When we talk about the economics of open access, the conversation usually begins with the high cost of traditional journal subscriptions. For a nice summary of the argument that the economics of journal pricing is out of control, this portion of the ACRL toolkit on scholarly communications is an excellent resource. But that is only the beginning of the discussion. There is a lot more to say about open access economics.
One great source to grasp the nuance of the issues is a 2009 issue of the journal Economic Analysis and Policy, which itself made the transition from toll access to open availability under a Creative Commons Attribution license. A special issue of the journal was dedicated to the economics of open access; the full contents are linked to this blog post, which make finding them much easier.
I can especially recommend the first two articles in this special issue of EAP. John Willinsky does an excellent job in “The Stratified Economics of Open Access” of analyzing traditional publishing market segments and looking at how each is experimenting with open access. Conley and Wooders, in “But what Have you Done for me lately,” ask the very basic questions about what publishing an academic article should cost and what the most economically efficient model for scholarly communications might look like.
As I said, the conversation usually begins with high journal prices. Open access is not a solution, per se, to the problem of journal costs, but it is a solution to the access problem that is created by skyrocketing prices. For most academic authors, the issue of how much publishing really costs and how much of a university’s budget is actually going into shareholder value at Elsevier or Informa is very much secondary. Their concern is how to get their work into the hands of those who need it and might be able to use it. High subscription costs prevent that access and thus reduce the impact of scholarly work. That is the problem that new models of distributing scholarship, most of which are forms of open access, can solve.
As Conley and Wooders’ article makes clear, open access is not free in the sense of being without any costs, although consumers of open access articles do get the information they need without charge. Open access models are really about ways to streamline and redistribute the costs of publication so as to solve the access problem that is becoming so severe in the traditional system.
When we talk about the economics of open access, there are two factors that we should not forget. First, the are costs, known as lost opportunity costs, associated with traditional publishing that are recaptured by open access. Every time a researcher or teacher cannot get to the information she needs to do her work, or must obtain it by labor-intensive means like interlibrary loan or direct contact with the author, time and knowledge, which are both worth money, are wasted; open access reduces that loss. Second, open access provides the benefit of greater impact to the scholarly authors of articles made accessible through the various OA models. This benefit for the authors, like the benefit to the reader of quick and toll-free access, increases the overall value of research. When we examine the economics of open access, the increased value of the research itself must be part of the equation.