Saturday, February 24, 2007

Open access, scholarly communications, and the processing fee model

There are arguments that the processing fee model approach to open access could introduce much needed competition into the scholarly publishing industry, and that this approach could simply result in a replacing a subscriptions crisis based on a price spiral with a processing fee price spiral. In my opinion, both arguments are correct. There are many variations of approaches to the processing fee model. Some introduce incentives to seek best services at best prices, and hence stimulate competition. One example is a funding agency providing a set amount or percentage fordissemination of research results, with discretion for the author to spend the full amount on publishing one article, or seeking a better price for publishing services,and using the remaining funds for other purposes. Other approaches, such as agreeing to a blanket fee for publication that is higher than the true costs of publishing an open access article, seem designed to reward inefficiencies and hencecreate the processing fee price spiral.
Following is a post to American Scientist Open Access Forum, Feb. 24, 2007 on this topic, which provides more detail. Thanks to Jan Velterop and Steve Hitchcock for their contributions on this topic.

To avoid confusion, let me first of all clarify that there are a number of business models for open access journals. The majority do not rely on processing fees at all.

For those that do, I agree with Jan Velterop that a gold processing-fee model has the potential to introduce competition into the marketplace. Steve Hitchcock is also correct, that a gold model could simply repeat the cost spiral.

The key factor is how a processing-fee model is approached. If a funding agency, university, or library decides to pay or partially pay processing fees, the gold processing-fee approach will only introduce competition into the system if there is incentive to seek out the publishing services with the most reasonable prices for the
services provided.

Let's look at a couple of different scenarios:

Funder A allows for a certain percentage of a research grant to be used for dissemination of research results, let's say $3,000. It is up to the researcher to decide whether to spend the $3,000 on processing fees for one article, or whether to publish in a quality journal with a lower fee, and use the rest of the funds for other dissemination-related purposes. For example, depending on the publisher's fee, this might leave enough left over to pay a graduate assistant to do most of the writing, or even cover or partially cover the costs of attending a conference to present a paper on the research outcome. With this scenario, I would predict competition in the scholarly publishing industry, and ultimately better quality
services at lower prices.

Funder B allows for a certain amount to pay for processing fees. Let's take $3,000 US as an example. For many publishers, this amount is higher than true costs of publishing an online open access article, and allows for double-dipping (revenue from both subscriptions and processing fee charges). With this scenario, I would predict increasing inefficiencies in the scholarly publishing industry, and the processing fee cost spiral that Steve Hitchcock warns of.

Similarly, if libraries choose to support processing fees, this may or may not be beneficial, depending on exactly how this is approached. Paying processing fees for fully gold OA journals with an established reputation for quality of service and reasonable prices would be extremely helpful in the transitional period. A sliding scale approach to paying for such fees (e.g. 100% up to $1,000, 75% up to $1,500, and so forth) would provide the incentives for faculty and departments to seek reasonable fees, and hence stimulate competition. Simply paying both processing fees and
subscription fees for hybrid journals creates incentives for inefficiencies. Hybrid processing fee / subscription approaches are an approach to transition that holds promise for reducing these incentives for inefficiencies (e.g., faculty at subscribing libraries pay lower fees, libraries deduct processing fees from subscription cheques). This is complex, and worth spending some time on
negotiations and model development.

Given these complexities, in my opinion it is best if funders adopt a simple mandate, requiring open access to the results of research they fund, and the authors' own work (with revisions suggested by peer reviewers). Funders have every right to make this requirement immediate on publication, or acceptance for publication. Publishers provide a valuable service, but they do not have any rights. Every business must adapt to changing environments, and the scholarly publishing industry is no exception.

Some publishers claim that if articles are available open access, there will be a precipitous decline in subscriptions. There is no evidence that this is likely, and much evidence that this is extremely unlikely, such as the experience of physics publishing peacefully coexisting with nearly 100% OA in arXiv for 15 years, the
fact that those who rely on the publishing services, the authors, are faculty members who are consulted in any cancellation decisions, and the fact that many of the larger library contracts are multi-year, and could not be cancelled suddenly.

However, even if all the library subscriptions were suddenly cancelled - so what? The monies that went into subscriptions would then be free to support gold OA publishing!

All of the worries from the publishing industry are much ado about nothing, in my opinion. Funders should overlook all the fretting about the possibility of change from an industry that is accustomed to a monopoly position, set the best policy for the public good(immediate open access, no delay), and leave all the details of the
adjustment to an OA environment to the scholars and their service providers (publishers, libraries, other university administration).

This post is part of the Transitioning to Open Access series.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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