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As the open access landscape grows in volume and complexity, Rebecca Pool asks whether calls for caution should be heard

As the open access landscape grows in volume and complexity, Rebecca Pool asks whether calls for caution should be heard

Earlier this year, a small Springer Nature survey of professional staff in research institutions and libraries around the world delivered big results for open access.

Of the 200 respondents working in research institutions or libraries, more than 70 per cent agreed that all future research articles, scholarly book and research data should be accessible via open access (OA). Meanwhile, a mighty 91 per cent of the librarians surveyed agreed OA to be the future of scholarly publishing.

As Carrie Calder, vice president for business development and policy, open research at Springer Nature, said at the time: ‘We see the rise of open research as one of the major forces reshaping the way that researchers collaborate to advance discovery... We will continue to push forward open access in all its forms.’

Without a doubt, Springer Nature has seen overwhelming success with its multidisciplinary science title, Nature Communications, now regarded as the highest-cited OA journal in the world. And, following the success of PLOS ONE and the subsequent flurry of mega-journals – including Nature’s Scientific Reports, BMJ Open and PeerJ – the volume of open access articles has mushroomed.

But despite the hype, absolute figures are less grandiose. Publishing industry analyst firm, Simba Information, recently reported that the share of OA articles in hybrid journals was just over two per cent at Elsevier, and a mere four per cent at Springer Nature.

And, in his recent PeerJ paper, ‘Evolution of the scholarly mega-journals 2006-2017’, information systems scientist Bo-Christer Björk from Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, called for context on the article output of mega-journals. Referring to the Scopus index, he estimated that in 2016, while the share of OA articles in Scopus came in at 19.4 per cent, mega-journal articles took a 2.6 per cent Scopus share, and articles in hybrid OA journals contributed two per cent.

Rob Johnson, founder and director of UK-based Research Consulting, believes a clear distinction should be drawn between the volumes of OA content now available and the business models adopted by academic publishers: ‘In terms of the proportion of content that is OA, we have passed the ideological tipping point here as there are a lot of green OA articles available, with copies to be found somewhere other than a publisher’s platform,’ he says.

‘But, in terms of publishers changing their business models, we are not there yet,’ he adds. ‘The vast majority of journal publishers are still using the subscription model, and the market share held by the pure OA journal is very much in the minority.’

Given the diminutive numbers, many librarians and researchers are impatient for change, calling for journals, books and data to become open access at a faster pace, as reflected in Springer Nature’s recent survey. Indeed, some two thirds of respondents were hopeful that a move to full OA – in which all future scholarly articles would be accessible via OA – could take place within the decade.

According to Johnson, many funders and policymakers across Europe are keen to see such a transition to OA business models. Having just proposed a €97.6 billion Horizon Europe programme – the latest iteration of Horizon 2020 – the European Commission intends to make open science its ‘modus operandi’ and requires open access to publications and data.

Yet, as Johnson also highlights for scholarly publishing elsewhere – such as the US – priority has been placed on public access to content, rather than publishers fully subscribing to an OA model: ‘We’re on a one-way journey to OA, but I do think it will always be a journey, and it’s certainly going to be a mixed economy for the foreseeable future.’

The price to pay

But fast or slow and steady progress aside, without a doubt a major sticking point for OA publishing continues to be the article processing charge (APC) – the fee paid by an author to a publisher to make an article freely available online. While industry heavyweights, such as Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley, have historically scooped up the most APC payments for hybrid journals, APCs have increased for both hybrid and fully OA journals.

Recent figures from Universities UK Open Access Co-ordination Group reveal that the mean APC payment rose by 16 per cent, from £1,699 to £1,969 between 2013 and 2016. The same study reported that more than half the expenditure on APCs in 2016 went to the three major publishing groups – Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley – with expenditure on APCs rising faster than that on subscriptions.

And in recent months, analysis from US-based OA consultants, DeltaThink, indicates APC pricing to be rather random. A survey reveals the only predictor of price to be a journal’s business model, with APCs in hybrid journals being most expensive and cheapest in fully OA publications. As Ann Michael, president, put it: ‘Our survey shows a complex and immature market... with little relationship between [journal] impact and price.’

Unsurprisingly, industry tensions are running high. German and Swedish research institutes recently – and very publicly – cancelled Elsevier contracts, while the League of European Research Universities (LERU), which includes the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, University College London and LMU Munich, has slammed OA developments.

Earlier this year, LERU’s report on OA challenges stated that the UK transition to full OA was not working due to costly APCs increasing publishing costs beyond subscription costs. 

The organisation also questioned if today’s commercial publishing model could be adapted to full OA publishing, and called for new publishing models to deliver affordable OA, such as universities collaborating to produce mega journals.

For their part, publishing heavyweights have asserted that more selective OA titles demand more editorial involvement, which is reflected in the APC. Springer Nature chief publishing officer Steven Inchcoombe recently highlighted in a Times Higher Education blog that Nature Communications employs 87 in-house editors and the investment required to evaluate submitted articles has to be recouped in the APC.

Johnson sympathises, pointing out that traditional publishers would struggle to adapt to full OA as the revenue per article from subscription-based publishing is around twice that of the APC. 

