An effective market for APCs?

Worldwide, the recent increase in open access policies has led to funds supporting the costs of open access publishing in OA journals (or hybrid OA in a subscription journal). This trend towards paid gold open access has raised concerns over rising costs to research-intensive institutions paying multiple article processing charges.

A recent report called Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charges aims to address some of these issues.

Discussion starters for administrators

The Report, by Professor Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics, Finland, and Professor David Solomon of Michigan State University, USA, is intended for research funding organisations and policy makers. It aims to “ensure a competitive and transparent market for scholarly journal article processing charges (APC)s”.

The authors suggested three scenarios as a starting point for discussion on how funding agencies might influence the APC market to encourage transparency and competition:

Scenario A addresses double dipping. This scenario does not suggest a change to article processing charges but the publisher comes to an arrangement where the individual institution is given some saving in subscription costs when researchers pay to publish in their hybrid journals.

Scenario B looks at ranking journals according to the ‘value’ they provide the author. This scenario suggests a price cap system based on the service provided by the journal. Those that provide high value (quality peer review, fast turnaround etc) have a higher cap than those which do not meet these standards. The funder only provides the money up to the cap for the particular journal. If the journal charges more than the funded cap it would be up to the author to find the money for the gap if they wished to publish in the journal.

Scenario B is very interesting from the perspective of the reward system in academia. Currently journals are ranked as being of high or low quality from a count of the citations of their articles – the Journal impact Factor. But this proposed ranking system would be considering the publisher’s ability to do their job well – the process of publication – as a means for assessing a journal’s ‘value’.

Scenario C is where the funders agree to only pay a fixed proportion of the article processing charge. By asking authors and their institutions to cover a portion of the cost of an APC this scenario ensures cost is one of the considerations in the choice of where to publish. The goal is to to provide an incentive for keeping the APC market (both full OA and hybrid) competitive and reasonably priced.

While Scenario C would be administratively very difficult to manage at an institutional level, the advantage of having only part of the article processing charge covered is it introduces an incentive for authors and their institutions to evaluate the benefit of publishing the article in question. This is, indeed one of the advantages of a move from subscriptions to article processing charges generally, they open up the researchers to the costs of the scholarly publication system. (For more discussion on this issue, the AOASG Managing APCs page).

Each scenario is discussed in full in the Report, with a full background rationale and an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).

The authors argued that irrespective of which scenario is chosen “that funding agencies should set minimum standards that must be met before APCs are paid to any journal.” To that end the authors provided two sets of journal criteria: one for fully OA journals, another for hybrid OA in a subscription journal.

Issues with management of article processing charges

The authors suggest that one of the major impediments to a switch Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 12.18.33 pmfrom a subscription model to funded OA publication can be put down to a “lack of effective administrative and work-flow structures for payments”.

Some of the broader issues relating to management of article processing charges, they argue, include the considerable transaction costs for handling the payments – both for publishers and the institutions of the authors. This was also noted in the 2012 Finch Report http://www.researchinfonet.org/publish/finch/.

There are also challenges posed by management of funds – such as situations where:

  • articles have authors from many institutions and countries
  • articles are published outside the time limits of the grants they stemmed from
  • managing the rules for waivers for authors without access to funds to pay, and
  • the added issue that decision making about rationing the use of funds will fall on the administrators of such funds, given that there is likely to be a scarcity of money to meet all requests.

The authors speculated what the APC market would look like if it worked on similar terms as the subscription market. They concluded it would result in a loss of transparency and would be very detrimental to smaller OA publishers and innovative companies wishing to break into the market.

The mega journal revolution

The Report observed that mega journals have become the fastest growing segment of the APC funded OA journal market. There are now at least 19 mega journals with another eight slated to begin publication within a year. PLOS ONE continues to lead this market,  publishing over 30,000 articles in 2013.

It is worth noting that many of these mega journals use a model where the journals accept papers that have been rejected from other journals in the publisher’s catalogue (with the accompanying reviews). This is referred to as the ‘cascade model’ in the case of the Royal Society’s new Royal Society Open Science, which accepts “articles referred from other Royal Society journals”.

