As long as there has been open access (OA), there has been talk of a global “flip” of research journals away from the subscription business model. The difficulties in coordinating an enormous number of stakeholders with different interests have continued to make this unlikely. However, a recent paper from the Max Planck Digital Library claiming that, “An internationally concerted shifting of subscription budgets is possible at no financial risk, maybe even at lower overall costs,” has once again fueled talk of a flip. Has this paper discovered a golden ticket to global OA sustainability, or is it based on flawed assumptions?


Long-time green OA advocate Stevan Harnad has written at length about the improbable nature of a global overnight flip to Gold OA via an organized system of membership deals, and about the adverse selection such a system would create:

The very next day the system would destabilize, with cash-strapped institutions cancelling their “memberships” to journals that their users needed to use but in which their authors published little, preferring instead to pay for publishing by the piece for the few articles they publish in them.

This would in turn destabilize the sustainability of yesterday’s subscription revenue streams via memberships, which would mean that membership fees would have to increase for the non-defecting institutions to sustain all publishers’ net revenue, which would in turn mean that institutions would be paying more for memberships than they had been paying for subscriptions.

Much of the drive toward a flip is based in the EU and the UK, where public higher education is highly centralized at the national level. This creates the notion that there exists a global pool of funds that could be diverted away from subscriptions and toward OA fees. But the difficulties in coordinating action between self-interested parties becomes even more evident when one thinks about how libraries are funded and subscriptions are paid for in the US, still the major producer of scholarly articles worldwide.

I frequently ask US librarians where their subscription budget comes from and the responses vary widely, but the most common answers are tuition, student fees and some portion of grant overheads. Because tuition and student fees are collected by individual institutions, there’s no big pool of funds that can be diverted centrally from one purpose to another. Such a flip would massively increase the financial burden on productive institutions, while freeing non-productive institution from any responsibility in funding research access.

If I’m running a small teaching school and can save money by cancelling subscriptions, my Dean is going to be much more interested in spending our students’ tuition fees on our students, rather than sending that money off to Harvard to help their poor professors publish papers.

US universities are increasingly cash-strapped, which makes any coordinated give-aways like this unlikely. And having major contributors to the literature like the US, Japan and Australia choose the Green route puts a damper on any global move to Gold OA

But a recent paper from three members of the Max Planck Digital Library suggests the whole thing could be done immediately and at a cost-savings. Their thesis is that each individual library could stop paying subscription fees and instead divert those same funds toward article processing charges (APCs) for their campus authors, and that doing this could happen within current library budgets, requiring no additional funds from outside, and no pooling of funds between institutions.

As Rick Anderson recently pointed out, there’s a difference between advocacy and analysis. Reading this paper, it’s clear which this is. The authors clearly state that they are trying to advocate for a cause:

The purpose of this paper is to assert the necessity of a large-scale transformation of the current subscription journals to an open access business model and that this transformation can be achieved only by an equally large-scale transformation or liberation of the library acquisition budgets.

Thus this paper cannot be read as an objective piece of research. It is clearly a passionate argument meant to influence opinions, rather than a carefully designed research project with appropriate controls. Unfortunately, in order to meet a preordained conclusion, the data has to be put through unrealistic contortions.

The key problem in the analysis is in the chosen numbers used for article processing charges (APCs). The authors start with an unproven assumption — “it is safe to assume that in a predominantly open access publishing system the average article costs would not nearly be as high.” No actual evidence is offered for why this is a given.

The authors then seek a number to use as an average APC in order to calculate what a given institution would spend on publishing papers as compared to subscribing to journals. The problem with this approach is that it assumes every university hews to the average. It is likely that University of Oxford researchers publish in a different set of journals than researchers at a rural community college in the United States. Researchers at MIT may lean more toward publishing in science journals as compared to researchers at a liberal arts college like Davidson. Stanford authors may prefer journals with higher rejection rates and production values, hence higher costs. Yet by assigning the average cost for all universities to an individual university’s expenditures, it is assumed that all researchers at all institutions are identical.

