Future of Open Access Models

30 Aug 2012

This is the second of two posts on Open Access. The first post surveys recent open access developments in the UK and Europe. This post investigates how Gold Open Access and Green Open Access might complement each other during and after the Transition Period in ways acceptable to all stakeholders.


Recent developments in the UK and elsewhere have advanced open access (OA) into a new phase. Many governments and large institutions are recognizing OA as beneficial and are implementing policy to make OA for publicly funded research a reality. In effect, these developments provide a new lens through which to view the OA positions and literature. While OA for publicly funded research is a relatively agreeable position, expanding OA to encompass research without public or any funding is more complex, requiring policies and funding from individual institutions. Although these institutional policies require dedicated effort to be established and maintained, by requiring faculty to deposit articles, and ideally also providing funds to cover APC costs, they are essential building blocks for achieving OA. This post examines the various points at which OA policy can be implemented and funding distributed to harness the advantages of Gold and Green OA with the goal of sustainably maximizing access to research.

But First

Having surveyed much of the current discussion on OA, it would be useful to clarify a few points.

  1. OA will not eliminate costs. There is a lot of work that goes into scholarly publishing (see a condensed list or detailed report) and it's unreasonable to believe OA will not involve costs. Kevin Smith stated a while back that "open access is not a solution, per se, to the problem of journal costs, but it is a solution to the access problem that is created by skyrocketing prices." OA seeks to maximize access to research in ways that efficiently distributes costs and ensures that the proper mechanisms are in place to maintain high quality research outputs.
  2. There are many interpretations of OA. This is understandable as there are many flavors of OA (e.g. Green, Gold, gratis, libre, overlay, hybrid, etc) and many have overlapping qualities. Peter Suber's Open Access Overview is a useful guide that explains terms frequently used when discussing OA. For clarification, I'll mainly discuss Green and Gold, which I'll define here as:
    • Green: a freely accessible version of an article (it could be a pre-print, post-print, or the publisher's version) deposited in a repository (institutional or subject), with varying reuse permissions and embargo periods.
    • Gold: freely accessible articles published in open access journals, paid for by author processing charges (APCs) with no embargo period and varying rights permissions. Yes, there are other models for funding Gold besides APCs, and I'll address them.
  3. As noted above, much of the current discussion concerns publicly funded research and does not directly address research performed without funding or funded by non-public entities. While the issues involved in each are interdependent, the distinction should be noted.

This I Believe

I believe that a successful transition to OA will require the continued development of both Gold and Green OA. With that said, Gold should be the preferred model because it

  • Offers long term sustainability through a viable alternative business model
  • Allows publishers to continue generating the revenues and profits necessary to ensure high quality research outputs,
  • And is least disruptive for authors and provides access to the version of record.

Research funders should strongly recommend Gold and demonstrate this by paying the APC costs for the research they fund. Similarly, institutions of higher education (IHEs) should establish APC funds to promote a coordinated uptake of Gold, which will reduce costs during the Transition Period. However, Gold is not always an option and not all authors currently have access to APC funding. Thus, it's equally important that funders and IHEs require

  • Deposit of the accepted version of articles (i.e. post-print or publisher's version),
  • With reuse rights (either CC BY or CC BY NC),
  • A reasonable embargo period when necessary. There is not much convincing evidence on the impact of embargo lengths, but it seems that 6-12 months for science and 12-24 months for social sciences and humanities are appropriate embargo periods.
  • While Gold would be encouraged, when given the choice between Gold and Green, authors would be free to choose.

Green OA should be developed alongside Gold, as Peter Suber recently argued, it provides a "fast and inexpensive first step to assuring free online access to research," which will be especially helpful during the Transition Period. Since repositories are an established part of the scholarly infrastructure they should be leveraged to provide timely access, particularly in cases where Gold is not an option. It's unclear what role Green, Gold, and OA in general will play in coming years, so it's practical to continue to develop both models. Ivy Anderson calls this the "organismic view," where both Gold and Green evolve together so these organs will be ready when called upon. Similarly, the Publishing and the Ecology of European Research project produced some interesting speculation on future use of repositories as nodes in a "global knowledge infrastructure, where thousands of publication[s], data [sets], learning material[s] and other content provide a knowledge base which can be accessed and (re)used in seamless ways by researchers and the interested public."

