Open access and the reality of getting from here to there.

Open access (OA) publishing* has long been touted as an important reform needed in academic publishing. OA is when an academic journal article is published under an open license like CC-BY or CC-BY-SA** or public domain and is made available to readers without a paywall. The benefits of OA are obvious. Anybody anywhere can read a scientific paper without having to pay or have a subscription. It is hard to disagree that on some fundamental level science publishing should be out in the open like this.  And on a practical level researchers without university affiliations and in countries with libraries that cannot afford subscriptions will clearly benefit. And it might solve the problem of journal subscription prices increasing at a rate much faster than inflation and breaking the backs of libraries since subscriptions go away. Despite its benefits, OA is not the world we are in today – the traditional model has been focused on a reader pays (subscription) model. But I have come to think that the forces aligned behind OA have become strong enough to push us part way there. So how do we get from one model to another?

To be clear up front, this is not about whether OA is good or bad, I have my own (of course balanced and nuanced!) opinion*** . But here I just want to stipulate that OA is a viable worthy model. Instead, I want to talk about what the transition from today to full OA will or could look like. This is suddenly very timely given several recent events in ecological publishing:

  • First, OA has received a huge push forward with the release of Plan S. This is a consortium of research funding agencies that have banded together to insist that the work they fund be published OA by 2020 (specifically gold OA, hybrid or delayed OA is unacceptable*). These funding agencies including the ERC (European Research Commission) and many individual European countries’ funding agencies (e.g. France, Netherlands, Norway, Ireland, UK) and several private trusts (Gates foundation, Wellcome Trust). The German, Chinese and Swedish research councils have also endorsed the principles but their commitment to execute them is less firm.
  • Second, one of ecology’s own, long-established journals (Diversity and Distributions or DD) has made a switch from a hybrid (primarily subscription) model to a gold OA model effective October 8, 2018. The APC (article processing charge) is $2,200 (with a 20% discount for members of the International Biogeography Society).  The initial proposal included waivers only for authors in very poor countries, but, when pushed by the editorial team, Wiley adopted the policy that “Ability to pay the APC should not be a barrier to the publication of important science. Authors without funding for publication charges will be provided with a waiver of the APC.” Such a waiver policy is common for a non-profit society journal APC, but it is among the more generous available from a for-profit publisher. The publishers will also be opening up all back-issues as OA. (NB: I am well aware of further recent controversy around this journal but that is not on the topic of this post and I will stick to the OA aspects here).
  • Third, Dan Bolnick’s blog post on just how much he has spent on APC in recent years also opened eyes. And pointed out that even if you have grants, APC charges can add up enough that they can realistically reduce funds spent on actually doing (as opposed to publishing research). A year’s worth of APC charges can put a serious dent in even, say, a Canadian NSERC grant that is typically a few $10,000s or a US NSF small grant of $135,000 (which boils down to probably $30,000 spent in each of 3 years after overhead).

Across these three events there is a clear trend towards more OA. There are clear OA upsides in these events. But these events have also forced ecologists to look at the reality of OA, and to start to notice some of the downsides as well. Specifically and prominently, APC charges that are often over $2,000 dollars and usually over $1,200 (and sometimes over $5,000 even in non-predatory OA journals like Nature Communications)****, which means that many, many people could not publish in such an OA journal. Including those who invested sweat equity as reviewers or past associate editors. An APC (without a proper waiver policy) exposes a strong line between those who have a big grant and those who do not have a grant or who have a poorly funded grant. Longstanding fears around OA begin to feel real such as:

  • OA exacerbates the divide between academics who have or have not (specifically those having a rich-country grant can publish easier, which makes it easier to get another grant, which makes it easier to publish more, and etc.). Those without large grants are left out in the cold. Although many are quick to acknowledge the challenges in relatively poorer countries (including many important contributors to the literature) where large grants flat out don’t exist, the reality is also that many very good, frequently publishing individual researchers in the US and UK spend much of their careers without a grant too and most Canadian researchers are funded but at levels that don’t admit for a lot of OA publishing. While not everybody in continental Europe has a grant, I think it is a fair characterization that right now grant funding rates are higher and there is much more institutional funding for infrastructure-like needs such as APC. I think it is not a coincidence that the heart of the push for OA has been continental Europe.
  • Once APC charges get above a few hundred dollars, it is not realistic to use an individual paying out of their own pocket as a backup plan. An occasional desperate early career researcher might pay $2,000, but they are the ones least able to pay. And of course nobody should have to pay even a few hundred dollars out of their own pocket to publish.
  • The only alternative to grant-funded OA is a departmental or university fund and these have been scarce to materialize despite a lot of talk. If you had to obtain $2,000 today to publish OA from your own university, what are the odds you could do it? And then do it again next year?
  • The ethical downsides of having a journal funded by authors hovers over the discussion of OA as well (although not specifically over any of the three news events I mentioned above). The specter of predatory OA publishers with embarassingly porous peer review is part of a larger shades-of-gray spectrum exploring what will happen if you give authors the power to fund the journal that decides whether or no tot publish that author.

This is not to argue that OA is bad (or good). What really interests me, and what I think proponents on all sides of the OA debate need to start thinking about, is what the transition from a more traditional subscriber model to an OA model looks like. As the Plan S and Diversity and Distribution news stories and Bolnick post show, OA is gaining momentum. Those who could in the past ignore OA no longer can. So the question of what a half-way world with a mix of traditional and OA journals looks like is a timely question (it is the world of the next 5 years at least).

And I think the answer is that it looks exactly and literally like moving from one fitness peak to another, with a fitness valley in between.

