mountain climber at peak
Have subscriptions, APCs and open access all reached their peaks? Image via Paxson Woelber

Editor’s Note: Copyright Clearance Center’s (CCC) Roy Kaufman returns for a second guest post. Roy is the CCC’s Managing Director of New Ventures and is responsible for expanding service capabilities as CCC moves into new markets and services. Full disclosure: as noted below CCC does have product offerings in some the areas discussed.

Whatever you choose to call the ever-evolving open access (OA) marketplace, you can’t call it easy.

In a 2014 post in The Scholarly Kitchen, consultant Michael Clarke talked about expanding the OA business as a response to “peak subscriptions”— addressing some of the challenges publishers face as they try to increase their subscription-journal businesses. The OA market, too, is challenging for publishers now. “It’s not a fully-functioning market. For example, publishers can’t count on the ability to raise prices on a regular basis,” said Rob Johnson, director of UK-based Research Consulting, which specializes in the OA marketplace. The prices for article publication charges (APCs) speak for themselves. A recent comparison of APCs by Wellcome Trust shows that average APC fees rose by less than one percent from 2013 to 2014. In this way, the OA market reflects larger trends in journal publishing, and, in particular, the downward pressure on prices.

As library budgets have shrunk for the past few years (and profits from subscription journals have shrunk along with them), so-called gold road OA remains a potential growth area for publishers. The gold road is based on the willingness of authors to pay publishing charges — APCs — for which they often use grant money. However, for a variety of reasons, APC prices likely will not be rising any time soon.

One reason is that pure OA publishers like PLOS have set the pricing bar relatively low. “They make it work for them through economies of scale, by having a less labor-intensive standard of peer review, and by avoiding the costs of a legacy print business,” said Johnson. Perhaps even more important, they have set a benchmark for what the market believes APC fees should be. He observed, “People look at what is already going on in the market, price-wise, and don’t want to be a million miles away from that,” Johnson observed. In a world where fees are completely transparent, many of the newer, pure OA market entrants are pushing prices down even further.

The challenges inherent in raising prices can best be seen in the reaction to a price increase instituted by PLOS this September (see, Phil Davis, “When Pragmatism Collides With Fundamentalism-PLOS Hikes Publication Fees”). PLOS raised its prices for its PLOS ONE journal for the first time in six years by $145, to $1,495 — still well below a typical APC for a hybrid journal. Did the reaction from the community note how long it had been since prices last went up, comment on inflation over the last 6 years, or note all of the improvements in PLOS ONE over the time period? Of course not. Community reaction simply focused on the fact that Ubiquity Press and PeerJ are cheaper. If this is the community reaction to price increases by PLOS ONE, the darling of the OA movement, imagine the reaction to price increases from traditional STM publishers.

Funders like the European Union are also constantly keeping an eye on APCs and even capping the fees that can be paid, a practice that makes it tough for publishers of scientific journals to raise prices. Publishers’ costs of publication for single articles in high-impact journals can exceed $10,000. In the traditional revenues-from-subscriptions-plus-rights-plus-reprints model, publishers were able to sustain themselves by keeping revenues above costs. In contrast, with maximum APCs so far below costs (at least for those high-impact journals), sustainable publishing is a challenge for the gold road, especially for hybrid journals. Publishers are going to need something other than price increases if the dominant business model continues to move toward OA.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. In order to grow a business, there are three major components: revenues, costs and price. Taken together, they contribute to overall profitability. Broadly, there are three ways publishers can increase profitability for OA:

  1. Cut costs to the bone. This is what the purely OA journals do, and the strategy may also be behind the latest round of publisher consolidation. This route has its limits, however. For one thing, in the short term, publishers may be able to increase profitability by slashing costs, but cutting costs typically means less money for matters such as marketing and editorial. Cutting expenditures in these areas come with consequences of their own, such as less attractive journals, which in turn cause further downward pressure on revenues.
  2. Launch new journals and publish more articles. Once a publisher has an existing publishing infrastructure, especially in an OA world unbound by print, revenues can go up along with profits simply by publishing more articles at even lower costs. This has been a common strategy for growing OA businesses. With publishers increasingly publishing more OA articles, however, especially in new “mega-journals,” the market will inevitably become saturated, if it has not already. In fact, market observers have questioned whether we have now reached a period of “peak OA” in terms of the number of articles published each year. In a December 2014 blog post in The Scholarly Kitchen, for instance, Phil Davis points out that article output in PLOS ONE had fallen nearly 25% since peak output in December 2013, and had yet to recover.
  3. Increase product offerings to authors. If publishers cannot raise APC and subscription prices, nor further cut their costs or publish more articles, they can offer authors various extras as part of the publishing package. Additional fee-generating options might include reprints, language-polishing services, continuing education and certifications, article-level analytics, submission charges, or color- and page-charges, to name just a few. By selling more products, revenues can increase, costs can be amortized across a bigger business, and profits can go up.

