One of the truisms that often comes up when discussing Open Access (OA) business models is that the majority of OA journals do not charge authors an article processing charge (APC). This has been a standard talking point supported by multiple studies (most now a few years out of date), and by the continuing work of Walt Crawford. It’s a statement on hears over and over (a quick Google search provides mentions here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — if Wikipedia says it’s true, it must be, right?). It’s a factoid I myself have used in arguments. But is it really an accurate representation of the OA publishing market? A closer look suggests that by strictly limiting the definition of what qualifies as an “OA journal”, we may be missing out on what’s actually happening.
Crawford recently released his latest set of preliminary numbers (his work continues to be tremendously valuable in helping track and understand OA growth). Taking his strictest criteria, and limiting the analysis just to journals that have actually published an article in the last year, he gets the following results: for 2014, there were 8,760 OA journals, and publishing in 73% (6,395) of them was free for authors (no APC charged). The percentage of total OA articles in those journals was 43%.
This immediately offers up a caveat to the notion that most OA is published without author charges. Most journals in the study do not charge authors, but the majority of authors are choosing to publish in journals that do charge. 27% (2,365) of the journals studied required an APC and were responsible for 57% of the articles.
The journals in the study, however, do not represent the entire spectrum of OA journal publishing. As Crawford noted in a recent comment thread on this site, the pool of journals examined is limited to fully gold OA journals listed by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). That means no hybrid journals or articles published OA in hybrid journals were counted.
The reason for this limitation is a practical one — there’s no easy way to measure the numbers of hybrid journals and articles, and there’s no easy way to track journals and articles not listed in the DOAJ. But this practical limitation also creates limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn.
Precise language is key to scientific understanding. As a former journal editor, the most common problem I had to correct from authors was a tendency toward language that overstated their conclusions — calling a cellular factor “necessary” for some action, rather than “sufficient” is a common example. Some of this was deliberate fuzziness borne out of wishful thinking in hopes of supporting a preconceived model, while the majority was unintentional and just poor choices of words.
To be precise then, stating that the majority of OA journals do not charge an APC is going beyond what the data tells us. What we can safely say is that the majority of fully gold OA journals listed by the DOAJ do not charge APCs, though they do not produce the majority of articles from that pool.
What about those hybrid journals and articles? Can they be summarily dismissed from the discussion, or are they worth a look?
To get a quick sense of the numbers I spent 20 minutes or so digging around some of the bigger publisher websites:
- Elsevier: 1,676 journals listed as having a hybrid OA option
- Wiley: 1,300 journals listed as having OA available, 33 listed in DOAJ so 1,277 titles can be counted
- Springer: “the majority of our 2000+ journals” offer an OA option, so at minimum 1,001 titles
- Taylor & Francis: hybrid OA available for over 1,600 journals
- Sage: 630 journals listed as having a hybrid option
- Oxford University Press: 250+ hybrid journals
- Cambridge University Press: “over 200” hybrid journals
That gives a total of at least 6,634 journals offering OA publication from just a quick sampling, leaving out many large publishers and a huge number of smaller university presses and independents. Add that to Crawford’s earlier totals and the conclusion is reversed: at least 58% (8,999) of journals that offer OA publishing do indeed charge an APC.*
If you spend much time in the world of altmetrics and DORA, it may be more forward-thinking to look at the world on an article level. We live in an article-level economy, and an individual article should be judged for its own merits, not averaged in with its neighbors.
Add in then the number of articles published by authors taking up the hybrid option and the total number of OA articles published with an APC increases even further into the majority. These numbers are hard to come by, but for OUP, they’ve been pretty steady for the last few years, ranging from 4% to 6% of total articles (5.01% for 2014). Our total numbers have increased due to the increasing number of journals and articles published each year.
So to more clearly state things:
- The majority of fully gold OA journals listed by the DOAJ do not charge authors an APC.
- The majority of journals offering OA publication to authors charge APCs.
- The majority of OA papers are published via paying an APC.
The distinctions are important here. When making business plans or setting policies, it is crucial to have an accurate picture of current publishing practices, and the clear picture here is that most OA publishing is done for a fee.
*My numbers still exclude fully gold OA journals not included in the DOAJ so the conclusions must include this caveat, but given the enormous number of questionable/predatory/deceptive journals that fall into this category and that certainly charge APCs, their inclusion would likely only push things further in the direction of APC required OA.