Stephen King Picture
The key to selling classic literature? Image via Michael Femia.

Is it immoral for someone to try to sell something that has been made Open Access (OA) through the payment of an article processing charge (APC)? Barbara Fister thinks so. I am not so sure. I follow Fister’s blog and find it to be thoughtful and always well-written, but on this point I do not agree. While I don’t subscribe to the language of morality in any discussion of scholarly communications, I think the commercialization of OA material is in the interest of everybody.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation. We have two publishers, which we will call Publisher A and Publisher B. Publisher A publishes a journal, which is toll-access but has an OA option, making it a hybrid. Some authors have exercised the OA option, paid an APC, and agreed to a Creative Commons license that allows for commercial reuse of the material, with the stipulation that there must continue to be an OA version of the articles. Publisher B, cleverly exploiting this license, repackages the articles and resells them in various ways. N.B. the OA versions continue to be available.

At this point some authors, or at least some people who claim to speak for the authors, complain that it is not in the spirit of OA and APCs for anyone to benefit commercially from the material. This raises the question of what exactly did the authors agree to. A careful examination of the contract reveals that the authors did in fact agree to allow commercial use of the material. Did they really, really know what they were agreeing to? Did they really, really, really know? Well, a contract is a contract, and one’s signature on a contract is what makes it binding. The point is not what you really, really know; the point is what you really, really agreed to.

Here is where my contrarian instincts come to the fore. In my view, everyone should want Publisher B to market the material, not just the greedy shareholders of the company. This is because that which is unsustainable cannot be sustained, and that which is sustainable is sustained, by definition. If the OA version of the material remains available and is well distributed, then no one is going to pay for the toll-access version. That means that whatever dark motives Publisher B may have had, if there is no market for a paywalled version of the articles, Publisher B will cease its practice. The attempt to monetize Publisher A’s OA material by Publisher B will simply disappear, written off as an unsuccessful experiment.

Suppose on the other hand that Publisher B is able to market the articles successfully. And Publisher B does this despite the fact that the OA versions of the material remain available. This means that Publisher B has added to the readership of the articles. Is there anyone who does not want the articles to be read more widely? The authors want this as a matter of course. Publisher B wants this because it makes money. Publisher A is indifferent; it has already made money when it collected the APCs. This is a profitable enterprise. It is sustainable, it will persist.

The fact of the matter is that there are many ways to ensure that articles not be exploited commercially, and one of them paradoxically is the market itself. You don’t need a contract, from CC or anyone else, to get people to stop publishing material if they can’t figure out how to publish it at a profit. But if they can publish it at a profit, it is telling us something very important about the OA versions of the articles, and that is that access means little in the absence of marketing.

I first encountered this issue in one of my first jobs in publishing. A defrocked graduate student, I washed up on the shores of New American Library, which is now part of the Penguin Random House conglomerate. My job was to create paperback editions of public domain classics to be used in college classrooms. I inherited quite a list (Signet Classics), which included such authors as Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Henry James, Jane Austen and many more. We invested some money on the editorial side (creating a modern edition of Shakespeare is no small feat), consisting largely of commissioned introductions by prominent scholars, annotations for obscure terms (what the heck is that “petard” that Hamlet speaks of?), and a bibliography to aid students in doing further research. Although the texts themselves were in the public domain, there was a proprietary wrapper of editorial apparatus that set off our classics line from the many others.

These books sold exceedingly well, better, in fact, than other public domain lines sold at a lower price. I would like to think it was because of all the work I put into the editorial apparatus, but I know it isn’t true. The books sold well because we were also the publisher in paperback of Stephen King, Ken Follett, and Robin Cook. These authors sold books in the many millions, which enabled the company to build a massive distribution infrastructure. A sales rep would go to a drugstore or airport shop and place copies of all the bestsellers in the racks. A few pockets in the racks were reserved for my books: A Portrait of a Lady or Villette right before your eyes, brought to you be the marketing machine created for the author of Carrie and Salem’s Lot. Without Stephen King to pull them along, those public domain books wouldn’t have stood a chance.

It wasn’t enough for those classics to be in the public domain and, hence, very inexpensive; they had to be marketed, too. This is true for digital publications as well. Making something OA does not mean it will be found and read. Making something OA simply means making it OA. The real work is yet to be done.

