David Prosser, Executive Director, RLUK


It has long been acknowledged that the journal subscription market is deeply flawed and fails to act as a rational market should. Back in 2002 one of the main conclusions of an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading was that ‘there is evidence to suggest that the market for STM journals may not be working well’. This was followed in 2006 by a study commissioned by the European Commission that found a market that was ‘very far away from the ‘ideal perfectly competitive private market’ that has been celebrated ever since Adam Smith (1776)’. These were conclusions that came as no surprise to any university librarian.

Interestingly, the OFT decided not to intervene in the market as in 2002 the implications of the move online were not clear and it was possible that new market forces could be brought to bear in an electronic environment, so remedying any market problems. This has certainly long been the hope of many open access advocates (myself included) – that a side benefit of giving wider access will be resulting business models that focus on the services that publishers offer rather than rents for access to information. Twelve years after the OFT investigation, are new, functioning markets emerging?

RLUK, together with a consortium of others, commissioned Professors Bo-Christer Bjork and David Solomon to investigate the possibilities of markets for open access article processing charges (APC). Their report, published recently, outlines what for librarians is a familiar, and chilling, possibility:

“One could speculate what the APC market would look like if it worked on similar terms as the subscription market. Under such a model, we posit that individually paid APCs would be very expensive (as is the subscription model with an estimated cost of 5,000 per article). Consequently those publishers who controlled big portfolios of APC funded OA journals would make bundled deals with universities and funders, which would result in seemingly lower APCs per article if they committed to paying the publisher a fixed sum per annum, a sort of APC “subscription”. The price differential when compared to individually paid APCs would be large enough to effectively push universities to predominantly pay for APCs via these deals, and thus tie up their earmarked APC funds. Such deals would also streamline the administrative effort to pay APCs which further increases their attractiveness. This would result in a loss of transparency and would be very detrimental to smaller OA publishers and innovative companies wishing to break into the market.”

In their analysis Bjork and Solomon identify the great growth in Gold open access over the past decade – an increase in 20% annually.  About 1-in-10 of all articles indexed in Scopus were published in full OA journals. The largest growth recently is in ‘mega-journals’ on the PLoS One model. (And I was struck to hear recently from one RLUK member that the number one journal their researchers publish in, in terms of number of papers, is PLoS One.) But there is also a massive increase in the number of ‘traditional’ publishers offering hybrid options.

These hybrid journals have seen little uptake to date – only 1% of papers indexed by Scopus are OA in hybrids.  Bjork and Solomon’s analysis of the level of APCs gives an indication of why this might be. The average APC from a born-digital ‘non-subscription’ publisher is $1,418, for an OA journal from a ‘subscription’ publisher $2,097, and for a hybrid journal $2,727. In a fully functioning market it should be a no-brainer for an author who wants to (or is required to) publish in Gold OA to go for the born-digital option at almost half the price (all things being equal).

However, looking at APC data that Wellcome, Cambridge and others have released recently, it is clear that many authors are opting to publish in the more expensive, hybrid journals. In some cases it will be clear that these are the most appropriate journals for the research to be published in.  But is it the case that these expensive, hybrid journals are really, on average, two times better (however we define ‘better’) than the born-OA alternatives? It may be that just as the disconnect between readers and journal prices contributed to the serials crisis then so might a disconnect between authors and APC prices lead to an ‘APC crisis’.

Bjork and Solomon propose three scenarios by which funders could begin to ensure that APCs do not spiral out of control.

Scenario A: APCs are refunded at list prices, with mechanisms at the local level for hybrid articles to ensure savings in subscription costs for a specific institution.

Under this scenario, Bjork and Solomon suggest that ‘institutions paying hybrid APCs must be reimbursed through rebates on subscriptions paid to that publisher to limit the increased costs of paying APCs along with subscriptions.’ This is exactly that stance against double-dipping that RLUK is advocating, and which is in alignment with thinking from BIS. Here the proposal is that funders should only pay full APCs on hybrid journals to those publishers that put in place institutional rebates.

Scenario B: APCs are funded according to multi-tier, value-based price caps.

Here, a funder would place a cap on the APC that it was willing to pay based on some ‘value’ metric (perhaps, most obviously, citation-related measures). So the cap would be higher for high value journals. Obviously, authors would be able to publish in journals that set APCs higher than the cap, but they would have to look for additional sources of funding.

Scenario C: The funders cover a fixed percentage of the APCs above a maximum value whilst universities (or the authors) cover the remaining portion through other sources.

Again, this is a mechanism to ensure that authors are aware of the costs of APCs and that, if the costs are high, they take some of the responsibility of covering the costs. The driver is to ensure that there is no disconnect between authors and price

It is clear that funders, institutions and libraries will need to work together to ensure that OA mandates do not, as an unintended consequence, promote dysfunctional APC markets.  As well as providing much need data on the current state of the market, Bjork and Solomon gives us much to think about as we debate how to move towards more equitable, fair, and efficient models for scholarly communication.


Note: Blog articles represent the personal the views of the author(s)