January 17, 2018


This feature article is part of our Open Access in Action series, sponsored by Dove Press, which tracks the evolution of important open access (OA) issues through a library lens by presenting regular original articles, video interviews, news, and perspectives. To learn more about how librarians like you are driving practice across the lifestyle of open access, be sure to visit Open Access in Action.


Making the Transition to Gold Open Access

OpenAccess_MakingtheTransitiontoGoldOpenAccess_300pxThe promise of Open Access is colored by concerns over financial models and their potential to disrupt established academic publishing. In this installment, we take a closer look at the issues surrounding the APC-supported Gold publishing model.

In the first article in this series, we examined the basics of how Open Access (OA) research articles are funded. While subscription-based or hybrid journals are still in the majority, the Gold OA model—relying mainly but not exclusively on Article Processing Charges or APCs—is on the rise.

Advocates of Gold OA point out that the delays and embargos associated with Green OA archiving can hinder progress in fast-moving areas of scientific and medical research, such as infectious disease. Some journal publishers like Dove Press have fully transitioned from a subscription model to all Gold OA, while others are still exploring the possibilities.

Regional Differences and Publishing Realities

Measuring the transition has proven to be challenging. A 2015 study led by the Research Information Network, Monitoring the Transition to Open Access, found the average percentage of articles published under the “Immediate OA” model rose from 13.6% to 16.6% worldwide, between 2012 and 2014. (In the U.K, the increase was from 12.6% to 18.2% over the same period.) However, only 9.6% of the articles were funded solely by APCs, with the remaining “Immediate OA” articles funded by institutions or through a hybrid APC/subscription approach. (In the U.K., the percentage of APC-only articles was 9.3%.)

Regional policy differences affect the transition. “Many European governments are implementing plans to shift their research publications to OA including negotiations with publishers for comprehensive ‘cost of access’ agreements,” said retired Michigan State Professor of Medicine David Solomon. “In the U.S., the focus had been more on archiving. Most federal and foundation grant programs now allow researchers to charge APCs to their grants. OA is going to start snowballing; it’s a question of how that’s going to happen.”

Solomon expects the transition to be significantly further along in the next ten years, but pointed out the barriers to rapid progress. “Journal publishing is a huge industry that just doesn’t turn on a dime,” he said. “Subscription publishers know that OA is happening, and are trying to figure out how to steer it in ways that will allow them to remain financially sound.”

Some journals will be very hard to “flip” to Gold OA. Solomon gave the example of medical journals that are clinically oriented, such as the New England Journal of Medicine. “They have subscriptions in virtually every hospital, residency program, and multi-specialty practice,” he said. “But most of those places do not have people who actually publish. To recoup what these subscription journals are making now, the cost would be way more than you could charge with an APC.” Solomon believes that while Gold OA will eventually be the norm, there may still be some permanent exceptions.

APC Economics

Solomon and others are attempting to better define the possibilities for both publishers and institutions. The University of California Davis and the California Digital Library, with financial backing from the Mellon Foundation, are conducting a comprehensive study, Pay It Forward: Investigating a Sustainable Model of Open Access Article Processing Charges for Large North American Research Institutions, which is expected to report its findings in June.

We spoke with the Pay It Forward project manager, Greg Tananbaum of ScholarNext. The one-year study is examining whether it is financially viable for large academic institutions—those who carry out a disproportionate amount of research—to bear the cost of an APC-funded Open Access model. “We wanted to find out what sustainability might look like,” he said.

Tananbaum said the study went deeply into the types and volume of research output generated by larger institutions. It modeled the research cost against what libraries are currently paying from their serials budget, to see if that money could be re-applied to cover APC costs, either alone or in combination with other funding sources. Although the full report is not yet available, he was generally positive. “There is a path by which fully Gold Open Access would be sustainable by those institutions.”

Apples & Oranges

Unlike other digital goods markets like eBooks or music, where a single dominant player can coordinate rapid change, scientific publishing is fragmented and heterogeneous. There are a multitude of publishers, disciplines, and funding organizations. “Like any other platform shift, it will take everybody on both sides to do it,” said Mark McCabe, a lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and Professor and Director of the Digital Business Program at SKEMA Business School in France. “The transition between business models is a process that requires major players to subsidize or sponsor it. In the context of OA, the coordination challenges are substantial.  This will take time.”

McCabe cautioned that authors in different disciplines are by no means equal in their ability to support the APC model. As he pointed out in a recent NBER paper, Gold Open Access is not a panacea. Echoing Solomon’s comments regarding the New England Journal of Medicine, “It’s not a solution for every context,” he said.

However, increasing pressure from researchers outside Western Europe and North America, as well as mandates from the EU, may eventually force even reluctant publishers and institutions to adopt the Gold model. “The thing about science is that if traditional publishers were to disappear tomorrow, research would still be conducted and articles would still be written,” McCabe said. “Research authors aren’t selling books or songs; they just want to get their stuff out there in the best way possible, and have it read by anyone who needs it.”

Open Access In Action



  1. Due to last year’s significant rise in the use of the fund we unfortunately cannot cover page or colour charges from the RCUK open access block grant anymore. The fund is primarily intended to cover the cost of gold open access and we have to reserve the block grant for this use. Other unavoidable charges, such as page or colour charges should be covered from research grants, where allowable, or other local consumables budgets.