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What price open access?

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Lorraine Estelle, executive director digital resources and divisional CEO of Jisc Collections, Jisc

According to conservative estimates, the UK’s higher education institutions are paying £160m per year for subscriptions to peer-reviewed academic journals; Research Libraries UK (RLUK) puts the figure even higher, at £192m. These are significant ongoing costs that reflect the central importance to UK research of having the widest possible access to articles in scholarly journals.

The steady advance of open access is changing journal publishing models irrevocably, but not evenly, across the globe. Things are moving particularly fast in the UK, where government, research councils’ and research funders’ policies are accelerating the move towards publishing publicly-funded research outputs in open access, sometimes with a preference for gold open access under CC-BY licences. Here, especially since 2012, more and more research outputs are being published in the open access sections of hybrid journals so that they are available to read and use, for free, from day one of publication.

Though these articles are free to read and use, the costs associated with getting them to publication still have to be paid – and, in many cases, publishers are recouping them via article processing charges (APCs), usually paid by the authors’ institutions. In this rapidly changing environment, where all parties are trying to develop practical new processes rapidly, it has become increasingly difficult to track the cost of APCs. It is not easy because the market is not transparent and price comparisons are difficult: list prices for subscriptions and APCs sometimes bear little relation to what institutions are actually paying.  But there is a pressing need for institutions to understand the true cost of publishing in open access, so that they can manage transition from a position of authority and monitor their costs effectively.

As things stand currently, the true total cost of hybrid journals for institutions engaged in research is made up of subscription charges, APCs and also the significant (but hard to quantify) administration costs associated with making and managing APC payments and then reporting on compliance with funder open access policies. So the real cost is probably higher than many have realised and it also seems that the majority of APCs are being paid to the largest, traditional journal publishers who are also receiving a substantial proportion of universities’ total subscription payments. In one recent year, one institution we spoke to spent more than £28,000 in subscriptions with just one publisher, and also published 12 journal articles with the same company. Those 12 APCs amounted to an extra £21,000 paid by the university – a 71 per cent increase in charges from that publisher.

Our detailed analysis of data from 23 UK institutions between 2007 to early 2014 shows that this is not an isolated case. We have seen a sharp increase in the number of APC payments being made from centrally managed university funds from 2012 onwards, and many universities are forecasting that their APCs will more than double in number by 2018. Not surprisingly, some feel the situation is unsustainable unless the higher volumes of APCs are reflected in reduced subscription charges, or the price of APCs is reduced to take account of the subscription charges already being paid.

During this year we have focused on mapping the current landscape particularly with reference to popular hybrid journal models, on collecting robust data and on modelling the real cost for institutions of compliance with open access policies. We have used this information to develop workable systems that could be implemented to offset the cost of APCs against subscription rates, and started discussions with publishers on behalf of UK institutions to gain their agreement to implement these systems.

As the body responsible for negotiating major e-journal deals between publishers and the UK’s higher education institutions, Jisc is ideally placed to undertake this work and we have been fortunate to secure the support of RLUK, Russell Group, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and Universities UK (UUK). At the start of 2014 Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills David Willetts lent further support in an open letter to Dame Janet Finch, asking publishers to work with us to develop and implement new charging models.

We have worked up several options to offset APCs and subscription charges. One of these is for publishers to offer vouchers to institutions when they pay for publication of articles, to be redeemed against the price of journal subscriptions – another flips that concept on its head and requires publishers to provide credit for future publication of articles when subscriptions are taken out. Alternatively, some publishers and universities are more attracted to the idea of extra (but modest) payments from universities to pay for APCs into the future. No single version of offsetting will be the best for all, the preferred choice will depend on a number of factors including the disciplines published and the projected volume of open access articles from higher education. We are certainly not advocating one particular version over any other – we are simply urging publishers to agree to take action to reduce the total cost of publishing.

This is an urgent matter for UK institutions. Although publishers reduce the global price of their journals in proportion to the amount of open access articles they publish, this does not address the specific problem of research-intensive UK institutions, committed to publishing in open access. Publishing a significant proportion of the open access articles in these journals, they would be paying high volumes of APCs while receiving a very small share of the global reduction in subscription costs.

Now, at the end of 2014, several large publishers have signalled their agreement and there are offset arrangements in place with SAGE, IOP and Taylor & Francis, among others. Constructive dialogue continues with a number of other publishers.

There is still a long way to go. We have our exemplar agreements in place but we need to monitor how these initial agreements are working in practice and also to continue our discussions with other publishers of hybrid journals. We will continue to consult carefully with member libraries and to work proactively to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of scholarly publishing.