pdf
Laakso, Mikael; Björk, Bo-Christer. (2012). Anatomy of open access publishing: a study of longitudinal development and internal structure http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/10/124
Björk B-C, Welling P, Laakso M, Majlender P, Hedlund T, et al. (2010). Open Access to Scientific Journal Literature: Situation 2009
Gargouri Y, Larivière V, Gingras Y, Carr L, Harnad S. (2012). Green and gold open access percentages and growth, by discipline. http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/340294/
Solomon, David; Björk, Bo-Christer. (2012). A Study of Open Access Journals Using Article Processing Charges
Björk, Bo- Christer; Solomon, David. (2012). Pricing Principles used by Scholarly Open Access Publishers