Robin Hood (2010 film)
Robin Hood (2010 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the core aspirations of open access (OA) publishing is that it levels the playing field for content consumption, eliminating the advantages that accrue mainly to richer nations and richer institutions in those nations — that is, those who can afford subscription products. The theory goes that because rich countries can afford subscriptions, they get richer still. OA could be portrayed as an attempt to counter the Matthew Effect — the tendency for the rich to get richer — by making publications free to readers. Hints of this as a tacit goal are legion in OA advocates’ writings.

The Matthew Effect occurs in many places in scientific research. Journals with strong impact factors tend to attract better papers, further strengthening their impact factors. Authors generating interesting results tend to attract more funding, increasing their chances of generating more interesting results. Institutions that attract star scientists tend to attract more funding and more star scientists. In many areas, the Matthew Effect appears to exert itself naturally.

And success in one area can lead to success in another area, which subsequently drives recursive success in both areas through feedback linkages.

Recently, the Sunlight Foundation published an analysis showing how Matthew Effect linkages can come into existence:

Our analysis finds a clear correlation between the universities with the most employees serving on the NSF advisory committees and the universities that receive the most federal money. . . . Even when controlling for other factors, we find that for each additional employee a university has serving on an NSF advisory committee that university can expect to see an additional $125,000 to $138,000 in NSF funding.

Perhaps the most compelling portrayal of the Matthew Effect in NSF funding and representation comes in this statement from the report:

Twenty percent of top research universities got 61.6% of the NSF funding going to top research universities between 2008 and 2011. These universities also had 47.9% of the representatives on NSF advisory committees who came from top research universities during the same period. The next 20% of universities got 21.9% of the funding, and had 25.7% of the representatives. The bottom 20% research universities had just 1.0% of the funding and have 2.4% of the representatives.

This evidence of a link between rich universities, NSF advisory committee appointment, and further funding suggests to me that predicating publication on funding will reflect funding availability to a high degree. Such a system seems unlikely to make publication more available for less affluent researchers compared to free publication in subscription journals. In addition, the study found that coming from a big university or university system — so you could have more representatives on more NSF committees — also correlated to more funding. So not only do the rich get richer, but the big get bigger — and funding begets funding, which in an OA world, begets publication.

These thoughts are occurring to others. Recently, the American Historical Association (AHA) released a statement expressing clear cautions around OA publishing, with this kind of “fairness” issue at its heart:

Would the unfairness of unequal access be replaced by a different unfairness, one of opportunity to publish based on the availability of funds? . . . This different unfairness would be at least as pernicious as the current one. It would particularly diminish publication opportunities in fields where grants tend to be small and not central to the way research is done.

The authors also express the reasonable concerns that library subscription budgets will be raided to pay for author processing charges (APCs), and that flagship journals, which set a quality standard and provide translational zones shared by generalists and specialists, might be imperiled because the Gold OA model depends on low APCs, which creates what the authors call “perverse incentives” to publish more articles and lower quality standards.

Perhaps some innovative approaches could crack the problem. On the surface, PeerJ’s approach appears to tackle the Matthew Effect, with its low $99 annual membership per author. However, the total cost for a paper published this way can be about the same as the cost of a standard Gold OA paper (about $1,200, if everyone on a 12-author paper pre-pays, and about $1,600 if everyone pays only upon acceptance), and the requirement to review a paper (or comment on a paper or a pre-print) every year for every author creates a significant asymmetry — if you assume a 5:1 author:paper ratio (PubMed data show a 5:1 author:paper ratio*), it’s unlikely there will ever be as many papers as there are member-authors required to review. As PeerJ accepts papers, the reviewer pool grows arithmetically. Therefore, the pool of lapsing, non-reviewing members grows quickly. If this pool becomes too large, discontent could fester as renewals become commonplace, and PeerJ’s bond with its community could fray, which is likely why PeerJ retains the right to reconsider these cancellations — it doesn’t know what will happen here. Nevertheless, PeerJ’s attraction as a publication outlet will depend on the apparent quality of its reviewer and commenter pool, which is a function of ability to pay, and which drives further author willingness to pay. By creating payment barriers before publication, incentivizing payment upon submission, and integrating a quality bargain based on perceived quality of both published works and reviews/comments, PeerJ will be, at best, perpetuating the Matthew Effect.

