Open access: at what cost?

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As scholarly publishing edges closer to open access, industry players are devising radical ways to cut costs. Rebecca Pool reports

In early July, the world’s largest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, revealed plans to launch a new open access publishing platform, Wellcome Open Research.

Designed so grant-holders can publish research outputs breathtakingly fast, the venture is based on F1000Research, an open access publishing platform developed by life sciences services publisher, F1000, UK. As F1000 founder and chairman, Vitek Tracz, asserts: ‘This is going to be huge and will completely and profoundly transform the whole way research is published.’

From articles and data-sets to null and negative results, the platform will publish content within days of submission following in-house editor checks, with post-publication peer review being arranged subsequently. Then, once past peer review, articles will be indexed in major bibliographic databases and deposited in PubMed Central and Europe PMC.

For researchers, the promise of disseminating results almost immediately is finally becoming real, but for Tracz, this is just the beginning. ‘Our scheme is based on the idea that funders and major institutions can take control of the publishing system away from today’s publishers,’ he says. ‘The first major funder has opened a platform here and we’re now talking to other funders, research institutions and more.

‘It is ridiculous that research can be delayed by months, sometimes up to a year,’ he adds. ‘But I believe more funding groups will operate these platforms, and these will eventually merge to form a single international platform for research to be published in a new way.’

Global domination or not, industry developments such as this indicate that open access is increasingly important to academics, with many in scholarly publishing certain that a complete switch to this form of publishing is nigh on inevitable. Government mandates, funding and institutional support are driving change, and as Louisa Dale, director of Jisc Sector Intelligence puts it: ‘There is clear evidence that academics have a greater appetite to share research within and beyond their disciplines.’

‘The great deal of work that’s been done through HEFCE and the research-funding councils in the UK is making a real difference,’ she adds.

Indeed, a recent survey of 6,679 academics – commissioned by Jisc and Research Libraries UK – indicates that 64 per cent would be very happy to see the subscription-based publication model replaced by an open access system, in which all research outputs would be publicly available. As Dale also points out, in line with this, 67 per cent of the survey respondents strongly wished their research outputs to have the broadest possible readership to maximise impact.

But first issues still exist. For Tracz, compliance is critical. As he says: ‘There are a variety of barriers, but perhaps the biggest is compliance; you know it’s still not easy to convince scientists – even when there is mandatory open access by many funders – actually to comply.’

Mark Thorley, head of science information at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), also sees compliance as a stumbling block and is in the process of gathering data on this from research institutions. ‘Data suggests organisations are finding it difficult to understand compliance in detail and provide accurate data on this,’ he says.

‘What is apparent is that small research organisations tend to have a better handle on which publications coming out of the door are actually related to the Research Council funding,’ he adds. ‘But the larger and more collegiate, and distributed organisations, such as the major Russell Group universities, aren’t always aware of this.’

Given this, Thorley believes researchers within such organisations should use more programmatic methods to report on OA research. He highlights ‘Researchfish’, a web-based system developed to collect information on the research activities are undertaken by research council award holders.

‘We’re not going to change how academics behave overnight,’ he says. ‘So, rather than asking universities to keep separate records in terms of compliance monitoring, we have to find more automatic ways of using reporting tools such as this.’

In a similar vein, Neil Jacobs, head of scholarly support at Jisc, advocates the use of the organisation’s Sherpa/FACT compliance tool. This allows academics to check if the journals they wish to publish research in, comply with funder’s open access requirements.

The tool covers the open access policies of RCUK as well as research charities such as the Wellcome Trust. 

According to Jacobs: ‘We recently partnered with HEFCE to launch Sherpa/REF beta... so researchers and institutions can easily check if journals comply with the [HEFCE] Research Excellence Framework open access policy.’

Coming to terms with cost

But beyond compliance, the cost of open access is perhaps the thorniest issue, with tensions rising over article processing charges (APCs) assigned to authors and institutions when research is published in an open access journal. This is particularly true of hybrid journals, in which individual articles can be made open access, but the journal is still published under a subscription model.

RCUK, which offers so-called block grants to fund APCs, calculated that the cost of implementing its open access policy in 2013/2014 came in at around £20 million. Of this, a hefty £11 million came from expenditure on APCs.

In a similar vein, figures from Professor Peter Bath at the Information School, University of Sheffield, indicate that in 2013, APCs constituted some 10 per cent of all publication costs. Bath’s research on APCs was recently published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.

As he highlights, APCs in hybrid journals are consistently higher than those in fully open access journals, with industry heavyweights scooping up a significant portion of the payments. Elsevier and Wiley each publish more than a thousand hybrid journals and, as Bath pointed out, from 2007 to 2014, Elsevier took around 20% of all APC payments, while Wiley, received a little more than 15 per cent.

‘Most APCs have been paid to the large ‘traditional’ commercial publishers that also receive considerable subscription income,’ he wrote. ‘Publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley, which dominate the subscription market, are capturing a substantial part of the open access APC market.’

