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.

pay it forward

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.

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.


33 Thoughts on "The Pay It Forward Project: Confirming What We Already Knew About Open Access"

The main contribution of this report may not be WHAT was said but WHO said it. This may indicate that after 12+ years, we have largely come to agree on some basic economic points about open access.

Regarding this point — “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.”

1. Might there still be serious price competition among the non-top-level journals, which presumably are the vast majority, say 90% or more? This could lower the overall cost significantly.

2. Then if most APC’s were forced way down there would be great social/moral pressure on the pricey top-level journals to lower their now conspicuously high rates.

This seems like a realistic scenario, not easily dismissed.

Sure, it’s possible, but so far we haven’t seen it. Where journals have tried to compete on price (PeerJ), they haven’t really seen the enormous levels of uptake that one would expect, as authors instead flock to their more prestigious (and expensive) counterparts.

1) The definition of “top-level” is going to vary a lot from field to field. Yes, there’s Science/Nature/Cell, but what qualifies as a good journal in mycology or periodontology is going to be a very different beast. I suspect there’s a much wider swath of prestige that matters to researchers and those who judge them than you note here.

2) Given that the tip-top level journals are mostly run by commercial concerns, answering to Wall Street and shareholders, moral pressure will only go so far.

But thinking about it more, in my experience, there’s been very little movement on APC prices over the last decade or so. Each year, journals increase their subscription prices to keep pace with inflation or rising costs. Yet APCs seem stubbornly set and don’t see the same annual increases. Perhaps this is the actual result of market pressures, keeping things fairly steady in a market where costs continue to rise.

According to this Jisc study APCs have gone up 6% in the last 2 years, which is quite a lot in the current world. I suspect that the relatively slow growth before that is down to the growth in APC market, which has probably generated enough revenue so prices could stay down. Now that more funders and governments are forcing the Gold model onto researchers, the publishers will be able to push APCs up with the same general impunity as they have done with subscriptions. The “inflation and rising costs” excuse will be trotted out with the same regularity as well.

6% in two years isn’t that much – my cable bill goes up faster than that. In the U.S., CPI has increased (on average) 1.9% per year over the past 10 years, though recent years have admittedly seen lower increases. But this tracks well with inflation, and probably makes up for a number of flat years as OAs and APCs were still becoming accepted as the norm.

CPI info is from

Given that millions of people and many thousands of organizations are involved, globally, I think we are talking about a 30 year timeframe, or more. What 2050 will be like is not based on short term present trends. For that matter, PLoS One was a low price initiative that really took off. I suspect that many surprises lie ahead.

If I recall, PLos One was subsidized and as the subsidy has decreased the prices have gone up.

Given that social/moral pressure has thus far had zero effect on subscription prices at “top-level” journals, I’m going to guess that this won’t happen to APCs either. In fact, my guess would be that their high prices will be seen as indicators of quality, which will increase their desirability.

Maybe, maybe not. What makes this so interesting is the great number of possible scenarios. If most journals charged $750 and a few top ranked ones charges $7500 something might happen to change that. The academic community is the most sensitive to social/moral issues of any industry I have ever seen, or at least they talk that way. But I do not guess, just laying out the realistic possibilities.

When starting on any renewal project one needs to consider the options, whether to retrofit or tear down and start, green field. Katherine Fitzpatrick in her volume, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy, might suggest that Open Access in a digital age is the high cost option trying to maintain an historic system. The $800,000 study and those suggested in this article are part of such an effort in a world where a peer review system, also needing the same assessment, is appropriated, inappropriately, to parse out “limited” publication space in a world where space is now, essentially, in abundance and increasing.

David Crotty is absolutely right, OA is equivalent to rearranging the same bricks, transferring costs from one party to another but still coloring within the same lines. Open the system up and the possibilities look very different and possibly frightening to a community quick to offer analysis except when it comes to its own members from academics to funding agencies and those who provide the intellectual playing field. It took a significant amount of time to establish OA rules to be acceptable within the current paradigm. The array of those with a vested interest present a formidable community to resist a serious disruption of the system, though there are suggestions that it may be time to embrace the change.

I agree entirely with your comment that ‘market pressures will at some point start to drive APC costs down’, which is not wishful thinking. It will take some time for technology and investors to align and academics to discover these new alternative publishing platforms. I know of several initiatives which are planning to undercut current APC rates significantly, not to mention my employer’s own ambitions to do so in a major way.

Everyone needs to keep in mind that APCs and subscriptions also pay for rejected articles. Every paper submitted has a cost associated with it. The number of submissions across many fields has increased dramatically. Even if the majority of those papers are rejected, they still cost money AND there are no controls for that, except maybe a submission fee. So with “rejection” costs going up, as well as the number of papers published, and publication costs fluctuating, I can’t see how prices will remain the same or go down.

Prices can go down if there is price competition. There might even be a “Model T” journal coming, destroying most of today’s journals. (There were several thousand carmakers in the US alone before Ford knocked them all off.) I think this is Harnad’s scenario — the $300 APC journal.