 A time to experiment

In a world of multiple peaks — peak subscriptions, peak APCs, and peak OA—option 3 holds the most promise. With the author as a customer, publishers can fuel growth by bundling various offers with existing high-value services. For example, authors who pay an APC can get a discount for meeting attendance, and vice versa. The time is right for publishers to experiment with a broader array of offerings to OA authors.

However, a recent July 2015 post in The Scholarly Kitchen, by Roger Schonfeld, makes the excellent point that academics, like everyone else groomed by the Internet, have come to expect a seamless, easy user experience. As Schonfeld writes: “Academics’ expectations for user experience are set not by reference to improvements relative to the past but, increasingly, in comparison with their experiences on consumer Internet services and mobile devices.” In other words, if you want to sell products and services to this market, you need to make ordering easy and, in the best case, add it to existing workflows.

No subscription offsets necessary

Adding new author products can help in a variety of ways. With the collection of APCs, especially in hybrid journals, comes the allegation that publishers are double-dipping — that is, charging twice for the same thing; making the article available to the user only after both the author and the user pay. This perspective ignores the fact that APCs generally cost less to the author than the full amount the publisher would have otherwise received for the article (in terms of a percentage of subscription value and money for rights licenses), and second, that the APC collected for high-impact journals in particular is often below the out-of-pocket cost of producing the article. Nevertheless, in an effort to head off this criticism, publishers have been devising creative models to credit customers with APC payments on institutional subscriptions. Of course, these offsets create yet more downward pressure on subscription revenues.

The good news is that offering the aforementioned extra services to authors (for extra fees) avoids that kind of complication, with the added benefit that authors for both OA and traditional subscription journals can use the services. That said, this strategy is not free of complexity. While managing OA publications can, at times, be fairly cut-and-dried (for example, every author pays $3,000 per article, no discussion), more commonly the amount an author pays for an article varies widely based on a number of factors, including an author’s location, choice of license, and membership status, to name a few. As publishers experiment with more offerings to authors, this kind of complexity is bound to increase, which can be a headache for publishers who want to avoid putting more time and resources into tracking all these extras.

How to make things simpler in an increasingly complex author-services market

 Given the incentives for publishers to experiment with new revenue sources and the inevitable complexity this will bring to the process, what are they to do? Whether publishers choose to use a workflow and transaction engine like Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink for Open Access, a third-party alternative, or opt to develop an engine of their own, relying on this kind of system  — with built in flexibility for future business models — offers distinct advantages for those keen on staying ahead.

These engines are about more than the ability to manage transactions themselves; they also allow publishers to easily see and track various charges, and to monitor who is paying and who is not. They also allow publishers to experiment with discounts and to explore a variety of price optimization techniques. Finally, there is a vast amount of data that can be shared between different stakeholders, including publishers, authors, institutions and funders, and this data can yield important insights.

Ultimately, in a market where the boundaries are constantly shifting, publishers need to be able to easily try out different pricing strategies, promotions, and ways of tailoring their prices and services to an author’s needs. And they need to be able to easily keep track of what works and what doesn’t. As the OA market and related author-based businesses continue to expand, for publishers to grow revenues and profits in the years to come, they need to adopt a robust, aggressive strategy that allows for flexibility and experimentation.

Discussion

16 Thoughts on "Guest Post: CCC’s Roy Kaufman on Growing Your Open Access Business in an Environment of Peak APC Pricing"

I have often wondered about ‘double-dipping’. If, as Roy states, double-dipping is “charging twice for the same thing” then it implies that the APC must cover the cost of providing all the services that publishers bundle into a journal subscription, i.e. services that are enjoyed by authors, librarians and readers in both the short-term and the long-run. (For a list – see http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/10/21/updated-80-things-publishers-do-2014-edition/).