If Library A spends $1,000 per OA paper and Library B spends $4,000, the average spend is indeed $2,500. But Library B is still spending $3,000 more per paper than Library A.

To get the number used (€2,000, or approximately $2,248), the authors look at data from German universities, the Austrian Science Fund and the SCOAP3 Coalition. Data from the Wellcome Trust is mentioned, but dismissed because it does not fit the chosen narrative.

Wellcome’s numbers don’t count because they include author spend on hybrid OA journals (apparently 75% of Wellcome’s authors prefer hybrid journals to fully-OA journals). Given that the hybrid journals chosen are often high-end journals, with high rejection rates, the resulting APC spend is higher than for policies where publishing in hybrid journals is not allowed. To come up with a lower average APC, the authors have to dismiss the notion of author choice in where they publish their work.

In order to make their numbers work, the authors describe not a simple flip to Gold OA, but rather a complete reordering of the culture of academia. We know that higher-end journals cost more to produce. We know that eLife spends around $14,000 per paper, and that PLOS continues to lose money on their selective journals despite charging authors nearly $3,000 per paper.

The proposed fully-OA world described in this paper would require the elimination of these high-end journals, a fact that the authors simply brush aside with little discussion, which is rather shocking given the centrally-important issue of author preference, the continuing importance of journal brand as a filtering mechanism and the degree to which academic career structure remains dependent upon the publication process. One may certainly object to any of these realities, but pretending they aren’t there is just absurd.

The underlying assumption of this argument, then, is that flipping to universal OA is easily achieved: all it requires is a complete cultural and administrative restructuring of academia. But even if this cultural revolution could be delivered, the numbers still may not work, as evidenced by the announcement this week from PLOS that publication costs are spiraling upward, resulting in a necessary increase in APC rates for even the megajournal PLOS ONE.

Magical thinking in the guise of objective analysis does no one any good. For those looking for real-world, practical ways to improve access to knowledge, it sets up unrealistic expectations; OA efforts based on such unrealistic assumptions will inevitably fail. That hurts everyone — advocates, publishers and readers alike — all of whom will have to deal with the unintended consequences of any policies based on flawed research.

Access to the research literature continues to improve. Every day, more people can access more information than the day before. The problems haven’t all been solved yet, by any means, but the progress currently in evidence is a good thing. There are all kinds of interesting experiments going on throughout the scholarly communications world, new business models, new ways of publishing research. Let’s continue to experiment and find new ways of improving what we do, driving real world progress rather than hoping for magical overnight solutions.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


53 Thoughts on "The Global Gold Open Access "Flip": A Realistic Plan or Magical Thinking?"

David, I would hardly characterize PLoS One raising its APCs for the first time since 2009 as a spiraling of costs – what subscription journal has not raised its subscription fees since 2009? But I’m writing for a different reason. The Pay It Forward project underway at the University of California, in partnership with three other major research institutions (Harvard, Ohio State University, and the University of British Columbia) and several bibliometric and publishing industry partners, is attempting to do precisely what you suggest: rigorously analyze the financial impact major research institutions of a large scale shift to gold OA. We are not looking at the ‘fairness’ of a potential shifting of costs to our institutions, nor the feasibility of engineering such a shift in a coordinated way, but rather whether such a transformation would be affordable for us given the publishing profile of our institutions. As you suggest, this question is of great significance to us. Our study extends through June 2016 and we should to have results to share in the first half of the year. More information can be found at

To be fair, the PLOS statement says, “For the past six years, PLOS has absorbed increasing publishing costs without raising author fees.” I’m not sure how that can be interpreted as saying anything other than that costs are continuously rising. PLOS was in a privileged position of being so massively profitable that they could absorb those costs, but other publishers may not be so fortunate. It’s also perhaps odd to see PLOS raising prices on the one profitable area of their business while not raising prices on their high-end journals which lose money.

