Strategic thinking can force you to face uncomfortable realities. It often shakes up your assumptions — but it’s necessary in order to anticipate and plan, to play where the puck is going rather than where it’s been. Part of the role of publishers and business leaders is to look ahead, sense where how the business environment is developing, and make judgments accordingly — often on incomplete information.
In this light, a question has been dogging the strategic thinking part of my brain recently — basically, who is going to keep Gold open access (OA) growing?
Gold OA has grown rapidly over the past few years for a variety of reasons, and has been embraced by numerous traditional publishing houses, with hybrid experiments, new Gold OA journals, and new mega-journals all coming about. PLOS ONE, the Mother of all Gold OA mega-journals, continues to grow, and has achieved a market dominance once reserved for caricatures of Elsevier.
But the OA environment has been shifting of late in ways that may make immediate Gold OA less valuable or urgent. The change is around embargoes and, more particularly, the way the US OSTP Memorandum put the world’s largest science funding body squarely behind them — as if the NIH policies hadn’t been enough.
Embargoes are becoming a widely accepted and generally cost-free alternative path to achieving sufficient OA. With the US government making embargoed OA the de facto standard for the world’s largest scientific funding body, a major gravitational force is realigning orbits. Now, the OA business environment seems tilted toward a future of delayed Green OA. This has many virtues for funders, governments, and authors, and provides all involved with a viable, familiar path away from Gold OA.
Others are picking up on the change in the air. In a recent article about OA, the author noted that OA is spawning “new business models,” and notes that most of these are already leading away from straightforward Gold OA. A librarian from UCSF is quoted as saying:
I’m seeing some pushback from faculty, mostly to the ‘author-pays’ model of open access — those who are opposed think that the university is pushing costs off on researchers, while at the same time their research awards are decreasing.
Subscription publishers are not thrilled with embargoes as a rule, as studies show that 12-month embargoes are insufficient for most fields. But they are well down the path of adjusting to delayed Green OA, and the economic risks embargoes pose seem less likely to come to fruition, especially as the push for shorter embargoes runs up against untenable economics again and again.
In the meantime, OA APCs have become a greater drag on research funds, and with research funding stagnant or shrinking, cutting APCs seems to answer some real needs with little downside.
Funders are already realizing that paying APCs may not provide sufficient value, especially given a scenario of embargoed Green OA. This is no more acutely observed than in the UK, where reports criticizing the embrace of Gold OA have already been issued. In a world of embargoes, rather than paying $3,000 or more for a lifetime of free access to an article, funders are now paying only to accelerate access by 12 months for an audience that is secondary or even tertiary to the audience the research is intended to reach. With economies around the world stagnating, funders and governments aren’t likely to keep spending on Gold OA at a high rate where reasonable Green OA embargoes reduce the benefits of the spend to a matter of months. The US government’s OSTP memorandum set a new tone, one out of sync with a major future for Gold OA.
Authors in many fields are already wary of Gold OA, and many see the structural problems with it — burdens on research budgets, perceived “pay to play” publishing, and the continuing problem of predatory publishers. Authors are not pushing hard to drive Gold OA to the forefront, and there is no reason to believe that they will. In a recent paper in Learned Publishing entitled, “Trust and Authority in Scholarly Communications in the Light of the Digital Transition,” the authors note that their research showed:
There is palpable unease among some researchers about paying to have an article published — a notion that has been shown in previous studies to be rife. This may be because it is too much like “buying” and too commercial, and that was something that jarred with researchers.
Gold OA is also proving to be counter-revolutionary and more of a force of consolidation for larger publishers than previously imagined. Recent data from the UK shows that APCs are benefiting the biggest publishers, who are both getting higher volumes of APCs but also higher APCs on a per-article basis — that is, they are making more per article and getting more articles.
This is especially interesting to contemplate, as the most successful forms of Gold OA have emerged from a volume-based business model — the mega-journal. This trend may well continue, as mega-journals like PLOS ONE have clearly identified an unmet market need and fulfilled it at a sustainable price point. Such lower price-point entrants are at less risk if a shift to delayed Green OA comes about. Conversely, the premium-priced alternatives may be at greater risk. This may be especially important for hybrid journals, where a non-Gold OA option is already available.
