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The phrase “horns of a dilemma” describes someone faced with two equally unpleasant outcomes and forced to choose one.  Step to left and risk evisceration from a charging bull; step the right and meet the  same fate.  There is no way to avoid harm with the exception of refusing to step into the ring in the first place.

In the last year, many research libraries have established open access publication funds to encourage authors to select this publication route for their papers.  The justification for these funds has been that they “level the playing field” between reader-pays and author-pays publication models and therefore make the system more fair.

In this post, I’ll argue that these open access publication funds create a dilemma, where librarians are forced to choose between fiscal irresponsibility and conflict with academic freedom.  Since academic freedom is sacrosanct, they will choose fiscal irresponsibility.  The result will lead to a system in which institutions cannot contain expenditures and a publication model that costs much more than the system we have in place today.

There are essentially two different ways in which one can govern an open access publication fund: manage it, or leave it alone.  The latter is essentially what libraries have done so far.  Authors submit their publication bills to the fund and a librarian simply reimburses them.  Similarly, one could get “pre-approval” (just like working with health insurance companies), and the library will take care of the rest.  When there are sufficient funds in these accounts, everyone is happy–faculty get what they want, which is to publish as much as they want.  As long as someone other than the author pays the bill, everything is copasetic.

But the problem is that there won’t be sufficient funds in these accounts for long.  Authors will view these funds as a free lunch, and certainly much more appetizing than spending one’s own money paying those pesky page charges to non-profit society journals.  In the institution-pays OA model, one can have his cake and eat it, only it will cost the institution more money to feed its authors.

A fund that has no oversight is wide open to abuse.  With administrators paying the bills, there is no reason for publishers (especially the commercial ones) to moderate prices since authors are insulated from paying out of pocket.  When someone else is paying the bill, it makes sense for authors to go for the publishers who offer the best services, irrespective of the costs.  This is the left-horn of the dilemma: a future of commercial open-access publishing that is completely unable to contain costs. (We will forget the potential for gaming the system for a moment.)

Alright, you say, we clearly need to provide oversight of these funds.  Let’s set up advisory committees to make sure that we allocate these funds fairly.  Like the Research Information Network report on establishing author publication funds maintains, priorities need to be set and policies written to deal with rejection and appeal requests.  While this advice sounds reasonable, I have yet to see such a policy, and it’s clear why none have been written:

  • How do you tell a graduate student you won’t reimburse her publication costs because the fees were too high, and then ask her to resubmit her manuscript to a lower-priced journal?
  • How do you tell an assistant professor putting together a tenure portfolio that the fund has run out of money for the current fiscal year and to please re-apply next year?
  • How do you respond to an angry department head that you are denying publication charges to a start-up  journal (of which he is the editor), because there is anecdotal evidence that the publisher is running a vanity press?

The answer is, you can’t!  You can’t because all of these reasons run straight into the right horn of the dilemma.  That right horn is called “academic freedom,” and faced between an attack on academic freedom and fiscal irresponsibility, any librarian (in fact, anyone who understands scholarship), will choose fiscal irresponsibility [1].

One way out of the dilemma is to transfer more funds that were destined to pay for books, databases, and journal subscriptions into the author publication fund.  When the fund runs dry, transfer more money.  The only limit on these funds is the ability of authors to publish.

But there is one other solution–refuse to step into the ring.  Refuse to establish a fund when it is obvious that the two outcomes are worse than the current situation.  Refuse to follow other libraries just because they have jumped into the ring.

Those who are already in the ring need to find an exit strategy while they still have a chance.


[1] The pay-to-read (aka subscription) model avoids conflicts with academic freedom.  Authors are not limited by their institution as to where they publish their work, only that there is no guarantee that their institution will provide access to that work.  Librarians make choices over which titles provide good value for their institution, and through their collective choices, have moderating effects on market prices.  I see no way in a author publication fund model to exert market forces and still allow authors the freedom to decide where they publish their work.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.com/


12 Thoughts on "Horns of a Dilemma: Open Access or Academic Freedom"

Aren’t authors sometimes already told where to submit their work by department heads and institution administrators? I am thinking of lists of journals posted to department common room notice boards because they have a high impact factor?

I agree though that it probably isn’t the libraries job to provide these funds. Surely the funding body who is sponsoring the researcher should be making the funds available if they wish it to be disseminated on an open access basis.

This sounds to me like a solution looking for a problem.

In theory, yes this could happen. In practice, oversight and creative approaches can be sought and developed if/as needed; over time improved and adapted with experience.

You write: “Librarians make choices over which titles provide good value for their institution, and through their collective choices, have moderating effects on market prices.”

But clearly that’s the opposite of what’s happening. As is well known, journal subscription prices are skyrocketing. And as prices rise, libraries are forced to cancel subscriptions; publishers respond by raising prices for the remaining subscribers in order to keep revenue constant.

Hidden in your phrase “which titles provide good value for their institution” is a confusion over two different and utterly incommensurable types of value: scholarly and economic. The reality is that my university library, for example, cannot afford to subscribe to many journals that would have a very high academic value for my university.

Journal subscription prices are *not* skyrocketing, and in fact have fallen completely flat (and in some cases declined) in the last year as a response to library budgets. This is a prime example of a moderating market effect.

