APCs add complexity to librarian role

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Earlier this year SAGE and Jisc organised a librarian roundtable to examine the implications of managing article-processing charges. Research Information editor Siân Harris, who also wrote the report of the event, describes some of the key findings

Helping researchers to comply with the open-access (OA) requirements of Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Wellcome Trust poses many challenges for university librarians. This was a key theme to come out of a roundtable held in July on article-processing charges (APCs), which was organised by SAGE and hosted by Jisc.

The roundtable included 10 librarians from a range of different institutions, as well as representatives from Jisc and SAGE.

There was much frustration expressed at how quickly the RCUK policy had been put together and how little consultation it had involved. As one librarian put it, ‘We are concerned that the UK’s rush to gold OA has put the UK in a different position from the rest of the world. We will comply but it’s not what we would have chosen.’

They went on to explain that their institution is concerned about the potential costs of gold OA. ‘We’ve had to find extra money in our research budget so that we don’t have to say to researchers that there is not money for them to publish.’

Indeed many librarians – and their institutions – expressed a preference for green OA. One delegate, for example, stated: ‘our OA statement says we have a preference for green but that we have money for gold and will pay it where needed.’

Communicating the idea of gold OA to researchers also emerged as a major challenge. As several librarians noted, many researchers are not even very familiar with their rights and the publishing processes under the traditional publishing model, which makes explaining the differences with OA a challenge. A study carried out by the University of Huddersfield in 2010 revealed that about 30 per cent of people said they’ve never read a copyright agreement in their lives.

Another factor that contributes to the challenge is that the cost of APCs is not a major concern for researchers, according to the librarians at the roundtable. They reported that most researchers rejected what they saw as librarians telling them where to publish and also took the attitude that it doesn’t matter how much an APC is because their funder will pay anyway.

Meanwhile, managing APC payments is a huge headache for librarians – or at least promises to be when volumes increase. One librarian noted that some single transactions have taken three to four hours of librarian time to complete, while others noted problems with intermediaries intended to help the process.

Issues that people have experienced include the wrong rate of VAT being added to APC payments and problems in linking a payment to the relevant paper.

In addition, there have already been cases where researchers were part funded by RCUK and part funded by the Wellcome Trust or when a paper results from a collaboration of researchers from more than one institution. This often results in invoices being split or, in the case of international partnerships where the collaborators have no gold OA mandate or funding, the UK institution sometimes picking up the whole APC bill.

The new RCUK policy, which requires researchers to make openly available the papers resulting from funded research, came into play on 1 April and universities have been given grants from the funders towards APCs. So far, said the librarians, the volumes of requests for APC money have been very low – in the single figures or tens; one librarian said that in the first three months of the policy they had paid just two APCs.

Such numbers are low enough for librarians to manage with a spreadsheet rather than investing in an intermediary service. However current approaches do not scale. Partly for this reason there was quite a bit of interest expressed at the roundtable in membership packages.

Reinventing the big deal?

The issue of membership packages painted an interesting picture of where APC money is ending up. The origins of the push to OA lie partly in a frustration with high subscription charges from traditional subscription publishers. It is therefore perhaps surprising to hear many participants say that the have spent much of their block APC grants from RCUK on membership packages from the biggest four publishers – Elsevier, Springer (both SpringerOpen and BioMed Central), Taylor & Francis and Wiley. Some noted that the approach of putting significant portions of grants for APCs into membership packages is, in a sense ‘reinventing the big deal.’

A concern with this, which echoes some issues with big deals in subscription-based publishing, is the impact on and role of smaller publishers, with a possibility for dominance by the big players.

However, there are some differences. Several librarians noted that the most common journal for researchers to request APC money for is PLOS One, although this poses challenges when authors are not actually funded by RCUK or the Wellcome Trust and therefore end up having to pay the APCs themselves.

There were also concerns expressed at the roundtable that APCs could be costing more than subscriptions. ‘With big publishers I can’t see we’ll make financial gains with gold OA. I think we’ll lose. One deal I saw said that if you didn’t spend all your membership money you would lose it. I wonder whether Finch and gold isn’t just a big con to make us pay more money,’ said one participant.

Another concern was so-called ‘double dipping’ or, as some referred to it at the roundtable, ‘differential pricing’. Initial discussions about this topic in the industry considered a reduction on the subscription price for everybody on hybrid journals when articles are published as OA. However, discussions at the roundtable focused more on ensuring particularly that subscription prices are reduced for those institutions that have paid APCs with that publisher.

The problem, identified by several of the librarians, was that the UK has taken a different approach from everywhere else so far and it only counts for a small proportion of the world market - around six per cent in terms of authors and four per cent in terms of readers according to a report by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2011. As one person noted, ‘publishers are not double dipping across the world but on a local scale it is a huge issue.’

This means that becoming RCUK compliant it not a priority for many publishers elsewhere in the world, and this includes many of the top journals in particular fields. It also means that, from the perspective of international publishers, addressing the potential issue of double dipping does not have a significant effect on their business plans.

These discussions were echoed in many of the concerns raised by the UK's BIS committee in a recent report.


Despite all these details and concerns, however, there was an atmosphere of optimism at the roundtable. In addition to the natural desire of librarians to support access to information, involvement in management of APCs brings librarians closer to researchers again. This is a connection that has been somewhat broken in recent years as researchers have increasingly accessed library content from elsewhere in their institution and failed to see the library involvement in making this content available.

As one librarian put it, ‘At the moment it’s quite nice to have such a low level of interest because it means you can spend time with individual authors and really look at things like Jisc APC [Jisc’s APC management service]. Many researchers are already using grant money for APCs but we’ve never really captured the scale of this before. Now we are sitting with them from the beginning so it’s been a useful learning process.’

‘We are beginning to get a grip for the first time on where our researchers publish,’ was one comment.

‘Managing OA makes the library more relevant to the research community,’ agreed someone else.

The roundtable and subsequent report also proposed some measures that would help to ease the complexity of the APC process for researchers, librarians and publishers. These measures include the need for clear guidance from funders about what they are looking for and how it should be reported and measured and better communication by publishers of copyright options and which journals are compliant with RCUK policy. Participants also expressed the need for more robust systems for managing APCs, cross-industry initiatives and international standards, and more work to address the issue of double dipping or differential pricing.

Siân Harris is also author of a report based on the SAGE/Jisc roundtable. This follows on from a SAGE/British Library roundtable and report in 2012 that set out some of the challenges and opportunities faced by librarians around the world with moves to OA