The final report from the University of California, Davis and the California Digital Library’s ambitious “Pay It Forward” study of viable models for a “flip” from the subscription model to full open access (OA) for journal publishing has been released. At a cost of $800,000, the study essentially confirms what we already knew from both previous studies and common sense: moving to Gold OA means increased costs for productive research institutions.
Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Pay It Forward project set out to determine the potential financial implications of a move to an all-OA world of journal publishing. Unlike less realistic studies, a great deal of effort, including focus groups, author/reader surveys, publisher surveys and data collection and analysis from libraries and publishers went into the findings here. The resulting conclusions were largely expected and mirror those of previous studies.
From the author/reader focus groups and survey, we see the typical split-personality behavior common to researchers. As readers, they love OA and want everyone else to pay to make articles free. As authors, they don’t want to spend their own funds on it nor have their choices of publication venues limited. OA remains a low priority for authors and falls toward the bottom of the list of qualities an author looks for in choosing a journal, much as is annually seen in Nature’s Author Insights surveys.
The publisher surveys show that OA is no longer seen as an existential threat, and that publishers have embraced it as a business model where appropriate, and consider it a growth channel going forward. APC pricing levels were along the lines seen by other studies, and, as most publishers know, the rationale for setting those pricing levels is somewhat muddled, a mix of calculating costs of production combined with what the competition is charging.
Both sets of surveys further confirmed that OA is much more strongly established and understood in scientific disciplines than in humanities and the social sciences. The pricing data shows what you would expect — grant-heavy fields have higher APC prices, and pricing levels correlate with journal citation levels (as was seen in this 2015 study).
Universities that do a lot of research would have to pay a lot more in an OA world than they currently do. Institutions that largely consume the literature without producing much themselves would save money.
One of the core principles of Gold OA is that the costs shift from being spread broadly among consumers of the literature to being concentrated directly on producers of the literature. This means that institutions that are productive end up shouldering a much higher percentage of publication costs than happens via the subscription model. Unsurprisingly, the Pay It Forward study showed that this is indeed the case, and that universities that do a lot of research would have to pay a lot more in an OA world than they currently do. Institutions that largely consume the literature without producing much themselves would save money. This finding is the same as was seen in this 2004 study.
This is an important confirmation, and in complete disagreement with studies that are driving policy in the EU. If an enormous portion of the world’s most productive research institutions would face serious economic consequences, then a simple global flip is much more unlikely.
To the Pay It Forward study’s credit, they make special mention of the disconnect between library funding (steadily declining) and publication output from researchers (growing by leaps and bounds) and the problems this creates. They also recognize the significant revenues that publishers earn from channels other than library subscriptions, and note that the loss of these earnings in an OA world would put further economic pressure on authors beyond what is calculated in this study.
The Pay It Forward study looks at a variety of scenarios where grant funding would make up the cost differential for productive institutions, but this seems to me just shuffling around the same pile of money. It is unlikely that we’ll see any huge boost in research grant funding in the near future, so if more of those funds are directed toward publication charges, that means less will go toward paying for research itself, not to mention university overheads. While this end-around strategy may indirectly bring funds to the libraries that they are unable to secure in their own budgets, the bottom line to the university would remain the same.
The study also suggests that market pressures will at some point start to drive APC costs down, although this seems a bit of wishful thinking. One suggestion is that making authors play a role in paying for their own publications will change the way they choose journals, yet given the priorities voiced in the author surveys, this also seems unlikely. If the rewards from the career and funding boost offered by publication in a top-level, high-APC journal are significant, then paying a high APC would remain a rational investment.
Overall, this is a useful study, and it’s nice to see all of this data thoroughly analyzed and collected in one place (and from a source credible to even the most extreme pro-OA advocate). However, it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, and it strikes me that $800,000 is an awful lot to pay to not learn anything new.