It’s clear that OA publishing is moving into a dominant Gold OA mode — there are simply too many sound economic and business reasons for this path if sustainable OA is the goal, and pragmatists in the OA ranks accept this reality. With this as a baseline, we quickly leave behind the notion that OA publishing diminishes the Matthew Effect. As OA efforts lose cross-subsidization from existing subscription business — these subsidies are either direct (intramural, within the same business and books), or indirect (extramural, occurring because the expensive publishing efforts are still supported by subscription dollars, shielding new efforts from the full burden) — more and more funding will have to come from authors. And only those authors who can pay can play.

This is an interesting counterpoint to traditional subscription journals, which generally don’t require author payments except for special services. Free submission and publication seems, on its surface, a better way to fend off the Matthew Effect by decoupling publication from funding. Having this linkage broken may be healthier for science overall. Gold OA seems to create a new “Matthew Effect” linkage, however — between ability to pay and ability to publish.

In these early stages, it seems to me likely that Gold OA will actually exacerbate the Matthew Effect, in at least three ways:

  1. It will take more research dollars from governmental and NGO funders, leaving less on the table, which will rationally go to well-funded and proven researchers. Prudence will dictate these choices, which will reinforce the Matthew Effect around research funding.
  2. If prices for OA publication necessarily rise as subscription publication subsidies fade, then only those researchers and institutions already at well-funded programs will be able to publish in the best venues.
  3. As the more expensive venues become more desirable because they publish the best research and make the greatest impact, the cycle will become self-reinforcing.

I read a Tweet from an OA advocate a few days ago, apparently quoted from a talk at a PeerJ meeting in San Francisco — the Tweet asserted that OA isn’t a business model, but a distribution model. This is a worrisome gloss on two counts. First, you could just as easily claim that subscription publishing isn’t a business model, but a distribution model — which just shows that the distinction the speaker attempted is meaningless. Second, if we hide from the fact that OA is a business model, we’ll never face the reality that as a business model, it has pros and cons, and generates its own set of virtues and flaws. It is not perfect. It creates interesting conflicts of interestIt can be abused, manipulated, and it can have unintended consequences.

At this point, given the strong tendency of scholarly achievement to drive the Matthew Effect in funding, in publication, and in impact, it seems that OA publishing’s future will be as likely as not to perpetuate the problem and, if not thought about carefully and implemented judiciously, may actually exacerbate the “rich get richer” predilection of academic institutions, individual researchers, and prominent hypotheses by coalescing around current sources of funding and prestige, and inflating them through its business model.

* I think this significantly underestimates the average number of authors for research papers, as the PubMed data include editorials, letters to the editor, and review articles, all of which have 1-2 authors in most cases. If anyone has better information, please share via a comment.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


54 Thoughts on "Does Open Access Tackle, Perpetuate, or Exacerbate the Matthew Effect?"

Fairness seems more like a policy issue than a business issue, so perhaps we are really talking about gold OA mandates here. Or do you think that a lot of authors are going gold for ideological reasons, such that fairness is a consideration? Combining quality and fairness issues with business issues seems to be a common thread in the OA discussions, which may be a confusion of sorts.

I think gold OA mandates are driving this, but they themselves are the product of ideology — but not on the part of a lot of authors. I think most authors still don’t really care about the business model, only the impact factor and prestige. They are themselves seeking the Matthew Effect. That’s a primary reason why I think no business model can undo it. It’s just that tying payment to publication actually links the Matthew Effect of funding to the Matthew Effect of publication.

There is some advantages to concentrating talent and resources among a few elite institutions of research–a point Cole and Cole describe in their 1973 book “Social Stratification in Science” (U. Chicago Press). And despite the fact that a publication system that has zero costs to submit, the vast attention in science is focused on a very few percent of researchers located at these elite institutions.

The weakness in this model is that the pathway to success is decided very early in the life of a scientist: A bachelor’s degree from a prestigious college paves the way to graduate school at an elite research institution, mentorship from successful scientists, access to equipment and resources, co-authorship with high-profile names…etc, etc.

This effect can be felt very strongly in the United States where some believe that the pathway to academic success begins even before high school (some even believing that it starts with daycare). When such systems become entrenched, it becomes almost impossible for outsiders to enter the system. In sum, it starts looking like a caste system.

p.s. While tangential to your argument, I think I make a more realistic assessment and analysis of the PeerJ business model:

And I’m sure this holds true not just for science but for the social sciences and humanities also.