Your project does sound very interesting and I would love to hear more about it. I think such considerations do indeed need to be analyzed at an institutional level, rather than looking for averages across institutions.

David: Was PLOs profitable or are the grants running out and they are now facing the reality of the market?

PLOS has been tremendously profitable for several years now. In 2014 because of a major reinvestment in their platform, their margin dropped from the low 20’s to around 11% (putting them around the same margin level as the biggest university presses like CUP and OUP). Latest financial reports are here:

I have been reading SK nearly every day for a few years now and what I have not seen is a discussion or acknowledgement that the traditional publishing market has not dealt effectively with the dissaggregation of the journal issue which is one of the major drivers of changes in scholarly publishing. As Vitek Tracz says, no one reads journals, everyone reads articles. Today’s SK speaks about financial problems with PLoS but doesn’t mention BMC, another mega journal that appears to be doing well.
We’ve seen and are seeing analogous changes in other markets–TV where people are cutting the cable and consuming just what they want through other means and music where streaming services are starting to cut into digital downloads. The age of the issue is past and the scarcity model required by its paper-based model is gone as well and so is the requirement to purchase based on the paper-based model. Though he was speaking of copyright, William Patry was correct when he said “Denying consumers what they want cannot succeed as a business model.”

I’m not sure I’d characterize what PLOS is facing as a “problem”, but instead I’d say it’s more of a recognition of the realities of doing business, and in their case, they’re in a good position to handle those real world cost increases.

And I’m also not sure that readers and authors (not to mention administrators and funding agencies) are quite ready to abandon the concept of the journal. For authors it is clear that journal brand and reputation matter more than ever. Take a look at the recent survey by NPG ( and how many of the researcher priorities revolve around the reputation, reach and quality of the journals that they’re choosing.

And in a world where we have indeed moved to an article-level economy, filtering mechanisms become even more important. Journal brand and reputation is one of the most valuable filtering mechanisms currently in use. Ask researchers if they’d be happier with an unsorted, unfiltered literature that they must sort out themselves and you’re greatly increasing their time and effort burden.

Vitek Tracz does talk about this filterless approach in a recent interview with Richard Poynder and both discuss what an enormous task it would be to gain acceptance of these sorts of changes, particularly because of the increased burden it places on researchers:

The argument here seems to be partly that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to shift the major burden of sustaining Gold OA to the largest and richest research institutions, allowing the vast majority to be free riders on this system. But is this not exactly what we have had for well over a century in scholarly monograph publishing, with only a hundred or so universities supporting presses that do the publishing for faculty at thousands of other universities that do not pay anything to support the system (beyond buying books for their libraries, of course)? Indeed, these presses publish far fewer books for their own faculty than they do for faculty elsewhere, and it has often been regarded as unwise for a faculty member to publish a book with his or her home press. This system seems to be very stable, so why cannot a similar system exist for journals?

This is the fundamental nature of Gold OA versus the subscription model. Subscriptions spread costs broadly among consumers while Gold OA concentrates costs directly on a small number of producers. This is what Gold OA is designed to do, yet many keep looking for magical ways to avoid it, and pretend that it makes everything cheaper for everyone. Gold OA is much cheaper for consumers (and consumer institutions) and much more expensive for producers (and productive research institutions).

I have seen very little willingness from the research intensive institutions to take on a much greater financial burden on behalf of less productive institutions.

Does the same logic apply at the country level? In other words, will research intensive countries have to take on a much greater share of the financial burden on behalf of less research intensive countries?

One would assume, though to fair, in many countries such as the US, it’s unclear if that burden would be assumed by the country or by a large number of state and private institutions. Perhaps one sign of this is that the largest producer of research articles, the US, has set a Green OA policy.

