Perpetuating an OA myth

Maxine at Nautilus posted a slightly shortened version of this letter to Nature from Raf Aerts; what caught my eye was the rearing of a familiar ugly head (emphasis mine):

…the [global recession] may also be affecting the publication output of research institutions in a more subtle way. It could be boosting the traditional reader-pays publication model for scientific journals at the expense of the author-pays, or open-access, model.
Open-access journals ask authors to pay for processing their manuscripts (which involves organizing a form of quality control, formatting and distribution) so that the final product becomes freely available, and free to use if properly attributed. [...]

This myth, that OA is synonymous with author-pays, is a toll-access publisher’s delight. It simply is not true. See here for detail; briefly:

  • in 2005, the Kaufman-Wills group showed that “…more than half of DOAJ [Open Access] journals did not charge author-side fees of any type, whereas more than 75% of ALPSP, AAMC, and HW subset [Toll Access] journals did charge author-side fees.” (Note that this study included only 248 journals from the DOAJ.)
  • in 2007, Peter Suber and Caroline Sutton showed that, of 450 OA journals published by 468 scholarly societies, only 75 — fewer than 20% — charged author-side fees
  • also in 2007, I showed that only 18% of the almost 3000 journals in the whole DOAJ charged author-side fees; 67% did not charge such fees, and the information was missing for 15%.
  • in March 2008, Heather Morrison showed that more than 90% of the psychology journals in the DOAJ charge no publication fee1
  • about a month ago, I showed that only 38 (42%) of the 90 full-OA chemistry journals in the DOAJ charged author-side fees (49% did not charge such fees, and information was missing for 9%).

Raf goes on to say:

…few peer-reviewed open-access journals have so far had a high impact factor in their field, except for a small number such as those published by the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central. They are therefore struggling to emerge and to attract the most prestigious research findings.
This situation could deteriorate further if open-access journals are forced to move to (partial) site licensing in order to cover their production costs — a shift recently undertaken by the Journal of Visualized Experiments, for example — as authors become increasingly reluctant or unable to pay in the current financial climate.

I don’t see why we should assume that anything will “deteriorate” if OA journals switch to new funding models, or that OA journals will have a harder time ‘emerging’ if they move to a model that is actually closer to the old, familiar toll-access model. After all, there already exist a wide variety of ways in which OA publications pay the bills: advertising, endowments, philanthropy, institutional subsidies, memberships, priced editions and more. In particular, hybrid journals (which is what JoVE has become) are popular with toll-access publishers as a way to establish a foothold in OA territory. Inter alia, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley all publish hybrid journals, and between them, those three account for more than 40% of the worldwide science/tech/medicine publishing market — so the hybrid model is pretty well established.
There’s more to say about authors’ willingness and/or ability to pay, too. Firstly, it’s almost never the author who pays, but the funding body paying for that author’s research. At the moment, this can translate into using up precious grant money when there’s a need to pay author-side fees, but with 77 funder, institutional and departmental OA mandates in place and more on the way, it seems reasonable to suppose that more and more of the mandating bodies will underwrite more and more of the costs of publishing. For example, HHMI has institutional agreements/memberships with BMC, Springer and Elsevier, and BMC’s page of funder policies shows that a majority of UK funders either make additional funds available or allow publication charges to be treated as an indirect cost. Many OA journals also waive or reduce their fees on application; for instance, here are the PLoS (scroll down) and BMC policies.
Finally, remember that the Kaufman-Wills study showed that 75% of the toll-access journals surveyed charged author-side fees (page charges, colour charges, reprint charges, etc) in addition to their subscription charges. So when there are author-side fees involved, I’d like to know how those charged by OA journals (in return for which the work is freely available to everyone, forever) compare with those charged by toll-access journals (in return for which, authors often cannot retrieve their own work, and anyone who wants to read it must pay another fee).

1 updated 04/29 after reading this post from Peter Suber

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