The 100% reader pays (left) peak is the traditional world (e.g. academic publishing in 1990). Library subscriptions and individual author subscriptions as part of their society memberships fund most of the costs of publication. Color figure charges or per text page charges might have been charged to authors, but those were small (several hundred dollars) and structured to incentive authors to behave responsibly (limit color figures and page counts). This model was viable for decades.

The 100% author pays (OA) peak on the right is presumably equally viable. Libraries could drop the enormous (ever increasing at a rate much faster than inflation) subscription fees they pay. Instead universities (and other institutions) could redirect all of that subscription money to pay the APC charges for their researchers.  In principle this could be a zero-sum game where we spend the same amount to publish as we do today, but it is all OA. Thus this demonstrably a feasible approach.

But if we continue the analogy of evolution on an adaptive landscape, we cannot just jump from one peak to other (unless we are a saltationist). Very much like evolution, our complex adaptive publishing ecosystem may have a long-term optimality principle, but it moves in small steps and is based on the fitness of individual actors.  If we lived in a dictatorship or even an oligopoly of research funding groups, perhaps we could jump peaks. But the reality is that there are many dozens of national government funding agencies (in the US alone we have four major players even at the national government level: NSF, NIH, NASA, and USDA with NOAA, SBA and others also providing funding). And then there are regional, state, and provincial agencies and private trusts. And a good deal of research is funded directly by individual universities (and other employers of scientists like government departments). And much existing reading of scholarly literature is funded by university libraries. No major US, Canadian, Australian, Japanese etc government research funding agency has announced plans to participate in Plan S. Nor have any states, provinces or most private trusts or NGOs. And what about less-rich countries (that are an important and growing part of the author pool) that now has to pay for their researchers to publish? I cannot conceive of a world where all of these hundreds (thousands?) of organizations manage to unite and agree on an instantaneous and painless transition to a shared vision of the future (whatever it might be). It is inconceivable that we will not enter an accidental, unplanned, many-actors muddle. We are doing that as we speak.

And once in a mixed world, strong inertial forces will keep us in the middle. As long as there are still free to publish-in (i.e. old model subscriber-based) journals, universities will not have to step up and fund their researchers for APC chargers. This has been one of the major failures of the move to OA to date. Universities and governments have been very eager to adopt policies to mandate OA but have been much worse at finding funding to pay for it. Indeed, many universities have seemed naive about just how much it would cost to move to OA – throwing a tiny fraction of the money needed out there and thereby unintentionally creating fierce internal competition for limited OA publication funds. Plan S calls for funding APC for researchers, but it provides few details about how to make this happen when the funding agency didn’t provide the funding. Again, in theory, if universities stopped paying subscription fees and started paying APC fees, it could be a zero sum game, but I cannot imagine how this could be coordinated.

Equally, as long as subscription models are viable, publishers (and societies) will be slow to risk switching journals that have been profitable for a long time to OA. Many society journals and many for-profit publishers of must-read journals (e.g. Nature) are not signalling any enthusiasm for dropping subscription fees and switching in a couple of years to OA. OA has been much more a new journal phenomenon than a switching existing journals phenomenon (the example of DD notwithstanding). Plan S calls for subscription journals to switch to OA, but again it does not provide any details of how this will happen.

The result for some time is going to be a mixed ecosystem where some journals are subscription based and some are gold OA with hefty APC charges. Could this be good for individual researchers? To put it simply, I don’t think so. I think this will be hell. The mixed state is likely to exaggerate all of the rich-get-richer issues of OA. Those with money will know they can get in an OA journal while those without will have to compete to get into what might be a dwindling pool of free-to-publish subscriber-based journals (which in any case is by definition a smaller pool of journals than those with grants can get into). Even for a well-funded researcher, one is going to have start carefully managing “this paper was funded by a Plan S agency, so it has to go to gold OA,  and this paper was not funded by a Plan S agency so do I really want to pay $3000 to publish it?” And on this 10 author paper my funding was Plan S so it has to go gold OA, but the first and senior author didn’t have funding and aren’t in a country that pays OA fees, so am I going to pay $3,000 for a paper where I am 5th out of 10 authors? Getting published in a good journal is hard enough without having to play these games! Its hard to imagine a world where anything dominates choices about which journal to submit to more than impact factor (wrong-headed though that is), but the Plan S world just might push the OA/author-pays vs traditional/reader pays criterion higher than IF!

So it seems to me that if we want to get to the OA peak, we necessarily must descend into the connecting valley to get across (and unlike in evolution it is not a foregone conclusion that we will climb back out of the valley and reobtain a peak). And it seems to me inarguable that this valley has a noticeably lower relative fitness for researchers (and universities and publishers). And it seems to me that we will spend a long time in this suboptimal valley.

Again this is not a knock on OA, nor those trying to get there.The Plan S push is well intentioned and may ultimately prove to be judged brilliant in hindsight******, but in the short-term it has committed us irrevocably to leaving the left peak and hoping we make it across to the right peak. The Diversity and Distributions story I believe is also well-intentioned (if imperfectly executed). These show that even when the destination is good (OA with a good waiver policy or funding for APC*****), change is always painful and disruptive, and creates new winners and losers in the new world. And so we all need to get real serious real fast about the transition or we could find everything worse for almost everybody.

I want to be clear that this painful valley pinches all players. It is pinching publishers, universities and granting agencies as well as researchers and scholarly readers. Nobody knows where we will end up. Everybody is going to feel pain during the transition. This is not a case of one group forcing its goals on another. And indeed the point is no one entity (or even whole stakeholder group) can drive this change alone. Instead everybody knows they are not in control of events and, so, is trying to hedge their bets. Ironically – and this is a key point – hedging bets prolongs the time we spend in the suboptimal valley and prolongs the pain for everybody even if bet hedging is individually rational.