While there are some advantages to this cascade approach – it does prevent people wasting precious time re-reviewing articles – the issue is it gives the impression to the academic community that these mega journals are the ‘slops bucket’ for rejected papers.

A cascade model for mega journals risks devaluing the open access brand.

Uptake of open access

The Report analysed the uptake of open access globally, noting that 11% of all articles indexed by Scopus were published in full OA journals (APC funded and others). Sixteen delayed OA journals add another 5% as well as an estimated 1% in hybrid journals. The authors extrapolated these findings to 2014, and estimated a share of almost 15% for gold OA, which would increase to around 20% if they added delayed OA journals.

The authors concluded: “It is evident that the article volumes of established OA journals are approaching the average of subscription journals”.

The Report found hybrid was quite prevalent – it is available for most subscription journals (at least from the bigger publishers). But the overall uptake of hybrid OA is still very low. A recent Elsevier report mentions an uptake for all publishers of only 0.5 % of Scopus articles.

The Report did attract some criticism from the publishing industry. In a news report from the Times Higher Education Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, is quoted as saying the Report’s claim of low take-up of hybrid open access options was not borne out by publishers’ experience. He is quoted: “We haven’t got hard and fast figures but, anecdotally, some publishers are seeing three-figure percentage increases in take-up since April 2013”.

Wellcome Trust expenditure on APCs

Possibly coincidently, in the same week as the release of the report “Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charges”, the Wellcome Trust released details of its open access spend in the year 2012-2013. The Wellcome Trust has been an early supporter of open access, and since 2005, the Trust has provided funds to pay article processing charges within their research grants.

The Wellcome Trust open access spend was released as a raw data set, which Cameron Neylon from PLOS subsequently analysed and released back out as Wellcome Trust Article Processing Charges by Article 2012/13. This analysis has itself been re-analysed by Ernesto Priego to standardise the publisher names, released as Wellcome Trust APC spend (2012-2013) Spreadsheet with Publisher Names Refined.

The numbers are almost staggering at first glance. In the fiscal year 2012-2013 the Wellcome Trust spent over US$6.5million on OA publication fees. This paid for 2,127 articles, with an average cost of US$3,055 per article. This is equivalent to the subscription spend of a medium sized university.

Five publishers received 63% of the APCs in that year, in order: Elsevier, Wiley, PLOS, Springer/BMC and Oxford University Press. Elsevier ‘s share was 25%. This heavy weighting towards some publishers has resulted in calls by some commentators that the ‘Matthew Effect’ is dominating in this field.

Kent Anderson commented:

It’s interesting to contemplate exactly what Wellcome bought with its US$6.5 million, as many subscription journals in the fields covered are subject to 12-month embargoes. One could argue that Wellcome paid an average of US$254 per month per article to make the articles free early. Put even more starkly, Wellcome is now paying the equivalent of US$542,000 per month in aggregate this year to make these 2,127 articles free for the 12 months we’re in, rather than paying no APCs and allowing the articles to be published in a subscription journal that honors 12-month embargoes.

Another blogger noted that the figures indicate there is a ‘mere inversion of the business model’ where the high prices traditionally charged to libraries is shifting to researchers (through their funding agencies). The blog concludes: “Aren’t we clearly rushing towards a new “OA serials crisis”, where publishing is still dominated by the same major publishers who partly led to the serials crisis in the first place?”

The release of both the Wellcome Trust figures and the APC management report highlights some of the many substantial issues in the payment of article processing charges (many of which have also been explored in the AOASG Paying for Publication series).

The Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charges report was commissioned by a consortium of major research funders by the Wellcome Trust: Research Councils UK, Jisc, Research Libraries UK, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), the FNR (Luxembourg) and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer, AOASG

One thought on “An effective market for APCs?

  1. We are working our socks off to create an open access market place. Please have a look at Quality Open Access Market: www,qoam,eu. Support it, improve it.

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