On the other hand, open-access processing charges have done exactly the opposite.

If you look at the increase in author fees charged by BioMed Central and PloS, you will see skyrocketing price increases.

As I argued in my blog piece, a model where librarians simply pay OA author processing charges is completely unable to have moderating effects on market prices. Couple this with the fact that most OA publishers are profit-maximizing commercial entities and you have the recipe for a true crisis in scholarly publishing.

Philip, I don’t know where you’re getting your data from, but all the data I can find shows journal subscription prices increasing rapidly and steadily throughout the past decade. Library Journal’s Periodicals Price Survey 2009 provides the numbers, and forecasts continued price increases:


“Publishers have been asked to roll back prices so libraries can keep valued content. Based on past records, some will remain intractable, absorb cancellations without making price concessions or renegotiating licenses, and wait for a better day. Others will deal in the hopes of keeping content in front of users until library budgets recover and prices return to prerecession levels. In recent years, price increases for journals have averaged 7–9%. Despite pleas for pricing mercies, we don’t have any information at this point that suggests those averages won’t hold for 2010. The conservative budget manager will plan on increases in that range in the coming year.”

Library Journal hasn’t caught up with 2010 prices. If you type in “journal subscription price freeze 2010” into Google (or alternatively look at the dozens of publisher postings for 2010 prices on the liblicense-l archive, you will see quite evidently that prices are coming down as a reflection of bad library budgets.

On the other hand, author processing charge have only gone up — wildly up — in the last few years.

Even if subscription prices have gone down this year, that doesn’t support your argument, which is that libraries have a permanent power to keep prices down. If libraries really had that power, I don’t see how you can explain why prices have risen so much in the past decade. If prices have dipped in the past few months, that could easily be a temporary response to the global economic crisis rather than to any alleged power generally wielded by libraries. Indeed, the first result returned by your suggested Google search (http://blog.aaanet.org/2009/07/13/aaa-freezes-2010-journal-subscription-dues/) gives exactly that explanation.

The author-pays model isn’t the only way to fund OA. The best model may well be to eliminate the publishing companies altogether, and have universities completely take over the publication of journals.

Of course many universities already publish journals – as university presses – and these have been conspicuous in their lack of support for the OA model.

The real concern is that the finite budget a university would have available to fund author charges would require an additional level of peer-review by the institution to decide whether an article from a faculty member merited publication if it were to be accepted – the likelihood of which having increased as commercial OA (vanity) publishers lower the bar to acceptance to cash in on academics’ need to publish for career advancement.

This would put those charged with making such decisions in the unenviable position of having to weigh up the merits of the output of different faculties – whose publication costs would incidentally differ by orders of magnitude in the fraction of the cost of the research they represented (from negligible, for biomedical sciences, to significant, for the humanities).

Note also that Jan Velterop, a widely respected OA advocate, has written previously about journal price increases and why this is not an effective argument for OA.

The argument that authors are, with an institutional OA fund, insulated from the costs of OA, and that therefore publishers are likely to put up their OA charges year on year, is of course exactly why the subscription-based model has resulted in hyperinflation. The “moral hazard”, as economists call it.

Personally, however, I’m not so sure the degree of insulation is the same under OA as it is under the traditional model. Every time an author applies for their OA costs to be reimbursed from a fund, they will be reminded exactly what the publisher is charging. Therefore, if the article processing fee is going up excessively year on year, they will see this. Under the subscription-based model, however, your average author has absolutely no idea how much the subscription price of a journal has gone up by. The degree of insulation is therefore much greater.

I think, where possible, OA charges need to be met by funding bodies, and crucially that this should be done as part of the grant award, rather than a retrospective claim. In this way, if an academic receives, as part of their grant, say £6,000 to cover OA publishing fees, then straight away they have a budget to adhere to and will subsequently “shop around” among the journals in their field. This would introduce competition into the system and serve to keep a lid on inflation.

I’m not averse to institutional OA funds, but I think authors should only be able to apply for money from such a fund if: a) their funding body has refused to put up money for OA fees; b) if they believe their funding body has not allocated enough money for their OA fees; or c) if the research is unfunded in the first place.

Wherever the money is coming from, I think the most important thing is that the OA publishing costs are thought about at the beginning of the research project, rather than reimbursed after the event. This would certainly reduce the chances of academics being insulated from the costs of OA, even though I believe the degee of insulation is less than under the subscription-based model, as mentioned above.

If the best journals can charge more (whether in the form of subscription fees or in the form of author fees), the inevitable result is that reading (or getting published in) the best journals will become a privilege of those who can afford to pay (or whose institutions can afford to pay). (Much has been written on the difficulties that academics in poorer countries have had in getting access to, and getting published in, journals published in richer countries.) Both subscription fees and author fees are symptoms of the same problem: the idea that scholarly publishing should be finanically self-sustaining.


your view strikes me as extremely myopic and you should definitively know better. 2009/10 is an exceptional year, and no one knows wether prices won’t go up again next year. Also, we still do not know how the big publishers like Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier will behave. OA publishing is in a very early and fluid stage so it is no wonder that pricing has not yet stabilized. Also, ventures like SCOAP3 have the potential to introduce competition into the OA market.

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