Lifetime, with caveats, as I explain in the post — you have to review or comment once per year to maintain your membership. If there is a 5:1 reviewer:paper ratio, 60-80% of members might not be invited to review papers.

There is some need of clarification here: in the post you say “review”, here “review or comment”. In the second case, the question is whether comments are only upon invitation or can be written at one’s initiative. If it is sufficient to comment a paper to maintain the membership for a year, then the issue you raise is empty.

Exact, sorry for the confusion. But then, in particular since from Peer J’s website we know that ” we consider a ‘review’ to be an informal comment on a submission to PeerJ PrePrints; a formally requested peer-review of a paper submitted to PeerJ; or an informal comment on a published paper”, your whole point of most authors loosing their membership before there are not enough reviews requested crumbles down.

Would a comment consisting of “Nice paper Bob,” or “The corresponding author’s updated address is…” suffice to fulfill a researcher’s annual review requirement?

Probably not, but that’s not the point. The argument of Kent Anderson was the probable insufficient number of reviews available to renew all life subscription each year. Even if more elaborate comments are needed, as soon as the peer J member can, on its own initiative, comment a paper to have its membership continued, then there is no threat to be forced to repay $99 each year.

Sorry Benoît, I wasn’t interested in supporting/disproving Kent’s point, I was interested in learning more about PeerJ. How will you determine whether a member has commented/reviewed in the past year? How will you determine whether that comment/review was significant enough to fulfill the membership requirement? Will a member be notified after each comment whether it qualified, or can they log in to an account to find out their renewal status?

80% rejection rate will take care of this, which at the same time makes PeerJ a “high quality” journal.
It would seem, I never looked closely at PeerJ and have no undisclosed interest in it.

But at one paper per year a junior researcher with a 40 year career ahead can publish 40 papers for $2.50 each. What a deal! Obviously someone else is paying the cost to publish these papers, namely members who enroll later and pay more. How is this not predatory publishing?

One point I really am unclear on is the idea that “rich countries can afford subscriptions” and that OA will somehow curb “the tendency for the rich to get richer — by making publications free to readers.” Every time I hear this argument it occurs to me that many (most?) of those “evil” traditional publishers already do this by participating in developing nations programs such as that offered by Highwire ( I’m certain other publishing platforms such as those offered by Atypon, Silverchair and others offer similar programs, but am not positive.

Yes, HINARI, AGORA, OARE, and ARDI, and others appear to have had a reasonable amount of success in correcting this imbalance (although I don’t have the hard numbers to support that). The argument seems to have shifted largely to unrestricted access for people who are just as likely to be located in the rich countries but have fewer resources to pay for subscriptions — independent researchers, small institutions, and members of the public.

We hear a lot from OA advocates that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of journals listed in DOAJ charges no APCs at all, but rarely do these claims come with documentation about where the money comes from to sustain these journals. Does anyone know of a study that provides details on non-APC charging OA journals?

Just to clarify on JMLR, this is not a particularly great story in my opinion. Last I saw, JMLR had lost its non-profit status because they’d forgotten to file the proper paperwork for three years running. Additionally, one of the principals (and the author of the blog post you pointed to) runs a reprint business out of the back end, and keeps the money for himself — so I question his promotion of it as anything other than self-serving. And their Web site is out of date (wrong copyright year, mismatched entries, etc.).

If that’s a model you want to praise, please enjoy!

How sad Kent. You pick on JMLR for some *really* minor things like displaying the wrong copyright year on their front page. This is pedantry.

They are a really good journal, publishing high-quality research, in an immediate gold open access manner with NO APC and you just can’t handle that.

So let me get this straight — an inability to keep copyright dates current; an inability to maintain a not-for-profit status; a site that has mismatches in processed files between zones; and the director of scholarly communication at Harvard running a side business selling JMLR’s OA content for $310 per annual collection, with an unknown amount of profit — are really minor in your opinion? They sound pretty fundamental to running a publishing entity well and above-board. JMLR may have people pushing good content out onto their servers, but these are pretty basic things to do right.

By the way, it’s not Gold OA if there is no APC. Just to be pedantic.

A comment here praised it, and that’s what brought it into the discussion. I pointed out some of its failings. I have no idea whether Lawrence Saul is an OA advocate. Stuart Schreiber is, and is also profiting personally from JMLR, so I take his praise of it with a grain of salt. He has a vested interest in it doing well, an interest that only he knows the size of, and only he benefits from. This doesn’t make you at all uncomfortable?

