Counting the costs of open access for research organisations

Share this on social media:

The cost to research organisations of making the transition to open access has so far been the object of little attention, says Rob Johnson of Research Consulting.

Past studies have focused on estimating the research and economic benefits of open access, or comparing the overall cost of ‘green’ and ‘gold’ routes with current subscription-based models.

Although the administrative cost of open access for research organisations is a relatively small part of the overall picture, the increasing adoption of open access mandates by research funders is likely to have significant administrative and budgetary implications for such institutions in the coming years.

The UK government is taking the lead in promoting the transition to open access, making it a central part of its research funding policy. Over the last two years, UK funders Research Councils UK (RCUK), the National Institute for Health Research and the Higher Education Funding Councils have all announced new open access requirements for recipients of their funding. The country’s major medical charities have also adopted open access mandates, following the lead taken by the Wellcome Trust. These policies have put UK universities under pressure to make the transition to open access in just over four years and provide an important test case for policy makers, funders, research organisations in other countries that are – or may soon be – contemplating the adoption of similar policies.

A recent report published by Research Consulting provides a first estimate of the costs borne by UK universities to comply with national open access policies. At the aggregate level, it estimates the total cost borne by UK research organisations to comply with the Research Councils UK policy in the 2013-14 academic year at £9.2 million excluding APCs. Interestingly, the actual administrative costs of making articles available online account for less than 10 per cent of the total (£0.8m for ‘gold’ and £0.1m for ‘green’ open access). The largest proportion of the costs relate to staff time spent on policy implementation, management and advocacy (£4.4m, or 48 per cent of the total), and overheads (£2.2m, 24 per cent of the total).  

Institutions spent a further £1.3m, or 14 per cent of the total, in developing systems and software to support the transition to open access. The lesson to take from this is that delivering open access at the scale now required in the UK involves significant changes to institutional cultures, processes and systems. Delivering this change is a costly and time-consuming process, equivalent to 110 full-time staff members across the UK in 2013/14.

Moreover, while funding has been made available to help UK institutions with the transition, the distribution of these grants is based on research outputs. In consequence, the burden of complying with open access requirements falls disproportionately on less research-intensive institutions given the fixed nature of many of the costs.

The study also found that the directly attributable cost to research organisations of the ‘gold’ route to open access is £81 per article excluding article processing charges (APCs), while the cost of the ‘green’ route is around £33 per article. The cost difference reflects the increased staff time needed to make articles open access via the gold route, which typically takes over two hours. With half an hour spent by the author, and a further hour and a half spent by administrative staff for each article, gold OA is currently a time-consuming and costly route to open access, even before the additional cost of APCs is considered. Self-archiving in a repository via the green route, by contrast, takes just over 45 minutes, and only 15 minutes for authors.

At present there is little evidence of economies of scale in the open access process, with institutions cited numerous factors which act as a drag on efficiency: the need for extensive liaison with some publishers when requesting immediate publication, payments going astray, problems identifying the correct version of the file to be deposited in institutional repositories and convoluted processes to identify and compare the publisher’s embargo with the funder’s policy. Yet improvements in systems and standards do offer some hope, with reductions in the costs of gold of 60 per cent, and green of 50 per cent potentially achievable through greater simplification and standardisation. The report also stresses the need for improvements in knowledge sharing, further development of systems in conjunction with third party vendors, and automation of compliance reporting processes.   

Further work will be needed in order to validate the study’s assumptions, as well as to more accurately quantify the cost of making academic research open access. The report acknowledges that the sample of 29 research organisations may not be fully representative of the costs incurred by UK research institutions, while many figures are based on the best estimates of a single member of staff at each participating institution.

At this stage, estimates of future costs are subjected to further uncertainties. Institutions anticipate a long transition process as funder mandates become progressively more stringent in the coming years, but over time the costs of administration and compliance should fall.  The hope remains that open access will ultimately reduce subscription costs, thus delivering a net economic benefit for universities.  Fundamentally, though, open access is seen as a way of furthering institutions’ missions, and disseminating the results of their research as widely as possible. While it may have needed mandates from research funders to trigger the current costly transition process, none would question that the direction of travel is the right one.  

Rob Johnson is founder and director of Research Consulting, and advises clients in higher education, industry and academic publishing on the management, dissemination and commercialisation of research.