‘The question is, are people willing to pay more for OA, recognising that some of the traditional journals are more selective and have a rigorous peer review process?’ he says. ‘And for humanities and social sciences the cost of APCs is prohibitive... At the moment I just can’t see this [move to full OA] happening wholesale.’

Like Johnson, Aimee Nixon, head of open access at Emerald Publishing, believes widespread change is going to take time. ‘OA is so varied in different regions, with the need of our authors in China and the US being very different to those in the European market, and not everyone is pushing for OA at the same speed,’ she points out. ‘I think we need to develop a mixed economy model, for what will always be a mixed economy.’

Nixon also agrees that access to funding presents problems for many. Emerald Publishing’s titles largely focus on the social sciences and, as such, many authors don’t always have direct access to funding to pay for APCs.

Given this, the company introduced what it calls a ‘liberal green open access policy’ as part of its Emerald Reach programme. Here, embargoes from all journals were removed and the organisation gave authors the option to make their accepted manuscript openly available within their institutional repository, free from payment and embargo periods.

‘We wanted to give all our authors at least one route to OA, so if they didn’t have the budget to go Gold, then they could go Green,’ says Nixon.

 In a similar vein, the publisher also offers what it calls ‘platinum’ OA in which a journal is sponsored by a third party university or association, so the author doesn’t pay the APC. The list of participating journals is growing, and as Nixon highlights: ‘The model appears to work well for our communities... and we’re seeing a lot of growth.’

But it isn’t just the rising cost of APCs that has raised issues. As Johnson also points out, actual APC payment is proving to be problematic for authors, librarians and publishers alike. ‘We really should be doing more to reduce this administrative burden... and increasingly institutions are looking at offsetting schemes, prepayment arrangements and using platforms to manage APCs,’ he adds.

US-based supplier of the RightsLink licensing platform, Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), is well aware of these issues. Four years ago, the company launched RightsLink for Open Access, which aimed to streamline the entire author fee transaction for OA charges, APCs, page charges and more. And, earlier this year, CCC released OA Agreement Manager to automate and streamline funding of APCs. 

As Jen Goodrich, product manager at CCC highlights, managing and tracking the increasing number of APCs is becoming increasingly difficult. ‘The real problem is the complexities associated with APCs right now,’ she says. ‘There are so many deals out there, as well as data elements about the author, journal, manuscript, author affiliation and relationship with the publisher and institution that need to be taken into account to make sure the APC is priced properly.

‘Then there is the very real issue of metadata and how it is not persisting throughout the research and submission of a publication life cycle,’ she adds.

Given this, and the cacophony of changing mandates, revised licensing and shifting regulations, OA Agreement Manager is intended to automate approval processes. Crucially, its suite of tools aims to help publishers to set up, manage and track billing profiles that reflect the OA agreements with funders or institutions. 

Goodrich is confident the latest product will solve a lot of these problems in the industry. ‘The goal is to connect stakeholders, but I do hope the effort and costs around managing and executing transactions, approval processes and reporting will also decrease significantly,’ she asserts. ‘The costs are still very high for all parties, and that doesn’t lead to sustainability.’

Beyond the APC, the transition to OA is bringing even more challenges to working practices, data management, infrastructure costs and more. So, with sustainability at the forefront of many minds, should caution – rather than calls for change – be acted out?

As Research Consulting’s Rob Johnson puts it: ‘Right now, this is all about the mechanisms by which OA can happen without having unintended consequences.

‘UK learned societies, for example, derive a lot of revenue from publishing activities, which “cross-subsidises” charitable activities to promote research,’ he highlights. ‘If we try to move [from subscription models to OA] too quickly and subscriptions are cancelled on a wide scale, the impact on scholarly publishing would be huge.’ 

Share and share alike

Late last year, Cambridge University Press (CUP) launched a content-sharing pilot on its Cambridge Core platform, which allows users to share read-only versions of journal articles via a link that can be shared on social media sites and scholarly collaboration networks. Intended to build on the publisher’s existing Green and Gold open access (OA) policies, Cambridge Core Share includes nearly 200 subscription and hybrid journals, with monthly views growing from 2,000 to 10,000 from December 2017 to May 2018.

As Brigitte Shull, senior vice president of academic publishing, Americas, and director of scholarly communications research and development, highlights: ‘We’ve been publishing OA for years, but there has been a reorientation to explore how we can do more, as we do see OA as the future. OA has been a relatively small part of our portfolio, but we do want to have roughly 20 to 25 per cent of our content moving to OA over the next few years.’

CUP publishes science, technology and medical (STM) titles, as well as those in humanities and social sciences and, as such, accommodates differences from discipline to discipline. ‘Our OA does skew more towards our STM programmes, which probably doesn’t surprise you... but we are working to flip both STM and social science journals over the next few years,’ she says.

As she also highlights, while levels of awareness and engagement on OA vary between disciplines, largely hinging on the mandates coming from funders, interest in openness is obvious across the board. ‘For example, a historian might not be able to pay an APC, but they might be interested in Cambridge Core Share,’ Shull adds.

CUP has been the first university press to build a sharing service on a home-grown platform, and Shull believes that the platform and its latest development are helping authors to discover content and collaborate: ‘We have revved up our efforts to bring journals into the Core Share fold, and we’re now making sure authors have the tools they need to use it.’