However, in my discussions with authors and their funders, I’m finding it tough going persuading them that reader-facing services like long-term archiving, platform upgrades, discovery, integration with library services and so on are both valuable and needed. Understandably, their focus is on the cost of providing services to the author up to the point when the work is published in a basic form (e.g. PDF) and whilst they might accept some short-term reader-facing services (like ePub) and a bit of social-media promotion, they rarely put any value on broader services for librarians and readers (like platform upgrades and long-term archiving) and are unwilling to fund them.

If this unwillingness of authors’ and funders’ to pay for reader-facing services is behind the downward pressure on the price of APCs, I wonder if the market will fragment, with APCs paying for the cost of initial publication (including a basic reader-service for free) and readers/librarians paying for the richer, long-term, reader-facing, services such as ‘pro’ discovery services, value-add user features and archiving. If this happens, then Roy’s third scenario is extended and publishers will not only offer a range of ‘extras’ to authors but also a range of ‘extras’ to librarians and readers. This would mean everyone in the value chain is paying for the services that they need. This will add complexity but it might be fairer than the traditional ‘reader-pays’ (and authors get a free ride) or the new ‘author-pays’ (and readers get a free ride) models.

Toby Green
OECD Publishing

Interesting. However, I am not sure the problem for the publisher is attracting authors. The problem for publishers appear to be on the one hand the refusal of authors being willing to pay the costs of publishing and on the other the intervention of government which doesn’t know the costs of publishing.

Of course one solution for the author is to submit articles to subscription journals and incur no cost.

The solution to the governmental problem is to tell them to keep out of a business of which they know little and it appears don’t want to learn!

The problem with OA is that one has to constantly feed it more and more articles or it is not self sustaining. As one feeds the beast, quality goes down, for instance the decline of serious peer review.

In addition, the costs of using computers is just about equal to using print when it comes to generating an article.

I think what we are learning from OA is that the audience for any one article is just too small and that one needs lots of articles to have an impact on costs and revenues but that publishing lots of articles involves lots of costs and the need for lots of revenue.

Thus, we come to the basic economic principle: who is going to pay for what because there is no free lunch.

Telling the government(s) to stay out of the business is seldom a viable strategy, if ever. Scholarly publishing is now becoming a regulatory regime. Much follows from this, but little has been recognized to date.

It is certainly true that the publishing workflows are becoming much more complex and there is a significant cost to this complexity. For green OA as well, for example the US Public Access program is turning out to be very complex. As a case in point see http://www.chorusaccess.org/chorus-publisher-implementation-guide-v2-0-released/.

Streamlining and automating these complex processes is sorely needed to keep the cost down, as well as to facilitate the offering of new features.

In my view academic publishers should stick to providing the services they can be truly experts in (though not all of them currently are): the technical aspects of publication. It is legitimate to charge a per-article fee (APC) for that. They should refrain from pretend-scientific activities such as peer review (in reality only the organisation of peer review, not peer review itself).

If they wish to make sure they only publish peer reviewed articles, there are ways to do that. I call it “Peer Review by Endorsement.” The principle is quite straightforward, really. Authors themselves invite at least two peers to review their paper (according to some rules to avoid nepotism and friend-bias, such as peer-endorsers having to be active researchers, and not be, or for at least five years have been, at the same institution as, or a co-author of, any of the authors), and when these peers endorse its publication – most likely after some iteration with the authors to clarify questions that arise – they do so openly, fully disclosing their identities. And perhaps also giving a motivation as to why they endorse publication, a motivation which may, of course, be along the lines of what Alan Singleton, Editor of Learned Publishing, reported once happened (“This is a remarkable result – in fact, I don’t believe it. However, I have examined the paper and can find no fault in the author’s methods and results. Thus I believe it should be published so that others may assess it and the conclusions and/or repeat the experiment to see whether the same results are achieved.”).

Many publishers ask authors who should be invited to review their papers anyway, so authors inviting them by themselves would be a relatively small step. Peer review can only operate on trust anyway. It is the openness of peer review that builds trust; not the party who invites the review.

Such a peer-review-by-endorsement system is likely to be at least as good as, and quite probably better than, the currently widespread “black box” of anonymous peer review. As reviews/endorsements would be signed and non-anonymous, there is very little danger of sub-standard articles being published, as endorsers/reviewers would not want to put their reputations at risk.

Insofar as I’m aware, only one publisher currently offers peer review by endorsement as an option to authors, with the concomitant low APC to cover the cost of all technical aspects of publishing: ScienceOpen (http://about.scienceopen.com/peer-review-by-endorsement-pre/).

