How does Open Access relate to subscription journal pricing?

FSU Libraries have been forced to cancel a ‘big deal’ journal package with Springer. The available budget for library collections at FSU has remained flat for the past five years, while the cost of library resources has risen by 4-6% annually, and by as much as 9% for journal subscriptions in STEM-related fields. This situation is inherently unsustainable, and it is the product of the subscription-based model of scholarly publishing. Under this model, the cost of journal subscriptions has increased at 300% the rate of inflation since 1986, resulting in tremendous financial burden on academic libraries and their parent universities. The subscription model also restricts the dissemination of faculty research, placing it behind paywalls so that anyone who can’t pay can’t read it, and thereby limiting its impact on other researchers and the general public.

Open Access (OA) is a movement based on the principle that this situation is fundamentally unjust, and that the fruits of academic endeavor should be freely available to everyone. OA archiving and publishing are the two main strategies for accomplishing this goal, and they promise to benefit both the global research community and individual authors, moving published research into the open and thereby broadening its readership and generating more citations. OA is also fast becoming a requirement for recipients of research funding, as many public and private funding agencies are enacting public access policies to make the results of funded research accessible to all.

But how is OA relevant to FSU Libraries’ current budget crisis? Does OA provide viable alternatives to the subscription-based model of scholarly publishing? How does OA propose to counteract the predatory pricing practices of commercial academic publishers, and how successful has it been in that effort thus far? Do current developments suggest that OA will provide a long-term solution in future? To explore these questions, let’s take a closer look at the main forms of OA and how they compare to the traditional model.

Green OA: Open Archiving

Green OA refers to the practice of depositing manuscript versions of journal articles in open repositories, where the peer-reviewed content is made publicly available at no cost, even if the final, published articles remain locked behind paywalls. Some of these repositories serve an entire academic discipline (as ArXiv does for physics), while others are specific to institutions (like DigiNole Commons, FSU’s research repository). Open repositories are committed to providing long-term preservation and access, and they are built on sustainable service models that are low-cost and highly scalable, especially relative to traditional academic publishing. Ultimately, the hope is that the availability of peer-reviewed manuscripts in open repositories will counteract the pricing practices of large academic publishers, giving libraries bargaining power to negotiate better prices. Green OA is still in its infancy, but there are strong arguments to suggest that it could significantly reduce the cost of journal subscriptions if it were implemented successfully at a system-wide level.

Gold OA: Open Publishing

OA publishers make the final versions of articles and books publicly accessible immediately upon publication at no cost to readers. The shorthand for this is Gold OA, and it comes in a variety of different forms, from volunteer-run OA journals that charge no fees at all to commercial OA publishers that generate revenue from author-side publishing fees.

The cost of publishing an OA journal is typically lower than that of publishing a subscription journal of the same quality, since OA publishers have no expenses related to subscription management, digital rights management, and legal fees for licensing and permissions. Many OA publishers also benefit from using open-source publishing platforms (such as Open Journal Systems), which streamline a variety of editorial tasks and responsibilities, from submission management and peer review to digital publication and preservation. By lowering the cost of production, Gold OA creates the potential for more equitable, sustainable business models. There are several successful examples to mention here, including:

  • Diamond OA journals that operate without charging publishing or subscription fees (over 70% of OA journals use this model)
  • the Public Library of Science (PLOS), which charges OA publishing fees backed by a robust waiver program, rigorous peer review, and reduced time-to-publication
  • the SCOPE 3 project, a major collaborative initiative that will convert all of the subscription journals in particle physics to OA, primarily by redirecting funds that currently pay for subscriptions fees (and reducing the overall cost to institutions in the process)
  • the Open Library of the Humanities and Knowledge Unlatched, which use a similar model as SCOPE 3 to support OA publishing of journals and books, respectively

As Gold OA publishing models become more prevalent, they will increase the proportion of high-quality academic research that is freely available online, and the hope is that this will eventually reduce the demand for big-deal journal packages and counteract the ability of publishers to set unreasonable prices for subscription content.

As these inspiring OA stories help to show, every researcher can play a role in promoting the long-term success of OA publishing, no matter their disciplinary background or the stage of their academic career. You can make a big difference by simply deciding to submit your next paper to an OA journal, and your work will stand to benefit from increased potential to be read and cited. To get started, you can find thousands of reputable options in the Directory of OA Journals, and you can also get in touch with your friendly subject librarian for expert recommendations. And don’t worry about OA publishing fees! If you have grant funding, your funding agency likely permits you to use a portion of your grant to cover publishing fees. If not, then your institution may have a fund for OA publishing, and many OA journals provide generous waivers for authors who don’t have funding.

Federal Open Policies

In February 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a policy memo directing federal agencies to develop policies to make the publications and data resulting from funded research freely available to the public. The agencies have begun releasing their policies, many of which include a new requirement for data management plans as part of the proposal process. The enactment of these policies follows a global trend, with major public and private research funders in the EU, UK, Canada, and Australia all developing and enacting similar policies in recent years. Because most funding agencies permit researchers to use their grants to cover the cost of OA publishing, this trend signals an important shift in the economics of scholarly publishing, with research funders now sharing part of the financial burden that has historically been borne mainly by educational institutions. Perhaps more importantly, by requiring researchers to make their work openly available (and imposing penalties for noncompliance), funder OA policies will inevitably accelerate the growth of both Green and Gold OA, moving more and more scholarship into the open and consequently reducing the value of subscription journal packages, which could save universities and their libraries millions each year.

Conclusion

The OA movement has been gaining momentum in recent years, spurred largely by the enactment of OA policies by funding agencies across the western world. Relative to the history of academic publishing, however, OA is still very new, and it will take time for it to truly take hold and transform the current system. One of the most important challenges will involve changing the established attitudes, habits, and behaviors of academic researchers, publishers, and librarians to adapt to these new developments. Researchers can do their part by committing to self-archive their work and explore OA publication venues, following the inspiring example of many researchers who have committed to making their work OA.

Unfortunately, these measures are unlikely to mitigate FSU Libraries’ budget crisis in the short term. The unsustainable cost of journal packages is a systemic problem across the US: other universities have been forced to cancel subscriptions before (see herehere, and here), and collective action may be required at both the state and national levels in order to mitigate this situation while the OA movement works toward a more systemic, long-term solution. One example of such collective action is currently taking shape in the Netherlands, where Dutch universities have taken a stand against Elsevier over subscription costs and are poised to cancel their big deal package with the publisher effective January 2016. What is clear is that, if subscription costs continue to rise, academic publishers will only force more institutions to cancel journal subscriptions, which will further restrict the dissemination of faculty scholarship. OA archiving and publishing present the only viable solutions to this problem that promise to be beneficial for all parties, including authors, readers, libraries, and publishers. And, while these solutions will take time to come to fruition, they are well worth fighting for.

This post originally appeared on the FSU Libraries Blog.

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