David, you chide Ralf Schimmer and his colleagues for not being evidenced based but where is the evidence for these assertions? Yes, it is pretty obvious there would be some cost shifting to research intensive institutions but where is the evidence it would be much more for expensive for the research intensive universities? As Ivy noted above those of us working on the PIF project are trying to address this in an evidenced based way but I think at this point there really isn’t a lot of evidence of how expensive it would be for the research intensive universities.

Also it should be put in a broader context. Research is very expensive and publication costs are a trivial part of the total cost of research at least in the life sciences. If you don’t think so, as noted in your post, the Wellcome Trust pays the publication costs of it’s researchers for either gold or hybrid journals with no restrictions on price. As you also noted most Wellcome researchers choose the generally higher cost hybrid option.

If you take all the articles generated by Wellcome Trust funded researchers (about 5,000 per year) multiply that by the average APC they have paid in the past, it amounts to about 1% of what Wellcome spends on the research that produced those articles. Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust was kind enough to provide me with this data.

Research is a process and dissemination of the the research is an integral part of the process. To me it only makes sense to roll rather trivial cost (on a percentage basis) of publishing the results of the research into the rest of the costs of doing research and pay for it through the institutions that conduct the research.

The evidence seems obvious, based on the very nature of the economic models chosen. One spreads costs broadly, the other concentrates costs on a small number of institutions. My evidence is the current level of spend on journals divided by the number of articles published. The costs are what they currently are, and unless one proposes a specific mechanism for reducing those costs, then I see no reason why one should assume they’ll go down.

A proposal to reduce author freedom and eliminate the majority of journals is a very different proposal than one that states that we can immediately flip to OA at no cost to libraries.

Wellcome may be something of an outlier as an example here–they’re funding a relatively small number of elite researchers, and given their deep pockets, they can afford to pay their fees (as well as cover the expenses for eLife authors). Look instead at something like the RCUK or the NIH. If it’s such a trivial amount to fund, why is the RCUK not simply paying for 100% Gold OA immediately for all funded authors? Why are they instead only funding a small portion of authors, not paying for the administrative costs their policy has created, and leaving libraries scrambling to cover the additional spend?

Asking research funders to come up with an additional $10B annually is a big ask. It would certainly be welcome by most research institutions–they’d get to keep their student fees and tuitions and put that money to other use (or, God forbid, lower their tuition rates, though I can’t see that happening). But given the political/economic situation in the US and elsewhere, I’m not sure how feasible it would be.

Again where is your data? It would not just be a small number of institutions paying the cost but rather a continuum form highly research intensive to teaching intensive universities. Faculty at less research intensive institutions do publish just perhaps at not the rate of more intensive universities. Also many if not most grant programs have APCs as an allowable cost. There is no reason faculty could not be expected to write into their budgets the cost of publications like they do other costs. That would limit to some extent the burden on the universities. Again, we are talking about cost shifts not new money. And it would not break their funder’s budget. The Wellcome example is real. If they paid the full APC for every publication from their research it would only take one percent of their research budget hybrids and all.

I agree it is not practical to ignore the existing subscription journals but there are reasonable compromises such as the recent agreement between Springer and the Austrian Science Foundation that addresses double dipping while providing a reasonable payment to publishers. Also I don’t see this happening over night. Even with the most ambitious scenario I expect it will take at least 10 more years.

Again, I think we need to put all of this into perspective. My own university has an annual budget of about 1.2 billion dollars. The library acquisition budget, serials and monographs is about 15 million. That is just over one tenth of a percent of the university budget. Even if that went up by say 50% over 5 or 10 years it wouldn’t put the students in the poor house mainly because they are already there.

Do you need me to post links to the recent STM report and other analyses giving financial figures for the size of the journal publication market? I don’t think I’m claiming anything different than you are claiming here–that we’re not talking about a massive reduction in costs, we’re talking about shifting those same costs. I can’t share our sales data with you, but we do sell many subscriptions to teaching institutions with no research programs, to private industry (who don’t publish) and to other such groups that don’t produce papers themselves. Each sale lost there moves the costs back onto academic research institutions.