A Word on APCs

It is widely agreed that the benefits of Gold OA depend heavily on the amounts charged for APCs, although there is debate over "true" APC costs. Part of this debate stems from, as the Study of Open Access Publishing project found, the fact that there is no one size fits all model for Gold OA because of the significant differences in practices and attitudes toward OA depending on country and discipline. Furthermore, there are differences in opinion on how the market will influence APC prices. There is little concrete evidence on how APC costs will evolve during the long transition to OA, but some argue that Gold gives publishers an unfair advantage to set arbitrarily high APC rates and thus replicate many of the same problems of the current system under a new guise. Conversely, others believe that market forces will keep the costs of Gold reasonable. For example, the Finch Report argues that libraries and IHEs can use their purchasing power to keep prices competitive, a view reiterated by Leslie Carr, who speculated that APC costs will be kept in line because publishers will "have to deal with every author of every research paper and justify their costs on a much greater scale." In 2009, Peter Suber articulated this idea in different words, stating that

Subscription journals don't compete on price because they don't compete for readers. ...Because different journals publish different papers, you must gain access to the ones you need even if they are expensive and even if there are free or affordable journals in the same field. But journals in the same field do compete for authors, even if they don't compete for readers...As soon as we shift costs from the reader side to the author side, then, we create market pressure to keep them low enough to attract rather than deter authors.

A recent study (preprint available) by Solomon and Björk examined the 1,370 journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals that charge APCs and found the average APC per article to be $904. This is well below many other estimates, which the authors speculate might be caused by the amount of publicity given to Public Library of Science and BioMed Central, which usually charge APCs in the $1,000-3,000 range. The $904 figure is well below the average APC cost used in some OA economic models, including ones by the Cambridge Economic Policy Associates, who did a study in 2011 (using £1,457 as the average APC cost) and also provided the modeling for the Finch report (using £1,450 as the average APC cost), and the Houghton report (£1,500-2000). These reports all found substantial benefits stemming from Gold when APC costs were below the average. This price difference suggests that there is currently a cushion in place that ensures up to a certain level that the benefits, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness of Gold will be realized if the average APC increases due to, for example, the conversion to Gold of high status journals.

Research Funders

Research funders will play an essential role in a large scale transition to OA because funders have the resources to pay APCs and the ability to establish and enforce sustainable OA policies. Such funding often comes from public coffers and this publicly funded research is increasingly being called upon to be made OA. This is a reasonable request and there are ways funders can allocate funds to have minimal impact on research budgets and set policies that sustainably maximize access to research. The Wellcome Trust offers an excellent model for other research funders to adopt with its well-informed OA policy, a clear procedure for paying APCs, and many helpful resources. Simple, clear policies such as Wellcome's are easier for other funders to adopt and would help enable a more coordinated global uptake of OA, which is necessary in order to reduce costs associated with the Transition Period. OA policies from research funders should include

  • A requirement to deposit the final version of an article (either post-print or publisher's version) in a repository,
  • Adequate funding to pay APCs and a strong preference (though not mandatory) for authors to publish Gold when given the option to publisher either Gold or Green,
  • Reuse rights, and
  • An acceptable embargo period if publishing Green.

To illustrate the flexibility of this model, I'll address a potential flaw put forward by Kent Anderson, who states:

Rational economics suggests that when a large and well-funded sponsor steps forward offering to pay for you [i.e. publishers] to get your work done, you rationally transfer all your costs to them.

Anderson suggests that Gold OA might invite publishers to set arbitrarily high APC prices, which would diminish the benefits of Gold and result in an inefficient system. By giving authors a choice between Gold and Green when both options are given, authors have the power to reject unreasonable APC prices. In the case that the journal only offers the Gold option (i.e. forbids Green or the author can't negotiate for Green), the author must publish in a different journal. While such an example would hinder an author who wishes to publish in that particular journal, it is an important check to prevent runaway costs. With that said, I agree with Suber's comment mentioned above that in a Gold model journals compete for authors because that is where revenues lie. If a high status journal sets an unreasonably high APC price because it feel authors will pay to have their work associated with the journal's imprimatur, then it stands to reason that other journals in the field might lower APC costs to attract these authors who can't or refuse to pay the high status journal's APC. Thus, the competing journals move into a position to increase their status at the expense of the (previously) high status journal.