I think you mean Stuart Shieber. And I think his involvement in the journal is made clear by the post I link to. I also think it’s not qualitatively different from, say, an editor at Springer wanting their journal to do well, for being paid the undeclared sum of their salary.

Yes, I misspelled his name in my haste. Apologies.

Editors are usually paid for contributions to the intellectual output. Stuart has no role in the intellectual output of JMLR. He is merely running a side business for personal profit. That is different.

No, Gold OA is OA through a journal (as oppose to Green OA which is OA through a repository). It is irrelevant what the business model of the journal is. Just to be pedantic

Kent, I enjoy some of your blog pieces, but your smear campaign against JMLR is needlessly childish. Stop perpetuating this story and acting like a douchebag, please.

BTW, I have no association with JMLR (and never heard of it before) and read the blog post and all the comments in the link above to come to my conclusion.

I have no “campaign” against JMLR. Scheiber believes his approach is superior and scalable, yet there are clearly deficiencies with it, as I’ve noted. It only came up here because someone raised JMLR as a good example, and I pointed out that it’s less than perfect.

However, pointing out that something is less than perfect in the OA world seems destined to provoke the always-classy response of being called a “douchebag” and “childish” and other playground names. I can’t explain this — I think it speaks for itself. I’m raising substantive concerns about JMLR — can it perform the basic functions it purports to since there is clear evidence it hasn’t maintained its non-profit status and has lost track of charitable donations and has a web site that is at best a mess — and you are calling me childish and a douchebag. I really can’t understand how you think this reflects well on you.

If you really see unadorned virtues in an organization that charges nothing and therefore can’t keep up its non-profit status and can’t keep track of its donations, and has business partners who promote it in order to increase that person’s profits, and you swallow it hook, line, and sinker, that’s no skin off my nose. You are obviously an excellent judge of character and motivation.

Finally, since Scheiber closed the comments thread on that post, I can’t respond to one comment there, so I’ll respond here. One late commenter suggested I didn’t research the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Secretary of State’s site for JMLR filings, which would have showed that they didn’t miss 3 years of non-profit statements. However, I just did that, and it shows clearly that they DID miss 3 consecutive years of filings, making up for it with filings of all the missing years in 2011 (actually, their last filing prior to 2011 was in 2007). This is why their non-profit status was revoked. Because of the lag time in posting filed statements, these filings didn’t show up until very recently in the Commonwealth’s database. They have also not made their way to Guidestar, which track non-profit statuses, nor is there any indication they have been filed with the IRS (they may be in process). Guidestar still lists JMLR as questionable: “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.”

One thing that would help us all is for people who think they’re full-fledged publishers and non-profit experts to stop lecturing those of us who are professionals about how to do it, especially when they can’t seem to even do the basics. I’m glad JMLR is giving some computer scientists a free way to publish and cite each other’s papers. But it’s certainly not a model of efficiency, and there is little I see to recommend its management or organizational practices to others.

Many open-access journals with APCs claim that an author can be excused from paying them if they state they are unable to. Does that address this imbalance in any way? I’m curious how those policies will evolve if OA becomes the dominant form of journal publishing, but at first glance it appears that a researcher working in a niche field with limited funds might be able to claim inability to pay APCs while still benefiting from the increased unrestricted access offered by OA. Of course, if enough researchers in a given field claim such inability to pay, and the publications are no longer being supported by subscription fees, those publications become unsustainable and will likely be absorbed into one of the mega-journals — another example of the rich getting richer and the big getting bigger.

Anecdotal though it may be, I was told last week by a well-funded author that his even more well-funded department chair told him to ask PLoS for a fee reduction because his NIH funding doesn’t include additional funds for APC’s. This is apparently standard practice in the department, regardless of actual hardship. One is left to wonder what will happen to fee waivers if 100% of authors request them

That’s at least a little disturbing given that it’s not true. I guess it depends what you mean by “additional” but publication charges are certainly an allowable cost on NIH grants. And I’ve certainly reviewed NIH and NSF grants that included them as a line item.


3. Will NIH pay for publication costs?
Yes. The NIH will reimburse publication costs, including author fees, for grants and contracts on three conditions: (1) such costs incurred are actual, allowable, and reasonable to advance the objectives of the award; (2) costs are charged consistently regardless of the source of support; (3) all other applicable rules on allowability of costs are met.