What do you think? Have I painted an overly pessimistic picture? Is a half-way world actually painful as I claimed or could such a diverse publishing model be a healthy ecosystem for all the stakeholders (authors, readers, publishers, universities, libraries, funding agencies)? Or is the OA peak worth the pain to get there? How could we minimize the time (and pain) in transition? Or should we throw on the brakes to forcing OA?

*OA actually comes in several flavors or “colors”. Gold OA is when a whole journal functions on an OA (author pays, no paywall to access model). Hybrid OA is when the journal has a reader-pays subscription but individual authors can pay to bump their own article up to OA. Platinum OA is when a 3rd party funds the costs and neither author nor reader pays. Green OA is when the journal is behind a paywall but authors can put their PDF on their own website (legally). Delayed OA is when an article is behind a paywall for a fixed period of time (6-18 months usually) and then becomes OA.

**Note that no serious OA journal uses the CC-BY-NC or CC-BY-SA-NC (non-commercial flavors). There are good reasons for this; NC is very problematic. And even SA puts a serious crimp in the spirit of open access. Most OA is just CC-BY.

*** My opinion is that the OA debate is in the end about who pays (author vs. reader) and that other issues like how much you pay, who you pay, and ancillary policies like Green OA (posting a pdf on your website), deposition with JSTOR (which is not technically OA because it has small sliding fees), etc are all much more important than OA.

**** there are some notable exceptions to high APC charges like PeerJ and Frontiers in Biogeography which are a few $100s and Evolutionary Ecology Research which is $1,000 but has very many routes to waivers including if your library subscribes to the journal ( Which all said (if I want to be in I-told-you-so mode) highlights my opinion in the previous footnote that how much you pay matters as much or more than who pays.

***** the split between addressing APC charges by waivers vs. researcher funding is a whole addition muddle that is going to cause a lot of pain. If Plan S countries like, e.g., France step up and fund APC charges how incentivized are they going to be to push for good waiver policies? Where does a lack of focus on waiver policies leave researchers without APC funding?

****** Plan S also includes demands for full access to all code and data and proper metadata. Surely good things, but also not trivial things. Separate efforts have been working at (and making progress at) open code and open data for years but are not yet there. I cannot imagine how one initiative can enforce all of these issues.

Full disclosure: I am editor-in-chief of Global Ecology and Biogeography which is a traditional hybrid OA (primarily subscriber-paid) model. Diversity and Distributions is a sister journal that I work closely with. Both are owned by Wiley. All opinions in this blog are my own.

48 thoughts on “Open access and the reality of getting from here to there.

  1. There is no doubt that governments and universities need to support a transition phase, to avoid loading the costs on the hard fought (and often too small) external grants. This move necessitates decisions by the university leaderships, which involves both fighting the high fees and supporting OA publication. The fight from some European countries against the extensive publication fees from Elsevier is one such example. Our university decided to use the money saved in that process to fund all APC’s for gold OA. It seems that this decision will become permanent. While this approach may not be possible for those universities that today subscribe to few journals, it indicates that a successful move towards OA necessitates that university leaderships and governments need to consider alternative ways to financing publication costs.

    • That’s great to hear of a university that is stepping up to pay for OA APC. I am guessing it is in continental Europe, which would prove my point. I have yet to hear of a US, Canadian or UK university that has fully stepped up to pay for all APC charges from all of its researchers. You can get into all sorts of historical/cultural/sociological reasons why this might be. But on some level I fear it may split the research community on this issue.

      • Here at Calgary we’re in the same boat as I suspect many N. American institutions are. We have a fund that will pay open access APCs, but only for authors who sign a form saying they have no other means to pay. And our library still subscribes to many journals.

      • Jeremy & Mike – yes these kind of partially funded APC programs match my sense of what is typical in North America.

  2. Outstanding post! No doubt OA is a very complex issue. I love your optimality approach. Here, in developing countries such as Brazil, rising APCs and pressure for OA in public funded projects is indeed increasing the Matthew Effect. Institutional funding for publication is very, very scarce, and scholarships and salaries are much lower than in developed countries. Even the few scientists who get grants from funding agencies would have no money for carrying out research in the first place, if they needed to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for each paper published. As an example, a typical 3-year federal grant for young PIs who’ve just founded their labs is around 8k dollars. A typical starting package for newly-hired professors in top universities is around 4k dollars. And many international top tier journals are shrinking their lists of “waiver-deserving poor countries”. In the end, I like to believe that disruptive initiatives, such as SciHub, might do for science what Napster did for music. Preprints, as well as novel preprint peer review systems, might also disrupt the status quo. The academic publication system will change dramatically soon and nobody knows for sure where it is going to.

    • I think Google Scholar and the fact that over 50% of papers searched for come back pointing to a PDF is the fundamental disruptive force that is probably very analogous to Napster.

      Unfortunately, I think one result of this disruption has been to push publishers to OA to capture their money up front so they don’t have to care if subscription paywalls are working or not.

      And you raise a very important point. I think a lot of people think anybody outside of North America/Europe/Australia/New Zealand is likely to get a fee waiver on APC. But if you look at the actual policies, it often is only the 30-50% poorest countries, most of whom basically publish no science. All those countries that are such an important growing part of the publishing ecosystem like Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, etc are rarely granted fee waivers and face the same $2000 APC charges that are hard to cover even in rich countries.

      That’s why I think the fee waiver policy that the editorial staff at Diversity in Distributions negotiated with Wiley is such a big deal – it is a much more viable model but not yet very widespread outside of some society journals.

  3. Two issues here: (1) Are journal publishers taking unjustified profits? And (2) Who should pay the price of access, and what are the implications?

