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The Impact of Market Forces on Open Access Journal Publishers

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Code for America, PLOS open access hackathon, June 23, 2012 | © Courtesy of mk30.

As open access journal publication is increasingly becoming mainstream, article processing charges experience pressure to approach the equilibrium prices in the open access market.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

In recent years, as open access (OA) publishing has evolved into a mainstream phenomenon, it has, however, remained restricted to a market niche within the larger academic journal publishing landscape. This has both reduced the impact of open access on the equilibrium prices in the latter market, as indicated by article processing charges (APCs), and reduced the pressure of market forces on open access publishers. Yet, as a recent study indicates, the continued double-digit growth in the open access sector has exercised competitive pressures on paywall-based journal access models, since over half of scholarly literature published between 2007 and 2012 was accessible free of charge over the Internet. This both indicates a growing trend in the publishing market forcing changes in the business models of market incumbents and pushes open access-based publishers into the mainstream with attendant market forces’ pressure.

Supply and Demand Curve | © Courtesy of Sustainable Devleopment.
Supply and Demand Curve | © Courtesy of Sustainable Development.

As the largest open access publisher by the number of articles published, according to the Digital Archive of Open Access Journals, PLOS can serve as a case in point for this phenomenon. In September 2015, PLOS has announced that it will be raising the APC for its flagship PLOS ONE journal from 1,395 USD to 1,495 USD, as the first APC increase for this journal since 2009. While this can be conceived of as a minor business model change for an open access publisher that sports 7 OA journals and 5 channels for scientific sub-fields, such as Muscular Dystrophy, that have streamlined peer-review procedures, are partly foundation-supported and have no author-facing charges, a closer analysis indicates otherwise. At present, the APCs for PLOS’s OA journals range from 1,495 USD (PLOS ONE) to 2,900 USD (PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine). The financial reports of PLOS for 2015, however, reveal that its approximate gross per-article revenues have amounted to 1,438 USD. In other words, given that the 2015 yearly gross publication fee revenues of PLOS have amounted to 44,604,000 USD, circa 31,000 journals have been published by PLOS in 2015, and that the average APC for PLOS ONE has been 1,420 USD for 2015, since the APC raise went into effect in October 2015, if all of these journals have been published in the PLOS ONE mega-journal, its gross APC revenues would have been 44,020,000 USD in 2015. Thus, in the year 2015 the absolute majority of PLOS’s revenues to the rate of up to 98% have been likely derived from APCs for PLOS ONE.

This indicates that, on the one hand, scholars have overwhelmingly responded to the price incentives. On the other hand, the 2015 price increase in the APCs for PLOS ONE has represented a significant change in the business model of PLOS as it sought to bring its effective APCs into closer correspondence with the prevalent, equilibrium-level price levels in the scientific journal publishing market, especially as it has become an increasingly important player in this market.

Therefore, this APC price policy change responds not only to the increasing costs of PLOS but also to the greater impact of market forces on this publisher, as greater demand leads to higher prices.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Code for America, PLOS open access hackathon, June 23, 2012 | © Courtesy of mk30.

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