Good. There are differences, of course, with the example I mentioned. But innovative, experimental approaches like these two deserve attention and a following.

Biology Direct also has a similar approach. The main differences are that: 1. you have to choose reviewers from a predetermined pool, and 2. ‘endorsement’ is provided by the simple fact of review: you can choose to have your paper published even if two reviewers believe it is meaningless.

I’m not so sure that price increases for APCs are as impossible as suggested here. As noted elsewhere (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2015/10/28/open-access-at-a-crossroads/) it is indeed clear that current APC levels are not sufficient for high quality journals, yet researchers vastly prefer to publish in those sorts of journals. As you note, APCs seem to have been selected more based on what everybody else is doing instead of on what would actually be needed to pay the costs involved. This is not an intractable problem though. A realistic OA policy would have to actually understand the economics of publishing and the needs of researchers and apportion funds appropriately. Just because we haven’t seen this happen yet doesn’t mean it won’t.

PLOS did get some flack for their price increase, but this came from the extreme edges of the OA movement, and seems to have quickly faded away to nothing. I have yet to see any calls for boycotting PLOS ONE over this issue, nor anyone publicly willing to admit/complain that PLOS ONE authors are being overcharged in order to subsidize authors in other PLOS journals. Journals that charge $5,000 per paper seem to be doing just fine and aren’t hurting for authors, so there is clearly some room for increases in price, provided that the journal is attractive to authors.

David: I have to agree. Authors want quality and notoriety both of which are provided by journals with high IF. Thus, as you note they will pay for the acceptance in such journals.

Toby’s comment raises some interesting insights: Is the value of the publication simply putting it on a broadside for a limited time and like the note in the bottle casting it upon the sea in hopes of discovery or is it in the value of having it presented in a searchable form? It seems to me that if the goal of the funding agencies is to make something accessible to the broadest audience (one of the primary reasons for OA) then they had best be ready to pony up!

Economic theory suggests that the APC charges should stratify to reflect the perceived value of the journal. In that case the APC might replace the IF. But this model is far from simple.

I want to relate an unsettling incident I observed a couple of years ago. Government scientists were publishing several related papers with a journal. A new-to-the-agency accountant raised the question whether the charges necessitated competing among journals. You can imaging the hubub that ensued! Eventually the accountant was educated that the prestige of a journal, its audience, review quality, etc. were more important and should be chosen by the scientists, just as they had been for many decades.
The accountant may have had a point. By front-loading all the costs, APCs, which typically are several times higher than “page charges,” are reaching levels where authors and their funding sources may need to consider the value proposition. The bean counters lost in this instance, but I have a bad feeling this issue will arise again.

Subscription rates are too high.

APCs are too high

I wonder who is going to pay for having an article published? Is the entire value proposition wrong? No one really needs most of this material except for personal gain in the form of tenure, grants and the like not to mention subsidized faculty salaries!

Indeed is the golden goose dying?

Indeed so. We may have too many manuscripts chasing too little publishing money. At least under the subscription model we have a proven rationing mechanism: publish enough articles of value to entice subscribers. The APC model is a lot more subjective, and may place more value on having good funding than in writing high-value articles.

One possible outcome, which we may already be seeing in the news business, is a split: high value content (like the NY Times) for subscription, lower value for free. Has anyone looked at how top-ranked journals (e.g. Science, Nature) are holding their subscriptions?

I worry about the fate of copyediting in this increasingly complex environment. Already decades ago, as costs mounted and markets shrank for monographs, academic publishers began cutting back on copyediting, first by reducing the number of quality checks (e.g., omitting proofreading, or leaving that up to the author entirely), then by outsourcing copyediting after letting in-house staff go (thus reducing quality control), and finally in some cases by dispensing with it altogether. Journals have followed suit in more recent years, either by reducing copyediting/proofreading or simply not offering it as a service any longer. Do the mega-journals like PLOS One offer it at all? I’ve heard that some OA journals offer it as an optional service now (and perhaps some TA journals do also). In Roy’s scenario, copyediting could disappear as a cost-cutting measure (#1) but then reappear as an optional service (#3)–although i would not limit copyediting to just a “language-cleaning” service, which diminishes its considerable value! Another factor that is challenging the perceived value of copyediting is the acceptance of Green OA (which of course is the pre-edited version) as “good enough.” I fear that in this new menu-driven approach, copyediting will become devalued even further and perhaps disappear altogether over time.

Comments are closed.