Paying the bills

Open access is not free.  By saying that up front, I hope to confound some of the more extreme critics of the open access movement, who sometimes pretend that all OA supporters are dreamy-eyed and woolly-headed librarians who imagine that all information “wants” to be free.  So I start from the premise that open access costs money, but I do immediately need to qualify that statement.  By definition, open access does not charge the consumers of information any fee for access.  It is free in that sense, but not in the sense that there are no costs involved in producing the works or making them freely available.

Of course, for most academic work, the majority of the “first copy” costs are already paid for outside the subscription system.  Taxpayer money, research grants or private university funds support the research underlying scholarship, as well as the time of the authors who produce it.  The work of reviewing and improving both articles and books is also borne by these sources, in large part.  Commercial publishers, then, “free ride” on this investment, which is a sign of a failure in the market.

One truth that lies behind much of the open access movement is simply that there are more efficient ways to produce scholarship than the way it has been done in the past.  Digital communications have brought down the cost of other types of content, but publishers continue to raise prices, arguing, improbably, that there are no significant savings in the transition from print to online distribution.

So here is a simple assertion — we must find ways to pay for open access to scholarship, but simply paying traditional commercial publishers to do it for us would just replicate a system whose failure in the online environment is all too obvious.  Gold, or hybrid gold, open access is NOT a solution IF it is expected to simply replace subscription revenue and does not provide an opportunity for a more realistic assessment of costs.

There is a really nice article by Kevin Hawkins from the University of North Texas Libraries about “How We Pay for Publishing” in the latest issue of “Against the Grain.”  I don’t think the issue is openly available, but there is a pre-print of Kevin’s article in the UNT Digital Library here.  The article is a concise overview of “how we got into this mess” and “how might we get out.”  Kevin concisely summarizes the various proposals that would shift library investments from the consumption side of the research process — where we simply buy the products that are sold only to a limited set of buyers/subscribers — to the production side, where library funding helps support the creation of knowledge products that are available to all.  As Hawkins points out, there is a potential free-rider problem here as well, and he writes about how different possible models can address it.  When he turns to the impact of these models on university presses, he envisions a more mission-driven view of those organizations that would recognize that it is unrealistic to expect them to pay for themselves at the end of each fiscal year.  Instead, we should look closely at costs and benefits, recognizing that increased access is a benefit, and support university presses as well as other organizations that are prepared to experiment with new models for more efficient production and broader access.

Costs, of course, are the elephant in the living room whenever improving access is under discussion.  In a recent blog post on open access books and double dipping, Martin Eve of the Open Library of the Humanities questions the claim that a particular publisher must recoup $17,500 to make a single monograph OA.  Martin’s concern is that the publisher in question may be “double-dipping” by demanding the full-cost of the publication as an up-front OA charge and selling print copies as well.  It seems that the OA charge could be reduced by the amount earned through print or e-book sales, just as journal subscription costs ought to come down as author’s select “open choice” options.  The fact that neither reduction is occurring, at least in a wide-spread way, is a sign that we need to ask much harder questions about the actual cost of production as we make this transition to supporting OA on the production side.  The study announced by Ithaka last month should help us get a better handle on the true cost of publishing a monograph.

Those nations that use central funding to support open access publication — and there are a growing number of those — especially need to look at costs to be sure they are not wasting money.  In this guest post on the Digital Science blog, Jan Erik Frantsvag from Norway considers the path that would simply pay article processing charges (APCs) to commercial publishers in order to achieve open access, and lays out some concerns.  Most especially, he explains why the Norwegian Research Council has decided that the funds offered to researchers to fulfill their open access mandate may not be spent on hybrid publications, where only certain articles are made open access after a fee is paid, while a subscription fee is still charged for access to the entire journal.  Frantsvag cites three concerns that caused the Norwegian government to reject this hybrid model.  First, because it double-dips, as described above.  Second, because hybrid journal APCs are higher than those for other OA publications, raising precisely this issue of cost that we have been discussing.  As more and more government funds are used to pay APCs, it seems likely that we will see more probing questions about cost being asked.  Indeed, if U.S. universities are going to develop campus-based funds to support article process charges, we ought to be asking the same questions, and using caps on our funds to encourage more reasonable APCs.  The third reason Frantsvag cites is simply that money for open access should support innovation and experimentation, not simply go to keeping the old business model afloat.

