The financial shift from subscribers to authors will have long term and potentially positive effects on peer-reviewed scientific and medical reporting.
The theory of Open Access (OA) predates the Internet, but the web has made it a full-fledged phenomenon for scientific and medical journals. Driven in large part by mandates from government and institutional funding entities, OA theoretically lowers the subscription cost barrier for peer-reviewed content. Academic libraries and their constituents—especially researchers—are the prime beneficiaries, but so also are general public libraries and “citizen scientists” who simply have Internet access.
Like a politician’s promise, however, the benefits of OA have to be paid for—typically through an Article Processing Charge (APC) charged to the author or, more commonly, the author’s employer. These can average between $2,000 and $3,000 per article, according to Anneliese Taylor, Assistant Director, Scholarly Communications and Collections, at the University of California, San Francisco Library. “These are increasingly a line item in research grant funding proposals,” she said, pointing out that funding entities are themselves often proponents of Open Access.
It should be noted that in a recent Library Journal interview Peter Suber, Director of Harvard’s Open Access Project, estimated that only about 50% of all open access articles are fee-based, so the APC model is by no means universal.
Taylor noted that funding levels for Open Access are gradually increasing, although many journals are adopting a hybrid approach. This makes some content available only to paid subscribers and other content open, using the Gold model: distributing through an OA publisher or aggregator. The alternative Green OA model—self-archiving the author’s final accepted manuscript on a personal website, institutional repository, or other subject-based OA repository—does not require payment of an APC. Taylor noted that journals using the hybrid approach are trending towards increased OA content.
Journals do not typically disclose their publishing cost structure, although some supplement APC revenue with traditional alternatives, including association membership fees and paid advertising. Taylor pointed out that some of the newer OA platforms are offering generally lower APCs to journals.
Payment of APCs comes from a variety of sources. According to the Publishers Communication Group’s September 2014 Open Access Library Survey, the authors themselves provide the highest percentage of funding, although a significant portion was covered by outside funding. (Respondents could indicate more than one funding source.)
Of those who indicated the library provided 44% of the funding, the majority indicated that those funds came from the existing materials budget.
In the Public Interest
Claus Roll, Publishing Editor at EDP Sciences, also believes that available funding for Open Access is increasing, albeit slowly. This is a reflection of changing public policy. “Public and private funders like the NIH or the Wellcome Trust have a say in how their money is used,” he said. “They make Open Access publishing a requirement because they want to give the public insight into their funded research that may have a societal impact.”
Roll noted that while the OA model places a cost requirement on the author and his or her employer (typically absorbed by STEM grant providers), it also provides a tangible financial benefit. Researchers building on the work of others—a fact of life in the scientific community—are less encumbered by costs when accessing others’ OA articles. The “pay it forward” notion is particularly attractive.
The OA trend has raised concerns about the impact of a “pay to publish” model on academic integrity. However, those we interviewed felt that the peer review process could withstand the shift in funding emphasis. Allen Lopez, Collections Librarian at the University of Texas: MD Anderson Cancer Research Medical Library, pointed out that unfortunate incidents occurred before the OA funding shift. “Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited autism and vaccines study was published in The Lancet before there was any sort of Open Access model,” Lopez said. “I think that if the peer review process is followed, the shifting funding model will not inherently compromise the work.”
If anything, OA may increase the level of scrutiny for peer reviewed journals. With Open Access, “there are so many more people looking—not just the insular elements of one school or university,” he said. “It’s anyone and everyone. That means it’s more likely someone will catch things like the Wakefield study.” Lopez feels that once the OA model is better known, authors and institutions won’t feel they can just pay to have something published. “If more people are watching, they’ll have to be just as diligent as they were before.”
The Librarian’s Role
Lopez and others we interviewed pointed out that OA makes the role of librarian even more important. Curating this vast array of content, and helping guide the public discussion, requires the expertise of knowledgeable humans.
The Open Access funding model will invariably cause disruption—where subscription revenue supports a particular association, for example. However, with the growing support of private and public funding entities, the benefits of OA will eventually dominate the discussion, and research librarians will increasingly have a high quality problem on their hands.
What Do You Think?
Clearly, the financial models for OA are far from settled practice. So, from your perspective, who pays for open access today—and who should be paying for it in the future? Please use the comments section to begin the discussion.