…although note also the usual problem with publication beyond the time period of the grant:

4. What if my grant does not have sufficient funds to cover publication costs, or the grant has expired?
Please consult with your institutional official for advice and options.

I agree that it is somewhat disturbing, but I don’t find it terribly surprising. Science is an incredibly competitive business. Funding is obscenely scarce. Every $500 you can knock off an APC is $500 you can spend on reagents or staff. Often those who are the most successful are those who are best able to work the system to their own advantage.

And I think it speaks to the need to balance idealism with practicality. The waiver policy for OA publishers is likely something that is going to need to evolve over time as the noble intentions behind it crash into the real world.

David, I think it is a little more complicated that that. It’s a shift in funding not an increase in funding. With subscription journals, the funding for publication is through the universities which takes funding that could also be used for research.

Inter-library loan is just an example but I think a good one. Our library wastes 5 FTEs of librarian time (out of about 80) on inter-library loans. Doing idiotic stuff like printing off digital journal articles then re-scanning them to send out on inter-library loan to another university just to meet the licensing requirements. Different publishers have different rules and our librarians waste a lot of time trying to figure out what they have to do for each journal. Our library constantly fights with publishers over this. For example one publisher demanded we stop providing material to libraries outside the USA. The problem with that (other than it is unfair) is how can we expect libraries outside the USA provide us with material? Our library fortunately told them to go to hell we would drop their journals first and the publisher backed off but it is a constant fight and waste of resources.

This waste of resources could be used to fund research through the university or better yet allow allow our librarians do what they should be doing, helping faculty get the information they need to do their research.

I am just trying to make the point that yes, APCs will take some money out of research budgets, but on the other side, subscription fees take money out of universities that can also be used for supporting research. OA funding models cost no more (or less) that subscription models. Its the same work, the question is how you pay for it.

Hi David,

I think we’re talking about two completely separate issues.

First, there’s the question of creating a fair system where anyone who can contribute something useful is able to publish that research, particularly because so much of the career advancement and funding mechanism revolves around publishing. The OA movement starts with an attempt to solve the problem that not everyone can afford to read the literature. One solution to that problem is taking the financial burden off of the reader and placing it on the author. That creates a new problem though, because while everyone can now afford to read the literature, not everyone can afford to publish.

PLoS, and many other OA publishers attempt to solve that problem by offering fee waivers to anyone who asks for them. This has worked pretty well so far, but as we go along, I suspect we’ll start to see more and more abuse of this system as I detailed above. If you’re budgeting your operation around an APC of $1350 but every single author gets a big discount, that means you need to drastically alter your plans and the experimentation and activities you can afford are lessened. Instead, it’s probably better to continue to refine the waiver program, to set better definitions for qualifying. A well-funded researcher at a well-funded institution shouldn’t be claiming the funds set aside for a beginning researcher in a developing nation.

There’s a similar problem being discussed in a different comments thread above ( If PeerJ sets up a system where you get to continue your membership without paying by posting a comment online, odds are you’re going to get an enormous number of people posting the absolute minimum comment, not contributing to the system and essentially gaming it. So as with the waiver program, you start with an ideal and you have to adjust and refine to turn it into a practical, sustainable, real-world system.

As for the issue you raise, I would suggest it’s even more complex than that, and it’s unclear how an OA future would compare with a subscription based future, because there are so many variables and unknowns. Every estimate that I’ve seen makes far too many assumptions for me to put much faith in them.

We do know that for the foreseeable future, it makes the system more expensive. Right now you can’t just swap subscription fees for APC’s and call it even. Not every paper is published in an OA manner, so you still need to subscribe to access much of the current literature. Then there’s the last century or so of published papers, all under copyright and all under subscription control. If you want to access those, you’re still paying subscription fees. Then you have to add APC’s for the new OA papers on top of that. Which is why the Finch Report suggests it’s going to cost the UK alone at least an additional £60 million per year for quite a while.

I’ve yet to see any comprehensive study showing where subscription dollars at institutions come from. How much of a library’s budget comes from research grants? How much comes from tuition, donations, other sources? From what I’m told, this varies widely from institution to institution. There’s likely not a 1:1 concordance with research funding that you can make by cutting subscription spending in many institutions.

There are estimates floating out there that productive institutions are worse off under an OA system. That schools that produce an enormous amount of research may end up paying more for APC’s than they currently pay for subscriptions. Schools that consume and don’t produce much will gain great savings, but I worry about any system that punishes productivity.