In each of these examples we see that efforts to encourage open access and find new models for supporting research must necessarily look at how much the production of knowledge products — monographs, journal articles, digital visualizations, etc. — actually costs.  In the past these costs have been obscure to universities, hidden in the steady upward spiral of subscription expenses.  But now we are seeing signs that the academic community is beginning to do what it probably should have done long ago — look closely at the actual costs and begin to evaluate the money we are willing to invest in each form of scholarly dissemination.

8 thoughts on “Paying the bills”

  1. I have been pressing for a conversation about alternatives to current subscriptions for quite some time. Given new distribution technologies, I have proposed a model of post-publication peer review and/or tired subscription models that might even generate revenue to support some of the costs of copy editing and associated infrastructure needs. See my webinar presentation “Alternatives to Traditional Journal Subscriptions” SLA Legal Division: Trends and Topics, Professional Development Series, November 12, 2012, at

  2. Open access definitely is not free. The illusion that it is free persists, perhaps because the knowledge accessed is presented in a format that is not experienced with the tactile senses and, perhaps, because we do not fully comprehend costs in general.

    When we purchase a book, we receive an object we can hold in our hands. We think we have paid for the paper, printing, and binding. If we think a bit more, we realize we also have paid for the shipping and perhaps for the store clerk’s time to sell it to us. We tend not to think about the store’s electric bill, employee taxes, insurance, rent/mortgage or about the publisher’s electric bill, employee taxes, insurance, rent/mortgage, secretary’s salaries, bookkeeper’s salaries, receptionist’s salaries, etc., etc., etc. — to say nothing of the UPS drivers’ salary, the insurance agent’s salary, and the author’s and editor’s time and expertise.

    So when publishers say there are no appreciable differences in publishing material online versus publishing print material, what is going on? Many of those costs should be eliminated, right? Maybe. One factor seldom considered is how overhead costs have increased over a time period where publishing sales have, at the same time, decreased. One of the heftiest increases has been in the areas of insurances–property, liability, employee health insurance, workers’ comp, etc. It is very difficult to compare the costs of an industry ten years ago, when print was more dominant, with the costs of an industry today, but I can see this as one possibility for a “lost in translation” sort of misunderstanding.

    Costs we don’t consider when thinking about open access are: Who is paying the salaries of the people maintaining the Web site? Who is paying for the host’s electric bills and internet access bills? Who is paying for the liability insurance to cover the open access site should something be uploaded that is plagiarized or is defamatory?

    Who is paying for the loss of all the jobs in the printing industry and for the loss of all the jobs in the related support-service industries?

    What happens to academic organizations who lose revenue when all the articles for which universities used to pay the organization to access are available “for free” … will tuition go down? But will membership fees go up to cover executive directors’ salaries, conference costs, etc? Will scholarships and awards from these organizations go by the wayside?

    If/when open access displaces print publications, what will the effect be on the digital divide? Will people whose access to the internet is limited or non-existent — more than we realize even in developed countries — be even less able to not so much access but amass material?

    Perhaps I am not looking in the right places, but I am not seeing these questions discussed when it comes to open access. I’m not sure we fully understand the implications of “open” or “access” or “free” or “cost.”

    1. Interesting — thank you for sharing these pages. My first reaction is that the assumptions listed are major and need more careful examination, but at least some of immediate cost questions are being considered. I appreciate your passing these along.

      I still am concerned about the larger economic impact implications behind the “open” rhetoric. We want things we consume to be free or as inexpensive as possible, but we also want to be paid a “decent wage” for our own work. I’m not sure we can have it both ways.

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