Usually discussion of open access (OA) has a utopian cast. It begins with the benefits to researchers and rapidly moves on from there–because it is a foundational premise that what is good for the research community is good for everybody. Expanded access will serve to cure horrible diseases, the science behind new technologies will cool a warming planet, and insights into people and power will make a veritable Woodstock out of the Middle East. Resistance, as the Borg say, is futile, but also immoral: Who, after all, wants to stand between a parent and an afflicted child?
It is thus refreshing to see an examination of OA publishing that is sober and descriptive, one that examines how OA has been brought within the economy at large. This is what we have with Simba Information’s recent report, “Open Access Journal Publishing 2014-2017.” This is a clear-headed analysis of the business of OA, and it manages to survey the landscape without taking the idealists outside to shoot them. This is not the first Simba report I have had occasion to comment on here at the Kitchen. I was first attracted to them because I know the lead author, Eric Newman, who is a certifiably smart guy. The report is a snapshot of OA (some of the story will be well known to Kitchen readers), its background, practices, and prospects. I will be curious to see if any OA advocates find anything in it that is wrong or unfairly presented.
Before we dip into the numbers, let’s acknowledge that research publishing, whether OA or of the traditional variety, captures value that is not always easy to count. While we can look at the public filings of the Public Library of Science and learn how much money is coming in, it’s harder to assess the economics of a journal that is hosted by an academic library, harder still to evaluate the economics of the parallel world of publishing that is Green OA. The full economy of OA, in other words, is still partly hidden. We can only count what we can see. I expect, though, that when all the numbers are ultimately revealed, we will find more hidden costs than hidden revenues. It also appears likely that what surplus or profit to be made from this form of publishing will fall to those who are already in the field or plan to enter it soon. OA, in other words, is beginning to mature and is thus subject to the same economic principles of any maturing business, including a tendency toward consolidation.
Simba notes that the primary form of monetization for OA journals is the article processing charge or APC. In 2013 these fees came to about $242.2 million out of a total STM journals market of $10.5 billion. I thought that latter figure was a bit high, and I’m never sure when people are quoting figures for STM alone or for all journals; but even so, if the number for the total market is high, it’s not far off. That means that OA is approximately 2.3% of the total journals market (or is that just STM . . . ?). That’s a big or small number depending on where you started from. With my personal bias in favor of new things, I see it as a huge number. Building a start-up is simply harder than running established companies. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page: these fellows truly earned their money, but as for the chieftains sitting atop the large incumbents, it must be said that it is far easier to go from $1 billion to $2 billion than to go from zero to $10 million. The cumulative achievement of the OA publishers is an astonishing success story. Yes, you heard that on the Scholarly Kitchen, which some believe has a problem with OA publishing.
Simba sees OA rising to $440 million by 2017, which sounds reasonable. That would make OA 3.9% of the total market. That is neither a big number nor a negligible one. The more important point to make, which cannot be stressed enough, is that while traditional publishing continues to grow modestly, the OA portion of the market is growing much faster. Any publisher working in the research area would be remiss if they did not develop a strategy to tap into these growing sums. And of course just about all of them are.
The most interesting part of the Simba report to me is a table that lists the ten largest OA publishers by revenue. Springer, including its BioMed Central unit, is number one. PLOS is number two. By my count, two or three of the top ten are not-for-profit organizations. In other words, the revolutionary ardor that was supposed to come from the not-for-profit sector, where we fight for science for the sake of science, has run into the hard truth that commercial operators are good at what they do and know how to exploit an opportunity when they see one. And has there ever been a clearer opportunity than to rake in the APCs from funding agencies, which seem not to realize what it means to attach dollars to mandates that live outside the realm of end-user demand? The core proposition is that governments and funding organizations such as the Wellcome Trust are willing to pay for what librarians will not. You couldn’t make this up.
As I read through this report, with its many nuanced positions, including the implications of running out of research to publish, I was struck by the astonishing foresight and entrepreneurial genius of Vitek Tracz, who founded BioMed Central and got the whole ball rolling. Also dazzling in its performance is the not-for-profit PLOS, which not only navigated a tricky path through the marketplace, but also altered how we think about such things as the scope of a journal and the nature of peer review. I also began to wonder (I know I am not alone in this) if PLOS has pretty much played through its first inning and is going to have to pitch a different game going forward. There are several dozen organizations that are copying PLOS somewhat mechanically now, but will PLOS surprise everyone and launch an OA 2.0, which will enable them to sprint ahead of the prudent businesspeople who run the copycats?
I finished the Simba report just as Open Access Week drew to a close. The celebration had it right and had it wrong. OA has indeed established itself within the world of scholarly communications, though at 2.3% of the market, it is more of a toehold than a revolution. But the real story of OA is that as soon as someone found a way to make economic sense out of it, businesspeople jumped in and began to domesticate it for their own purposes. It is as though Thomas Paine were given a seat in the House of Lords. We will soon be looking back on Open Access Week as we do to Woodstock (I was there, by the way), with affection and nostalgia. As for where OA is headed, it’s just business.