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What is wrong with the Article Processing Charges market?

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Article Processing Charges (APC) are fees paid by the author, usually with grant money, for publishing Open Access content. Recently, they were a really hot topic, mostly due to the publication of raw data concerning spending by the Wellcome Trust.

Data has shown that the average price per article, paid by this organization, which is one of the most prominent Open Access funders, is about 3000$. This amount is much higher than previous studies of the Open Access market have shown. The dataset led Ernetso Priego to suggest a “new (Open Access) serial crisis” – with the prices being raised by big players to a level that is not affordable for the average user (in this case: author, his or her university, or grant funder).

It appears though that the Wellcome Trust paid so much because it supported Open Access publications for the most part in subscription based journals, which in fact is something exceptional since only 1% of scientific articles are published in this way. Publishing Open Access content in Open Access journals is much more popular (about 11% of all articles indexed by Scopus were published in full OA journals) [1] and were much less expensive. We could not see these facts in the statistics on the Wellcome Trust spending, due to two issues: Open Access in “hybrid” journals is more popular in biomedical sciences and the majority of WT funding concerns this field and, even more importantly, since the organization covers entire APC, regardless of their amount, authors have no reason to save money on charges.

Authors, who do not have to economise in addition to having conducted brilliant research thanks to appropriate funding, tend to choose well known journals, owned by big publishers. This tendency is enforced by the criteria of professional promotion that (in some countries) favor journal impact factor as the most important measure of scientific quality. A big part of these well known journals are subscription-based, but almost always offer the opportunity to publish Open Access content, for a fee which is two times or more higher than in the majority of Open Access journals.

Article Processing Charges in “hybrid” journals are higher and significantly less correlated with quality (measured for example with Source Normalized Impact per Paper) than in the case of full Open Access journals. This is why recent study, authored by Bo-Christer Björk and David Solomon and co-published by the Wellcome Trust, almost simultaneously with the above mentioned data set, addressed mostly the problem of high prices of “hybrid publishing” and also the so called “double dipping” (some institutions pay twice for the same article, once buying a subscription and then paying Article Processing Charges for affiliated authors).

We might hope that the Wellcome Trust will treat conclusions from both the dataset and the report seriously. Authors of the report analyzed the entire Open Access market, including full Open Access journals and “hybrid” ones, and present multiple scenarios that might help to improve situation in this field by creating a more competitive environment with moderate prices. Finally they have focused on three possible scenarios (see also Danny Kingsley‘s post):

Scenario A: Creation of mechanisms at the local level for hybrid articles to ensure savings in subscription costs for a specific institution (for example by an agreement between funders and publishers)

Scenario B: APCs are funded according to multi-tier, value based price caps (funders pay no more than X-value for publication, and the X-value differs among journals, depending on their quality).

Scenario C: The funders cover a fixed percentage of the APCs above a maximum value whilst universities (or authors) cover the remaining portion from other sources.

Theoretically, these scenarios consider both hybrid and full OA journals, but as authors claim, full Open Access journals already have diversified pricing, which correlates with their quality and differs across disciplines. Thus scenario B and C in practice also would target mostly the hybrid market, which is “highly dysfunctional” according to Björk and Solomon.

One might say that the easiest solution for funders would be to just force authors to publish in fully Open Access journals by not refunding APC in hybrid journals at all. This might by true but some scholars believe that this would be against their freedom to choose a place to publish their work. Others may also think that it is wise to allow authors to publish their work in the top-rank, toll access journals and promote self-archiving in Open Access repositories. Self-archiving is usually allowed after an embargo period, which can last from 6 months to 2 years. As Kent Anderson has stressed, the Wellcome Trust often pays thousand of dollars for immediate Open Access in journals which allow free self-archiving after an embargo period. There is some truth in it, but in fact research has shown that authors themselves are willing to pay for immediate Open Access, even if it is known that the article will be available for free after 6 months. Only the price is a problem. According to the PNAS survey from 2004 half of their authors “were willing to pay the extra charge, and the share of those willing to pay different levels showed a steep price elasticity (79% at 500 USD, 15% at 1,000 USD, 4% at 1,500 USD and 2% at 2,000 USD).” [2]

Hmm… almost no one wanted to pay as much as the Wellcome Trust usually do. Probably this is the reason why only one percent of all scientific articles are finally published in Open Access in hybrid journals. This is why I think that it is very probably that Open Access funders will try to proceed with one of the mentioned scenarios and all of us should prepare for it.

[image by rex-owen]

1 – Solomon DJ, Björk B-C. (2012) A Study of Open Access Journals Using Article Processing Charges. Journalof the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63(8):1485–1495 following Björk B-C. Solomon D. (2014) Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charge : 9

2 –Cozzarelli N, Fulton K, Sullenberger D. (2004). Results of a PNAS author survey on an open access option for publication, PNAS 2004 101(5), 1111. doi:10.1073/pnas.0307315101 following Björk B-C. Solomon D. (2014) Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charge: 14.

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