Even beyond that, you’re getting deep into institutional politics. You can’t assume that money that currently flows to the university through overhead portions of grants will be returned to the researcher for research funding. I’ve never known a university readily willing to give up a major funding source. I suspect if grant funders cut the overhead portion of grants, then universities will raise the demands and percentages that they require each researcher to supply for themselves. Then there’s the question of the libraries, and whether they’ll be willing to give up an enormous slice of their piece of the institutional funding pie without a fight.

And in some ways that’s just scratching the surface. It’s an incredibly complex, chaotic system and each move creates new unintended consequences. That’s okay, progress is never easy, and one can continuously adjust and iterate. But that needs to be acknowledged, planned for, and put into action. That’s why I think statements like, “OA funding models cost no more (or less) than subscription models,” are unrealistic.

You can’t know the outcome of the experiment until you actually do the experiment.

Hi David,

Sorry, I was referring to just the specific statement in you post that APCs are a drain on dollars provided for funding research. That has been stated many times on the Scholarly Kitchen blog. I probably should have picked somewhere else to respond to it.

Yes I agree a funding shift to APCs will be very complex and initially will be more expensive since in a sense we are paying double with libraries unable to drop subscriptions while funding OA publication on an article by article basis. Currently we appear to be moving away from a subscription model to an OA model funded by APCs. It’s not as clear that trend will continue but I have a hard time seeing that it won’t. As subscription journals begin to fade away the costs will be shifted but it is hard to see how publication will take any more resources.

I am talking about costs, the resources it takes to publish, not necessarily the charges or for that matter hidden costs and inefficiencies in accessing the literature. For example, it takes me several minutes to work through my library’s portal to the publisher site and drill down to a specific article I want. About 10% of the time my library doesn’t have access and it costs about $20 in overhead beyond a license fee to get an article via inter-library loan. It doesn’t sound like much but when you need to access 20 or 30 articles which is often necessary to complete a research project and write up, it adds up. The APC model has real problems that need to be addressed and I think will be addressed over time. The subscription model also has real problems and is draining resources out of the universities every bit as much as APCs would out of research budgets.

I don’t quite understand your statement about the cost of accessing back issues in the future. Libraries own the copies of the paper journals they have subscribed to in the past and can lend them out freely. There are some costs for inter-library loan if a library doesn’t have a particular article but the demand will fade away over time. At least under copyright the rules are consistent. The transition to a licensing associated with digital distribution is a huge nightmare for librarians. Nothing is standardized and every aspect of the license is up for negotiation. I chair our faculty library committee and this issue just drives our librarians crazy. Some publishers are reasonable but it is a constant struggle with others. In my view that is a major benefit of moving to an open access model, particularly over time.

I agree it is impossible to track how much of the libraries budget comes from indirect funding from grants but in my view it is irrelevant. Universities fund library acquisition budgets to both support teaching and research. If the library’s acquisition budgets were reduced the money could be used to cover APCs. Most librarians I have talked with would like nothing better. Again, it is a shift from one form of payment to another. It is true there is no guarantee administrators won’t take the savings from reduced subscription fees and use the money for something else but doubt it. Publishing is critical to the universities’ mission.

As far as grants go, funders have always acknowledged dissemination is a reasonable grant expense. This was true for page charges when they were common and is currently true for attending conferences to present results. I expect the fees charged to grants for attending conferences are roughly equivalent to what APCs would be if every article generated by a grant was published under the APC model. Paying APCs just seems to be a nature extension. With dissemination such an integral part of research it is a subscription fee model that seems artificial legacy left over from paper publication.

Will research intensive universities pay a higher percentage of the costs under an APC model? Probably, that would seem pretty obvious. I don’t know if the shift in funding between research intensive and teaching intensive institutions is unfair or necessarily bad. Teaching intensive institutions are NOT unproductive. Their mission is focused teaching rather than research and in my experience they tend to do a better job of teaching at the undergraduate level, particularly in the first two years of college where education in many cases it is awful in research intensive universities. Students, to put it bluntly, get ripped off in introductory courses in many cases allowing the institution to funnel resources to graduate programs and research programs.

Any cuts in overhead rates due to a transition to an APC model would be a small piece of the pie that I doubt would impact at the faculty level. These rates are negotiated with universities based on an accounting of the cost of the activities they support. The support to the library is small potatoes compared to maintaining labs and equipment needed for molecular biology or a cyclotron.