And that’s what Publisher B could do. The economic incentive to reach new audiences could make that otherwise OA article into something that gets brought to the attention of more and more readers. What incentive does a pure-play OA publisher have to market the materials it publishes? Unfortunately, the real name of this game is not “Open Access” but “Post and Forget.” Well-designed commerce, in other words, leads to enhanced discovery. And when it doesn’t, it enters the archaeological record.

If we can chase the idealists, ideologues, and moralists out of the temple, we may see that the practical act of providing economic incentives may be able to do more for access than any resolution from Budapest, Bayonne, Bethesda, or Berlin. The market works, and when it doesn’t, things quietly go away. So why all the fuss? Let’s give Publisher B a crack at this.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


27 Thoughts on "Getting Beyond "Post and Forget" Open Access"

Joe is correct to point to the incentives. In this example, Publisher A’s incentive is entirely author-focused and there is no economic return for Publisher A to grow the audience beyond that which is needed to attract authors (which, in my experience, is usually pretty small). Publisher B, on the other hand, has every incentive to build an audience since it goes out of existence if it fails. However, Publisher B will find diminishing returns as audience-size grows and will cease to make efforts once a sufficient audience is found to cover their costs and make a return on their investment. They are likely to rely on institution subscriptions and thus lock out those who do not have the benefit of being supported by an institutional library. So, there are flaws, in terms of maximising audience size, in both the OA and reader-pays models. There is also a degree of market inefficiency in this Publisher A and Publisher B scenario – for example, two sets of set-up and hosting costs plus the problem of a reader finding the paid-for version and bouncing off the paywall ignorant of the fact a free version is available elsewhere.

This is why at OECD we believe Freemium OA is an approach worth pursuing. In this model, the same article is available in two different ‘wrappers’ – a basic, read-only, wrapper that is free to all and a value-added wrapper available against payment. As with other freemium businesses, only a small proportion of readers will opt for the value-added version and pay. What does this mean? Well, it means the publisher has to find as large an audience as possible for the article because only a small proportion will pay – and the larger the audience, the greater the income. So, unlike Publisher A or Publisher B, the Freemium publisher has every incentive to keep growing the audience. Unlike traditional OA/paid models where access is black and white (either you have access or you don’t), Freemium allows greater flexibility in access models while guaranteeing free access to the content to all. This flexibility extends to accommodating Gold OA – if a funder wishes to cover all costs, including those of the value-added wrapper, then the paywall can be completely lifted on all versions. When a funder can’t afford Gold, the flexibility of Freemium enables a publisher to experiment with more models, e.g. to give readers a quota of value-wrapped articles in exchange for registration, or the rights to publish the reader’s own work – the possibilities are endless. Importantly, from a reader’s perspective, Freemium is much better than Green OA or the Publisher A and B example because all the versions of the article are hosted in the same place online – find one version and you’ve found them all – much more efficient and satisfactory.

We’ve been developing our Freemium OA model for a number of years and the results, especially in terms of growing audience size, have been remarkable – and we’re still in business.

Toby Green

In the UK there has been a move to make British government information openly available without restrictions since 1997 with a gradual perception of what can be done and what should be done and a long fight with organs of government who are keen on the income to support the costs of the services they offer. The argument for no restrictions as it has unfolded is that commercial companies should be able to add value to the raw data and gain an income from the value that it added. There is a lot of precedent – for example patents. The value added cannot be added unless it is paid for. Why penalise users who might benefit? An example from our own sector is CLINICAL KEY the Elsevier resource for clinicians which (as I understand) involved massively expensive semantic work which could have been done and might be in the future if all the sources were open access. In other words I agree with Joe

I’m not so sure that “Publisher A is indifferent”, I think publisher A rather wants to strangle publisher B only cannot legally do so.

Publisher A are entitled to do exactly what Publisher B are doing… as long as they also maintain access to an open access copy of the article. So Publisher A could publish the article open access, under a CC-BY licence… but then also sell a purchase-access version as well. Obviously, they would need to add some value to this version to make this sustainable, but as this post indicates, if they can do that, this then provides access to the original authors work to a different, or wider audience – and the CC-BY licence requires that the original author’s work is attributed to them, irrespective of how it is subsequently used (the author retains the moral rights to have their name removed from this attribution if they so wish).