You are suggesting that the costs be moved from the research institutions to the funding agencies. This is an interesting approach, and as I noted above, one which would be welcomed by most universities. It may not, however, be all that welcome by the funding agencies, and may also be very problematic for fields that lack funding. Historians have no Wellcome Trust to make all of their costs go away. We are seeing funding cuts for research all over the world. Asking for an increase in funding to cover something new may be difficult politically. Alternatively, shifting existing funds away from research to cover publication would reduce the amount of research being done and likely put many researchers out of a job.

The problem with a global approach for deals such as the Springer deal with Austria are noted in the post above and in Stevan Harnad’s commentary. As he states, you’re relying on everyone acting in the group’s interest, rather than in their individual interests, which will likely fall apart quickly. And as I point out, there’s no central group in the US that could do such a deal. You would need a similar deal with every single university. Some of those universities would see cost savings, others would see cost increases. The latter are going to be hard to convince.

I’m also curious about the Springer deals, as so little detail has been released. Do you know if Springer is offsetting costs for authors outside of Austria, based on the number of OA articles that will be published by Austrian authors? To avoid double dipping, most publisher reduce the costs of their journal subscription prices based on the number of OA articles (subscribers shouldn’t be charged for articles that are paid for by OA fees). I’ve not seen anything publicly announced about how Springer’s prices will be coming down worldwide due to the deal with Austria and the deal with the Netherlands. Or are they double-dipping here, and passing along the costs of their deals with these countries to subscribers in other countries?

Your point on perspective is really important. Universities continue to massively underfund their libraries. In the US, there’s a race to build new football stadiums and all sorts of creature comforts for students (rock climbing walls and such) in order to move up a few notches on the US News and World Report ranking of universities. At the same time, library budgets are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the university’s overall budget, while the number of articles being published and read continues to rise. Clearly universities do not see access to the research literature as a priority, otherwise they’d adequately fund their libraries to meet the growth in the literature.

While some libraries in the US and more in the UK have taken on responsibility for administering funds to pay APCs, I suspect that many universities would prefer this sort of function to fall to research and sponsored projects offices instead. There is also the fact that library budgets have been quite stagnant, while research output only continues to increase. If such a switch were to occur in the current climate of increasing emphasis on extramural funding, it seems likely that national funding organizations would be footing more and more of the bill for the dissemination of research.

I think there are some cases where an OA membership makes some sense, and I’ll be very interested to see what continues to develop with SCOAP3 and the VSNU big deals. That said, a global shift to gold OA would have some pretty serious implications for libraries, funding organizations, and researchers. I also suspect that it would lead to a sharp rise in the market for various discovery, sharing, and impact tracking systems, and those won’t all be free.

I fear that this discussion has drifted off topic. If the study in question assumes that every institution’s journal subscription budget magically matches its potential APC budget, then that is simply false, and probably silly. Hence the pooling proposals and the free rider problem. The question is, can you get there from here? This study seems to duck that question, as David C notes quite well.

Regarding Harnad’s plan, my understanding of it (based on lengthy discussion with him, some of which he has published) is that immediate deposit green OA should force scholarly publishing to cut costs to the point where a $300 APC gold model can take over. I consider this a ridiculous prospect, but there it is, an industry strangled into submission.

I think assuming the average APC below 2000 EURO for publishing in open access journals is jusitified. The white paper cites several datasets about fee-based Open Access publishing. One, curated by the German Open APC initiative, collects information from German research institutions and also includes the payments Max Planck Digital Library have made in the last years. At the moment, the dataset indexes 3 502 articles. Total expenditure amounts to 4 321 193€. Average fee is 1 233.90 € and the median 1 200 €.

