Follow the money: tracking Article Processing Charges at the University of Canterbury

Anton Angelo writes on how hard it can be to figure out who is paying what in Article Processing Charges

A thousand dollars, a hundred thousand or a million?  Peter Lund, the UC Research Support Manager and I asked ourselves that question last year as we tried to work out how much the University of Canterbury pays in Article Processing Charges (APCs).  We wanted to know how much we paid for articles to be published as Open Access, and it was turning out to be surprisingly hard to find out.  It was even difficult to ascertain what order of magnitude APCs were in.

Our first attempts – in an All the President’s Men ‘follow the money’ approach – were stymied. We talked to our finance department, but university financial systems were not granular enough to see what was being put into publisher’s hands out of research grants.  We were not even sure if research grants were the source of funds in the first place – any budget could conceivably be paying APCs.

A phase of heroic data-wrangling came next.  I grabbed the output of our Current Research Information System, “Profiler”, for the last few years, and popped it into MS Access.  That held all the details for articles submitted for the NZ research funding exercise Performance Based Funding Review (the PBRF), including the journal title for each research output.  Another table, sourced from the Directory of Open Access Journals included the title, and if the journal accepted APCs.

A bit of Structured Query Language later and I had a list of all the articles by Canterbury researchers for which APCs could have been paid for by one of the authors.

Then, came the figures. I looked up the APC rates of the 10 top journals Canterbury scholars published in, multiplied them up and got an answer:  tens to hundreds of thousands of NZ dollars.  This back of an envelope method didn’t give us actionable figures, but it did sharpen our minds.  Canterbury is still suffering the effects of a major natural disaster, as well as the twin prongs of fiscal austerity and a demographic shift leading to fewer undergraduate age students.  In short, we’re strapped for cash.

Our first question, knowing the magnitude of the sum, led, of course to more questions.  Could we refine that figure further?  We decided that we needed harder figures.   From our first investigation we now had a list of Canterbury researchers that might have paid APCs to enable their research to become Open Access.  Problems with the data were that fees could have been waived, or co-authors at other institutions might have paid them (a good reason to collaborate with someone in the UK, and their block grants) so we decided to do the hard thing, and go out and ask them.

Like all academic librarians, we are leery of putting extra workload on researchers and teachers.  With all the traditional roles, they are suffering Herculean amounts of extra administration – reports, copyright reviews, applications for research funding, and these tasks are increasing regularly.  We spent time with questionnaire designers creating something that would give us the most wisdom for the least input.  The result was a 50% response rate of a population of 100 researchers we knew had published in OA journals charging APCs.  Our results, published in our repository the University of Canterbury Research Repository [1] and the data in figshare [2] had some startling implications.

  • We were correct that the magnitude of APCs was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • The source of funds for APCs was varied, including in some cases the researcher’s personal funds.
  • Researchers were paying APCs to support Open Access, but more importantly because they believed that Open Access journals were the best places to publish that specific research.
  • Researchers expected to pay more APCs in the future.

So, this confirmed that there was a problem: funding was required to pay for APCs. The next question was how to fund these fees.  Our approach was to suggest a central fund for those who may not be able to draw on other sources, and the story of how that has developed, dear readers, is in the next episode.

 Anton Angelo is Research Data Co-ordinator, University of Canterbury.

[1] Angelo, A., & Lund, P. (2014). An evolving business model for scholarly publishing: exploring the payment of article processing charges (APCs) to achieve open access. Retrieved from

[1]      Angelo, A., & Lund, P. (2014, September 2). Raw dataset for University of Canterbury APC study. Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Follow the money: tracking Article Processing Charges at the University of Canterbury

  1. […] readers with our efforts to understand how much the University of Canterbury was paying in APCs (Follow the money: tracking Article Processing Charges at the University of Canterbury).  Our next step was to launch a pilot where we had some central funds to pay APCs, and asked for […]

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