The triptych of knowledge liberation – equality, sustainability and community

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It remains a surprising fact to many that most Open Access (OA) publishers do not charge Article Processing Charges (APCs), writes Liz Allen.

Indeed, a quick check of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) shows that 60 per cent of OA journals have no APC at all.

OA and APCs have long since been conflated but make no mistake they are two separate things. One liberates knowledge and the other is a business model. Perhaps the confusion arises because many of the most prominent OA publications do carry an APC and they have both proven effective at allowing publishers to broadly disseminate original scientific research articles at scale.

That the APC model can work well for the primary literature in certain disciplines, doesn’t appear to be in dispute. This content is created from scratch to be open, and a thriving marketplace has developed. However, APCs do not work well to make other types of content – such as review publications that analyze and synthesize the primary literature – more open. There are three main reasons why.

The first is equality. By this I refer to building a sustainable publication model with a modest fee attached so that champions of reviews can support the conversion to open access for the benefit of themselves and others. Take nonprofit publisher Annual Reviews, which publishes 47 journals across the life, biomedical, physical and social sciences.

APCs, even at the highest priced range of the market, would not come close to recouping the high costs associated with producing a review article. Annual Reviews invites expert authors to write, many of whom voluntarily spend months on the assignment. It would be hard to imagine a more unwelcome invitation than one that was accompanied by a steep invoice for the honor being asked to author an article! More equitable and reasonable funding models are necessary to facilitate OA to review services such as Annual Reviews.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean setting prices that are reasonable to support a toll to open conversion, it also means not simply taking ever more water from the library well.

At Annual Reviews, we wanted to test a new way of making the transition to open access and we started by choosing a journal that seeks to further the health and well-being of all, the Annual Review of Public Health, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) initiative to increase openness and transparency in research. The grant covers the cost of making the 2017 volume of the Annual Review of Public Health open access for one year and allows us to make all 37 back volumes free to read.

This gives us space and time to ask the library community to consider redirecting their former subscription payment for the journal to a collective fund so that we can continue, and if successful, expand our OA programs. Once we know what the appetite is among the library community to support the subscription-equivalent transition to OA, we will be able to plan our fundraising accordingly. 

In terms of community, one of the key benefits of this grant is that the RWJF is additionally supporting us to promote the journal and build greater usage of the content to all audiences – public health researchers and policy makers, activist members of the general public, librarians and more. They have asked us to document all of our experiences on this journey and share them with other publishers.

The goal is to see which lessons might apply more broadly, as many publishers are seeking to make a sustainable transition to OA. This is also an opportunity to consider how our experiences with a journal that is frequently in the public eye might translate to publications that focus on more specialized topics that are not especially popular but nonetheless need to exist and deserve to be read. 

Liz Allen is director of marcom and strategic development at Annual Reviews