The data used is from policies that only allow for publication in fully-OA journals. As the authors note, if you look at Wellcome Trust data, where authors are free to choose where they publish, 75% of those authors choose hybrid journals, and the costs go up quite a bit.

So what the numbers used show you is an average APC for a system that strictly limits publication to a relatively small percentage of the overall number of journals available. That means we’re not talking about just flipping the current publication system to OA, it means we’re talking about a major restructuring of researcher culture, a complete change to the career and funding structure of academia and the elimination of most journals.

That’s a much bigger change, and much harder to achieve than what’s being proposed here.

The authors do not claim to provide a simulation where OA is achieved through hybrid journals (author fees + subscriptions). So, I think, it is unfair to say that the paper “is based on flawed assumptions”. But, of course, whether all actors in the publication system agree to take this route is another question.

The very first line of the abstract of the article states:

This paper makes the strong, fact-based case for a large-scale transformation of the current corpus of scientific subscription journals to an open access business model. The existing journals, with their well-tested functionalities, should be retained and developed to meet the demands of 21st century research, while the underlying payment streams undergo a major restructuring.

So if they are including the “current corpus of scientific subscription journals”, and “The existing journals, with their well-tested functionalities”, then how is it valid to exclude financial data from hybrid journals? In research, this is called, “cherry picking” ( Either these journals, with their current cost structure and resultant higher APCs must be factored into the analysis, or the analysis is deliberately excluding the majority of research journals and is either flawed or is calling for the abolition of those journals.

I presume the authors would add the costs for hybrid OA to the subscription side because they discuss, given the APCs OA journals charge, if a move toward OA journals were financially feasible.

I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at here. What “subscription side”? This paper purports to examine a move, retaining all the currently existing journals, off of the subscription model to the Gold OA model. To analyze costs though, they ignored the costs of the majority of existing journals and looked only at a small subset. That, to me, means they have not adequately performed an accurate analysis.

Just take a look at the financials of the top 5 STM publishers and the subscription revenue is still responsible for 90% of the revenue. Shifting to APC fees would cover about 30% of the revenue at best. The current revenue that pays to maintain the quality of the journal including peer review cannot be replaced with APC fees for most journals. The economics of publishing is often debated but few seem to understand the reality of actual business economics.

It´s a result of different funding policies, that data from UK include mainly costs for hybrid articles and data from Germany mainly include costs for articles in fully OA journals. So the possible changes you fear in your comment before could be less serious, if all hybrid journals will be switched to fully OA journals, right?

I’m not sure which comment you’re referring to, but that’s the general idea here. You would shift all hybrid journals, and journals with no OA option at all, to a fully-OA Gold model. One of the problems with the analysis then, is to exclude from consideration the costs of publication in all of those journals. We know there are far more non-fully-OA journals than there are fully-OA journals. We know that at least some portion of authors prefers to publish in those titles (75% of Wellcome Trust authors, but that may not be a representative sample). So any analysis that deliberately excludes that data is not a realistic representation of what’s trying to be achieved.

Yes … “all it requires is a complete cultural and administrative restructuring of academia.” Precisely. So let’s get busy. A mechanism for “elimination of high-end journals” is exactly what academia needs. Lots of data have shown that the IF of a ‘high-end’ journal says very little about the eventual relative impact for most of the papers published in it. Journal brand therefore has only marginal value as a filtering mechanism for readers and researchers. Our first task then: administrative restructuring that leads to better filtering mechanisms. And while doing that we can also start working on the necessary cultural restructuring. The culture of academia breeds addiction to these ‘high-end’ journals only because the culture of academia breeds elitism — and the ‘high-end’ journals feed that elitism, while cashing in on it. Productive cultural revolutions happen all the time, and the general public would be encouraged in knowing that we are trying, or at least talking about it.

This is a different argument though, then what this paper purports to present:

The goal is to preserve the established service levels provided by publishers that are still requested by researchers, while redefining and reorganizing the necessary payment streams.

