Clear approaches help publishers deliver good OA experience

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Rob Johnson of Research Consulting provides some open-access tips for publishers

Publishers developing or refining their open-access (OA) strategies will need to explore what they can do to differentiate themselves in the academic market by aiding authors, librarians and researchers. As authors and their institutions become increasingly astute in their decisions about where to publish in OA form there are some important things that publishers should consider in order to navigate and succeed in the academic market.

The first is to develop a clear pricing strategy. We are still a long way from realising a truly mature market for OA publishing. However there is a growing focus on the cost and management of article processing charges (APCs). Attempts are already underway to map APC costs to article influence, as exemplified by the OA cost effectiveness tool at, and such formulations are likely to become increasingly sophisticated over time. Meanwhile, authors, academic institutions and research funders are increasingly likely to seek evidence that the APCs they pay represent fair value for the money.

Publishers need to have a clear pricing strategy and must effectively articulate the correlation between their APCs and their business model or models. In addition to setting their APC list price, many publishers are actively considering the potential role of differential pricing based on existing subscription relationships, memberships, geographical regions, and the licence used for the OA content. Publishers must be able to communicate clearly what reuse rights are available to authors and users. For example, a customer should be able to identify easily whether an article is covered by a Creative Commons CC BY, CC BY-NC or CC BY-ND licence.

The second thing that publishers should consider is the need to adapt their systems and reporting to meet the needs of authors and institutions. Many institutions have limited funds available to cover APCs and so expect to increase access to their research through a mixture of APC payments (‘gold OA’) and deposit in repositories (‘green OA’). To be able to manage this effectively they would like the option to pre-approve APC expenditure by their authors. And authors themselves would prefer to confirm that funds are available from their institution or research funder before accepting liability for payment of an APC.

Institutions also have additional needs to: track their expenditure on APCs; deposit publications to institutional and subject repositories; collect article metadata to demonstrate compliance to funders; forecast their future commitments; and monitor deposit and prepayment account balances.

These emerging requirements force changes to established systems and workflow patterns and require the capture and transfer of additional data as part of the publication process. Publishers that can find standardised ways to recognise and accommodate these needs will be well placed for success in the academic market. Meanwhile, publishers should consider another dimension of customer service: authors and institutions are not likely to want to learn and accommodate dozens, if not potentially hundreds, of different APC policies and systems that can slow their processes and create new complications for all parties. Publishers should therefore consider whether it is really necessary to develop or implement their own unique APC processing solutions.

Publishers should also streamline OA payment arrangements. As transaction volumes rise, the administration costs of OA can increase substantially, both for publishers and academic institutions. Several payment models can simplify transaction flows and facilitate payment of APCs.

Many publishers offer membership schemes, under which payment of an annual fee entitles member institutions to preferential APC pricing. Membership schemes can also be linked to existing subscription arrangements, with the level of discount varying according to the subscription package held.

Another approach is article credits. Publishers may choose to offer a limited number of 'article credits' to subscribing institutions, for use by the institution's authors to publish articles in OA form at no extra charge. This can be an effective way to encourage initial uptake of gold OA in disciplinary areas where there is scepticism about its value or where funds are limited.

There is also the model of deposit/prepayment schemes, where institutions make an upfront payment to the publisher, and APCs are charged against this balance as they’re incurred. This simplifies the transaction flows for the publisher and institution, while eliminating the risk of bad debt and improving cash flow for the publisher. However, implementation requires a formal agreement with the institution, separate accounting for client funds, and the ability to report to institutions on their account balances and activity.

A fourth model is fixed price agreements. This is where publishers contract with funding agencies (or individual institutions in receipt of agency funds) to publish all articles arising from the funder’s research for a stipulated fee. Additional parameters may be agreed upon; one example is limiting the arrangement to articles for which the funding agency is the primary research funder or has funded the lead author. This model can be attractive to funders and institutions as it gives them control over compliance, but requires careful financial modelling by the publisher to determine an appropriate price.

Implementing one of these models can be a smart way to cement the relationship between a publisher and an academic institution, making it easier for the institution’s authors to arrange payment of an APC.

As the requirements of research funders continue to change rapidly, publishers need to reflect regularly on the implications of these changes for their business models. In the USA, the White House has already asked federal agencies with research and development budgets over $100 million to ‘dramatically increase' access to the results of their research. In the UK, the Research Councils UK policy on OA has been in effect since 1 April 2013, and the councils have explicitly expressed a preference for the gold OA route and the CC-BY licence. Meanwhile, it seems inevitable that the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) will include an OA mandate for the period 2014-2020, although without prescribing the route (green or gold) or licence. In Europe as a whole, member states have clearly indicated their support for broader and more rapid access to scientific publications. Further, expanding OA in scientific publications will be a general aim of the future Horizon 2020 research framework programme.

Ultimately, the decision about where to publish and whether to pay an APC rests primarily with the submitting author. Publishers that can offer a seamless process—the more simple, the better— are likely to see a far more favourable reception than those for whom OA represents an afterthought in the process. A successful user experience will follow an author step-by-step, from submission through peer review, and once approval for publication is received, will easily allow the author to arrange payment of an APC and/or deposit the article to a repository.

Open access is dramatically changing the business of scholarly publishing. Publishers, authors, universities, librarians, funders and customers everywhere are feeling the impact. While this environment of change may seem overwhelming, no single organisation or author stands alone. OA is a global challenge, and we are all in this together.

Indeed, in its report entitled ‘The Potential Role for Intermediaries in Managing the Payment of Open Access Article Processing Charges (APCs),’ the Research Information Network urged stakeholders to ‘work together to ensure that progress…is as smooth as possible toward creating the systems and processes that enable the payment of Open Access article processing charges, while meeting the costs of publication.’

Rob Johnson is participating in a panel discussion on the topic of open access on 10 October at 9:00–10:20 in Hall 4.2 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, along with Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust, Ellen Collins of the Research Information Network and Karen Hawkins of IEEE