These industry trends have not gone unnoticed by Jisc and, as Neil Jacobs points out: ‘Elsevier makes up nearly a quarter of all UK APC expenditure and captures 1.4 times as much revenue from APCs as its nearest rival, Wiley. Elsevier is one of the very few major publishers not to have put in place [an offset] arrangement to limit the costs to UK universities.’ Not surprisingly, industry backlash has ensued.As F1000’s Tracz puts it: ‘I worry about the state of open access in general. [The hybrid journal] has been a terrible development that’s impeding the progress of open access publishing. Right now [these journals] are too expensive, support closed access, and this is a real problem to solve.’

And many appear to agree. Earlier this year, some 1,200 cognitive-science researchers signed a petition for Elsevier to lower fees to publish open access articles in hybrid journal, Cognition. The petition came after all editors and editorial board members from Elsevier’s, Lingua, resigned, partly because the publisher had rejected requests to lower APCs.

Meanwhile, several research funders, including the German Research Foundation and the Norwegian Research Council, have stopped funding APCs for hybrid journals, largely due to high prices and poor levels of service. And both Elsevier and Wiley recently came under heavy criticism from The Wellcome Trust, on high APCs and poor compliance with depositing and licensing requirements across hybrid titles.

Given these issues, Jisc has also been following publication costs closely, as detailed in its recent report ‘APCs and subscriptions’. The report reveals the majority of APCs are paid to hybrid journals despite higher pricing, and the average APC has increased by six per cent over the past two years, a rise well above the cost of inflation.

To counter the OA costs of publishing in hybrid journals, Jisc has devised a variety of mechanisms to offset the cost of a university’s APCs against its subscription fees. For example, the organisation has negotiated offset deals with the likes of Springer, SAGE, Wiley, the Institute of Physics and more, to ensure these companies do not receive double income through subscriptions and APCs revenue for the same journals.

However, for some in the industry, offsetting deals simply aren’t enough. Kai Karin Geschuhn from Open Access & License Management at Max Planck Digital Library, Germany, believes the hybrid approach is reassuring for publishers as subscription income continues, but reckons APCs are too high.

What’s more, she is sure that offsetting deals from the likes of Jisc, can only achieve a limited impact and is certain a more ambitious plan is needed. In a recent ‘open access policy white paper’, Geschuhn and her colleagues made a case for the large-scale transformation – or ‘flip’ – from today’s subscription-based publishing model to an open access model.

They believe this could be achieved by ‘liberating’ library acquisition budgets; instead of paying subscription fees, library budgets could be re-directed into a large-scale open access business model to pay for APCs.

According to Geschuhn, the global annual outlay for subscriptions comes in at some €8.5 billion, but this figure could be more than covered by an APC-funded model. 

She adds: ‘In the last 20 years, other strategies just haven’t worked... but this could be the chance to set funding free.’

Global flips have been touted before but myriad difficulties have stymied progress. For example, coordinating the many interests of publishers, librarians, researchers and more would bring massive challenges to librarians, tasked with taking on many publisher responsibilities.

Geschuhn isn’t fazed: ‘Librarians would have to organise entire processes and workflows with publishers. But that’s where their expertise is very helpful; they know how to deal with publishers and work with these processes.’

Many in the industry also highlight how proponents of ‘flipping’ typically reside in nations with well-funded library subscription budgets, but under-funded institutions from less-resourced countries could suffer.

Still, as Geschuhn says: ‘This issue wouldn’t grow any bigger than it is right now, and at least these nations would have the chance to access the open access research, which would be a huge advantage. I think before we decide ‘OK, an APC-based model is not possible as it will exclude half the world’, we should find out what exactly is the publishing output of these developing countries and work out how this can be financed.’

Without a doubt, the Max Planck Digital Library concept for transforming today’s subscription-driven publishing system is an adventurous approach to open access and, as such, has received a mixed response from scholarly publishing pundits. As Mark Thorley, RCUK asks: ‘Is it a little one dimensional to say you can put this in the hands of librarians and simply divert subscriptions?’

According to Thorley, Jisc and other organisations are now considering the concept that publishers produce a set of publishing services, rather than simply publishing papers.

‘It’s a huge administrative overhead to chase up authors and ensure papers are lodged in a repository with the appropriate metadata, and who is placed to do this most effectively?’ he asks. ‘Publishers, as they have access to the peer-reviewed manuscript and can produce the metadata, and some already offer services such as deposit into Euro PubMed Central.’

No doubt, over time, these and many more models will evolve, to ease the transition to open access. Tracz, for one, is confident that his company’s latest partnership with The Wellcome Trust will profoundly alter scholarly publishing.

But as Thorley concludes: ‘For me, the headline message is that implementing open access at scale is a lot more difficult than any of us initially imagined. A lot of people jumped into open access saying ‘this is great’ and have now discovered the realities of trying to make it happen.’