    Whatever one’s views on OA, it’s not clear that OA will stop or slow some publishers from charging exorbitant fees to produce journals. Indeed, it might exacerbate the problem by providing funds that are not as responsive to supply and demand.

    In OA, the authors – or, in reality, their institutions or funding agencies – pay for all the costs of publication; in non-OA, members of scientific societies and the readers of journals (including libraries) bear part of the costs. OA is a system that invites cheating: universities or national funding agencies that support OA subsidize those that do not, and as a result of supporting OA have less money to support other educational or research missions. Cheaters might suffer from reduced access to their researchers’ papers – but that’s fine, because that’s the status quo. Any consideration of OA must, IMO, address this fundamental problem. How much money do you want NSF or NERC to divert from direct research support into OA? I say this at a moment when US scientific research funding is under attack, Centres of Excellence in Canada are being cut, and Australian support for science has just been slashed.

  4. Here’s another related issue with OA. You may have publication costs incorporated in your grant, or some money left over for them, but publication occurs after the grant has expired. In that case, you pay for pubs from older projects with money in current grant accounts or you find some way to “park” money from an expiring project so it is available later*, or you work out a trade with someone else (I’ll pay your pub fees now, if you’ll pay mine later), or you request a no-cost extension primarily to use the $3000 you have left in pub fees (not sure how funders look at that), or you find some other creative solution. The mismatch between publication timelines and grant periods creates an additional hurdle for OA. If libraries funded that, I suppose this issue would be solved.

    Regarding “university pays OA” the next problem that will crop up is that universities will then start placing restrictions on where the money goes that may be detrimental to both the scientist and the field. For example, if you do tropical research, then publishing in the Journal of Tropical Ecology or Biotropica might be better than other higher impact journals with a more general audience. Somewhere a university bureaucrat will make some policy that only journal impact factor greater than X are eligible for OA fee payments. Maybe this is part of the muddy middle of the fitness curve, but I suspect it’s an additional “feature” that’ll be present at the second peak, reducing max fitness.

    Regarding Tom’s comment above. Absolutely publishers are making obscene profits. Thomson Reuters is full of cash. The content of journals comes to them for free. The QA/QC is also free. This is certainly partly why for-profit scientific publishers worked with various US Congressman to pass a bill that would override open access policies of NIH, etc. Luckily, those efforts failed, but they were bipartisan — first sponsored by either John Dingell or Conyers in Michigan (both out of Congress now) and later by a Republican in Pennsylvania whose name I forget at the moment.

    What would be interesting would be if there was mandate to move publicly funded research solely to OA non-profit publication venues.

  5. Thanks Brian for the thoughtful and nuanced post. However, I will argue one point – “This is not a case of one group forcing its goals on another.”  Some OA advocates very much seek to force their goals on others. And those goals seem less about open-science sharing than some sense of social justice. Usually the script reads that it’s wrong that science supported in part by public funds, and vetted by unpaid reviewers isn’t free for all the public to read. Then the profitability of Elsevier will be invoked in the next breath. The importance of open-science  (sharing data and code) to further advances gets little mention, if at all from the OA believers. And underlying assumption seems to be that some central benefactor other than the author will pay the APC fees, and that from the grace of that beneficent funder, there will be no commensurate reduction in funds available to collect/analyze samples, conduct the research, travel and present at conference. (It’s not just the name “Plan S” that for me brings to mind Plan 9 from Outer Space, or its wackier namesake Plan 10 from Outer Space. It’s the plan itself.)  Further, the Plan S architects disallow supporting author’s APC fees for hybrid journals, which indicates it’s not about the science being open, it’s about jamming through a specific vision for how science should be published.

    There were some good discussions over at Scholarly Kitchen on Plan S’s implications for society publishers. They could be collateral damage in the rush to push aside the for-profit Elsevier et al.’s subscription model for the for-profit Frontiers et al. OA model. I think society publishers have more opportunity and need to be part of the discussion on how to improve access, instead of just complaining about the flaws of Plan S. For example, if they allowed their back files (2-5 year old articles) to be OA, that would still preserve their value for new material for subscribers and members. Yet non-members/non-subscribers can usually find an author a few years after publication to request a copy. Not so with older literature, where authors may have retired or died but which is still of critical importance.


    • Lots of good points. I pretty much agree with everything. I think you’re right that some OA advocates have a bit of magical thinking invoking diamond or platinum OA where the publication costs are paid by neither reader nor author. This does not seem like a scalable or realistic model at all. Anybody who actually cares about academic publishing whether it is libraries or funding agencies or universities or individual academics is already investing in the research enterprise. So paying for publishing is going to be a zero-sum game on the research enterprise across that group.

      And I think you’re right to worry that society journals which should be a big part of the solution risk getting crushed instead.

      • I can’t find the link now but several people have done this analysis and (IIRC) using an APC from then then price for PLOS One they concluded that publishing every paper as Gold OA (at the chosen price/APC) was significantly smaller than the total value of library subscriptions. Now, we can argue that these back of the envelop calculations are subject to a good deal of uncertainty (not least because we don’t know how much exactly is paid in library subscriptions, and perhaps the APC chosen was too low as most journals have increased these in the intervening years), but I think it is clear that there is enough public money currently spent on library subscriptions that we could publish all papers that researchers are currently churning out.

        It is not a zero-sum game; it might be in terms of the total cost (although see above) for the same amount of money every single human being on the planet could read every paper, there would be no restrictions on using computers to mine the literature, etc. This is only a zero-sum game if we focus entirely on cost and not what society as a whole gets for that amount of money.