A different argument, yes, but one that emerges from your interpretation of what the paper proposes: “The proposed fully-OA world described in this paper would require the elimination of these high-end journals …” and hence, ” … it requires is a complete cultural and administrative restructuring of academia.”

Good luck with a complete cultural and administrative restructuring of academia, Lonnie. I consider discussing that prospect to be pointless, nor has it anything to do with the point of David’s post.

Thanks David. I will try to do my part as best I can. Thankfully, a complete cultural and administrative restructuring of academia is already underway in response to recent reports indicating that the data from most published research are not reproducible.

Actually, Lonnie, I think what they have found is that these complex research projects cannot be replicated based on the brief descriptions given in journal articles. This should surprise no one but apparently it has, as the science bashers are hyping it. Reproduction is hard work. Nor do these few repro studies tell us anything about most published research, of which there are millions of cases a year. There is some concern in the community, but nothing like a restructuring.

As outlined in the title and abstract, our white paper simply provides some facts and figures for a large-scale transformation of scientific journal publishing to open access. It shows that even an (unlikely high) average APC of 5,000 Euros would not lead to an overall increase of costs given the current global subscription expenses. Looking at the actual distribution of scientific articles, no one would say that 5,000 Euros were an appropriate APC at average for each of the 1.5 million papers annually published and indexed in the Web of Science. Furthermore, our thesis of sufficient budgets also works out at a country level, although at this point, we in fact have to operate more with generous assumptions due to undisclosed subscription expenditures.

When performing such calculations, it is important to take into account co-authorship, meaning that articles would only have to be finance once- by one country or by one institution. If you would like to calculate the costs for the US based on the share of corresponding authors only, you may find our data set “Number of Scholarly Articles per Country” published by our colleague Margit Palzenberger at helpful.

Finally even at an institutional level we see the potential for cost savings, and this goes for the Max Planck Society, a heavily output-oriented research organization with an annual share of about 6,000 corresponding author papers out of a total of 10,000.

And just to add some calculations with hybrid journals: A calculation on the basis of hybrid prices has recently been made by Christian Gutknecht from the Swiss National Science Foundation for the publication output of the ETH Zurich, another research intensive institution, with Elsevier (published here: In 2014, ETH spent 3,55 mil Swiss francs on Elsevier subscriptions (about 3,63 mil USD). In the same year, ETH authors published 1,260 articles in Elsevier journals. Applying a 60% share of papers with corresponding authors from ETH Zurich, 840 papers in Elsevier journals would have had to be financed. Looking at the actual hybrid prices for these journals, Gutknecht arrived at an average of 2,700 USD per article. With these numbers, in an APC based scenario, the costs for ETH Zurich in 2014 would have been roughly at 2,3 mil USD.

In our perception, evidence is being build up in many places to show that the publishing system is soundly financed to make the switch to OA, and we will discuss further steps at the upcoming Berlin 12 Conference in December (

As i understand it, Kai, the basic problem is that at the institutional level the present total subscription fees are often very different from the potential post-transition total APCs. Thus the transition mechanism is unknown and might be very difficult. Does your analysis resolve this problem?

As an example, a humanities journal (with no current OA option) I’ve worked with charges libraries around $300 a year for a subscription. But to reach that equivalent level of revenue via APCs, they’d have to charge $18,000 per paper. It’s unlikely that most humanities scholars have access to those sorts of funds. For a library, it would seem a better deal to pay for 59 years worth of subscription access rather than have one author publish one paper in the journal. Clearly there’s not an easy one:one replacement available here and the situation is a complex one.

Sorry, didn’t mean to imply there was only one potential way to do anything (or perhaps you meant the other David). As noted in the post above, there are all sorts of interesting experiments going on, some quite promising. These real-world empirical trials are much more valuable than research projects that put together unwieldy and unrealistic solutions.