Hi again David. I don’t think I’ve ever made any definitive statements that OA fees will automatically come out of research budgets (though others here at TSK certainly have). I think it’s going to vary quite a bit depending on one’s funding, from where that funding comes, how much one publishes, etc. In the case of the researcher I referred to above, his APC would certainly come from funds that he otherwise would have applied to research.

I’ll also apologize for my mixup with the back content. I have reuse rights on my brain and mixed that up with access rights. You are correct, any reputable publisher sells permanent access to any articles one has paid for via subscription.

But to get back to the main point, there’s a really strange dynamic these days between researchers and institutions. As soft money has come to dominate, researchers are less and less treasured family members of their institutions and more and more self-employed workers who rent space from those institutions. The institutions can be more and more demanding because it’s such a buyer’s market, and most researchers have little leverage. That’s why I’m concerned to see assumptions that universities will willingly give back funding that they’re accustomed to having in their budget.

As you note, the amount that comes from any given grant that is eventually used to purchase journal subscriptions can vary enormously, so it’s hard to say that subscription fees will readily transfer over to pay APC’s. Remember also that one well-funded lab at an institution may be paying for more than their share of that institution’s subscriptions. If you return those funds to just that lab, then others at the institution are left out in the cold as far as APC funding. Some are proposing institutional block grants to allow all to publish, but that creates a different set of problems (

And I see the future, at least in the near term, as being a mix of different models for different fields. Gold OA works well in many ways for well-funded fields like science and medicine, but it’s much harder to put in place for fields with little (or no) funding like history or poetry. And that means there will likely still need to be some portion of the library’s budget going to subscriptions for quite a while, if not forever. How much those sorts of subscriptions are subsidized by science/medical grants is, again, up to the individual institution.

You know I find this hardship argument a bit hard to have sympathy with. I spent ten years in an environment where funding is just as competitive, there’s a lot less of it available, and what you do have is less flexible. I’m sure there are genuine cases of labs with financial challenges but at $500 you’re talking about a single assay, one tube of enzyme, or enough plasticware for a week or so. And in the medical sciences many of these same labs will be paying page charges and color figure charges for other papers. We always managed to find the money, whether for APCs or for other charges, because a paper is worth the investment and I personally didn’t want to be a freeloader.

But yes, I agree that the question is how to balance the idealism with practicality. My own opinion is that I see the system as one of being based on a community trust. PLOS trusts the community of authors to judge for themselves when they are experiencing real financial hardship. In turn the community has to expect PLOS to manage that process so that people don’t take advantage of it. Where organisations or people try to take advantage of it then there needs to be some form of community response. I don’t know what that response should be, and it would be interesting to think about, but I can say that we’re monitoring the situation.

Hi Cameron,

It shouldn’t invoke sympathy–it’s a flagrant abuse of a well-intentioned system. It is, however, reflective of reality, of the intense pressures faced in the research world due to overpopulation and underfunding. Everyone is looking for an edge, no matter how inconsequential, and some will go further than others to obtain it.

The community can play some role, but I think the body setting the policy has to be responsible for clearly defining the rules and enforcing them. For example, the Wellcome Trust has had to modify their well-intentioned policy asking researchers they fund to publish in an OA manner. They recently announced a crackdown on enforcing those rules as a much lower percentage of researchers than expected complied.

But that’s the nature of building a complex system that involves human nature. It’s not an insurmountable problem, just a disappointing one as far as one’s faith in humanity goes.

Just to be sure we use labels appropriately, open access cannot, by definition, be a business model. A business model accounts for how the service provided gets paid for, not the way access is provided. Subscriptions are one way to fund the service. Author-pays is one way to fund the service. Subsidies, such as those provided by the Optical Society of America for their open access journals, is another way to fund the service. Crowdsourcing is yet another way to fund the service.

Several years ago Raym Crow wrote a report on the variety of business models that can fund open access. This would make no sense if open access was itself a business model. I’m not sure much rides on this distinction, though.

A business model describes the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value. Value can be social value, financial value, or economic value. Open access creates, delivers, or captures value through its access model and services. It is therefore a business model. Sorry, but them’s the facts.