      • @Gavin
        Thanks – i more or less stipulated or assumed that a full transfer of subscription funds to researchers to pay for OA APC could work. But mostly my main point is not that this cannot work money-wise. It is that I see no way for it to work social-institution wise. How exactly do you envision getting everybody on board to make the switch instantly on say Dec 31, 2019? And if you cannot do that, what errors do you find in my arguments that a gradual transition could be bad for a lot of people?

        As a lesser side note, I would suggest using PLOS One APC is probably too aggressive. It is lower than most of the types of journals most publications most people reading this are publishing in. You can argue about the reasons, but some of them like funding the good work of scientific societies and having journals with acceptance rates that are not in the ball park of 100% are valid in my opinion.

    • @Chris I (clearly) have no idea who you have been reading or discussing with that gives you the impression that that they are for OA as some form of social justice. I do feel that the discussion has moved on now from justifying that OA is a good thing (in terms of open access to science) and has moved on to critiquing the way the system has moved on.

      Those behind Plan-S specifically mention that the reason they aren’t going to support the Hybrid journal model is that it has fundamentally failed to change the publishing system in the manner that they wanted, which is to have affordable OA. These STEM publishers have continued to make the same levels of profit and subscriptions to their big deals have not declined and yet there is additional money in the system in the form of elevated APCs.

      • @Gavin – “[hybrid OA] has fundamentally failed to change the publishing system in the manner that they wanted”

        Yes – and who did they consult in making that decision? Clearly not the vast majority of DE readers based on a poll Jeremy ran a while ago (as unscientific as that may be its more representative than counting loud opinions on twitter). Clearly not the North American funding agencies or Latin American funding agencies or a lot of other people (per recent news piece in Science). And what gives them the right to force what they want at the expense of what other people want?

        The rejection of Hybrid, Green, and time-walled OA by Plan S makes it pretty blatant that plan S is by people not satisfied with getting their publications available for reading by anybody without charge but are actively needing and desiring to force everybody else to do it their way whether they want to or not.

        Personally, I think if you cannot convince everybody of the superiority of your ways and compete and win on a level playing field, maybe those ideas aren’t as great as some people think they are. I thought monopolistic power was one of the things OA was supposed to free us from?

      • But they’re not Brian. They’re just saying that Hybrid OA hasn’t resulted in the goals they set themselves, which is to have reasonable OA outlets for the science that they’ve already funded. Importantly, it is up to them to decide how much they want people to pay so that anyone can read the results of research they fund. You’d have thought that with all the money going into Hybrid OA papers that subscription prices would have come down but that hasn’t happened. I think it is entirely appropriate that these funders say to those taking their money to do research that they have to abide by some rules.

        Why should this be anything to do with those people not in receipt of funds from those backing Plan-S? On their own, these funders don’t fund enough to force all journals to move to OA. We’re all currently playing by rules put in place by the big publishers because academia ceded responsibility to the big publishers. Why should we continue playing by those rules? Did anyone ask the funders if this was OK? Did they are you, me? No. Did they ask those researchers from lower-income countries if this was OK? No.

        Green OA has catagorically not been rejected by Plan-S. As you can see <a href=";?in section 2 here. I have no idea what time-walled OA is (beyond those jokers at some journals that tried to convince scientists to pay APCs for an embargoed product) unless you are referring to free-to-read?

        Again, I have a very different take on this; those behind Plan S want to see a sustainable publishing system because the researchers they fund need access to the literature (and getting that is increasingly difficult for little apparent reason beyond excessive profits at the big STEM publishers) and they want as many people to benefit from the research they fund as is possible.

        Hybrid OA hasn’t achieved that goal despite them sinking money into the system. They could just say everyone has to publish in The Journal, but they haven’t gone that far. This is a compromise on their part.

        The problem is now how do journals respond if they want to keep on publishing the outputs from these funders. That’s up to those journals; we’ve been living on borrowed time regarding the current publishing model for too long. It is high time we took a long hard look at ourselves and the complete mess we have made out of this system, and fix it now, because it is fundamentally broken.

  6. Academics do have some leverage–we review articles in for profit journals for free. For me this typically is +/- 10 hours of work per manuscript.

    I am not sure of the most responsible way to apply this leverage. Maybe we should simply stop reviewing for expensive for profit journals. Maybe we should negotiate a credit system where working as a reviewer can be reimbursed through publication fee credits.

  7. To me it seems obvious that the money universities are paying for subscriptions now needs to be transitoned into paying for APC. What would the net difference in cost be? And how might it vary among institutions? A small university, or a teaching university, without a lot of researchers publishing like mad might actually save money. A big university that is publishing thousands of papers a year might see its costs go up…? It shouldn’t be that hard for any given university to figure this out.

    I suspect the bigger challenge will be getting universities to take collective action. So far, the publishers have been very effective in blocking collective action by the universities. For example, they only negotiate with individual universities, not groups of them. My library dean said these practices are pretty clear violations of anti-trust laws, but apparently anti-trust cases are very hard to win and public universities can’t afford to go up against the big corporations. I agree that the transition you describe will be painful, but pain is easier to endure when you know you are not in it alone and that it is for a good cause. If my university told me that we were giving up subscriptions in order to fund OA, and that lots of other universities were taking the same steps, I would support the move and I would be hopeful that other faculty would as well.

    • Would you really be OK if your library told you you would no longer have access to Ecology, Ecology Letters, Oikos, the BES journals, Science, Nature, PNAS, PRSLB, etc and would redirect that money to letting you pay to publish in Nature Communications, Science Reports, PLOS, Ecosphere, Diversity and Distributions and a bunch of more predatory OA journals?

      I wouldn’t.

      Don’t you fear sinking the ship of all the society journals (as Chris raises above)?