One question I asked in a comment above, and still have, is what is the provision in the Springer deal with Austria (and the Netherlands) as far as reducing subscription prices for people outside of those two countries? To avoid double-dipping, a journal should not charge subscription fees for articles where the costs have been paid via OA. So if all articles from all authors from Austria and the Netherlands in Springer journals are to be OA, this should result in a significant cost savings for all non-Austria/Netherlands subscribers, correct? Have any details of plans for this offset been released?

David, step by step: we started with offsetting models (=Hybrid payments are reduced from subscriptions), now we have Read&Publish models (=more access and OA publishing) for nearly the same price than before. Then, if we work together, the Max Planck model might follow.
The message is: the real world is made by economic power, and the economic power is on the side of the funders and research performers, provided we solve our collective action problem.

Collective action is not possible. The system includes thousands of publishers, tens of thousands of journals, millions of researchers in many thousands of institutions, plus many thousands of funders, all of which are found in well over a hundred countries, not to mention an untold number of libraries and other subscribers. Science is probably one of the most highly distributed networks in the world.

Consider, for example, that Chinese authors are publishing almost as many papers as American researchers, perhaps 70% as many and that fraction is growing rapidly. Where do the Chinese stand on this transition issue?

Given the global distribution, what sort of powerful organization do you envision, Falk? Most published research is funded by governments, where the US and China dominate. (My China numbers were old. According to SCImago country rankings for 2014, the US output was 494,790 citable items while China had 438,601 or 89% of the US amount. 
See Select country rankings, then 2014, then refresh.)

The US declined to follow the British APC mandate and so far as I know the Chinese have no interest in it either. I cannot see an organization powerful enough to change that. As of now the hybrid journal is the way forward. I see no feasible prospect for a transition to APC OA.

I think the lessons learned from the British way are: to finance hybrid OA and subscriptions is too expensive for universities and libraries in the long run, hybrid OA causes high transactional costs for libraries and for publishers, hybrid OA gives no incentives for traditional publishers to adapt their cost structures and workflows for real OA. The US and Chinese did right, not to follow this way, as well as the German Research Foundation and the European Commission for their post-grant FP7 OA pilot. The MPDL whitepaper has “only” shown, that a transition is possible in principal,
the next step is indeed to develop a transition model.

Dirk, I think the US and China declined to implement all forms of APC OA, not just hybrids. As for a transition model, there are some already. See for example But these are long term, voluntary, discipline specific pooling models, which may not scale well.

The only model that I can think of to create a rapid and complete transition to APC OA is this: All the major science funding countries in the world issue a combined order that after a certain date, say 5 years hence, no funded researcher will be allowed to publish in a subscription journal. That would do it but I cannot see it happening. If there is a less draconian and hence more practical model, I would love to see it. Then we would have something concrete to discuss.

And so where do universities fit into this picture? They pay for the subscriptions now, but it is naive to think that money not spent on subscriptions will necessarily be spent on APCs instead. And outside of STM fields, there are no foundations that provide substantial funding for research, let alone publication costs.

How does the system very swiftly make the change, Falk? How do you solve the mismatch problem I described above? As the Beatles said, we’d all like to see the plan. I have yet to see a realistic proposal for the transition mechanism.

According to our findings, the subscription budgets are sufficient to finance an APC based business model on a global level as well as on country levels. And it seems to work even on (research intensive) institutional levels. I’d rather say that the beauty of this basic principle outweights the concers.

My concern is basic because my field is procedure systems. When I hear beautiful models like this my question is how will this be done? This is where the downsides arise. Given the mismatch between subscriptions and post transition APC’s, how do we make the transition? A national pooling scheme is out of the question for the US.

It is a serious misunderstanding of how university funding works to think that all subscription monies will automatically be converted to paying APC fees. It certainly doesn’t work that way in the US. It’s just as likely that money saved in subscriptions will be used to support the football team!

Comments are closed.