Do open access (OA) membership fees save institutions money?  In the case of Columbia University, the answer is clearly, “No.”

A talk titled, “Cost/Benefit Analysis of BioMed Central Membership at a Large Medical Institution,” was presented last Friday afternoon at the 2009 Charleston Conference by Susan Klimley, the Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian in the Health Sciences Library at Columbia University.

What motivated Klimley to undertake such a study was seeing her BMC membership fees rise each year by 8%, and then by 10% in 2009. Klimley’s materials budget has been flat for the last five consecutive years, and in January she was told that she needed to trim an additional 10%.

This is a familiar story for many research libraries in the United States.

Until this year, her library was paying BMC almost $10,000 as a supporter member, which entitled Columbia authors to receive a 15% discount on author processing charges (APC).  Calculating whether her membership fees made fiscal sense should have been easy, or so she thought.

But figuring out which APCs were attributed to Columbia authors was no simple matter.  Columbia University has many relationships with surrounding institutions like teaching hospitals, and many of these institutions don’t include “Columbia University” in their name.  In addition, authors may list multiple affiliations.  To make matters even more complicated, most biomedical articles are co-authored, sometimes by scores of authors located at multiple institutions.  Figuring out who paid the APC wasn’t obvious.

Klimley worked under three possible cost/benefit models where payment was attributed to the first author, last author, and corresponding author.  In each of these calculations she discovered that Columbia was paying more money to BMC under their membership model than if their authors had paid full price.  Klimley remarked:

No matter how you sliced it, the 15% cost savings did not equal the cost of the membership

The decision to cancel Columbia’s BMC membership seemed pretty clear — until things got more complex.

Joining five other institutions, Columbia will soon sign the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE) and create a pot of money from their library materials budget to pay for article processing charges.  Since the compact stipulates that the author publication fund could only be used for those without existing sources of funding, determining which articles would be eligible for COPE funds on multi-authored, multi-affiliated papers will not be a straightforward matter.

Details aside, Klimley views the creation of author funds as helping to reinforce what she views as a fundamental disconnect between who creates, and who pays for, article publication.

“Setting up a pot of money [to pay article processing fees] is not going to solve that problem,” Klimley stated emphatically.  For her, authors need to be more sensitized to the cost of producing information, and author publishing funds work against that aim.

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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.


4 Thoughts on "Open Access Memberships: Are Libraries Paying Too Much?"


Universities need to commit to mandating Green OA self-archiving before committing to spend their scarce available funds to pay for Gold OA publishing. Most of the university’s potential funds to pay Gold OA publishing fees are currently committed to paying their annual journal subscription fees, which are thereby covering the costs of publication already. Pre-emptively committing to pay Gold OA publication fees over and above paying subscription fees will only provide OA for a small fraction of a university’s total research article output; Green OA mandates will provide OA for all of it. Journal subscriptions cannot be cancelled unless the journals’ contents are otherwise accessible to a university’s users. (In addition, the very same scarcity of funds that makes pre-emptive Gold OA payment for journal articles today premature and ineffectual also makes Gold OA payment for monographs unaffordable, because the university funds already committed to journal subscriptions today are making even the purchase of a single print copy of incoming monographs for the library prohibitive, let alone making Gold OA publication fees for outgoing monographs affordable.) Universal Green OA mandates will make the final peer-reviewed drafts of all journal articles freely accessible to all would-be users online, thereby not only providing universal OA, but opening the doors to an eventual transition to universal Gold OA if and when universities then go on to cancel subscriptions, releasing those committed funds to pay the publishing costs of Gold OA.

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