As usual and as expected this post talked about costs, prices and the financial side of thing. This is largely about scholarly publishing and the economics are absolutely a big part of the picture. That authors are unlikely to look for journals with lower APC isn’t a surprise nor is that journals aren’t going to reduce prices to compete. They have no reason to do so, in fact I think it was just last week when SK pointed to gold OA fees are a growth area for publisher revenue. Let’s not forget that the purpose of OA is to increase the availability and the potential impact of articles.

The reason to reduce prices would be to get more paying authors. We do not know that all authors are indifferent to price, very likely some are sensitive to it, especially those not funded.

It seems that authors are not motivated by price but rather by prestige. In short, Ferrari is not about to lower its price to attract more buyers nor is a top tier journal about to lower its price to attract lesser papers. Top tier journals and their publishers make known their rejection rates with pride. Lastly, it seems to me that ” The academic community is the most sensitive to social/moral issues of any industry I have ever seen…” but I would add except when it comes to their pocket. I have not seen a great movement advocating a cut in salary to lessen cost of going to college.

But how many top tier journals are there Harvey, as a percentage of papers published by all journals? 10%? 2%? If all the rest engage in price competition that will be quite sufficient as far as changing the industry is concerned. The top tier argument may be a red herring, like Ferraris as cars.

More generally I suspect we are looking a several layers of price stratification, just as with cars.

In my experience an author(s) submits an article to the journal that is most appropriate and has the highest IF, and if rejected goes down the pecking order. I do not remember anyone saying: I am going to submit this paper to X journal because it is the cheapest.

Lastly, unless the rules of business have changed, what a journal charges for a subscription or what fees it levies on an author is determined by its costs and what it thinks the market will bear. I think the increasing fees PLos One is charging bears witness to this observation. I will predict, and I hate predicting, the the Welcome Trust will find the same.

As they say: Publishing ain’t cheap!

My concern about OA is that, except for a few reasonable major society publicaitons (e.g. PNAS), the APC’s are a ‘bridge too far’. Could we at least talk about submission charges (refundable on acceptance), and a combination of page charges and reduced subscription pricing?

In case it’s of interest, another study on this topic was published last week – see – that focused on evaluating different models for flipping journals to OA. A draft version of the article was open for public comment for several months and then a panel of 20 people working in scholarly communications (full disclosure – including me) were invited to add our thoughts.

The report notes on P126 “While the project focused on the costs of a general shift to APC-funded OA journals, we are conscious of the fact that many OA journals today do not levy APCs. We are also conscious that the existence of high-quality no-fee OA journals could mitigate the financial problems that underlie this inquiry. Supporting high-quality no-fee OA journals is as desirable as supporting high-quality fee-based OA journals, however, methods to do so, and the comparative
advantages of fee-based and no-fee OA journals, are beyond the scope of the present inquiry.”

This is all true , but it did warrant a serious discussion in their report, because there are substantial and significant no APC journals, that just need our patronage by offering them excellent and citeable work to boost their reputations. My social science listing:

And as usual, the word “ethics” (as in “publishing ethics”) appears nowhere in the report. I chose where to publish by the ethics of the company (as did the signatories to the anti-Elsevier Cost of Knowledge campaign – how short are our memories!), or the worthiness of the volunteer journal enterprise, not so much by the prestige of the outlet or its cost.

Your comments were debated in the past. I hate to inform you but there is no free lunch. Volunteers pay with time and time is money. In the same way that college professors don’t teach for free publishers don’t publish for free. There is always a cost to bring information to the public’s eye.

There are hundreds of professional societies and academic departments providing these journals. All over the world. Some, particularly in Latin America and non-English speaking Europe, have proper sponsorship (or society membership subscriptions) but are still, remarkably perhaps, free to authors and readers. And they have some staff. North American R1 institutions are also doing the same,hosting free and reputable journals (my journal is published by U of Arizona) – the report alludes to this but as David says, did not have the remit to pursue it. Pretty hard to argue commercial publishers or high APCs are actually needed, as opposed to those firms moving sideways to occupy a new way of publishing, that was already occupied in some fields, but under-patronized

Thank you for for proving my point. A subsidy does not make something free. It is simply someone else picking up the cost. The journals you allude to are reliant upon the goodwill of someone else. Should that someone else decide that a different cause is more worthy the journal will either have to shut its doors or begin charging.

To be fair, this study was specifically commissioned to investigate, “the economic implications of an ‘Article Processing Charge’ (APC) model for funding open access to scholarly journals…The key question that the proposed project asks is whether a large-scale conversion to open access scholarly journal publishing funded via APCs would be viable and financially sustainable for large North American research-intensive institutions, whose faculty currently author a significant percentage of the world’s research.”

It was a pretty significant undertaking on its own, and what you’re asking for is out of the scope of what they were funded to do.

The economics of free information are pretty flawed. See this analysis from Bloomberg about what’s happening in the media industry:
The real debate is whether the private sector should be involved in the dissemination of scholarly information. My view is that the private sector is much more likely to be more efficient than the public sector in doing that. For transparency, I work for the parent company of Elsevier.

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