I think the key question is not whether a commercial version is made available, and attracts a wider readership, but if Publisher A continus to meet its obligations to market and promote the open access version, or lets this slide into obscurity to maximise profit from the ‘pay-to-view’ version.


This is my first time commenting on anything on SK and I am relatively new to the industry so please excuse me if my question makes some of you roll your eyes. I have never understood why reprints of OA articles licensed as CCBY are not CCBY as well — it doesn’t make much sense that a copy of an article wouldn’t need the same licensing. Can anyone clear this up for me?

Thanks again, love the blog!

There’s nothing in the CC BY license that requires one to give the article away for free. It simply allows others to reuse it in any way they choose, provided they offer attribution to the original author. That reuse may include putting it behind a paywall. If you wanted to require all downstream users of the content to license their use in the same way as the original, you would need to use an SA license (presumably CC BY-SA). Details here:

Which begs the question — why don’t more Open Access publishers offer SA licenses? These appear to be relatively rare, but seem to further the OA mission many researchers and publishers have taken on.

I’ve asked that question often myself. I always feel like publishers and content creators are treated like second class citizens under these terms–you must give away all rights to your creations so others can profit from them, but those others aren’t held to the same standards. They can lock things away as much as they’d like. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.

I’m told the reasoning behind not using SA is that it has proven to be a big failure in the open source software world. It makes it nearly impossible for derivative works to be commercially viable. Not sure that translates directly, but that’s what I’ve heard in response.

“proven to be a big failure in the open source software world” – this is an interesting claim. How has it failed? Lots of widely used software is still developed under GPL/etc (the software version of SA, if you will).

Sorry, it’s not something I claim in any way, but what I’ve repeatedly been told when I’ve asked why OA doesn’t require SA licenses. Basically the answer I get is that “we’ve learned from the software world that SA licenses make reuse too difficult.” If you feel that’s not a valid statement, then perhaps I’ve been told something wrong.

It definitely makes reuse more difficult.

But it does so in a deliberate way: the main idea, if I understand it correctly, is that a commercial developer could take an open source project and improve it slightly, and then charge money for the result. As the original project is improved, the vendor’s product is always even better; the free version is always subpar. With GPL (the SA license of software), though, if the vendor wants to extend the open source software, the result needs to be open source as well, allowing a.) free access and b.) freedom to modify/inspect even the extension. Those are important goals of open source software. There are several high-profile examples of software that is only free because of this.

I can’t really see how this would apply to scholarly publishing, though, so maybe your point remains anyway. If I modify your paper and charge for the result, does that really make your original subpar in the way it would a piece of software? I don’t think so.

My main concern with these commercial republishers is that people might be misled into thinking they had to pay for a particular product that was available for free.

I may be incorrect, but I suspect that you’re referring to a licensed, commercial reprint. In that case, a pharmaceutical company, say, pays the publisher of the article for the ‘license’ to use the material in a promotional manner. I believe that CCBY allows for free research-related use, but stops short of reproduction and distribution by corporate entities for commercial and promotional purposes. Please correct me if I’m wrong here.

That is incorrect. CC BY allows for all reuses, commercial or non-commercial in nature:

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

That’s a meaningful and substantial difference. Thank you for clarifying.

What I think is interesting about this piece is the implication that it’s the “idealists, moralists, and ideologues” who object to the commercialization of OA articles. It’s true that there are idealists/moralists/ideologues who object to commercial reuse of OA materials because they believe putting OA materials behind a paywall is wrong in principle (even if those same materials remain available for free from sources outside the paywall). But the most idealistic, moralistic OA ideologues I know of are all on the record as saying that commercial reuse is absolutely fine–that, in fact, authors who wish to retain any kind of control over the reuse of their work are being unreasonable (not to say stupid or evil or craven).

So when it comes to the commercial reuse of OA content, it seems like idealism, moralism, and ideology end up cutting both ways.

I think there is certainly an incentive for OA authors to “market” published papers. Authors want their work as widely read as possible. Given that authors are the main customer for OA publishers, the more they market papers, the more an author will view that OA publisher as a value added. Not to mention, marketing papers may also augment IF.