For those who thought that OA would upend the status quo in publishing, these data about who is winning Gold OA business and at what price must come as a disappointment. Will OA advocates continue to support Gold OA if Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer are the primary beneficiaries? The short-term wins by these large publishers may lead to long-term limitations in the model.
Tim Gowers, of “boycott Elsevier” fame, has arrived at the opinion that Gold OA is not part of the solution, writing recently:
. . . the pace of change is slow, and the alternative system that is most strongly promoted — open access articles paid for by article processing charges — is one that mathematicians tend to find unpalatable. (And not only mathematicians: they are extremely unpopular in the humanities.) I don’t want to rehearse the arguments for and against APCs in this post, except to say that there is no sign that they will help to bring down costs any time soon and no convincing market mechanism by which one might expect them to.
If Gowers is right, then Green OA, most of which can be achieved via embargoes, may become the alternative of choice. In response to Gowers’ recent essay, Stevan Harnad calls pre-Green Gold OA “Fool’s Gold.” The structural challenges with post-Green Gold OA are obvious — why pay for something that is already free? — and the challenges that immediate Green OA must overcome if it is to ever become dominant have been well-outlined by others here.
Institutions are likely to be decreasingly interested in supporting Gold OA in either case, as it diverts money from multiple endeavors, and as institutional repositories, and publishers’ tacit support of these for pre-print versions, continue without much problem. They are already balking at the additional expense it creates, demanding sweetheart deals that push the expense onto others. In the emerging reality of sufficient embargoes, the costs of subscriptions won’t be going away, meaning that Gold OA funding will be additive, not substitutive.
Scientific researchers also continue to have more outputs than outlets. Because the market is so driven by escalating volumes, pricing pressures on the subscription market and costs for Gold OA outlets are, as well. The question will be whether it’s more economical for a funder or institution to buy subscriptions than it is to pay APCs. Data suggest subscriptions still provide the greatest bang for the buck.
Because of the increased intensity around “publish or perish” and many more players in science, there is still room for marginal growth in the Gold OA businesses, especially as new fields emerge. There are also cash flow benefits to publishers launching Gold OA journals, as cash arrives as work is done and isn’t delayed as in the subscription market.
But a big question still looms: If subscriptions with delayed Green OA provide a more palatable alternative for the supply side in publishing, what benefits can Gold OA publishers create to offset market preferences?
One approach is prestige. Journals with higher prestige in a market can carry submission, page, or color charges, making it clear that price is not the sole determining factor. But Gold OA has not created many prestige titles. Some of the original PLOS titles (PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine) have achieved this status, but newer entrants are more akin to mega-journals or have a less glamorous brand presence. eLife is attempting to create a prestige title; it currently charges no APCs, but notes in its financials suggest that it is certainly considering the model.
Convenience can be a market factor, but can it prove a long-term differentiator exclusive to Gold OA journals? There is no inherent barrier to a subscription journal having rapid turnaround and publication times; in fact, many are quick and responsive already. If competing for papers is the name of the game, Gold OA may have no inherent advantage.
It’s difficult to know when a state of equilibrium is being achieved, but embargoed Green OA has all the hallmarks of a resting place for the OA movement. Nobody has to pay more for it. It satisfies the modest political calls for public access. It is a gain for the public, but does not come at a high price for taxpayers, the industry, or market participants.
Gold OA may continue to grow for a period of time as scraps of funding and various national governments or institutional administrations divert money to support it. But this is a finite pool, and one that will also see evaporation. It does not seem likely that it will lead to a flood of Gold OA support.
If I were asked as a publishing strategist about going “all in” on Gold OA, I’d advise caution. The mega-journal market seems nearly sewn up with PLOS ONE and a passel of imitators. Prestige OA titles are possible, but they seem to lose money. Mid-tier titles have some potential, but the consistent story here is that they need to be in a family of subscription journals in order to survive. Predatory journals are still a problem, and taint the reputation of Gold OA journals generally. Gold OA incentives are mixed at best. And embargoes with delayed Green OA seem both politically and economically safe, viable, and proven, while possessing few if any downsides currently.
Latency is also hard to judge. That is, what is the length of time between an inflection point and actual consequences? With Gold OA, it may take a few years, or it may come more quickly. Either way, I believe the future of Gold OA is at best unclear. Given limited budgets, mainstream hesitancy, and delayed Green OA embargoes, “world domination” doesn’t seem feasible at this time. “Occasional alternative” seems the more reasonable choice.