      • Regarding access: It’s not too hard to find most articles online, and if you can’t, you email the author. I’d swallow that pill if I knew others were on board and I thought it would speed up the transition.

        Regarding the limited list of where you could publish: Most journals that aren’t strictly OA still have an OA option, so the list would be much longer. And if there really was a coordinated push, I suspect the journal policies would change quickly. As you’ve written about, the core issue is variation across journals in how much it costs to publish an article. I could see friction if the universities try to discourage authors from publishing in expensive but desirable outlets. But that seems like a smaller problem than the big issue of how to manage the transition.

        One advantage I see of the OA model over the current model is that it makes the core issue of cost more transparent. Right now, most authors have no idea how much libraries pay in subscription fees to different publishers for different journals, and no idea about the outrageous inflation in those fees. Even to those who know, the issue feels abstract. If authors are handling the APC bills, on the other hand, it’s no longer so abstract, even if we can access a university fund to cover the charges. I think it would give authors more incentive to exercise the leverage they have.

      • I agree with Brian to some extent. But, below I suggest an alternative way for universities to fight publishers, while the universities still provide staff access to these journals.

      • “Regarding the limited list of where you could publish: Most journals that aren’t strictly OA still have an OA option, so the list would be much longer. ”

        That may be your vision. But Plan S is very explicitly about destroying the hybrid OA you describe. It would without hesitation squash every society journal that has not switched to 100% OA only by 2020. See the link to ASLO Jeremy posted below.

    • I don’t know if it’s true that universities don’t have the financial muscle to take on the publishing industry.

      Univ of Wash, for example, had a $7.5B budget a year or two ago. The company that owns Elsevier had an annual revenue (for all divisions, not just Elsevier) last year of $10B, so the two are in the same financial class. But I’ll guess there are 20 universities in North America alone that have >$5B budget, while the academic publishing industry *might* have five companies of that scale, but probably not.

      Whatever the exact numbers, on a collective basis at any rate, I don’t think the publishing industry is any match for the academic behemoth.

      • @Jim – most of the $7.5B budget at UW is the medical operation which includes several hospitals. The core university budget is more like $1.5B, and the vast majority of that is salaries. Total library budget (which again I expect is a majority devoted to salaries) is $40M. Given that universities have been unable to contain journal subscription costs growing at a high multiplier of the rate of inflation, I think it is clear that university libraries do NOT have the economic might to take on the publishers. The only times they have any effect has been when all the libraries in Germany or all the libraries in California (both very large economies) join together. Which really takes me back to the main post – change is going to be muddled and mixed because humans don’t do coordinated action globally across thousands of institutions.

      • Yes, thanks Brian, I looked up a number of schools’ budgets and was curious why UW was much larger that, for example, UT Austin. Later it occurred to me that it might be medical – UW clinics are common in the area. But I did find several other public institutions w/ >$5B budgets, which led to the 20 guess, which seems large now.

  8. The main problem in low and specially in middle income countries is that Universities or research agencies don’t always pay for subscriptions to all journals, so it’s not a zero sum game in that case. In the pay-wall sustem researchers from these countries usually used their international contact networks to get a hold of those papers. In my experience with waivers, it’s extremely difficult and usually partial waivers that still act as a barrier to publish. I really worry about the gap getting wider.

    • “I really worry about the gap getting wider.”

      Me too. Academics tend to be not very cognizant of unintended consequences and I think this is a clearly very likely chance in the push for OA that not enough people are worried about.

  9. The way to make this happen is a group of elite universities create the following policy

    “Academic staff at our university are only allowed to use university resources to peer-review for journals that meet the following criteria _[insert list]_. Academics are of course free to review for other journals off campus, on their own time, without using our resources (e.g. library subscriptions, university computers etc.)”

    The criteria could include: the journal
    1. Is OA (or has an OA option)
    2. Provides the author (or university) discounts for OA charges if the author peer-reviews papers for that journal.
    3. Has a transparent and justifiable OA charge compared to the publisher’s profit margin

    Since the University pays the peer-reviewer’s salary, they have a lot of power, and I think this would be a reasonable policy. It would, of course, be impossible to enforce (and I don’t think you’d want to enforce it). But simply having this policy would probably really affect the peer-review process at a journal that didn’t try to behave. Even as an ECR I get enough peer-review request these days that I have started to have to reject some. I’m looking for excuses to turn down requests. If I knew there was a group of journals I was expected to not peer-review for, I’d probably oblige.

    Universities should feel burned that the publishing industry is using labor they pay for and then selling it back to them for an exorbitant price.

    • I think everybody agrees on the last point – universities should feel burned.

      The problem is not everybody agrees what to do about it. And in particular, I don’t necessarily agree with your (or Plan S) solution. Nature Communication is a perfectly legitimate publication but they charge >$5000. I don’t know how you enforce a “fair profit” clause – profits are a slippery, multiple-valid-definitions thing accountants on the inside of a company have much more knowledge and therefore ability to paint a particular view than accountants on the outside will ever have.

      I would much rather using whatever hammer people think most effective to allow researchers only to publish in “journals whose independently estimated total cost per page is under 80 cents (2006 dollars – See Bergstrom & Bergstrom 2006) and makes all issues available free or at minimal infrastructure costs (e.g. JSTOR) within 2 years of publication. We support a diversity of funding models from author pays to reader pays. Our primary concern is that we not pay exorbitant amounts of money.” That’s it. Control the costs and you’re done. And you’ve automatically but not directlyor absolutely favored society journals (

      So that is the real issue with things like Plan S (or your plan). Is there is not anything like a strong consensus (I’m not sure there is even a majority consensus) for them. While OA is well intentioned, I think it is attacking the wrong problem. I think it is very revealing that Plan S is attacking Hybrid OA. If their only goal was to make sure work they fund is OA then hybrid would be fine. By trying to eliminate hybrid OA they are very much trying to force their view and a single very specific model on everybody else.