About six years ago I organized a workshop for university presses and one of the most interesting panels I saw there was one called The Politics and Economics of “Free”. Two of the speakers, one from the National Academies Press and one from the Rand Corporation, talked about their experiences giving away their content, and how Open Access seemed to have a negligible effect on their sales, but the third speaker, Dean Blobaum from University of Chicago Press, told the most interesting tale. He talked about their experience republishing The U.S. Army/Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

The manual was produced by the Army and Marine Corps, and is available online for anyone to download for free, but as one of the authors was also the author/co-author of a few University of Chicago publications, they asked that author if he would be willing to write some new material for the print version of the book. They created a new cover, cleaned up the text, added some new front matter, and slapped a $15 price on it. Much to their surprise and delight, the book quickly sold through its initial 10,000 copy print run, but much more importantly, it made the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was covered and reviewed in many other publications. The same author was then asked to appear on The Daily Show with John Stewart to discuss General David Petraeus’s approach to Iraq, and then on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Sure, the PDF had 1.5 million downloads, which makes the University of Chicago’s 10K+ seem paltry, but as just a PDF it seems highly unlikely it would have been covered in the Times, and even more unlikely it would have been a topic on The Daily Show or Fresh Air. What the price, and the marketing and publicity it paid for appeared to do was provide a much broader platform, especially for the public debate on the war, and particularly on its execution.

The free version helped a lot of soldiers do their jobs more effectively, but it seems the $15 version had an influence on policy makers and ordinary citizens, and in some ways it seems that’s just as important, if not more important than the manual’s intended use and audience. For those of us in the business of disseminating knowledge, it was certainly an interesting counterpoint to the current view that Open Access is usually the best way to reach the largest audience with an idea.

Was not The Pentagon Papers public domain? And yet that publication sold very well indeed. This is just one of a number of examples of government reports that have been successfully exploited commercially.

At Penn State, Tony will recall, we published several volumes of the official history of the CIA, the text of which is public domain, to which we added editorial introductions and annotations.

And many of the “critical editions” of authors like David Hume that university presses publish fall into this same category. The reconstructed texts are regarded as public domain and are free to be reproduced by others.

One example where Publisher A would have both a commercial and mission-oriented incentive is if Publisher A licenses translation rights to Publisher B for the language in which that publisher operates. That would increase the exposure of the article (or book) to new audiences at the same time that Publisher A could check on the quality of the translation and, if it wished, charge a fee for translation.

So Publisher B can now scoop up a bunch of OA papers (without discussing with authors) re-publish as a book, perhaps for forms sake with an introduction and an index, called ‘Advances in something-or-other’ sell it at whatever price he likes, maybe do pretty well out of it too? Is this right? In that case advocates of this kind of licence must be insane. As an author, surely I want some control over the company I keep? How does it help my reputation, career, to have my paper re-published by Unscrupulous Press Inc, alongside a lot of papers which are just junk? And just suppose that Unscrupulous Press actually hits the commercial jackpot with a book containing my paper. Wearing my OA hat I will say ‘O goody, lots of people have been able to read my work’; wearing my struggling academic-with-wife-family-and-mortgage hat will I not say ‘You never asked if you could publish MY work, you have made a fortune out of it and you are giving me nothing!??’ And if I’ve understood this licence correctly, Unscrupulous will smirk and say, ‘yes’.

Reblogged this on The OER World and commented:
Excellent article that raises important questions for Open Access, openness and sustainability, although the extra editorial input sure made a difference to sell the public domain works

“What incentive does a pure-play OA publisher have to market the materials it publishes? Unfortunately, the real name of this game is not “Open Access” but “Post and Forget.” Well-designed commerce, in other words, leads to enhanced discovery. And when it doesn’t, it enters the archaeological record.”

I didn’t respond to this post when it first came out because I was busy but an email came through today with a press release that reminded me of the misguided statement above.

Co-Action is one of the best gold OA publishers but certainly not the only one that markets their journals and important articles/special issues just like any subscription publisher. They send out press releases, attend professional conferences and use social media just like Elsevier, Wiley or any other major subscription publisher for basically the same reasons. Their customer base may be different, authors rather than readers, actually librarians but they seek the same thing, highlighting their journals and helping ensure that they are well respected, read and cited.

Apparently you did not read my post. Your comment is in no way apposite. A good comment nonetheless, but irrelevant.

I did read your post, a couple times and don’t disagree with the main point.

I was addressing the specific question you asked “What incentive does a pure-play OA publisher have to market the materials it publishes?” and then seemed to answer “Unfortunately, the real name of this game is not “Open Access” but “Post and Forget.”

Comments are closed.