It’s an interesting point, and one I alluded to in an old editorial about OA within the humanities that is often based on volunteer labor (which answers in small part Sandy’s question about no APCs), “Mandated requirements for OA by universities and government agencies certainly have the potential to unbind scholarly communication from the economically privileged. However, when such mandates rely on unpaid labor, they also have the potential to erase the skills of academics and publishing professionals who may otherwise reasonably demand an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. With this is mind, it is rather dishonest to frame publishers’ TA arguments about the real costs of production as simply a corporate apologetic: indeed, the glossing over of economic realities does no service to OA’s moral high-ground, rather it echoes a certain bourgeois embarrassment in the face of real labor and the privilege of those who can afford the time to volunteer.”

I have a general comment that I refrained for too long. Let me start with a few observations:

1. this blog, even if independent, is somehow linked to the SSP (e.g. SSP logo and goals are displayed on the right of the page, the blog is hosted at;

2. Kristen Fisher Ratan from PLoS is in the SSP board, so SSP does not exclude OA publishers ;

3. The Scholarly Kitchen aims to “help fulfill this mission [advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking] by bringing together differing opinions, commentary, and ideas, and presenting them openly”.

Given these points, how come the Scholarly Kitchen has no author to represent OA publishers, and the people that support OA scholarly publishing? This would be a differing opinion, whose current absence casts doubt on the aims of this blog.

We have a set of bloggers, some of whom run OA publications, some of whom don’t. You probably don’t know who is who, because the point of the blog isn’t to promote anything, but to think through difficult issues and update the community on relevant research and trends. OA often gets a free pass in other venues, and is actively promoted on many blogs, often without critical reflection — which isn’t all that valuable, I believe. The people here think critically, and even those who are fine with OA in general and even run OA publications are willing to point out that a lot of the practical and policy aspects still need some clarity. The fact that many of the publishers and consultants who write here work with OA publications yet they remain concerned about some aspects may be even more instructive that OA publishing has some sorting out to do.

SSP takes no stance, and merely tries to help people learn and network for their professional benefit.

Writers should provide critique and insights. Merely producing OA puff pieces isn’t interesting or insightful.

It is quite stunning that you can only imagine a positive post about OA to be a uninteresting, uninsightful puff piece. Why would it be impossible to think critically and provide insight without systematically dismissing OA?

For example, one can read here much criticism about Gold OA with author-paid APC, but no discussion about the difference between, e.g., PLoS and SCOAP3 approaches. A lot of other points could be raised, but I cannot remember a post that was concerned with OA but not picking at it relentlessly. Note that the substance of what we read here seems to me quite far from the willingness “to point out that a lot of the practical and policy aspects still need some clarity”.

Benoit, have you considered starting your own blog? Not every blog can be all things to all people. Blogging is a pretty personal activity. There are no guidelines for what we post at The Scholarly Kitchen, we all just follow what interests us and write about it when we have (increasingly rare) spare time to do so. If you are not hearing the voices and opinions you want to hear in the blogosphere, then opportunity exists for you to provide that voice through your own blog.

I know that I tend to blog about ideas that get stuck in my head, with my posts serving as an exercise for me to work through a concept to better understand it. But what sticks in my head is likely different from what sticks in yours. There are a great number of blogs already focused heavily on OA from a different perspective than that found here. Start with and you may find what you are seeking there, or at least pointers toward other blogs that may suffice.

And for the record, many people have been asked to blog for The Scholarly Kitchen but have declined for personal and professional reasons, including representatives from PLoS.

My point is that the Scholarly Kitchen is backed upon SSP, and I think the imbalance of the blog with respect to OA is hurting the SSP image.

That no representative from PLoS (or SCOAP3, or…) have accepted to post here is really too bad, but there must also be other options to be more convincingly objective about OA.

I consider myself an advocate of OA, having drafted the AAUP Statement on Open Access (July 2007) and written frequently on the topic. I contribute comments regularly to TSK, though I confess I have had less to say here about OA than in other places and I am not uncritical of some aspects of OA (such as the fixation of many OA advocates on the Budapest definition as the only “true” interpretation).

I have been following The Scholarly Kitchen for several years now, and I actually think that most of its contributors are quite positive about Open Access developments. They tend to see it as an increasing impulse to see how classical ways of publishing work, and are appreciative of many of its features and effects. To the best of my knowledge, writing up critical reviews and assessments of any phenomenon cannot be directly classified as being ‘negative’ or ‘un-positive’. This is not a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ game. Lots of practical and policy aspects DO need a lot of clarity on the sides of ALL stakeholders involved. In my opinion, The Scholarly Kitchen, and many other newssites and blogs, fulfil an important task in this.

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