  10. Like many things in life, it boils down to “who pays”. Because if you want quality publishing standards, professional editorial services, good distribution networks etc, then it’s going to cost money. There is another aspect here too. How many people actually benefit from open access? I have non-academic friends who are perpetually bitching about how so much researhc is behind a pay wall, but usually all they have to do is email the corresponding author and they’ll get a pdf file. Reader pay models are hardly leak proof. So for me, as a holder of pretty small grants or no grants, it is a no brainer to publish with, say, an Elsevier journal, and anyone who wants a pdf can just email me or contact me through research gate.

    Furthermore, it’s not immediately clear to me that a university would realise savings from going open access. If there are thousands of papers published per year, then your talking millions or even tens of millions in “open access” fees. Some cost benefit analysis woud seem to be in order.

    Finally, maybe everyone’s trying to publish too much? But that is another topic for another day.

    • I agree that asking who pays is most constructive. There seems to be a lot of magical thinking in the OA world that we can publish for free or very cheaply. But serious studies have shown that a reasonable average cost to publish BEFORE profits is about $3,000. And yes I know many journals have APC much cheaper than that. Some of them are loss leaders for future profits (PLOS, eLife?). Some of them provide much lower standards of copy editing and typesetting and archiving than we are used to (PeerJ). Maybe that is the right choice, but it needs to be discussed openly as “will we lower the quality of the journals to save money”. But most of the examples people cite are very much keeping costs down because a handful of academics are so devoted to the journal that they donate huge amounts of time doing things that are paid for by journal fees at most places. Kudos to those individuals, but its not clear that is a truly scalable model.

      I completely agree that universities could end up losing out of OA – I know many universities that started out saying we will subsidize all OA charges and then watched with dismay as their total costs raced up to unsustainable levels and had to back off their commitments.

      • @Brian Some comments on your characterisation of PeerJ here.

        PeerJ’s APC is much higher than you claim; currently it is $1095. They do have a membership model ($399, $449, $499 for 1, 2, or 5 papers per year) but all authors on a paper need to have one of these one-off payments (I got mine when it was $299 [iirc] for unlimited papers so I lucked out!).

        Some of them provide much lower standards of copy editing and typesetting and archiving than we are used to (PeerJ) Which of these three areas are you suggesting PeerJ provides substandard service? I happen to think PeerJ’s papers are nicely typeset and look attractive. They use industry standard archival methods (see for example and )

        I haven’t yet gone through the final stages of publication with them; we have a paper in revision there (having received one of the most competent sets of reviews I have ever had from any journal, closed or open access). So perhaps your critique is with the copy-editing? But what copy-editing gets done these days at the majority of journals? More and more of the copy-editing is being passed on to authors; At a society journal published by Wiley and which has page charges colleagues and I were told to put DOIs on all relevant cited articles as they publishers were no longer doing this. More often than not I’ve had errors inserted into my manuscripts by these so-called copy-editors and this has happened at all manner of journal types. Perhaps the journal you edit is different?

        For the record I have zero affiliation with PeerJ.

      • @Gavin – thanks for updating my knowledge on PeerJ. Clearly I am dated on both the APC and the level of service. I was indeed thinking of the $295 lifetime publication model.

        I would be the first to agree that copyediting and typesetting is a very mixed bag these days even at some of the more expensive journals (of either reader pays or author pays flavor). But when you run into great copy editing you realize what you’re missing. My best experiences have been at AmNat, AJB and EER.

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  13. [I’m only just getting to this as my end of semester was bonkers.] Thanks for this Brian, whilst I might (and do) quibble with the way some elements were presented, this is one of the more reasoned and reasonable posts on OA and the implications of Plan-S etc.

    The cost of publishing has to be a consideration in any discussion. Why does it cost the AAAS or Springer Nature $5000+ to publish in Science Advances or Nature Communications? Is this the true cost? A look at Science Advances website shows that they have a significant number of staff and licence images for front covers of journals that never get published as such. This cost is clearly what the publishers have decided to charge and must be a reflection also of what they believe the market will bear. When the UK House of Lord’s was hearing arguments regarding RCUK’s plan to move to a Gold OA model some years back the then editor of Nature suggested an APC of $10000+ as a ball park to publish in Nature if it went Gold OA and dropped subscriptions. Of course, Nature has to employ a staff of science journalists etc and it is clear that the (imaginary, ballpark) APC is then being used to fund stuff that may be valuable but which isn’t necessary for publishing a paper per se.

    At the other end of the scale we have publishers like Ubiquity Press. Their APC is $550. OK, Ubiquity’s journals don’t have the IF of Nature, Science and their other glamour journals but if Ubiquity can publish a paper for that amount of money and do it sustainably, we do have to question the pricing that some of the big publishers are consistently telling us they need to charge.

    Really at the other end of the scale, many OA publishers don’t charge a cent to publish or read. Yes, someone is paying somewhere; in the example I am familiar with having published there (Journal of Statistical Software), UCLA’s Stats Department bore the cost for admin, and authors needed to supply LaTeX sources using a LaTeX template supplied by the journal — so not exactly something your average scientist is going to be able to do easily, thus some of the cost was pushed back to researchers.

    But why can’t we have authors doing more? OK, not LaTeX because I don’t know why anyone would want to write natively in that verbose language, but options like Markdown exist and aren’t that far removed from the way computer word processors worked until Windows 3.1 came along (I’m old enough to have been trained in Word Perfect for DOS in my first year at University just as Windows 95 was coming out).