Another way for funders to encourage Gold OA is to create separate budget lines in research grants for APC costs. This money should be made available to authors even after the rest of the grant money has been spent, and doesn't necessarily need to come from new allocations. The Research Councils UK, the UK’s chief research funding body, has been criticized for its APC funding model because no new money is allocated, thus APC funding takes money away from existing research budgets. The Finch report estimates that such a model would cost 1-2% of the UK's total research budget (similarly, the Wellcome Trust's APC fund is currently 1.25% of its research budget), which is certainly a real tradeoff but not so much that it would create a negative impact. In fact, the Houghton report estimates that the benefits of making research Gold OA outweigh the costs when up to 3.5% of research budgets are diverted to paying APCs.

The spread of research funder policies will alter the scholarly communication system, such as an increase in journals switching from reader pays to author pays models. If a journal goes fully Gold OA, it's effectively shut off to researchers without access to APC funds or who don't want to pay out of pocket the full APC for every article they publish. This creates a particular disadvantage for many groups, including graduate students and early career researchers, emeriti, staff and administrators, and independent researchers. Although not all of these groups rely on scholarly publishing to earn their livelihood (i.e. for tenure and promotion), a widespread uptake of Gold OA would hinder their ability to publish unless they had access to APC funds. Then there disciplinary differences - the sciences generally are more adequately funded than the social sciences and humanities and thus better equipped to pay APCs. These shortcomings are best addressed through institutional OA policies and funds.

It should also be noted that there are many Gold journals funded through means in addition to APCs, such as advertising and membership fees, and many of these models work particularly well for the circumstances of a given journal or publisher. Currently, most OA journals use models besides APCs, but it's likely this will change as more publicly funded research is required to go OA. As the Finch report notes,

The scale of the market means, however, that advertising and similar sources are unlikely to generate significant amounts of revenue for more than a small minority of journals. Hence business models are likely to be built around money provided either by author or readers, or those who provide funds on their behalf.

Institutional Funds and Policies

It is equally important for individual institutions to create OA policies and funds to complement those from research funders. While governments can mandate OA for publicly funded research they don't have the right to demand this from research not sponsored by the state. Individual IHEs, however, have the authority and resources to do so. While each university will create policies specific to its own needs, circumstances, and organizational culture, it would be most beneficial to create a fund to help researchers cover publication costs and a policy, just like for the funders, that includes the following points:

  • A requirement to deposit a version of the final articles (either post-print or publisher's version) in a repository
  • Adequate funding to pay APCs and a strong preference (though not mandatory) for authors to publish Gold when given the option to publisher either Gold or Green
  • Reuse rights
  • If publishing Green, an embargo period is permissible
  • If a university chooses not to fund publishing costs it can still increase access to its research output by requiring Green OA. However, this usually means pre-prints and can be problematic because it creates issues with version control as the pre-peer review version might be significantly different from the post-peer review version.

The Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity (COPE) is an useful model for providing institutional support for open access journals (although there are many types of institutional journal funds). COPE members commit to

the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in fee-based open-access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds.

One strength of the compact is that it allows for flexibility. For example, most signatories provide funding to non-faculty members, such as graduate students and staff. Some universities attempt to deter high APC costs by placing a per-article cap on funding. Similarly, Duke University's policy excludes reimbursement for articles published in hybrid journals whereas the University of Michigan will pay "the lesser of $1,000 or 50% of the publisher's fee" for hybrid journals. The flexibility of the COPE model allows each IHE to determine how it can most usefully contribute to OA publishing.

One option for generating institutional APC funds that has received little attention is to gradually transfer funds from library subscriptions budgets to institutional APC funds. Transferring the library serials budget to an APC fund is risky because, unless additional funds are set aside to cover the costs associated with the Transition Period (e.g. paying twice), this move will potentially result in a period of decreased access to research as subscriptions are cancelled in order to fill the fund. Such a paradox will likely draw criticism (having to cut access in order to expand access) and would require decisions to be made concerning which subscriptions should be cut as well as understanding the local and collective impact of these cuts. On the other hand, this option would send a strong message to publishers that IHEs support OA and are willing to take risks to achieve it and would pressure publishers to establish viable and competitive models for Gold OA.

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