    There’s a lot of discussion about APCs but often this focuses on current APCs and not some value that reflects the real costs of publishing. As such we get into the area of FUD because extrapolating hybrid OA APCs etc and even PLOS One’s APC to all papers one might publish gets expensive quickly.

    The comments around who is going to pay for this {Plan-S] are valid, but to a large extent have been solved and seem to working OK in Europe and with science charities like Wellcome; the RCUK in the UK for example disburses monies for APCs to Universities in proportion to how much research council funding they receive. This will go a lot further once they stop supporting hybrid journals. Also, the research funded by RCUK (I’m familiar with the natural env part of this, NERC) is project-based. As long as the papers directly reporting on the finding of the project are OA then you’ve fulfilled their requirement. If subsequently data is used in collaborative projects beyond the original scope of the project (as I would imagine you envisaged by the scenarios you suggest as causing issues) then they no longer fall under the requirements for OA from RCUK. In fact this is exactly to be expected as NERC requires that data are archived openly and publicly upon publication of the original papers. Yes, I’m sure there are issues and fairness squabbles that could be had (e.g the big research intensive universities in the UK get a bigger pool to fund APCs than the smaller institutions).

    The main point however is that there is plenty of money in the system to continue publishing papers but if we force these to be OA then we get far more benefit than under the current subscription model.

    This is not the case for researchers in lower-income countries where the absolute amounts of money available are far far smaller than in the Plan-S countries etc. This is a real problem and a serious equity issue that must be considered and for which I haven’t yet seen workable solutions.

    And we still need address the issue of how researchers pay for papers not funded by research funders if all journals are OA. However, as I mentioned above in a separate comment, there is enough money in the system to publish all papers currently published in a year (assuming some reasonable ballpark figures/values). So we must hold funders and universities to account to protect budgets for publishing that previously went to libraries and subscriptions, so that they don’t see this as area to save money. This requires that we hold publishers to account when it comes to the APCs they charge, something that wasn’t happening under the previous model where Hybrid OA was payed for by the funders.

    This brings me to a point that is often not considered when discussing OA, but which has been highlighted, at least tangentially, in the ensuing hand-wringing over Plan-S; why do we need to publish in Nature/Science, Science Advances, Nature Communications, Ecology Letters etc? The science news has been full of a letter signed by a large number of academics decrying the assault on academic freedom that the authors see in Plan-S (I think this argument is facetious). Would the scientific literature be any less valuable if we all published in The Journal? You can argue that our ability to consume the literature would be made more difficult under such a situation (though technology is making this easier as time goes on), but the sum total of what is published is no different whether it goes in thousands of individually-named journals or the one The Journal (assuming peer review practices remain the same). You might also argue that if we all just published in The Journal a lot of wasted time would be saved as authors avoid the submit-reject-resubmit practice of working their way down the hierarchy of journals. (Thus freeing you up to search through the daily publication alerts for The Journal 🙂 .)

    No one is suggesting that authors be told where to publish. Yes, this might happen but if we have such an outcry over scientists not being able to publish in hybrid journals can you imagine the outcry if a University started to dictate where researchers published?

    • Thanks for the detailed thoughts.

      I think my colleagues in the UK feel like they are mandated to publish in OA with the funding to do so having dried up. Thus they definitely perceive a broken system.

      Do we agree that OA is only viable if researchers are funded to publish, not expected to pay it out of their own pockets? How that happens is the main question (and point of this blog post).

      You are absolutely right we don’t have to publish in high IF journals to make science work. But an awful lot of people still like to have selective journals that steer their reading lists in amidst a firehose of publications. And we again have a first mover problem in terms of getting established successfully in a career. And I personally like having somebody pay a typesetter to do that job for me – it is way more efficient than having me who is not good at it and paid more to spend my time doing research. But these are all points on which reasonable people can disagree.

      • Right; I think there are some places that have done well – I haven’t heard complaints from my former colleagues at UCL about OA funds but UCL has one of the largest amounts of RCUK funding of UK research intensive universities – and places that haven’t. Not paying Hybrid APCs will likely help change this situation as will realistic funding of reasonable APCs. It isn’t really in RCUK’s or the UK tax payer’s interests to pay $5K for a Science Advances paper if they can get the same thing out there for $1K.

        I entirely agree that OA is only viable if researcher’s costs are covered. It is entirely unacceptable that anyone pay for this out of pocket. It is patently inequitable if those that have can game the system over those that don’t.

        We cannot accept the current high APCs, and so long as we are in this fitness-poor valley of growing OA but still a largely subscription-based model it is difficult for funders to put more money into a system that doesn’t disrupt the subscription model. Publishers categorically have failed to respond to the winds of change. This includes scholarly societies.

        I would like to see an APC based on services an author requires; you might want someone to typeset your paper whereas I can probably do that myself given the template. So you might be prepared to pay a higher fee than me. This, importantly, is a very different model than currently; the publishers seems to be pricing APCs in terms of what they think the system will bear.

        What if we had publishers / start-ups competing for your business in terms of content discovery? If that’s one of the considerations when it comes to selective journals, let’s ditch the selective journals, all publish in The Journal, and then those who want to have a highly curated feed of relevant papers can pay for that, and those that are happy to wade through the feed themselves can just get on themselves. The big publishers could pivot to charging for this if people want to pay for it.

        The key question here is what do scientists want to pay for, what services, etc. If publishing was as cheap as we could reasonably make it and then we charge for the extras, that’s a very different world, but at least it puts the onus on us to make choices about where we spend our research funds. At the moment most people have little idea what publishing actually costs academia and society as a whole.

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