My colleagues and I spend a great deal of time advising professional society publishers on their programs, and not infrequently open access (OA) comes up in the discussions. Sometimes this is because OA is the focus of a project, sometimes it is because OA is on the minds of the society’s leadership. What we find overall is that OA is little understood by society members, and often feared. (I have written about this before on the Kitchen.) We have found it useful to send along a briefing memo or to make a presentation to the governing board about OA, to take questions, and to quiet frazzled nerves. This is what we tell them:
Dear Society Board:
We want to provide some background on OA because it came up, unprompted by us, in several of the interviews we conducted. To many members of your society, OA is “out there,” lurking dangerously, waiting to pounce. Since a significant portion of the society’s income derives from its toll-access publications, a world in which OA has completely obliterated traditional publishing models is far from welcome to many society publishers.
We spend a great amount of time in the OA world — though not, we hasten to add, in the echo chamber, where OA is believed to be destined to save the world, perhaps by tomorrow. Our view, in contrast, is that OA is not inevitably going to wipe away toll-access journals. Rather what we are seeing is that OA and toll-access publications have developed a somewhat anxious coexistence. (See “Additive, Substitutive, Subtractive.”)
This does not mean that OA is something your society should ignore. Our recommendation is the opposite: you should get engaged with OA to forge new, profitable services. Furthermore, we believe that profit is the appropriate measure of an OA service because it implies that the community values the service highly enough to allocate resources to it.
Some numbers on OA: The total market for scholarly journals is thought to be approximately $10 billion a year. At this time revenues for OA are running around 3-4% of the total, that is, around $300 to $400 million. That’s not a negligible amount, but it is of course a tiny piece of the overall journals market. Another number to note is that the average amount of revenue journal publishers receive per article published is about $5,000. This number is derived by a back-of-the envelope calculation: divide the total market size of $10 billion by the number of articles published each year (about 2 million) and you get $5,000. We recommend that you do this very calculation on your own journals: total revenue divided by number of articles published each year. Some OA services charge authors under $1,000 to publish an article; PLOS ONE, one of the market leaders, charges $1,495. Some long-established publishers with big brands have OA programs that carry author charges of $3,000 and higher. But it’s not hard to see the problem here: it would be very difficult for a publisher used to receiving $5,000 or more per article under the toll-access model to get by on $1,500. So if OA became the norm, which we don’t anticipate anytime soon, publishers would indeed be under considerable pressure.
Ironically, the largest commercial publishers, which are regularly derided for their greed in library circles, have revenue per article near the average. For example, the last time we sharpened our pencils on this matter, we discovered that Elsevier received a bit over $5,000 per article. The highest figures are to be found with not-for-profit professional societies. We worked with one not-for-profit society client that receives $16,000 per article. Some receive much more.
OA is not actually a business model but a property of a publication, namely, it designates content for which there is no charge for access. In some contexts, though mostly not in STM publishing, “open” means not only free to the end-user but also configurable by that user. This configurability is anathema to scholars who value the definitive, fixed text for their research. Open configuration is a feature of the OER — Open Educational Resources — movement that is beginning to penetrate the college classroom market.
For STM publishers there are perhaps five business models, not of equal viability, that have the property of OA:
- Gold (author-pays)
In the Green model authors seek publication with publishers operating under the traditional model and then deposit a copy of the article in institutional, subject or funder repositories. Green OA is thus parasitic: it depends on the toll-access model of the traditional publisher for its existence. Publishers have feared that Green OA would result in libraries cancelling their subscriptions, but in fact this has not happened to any significant degree. One reason for this is that articles are increasingly sold in bundles, i.e., as part of a “Big Deal: even if a particular article is available as OA somewhere, libraries still want to license the rest of the package.
The Gold model is the most robust and accounts for the lion’s share of OA revenue. Sometimes called the “author-pays” model, a Gold publication is one where the author (or a funder sponsoring the author’s research) pays to publish. The article is then made open to one and all. Gold OA was pioneered by a for-profit firm, BioMed Central, which is now owned by Springer Nature. The Public Library of Science dramatically raised the profile of Gold OA with its hugely successful PLOS ONE service. That service has been copied just about everywhere, leading to sharp growth in profitable OA publication.
In the Platinum model neither the user nor the author pays. It would be easy to dismiss this model as utopian, but in fact a small number of institutions, philanthropies, and government agencies take on the financial responsibility for a limited number of journals. This model does not scale, however, as there are not enough sponsors to support a large amount of research output.
Hybrid models typically involve layering a Gold OA option onto a toll-access journal. Thus a journal that publishes ten articles in an issue may find that two or three authors may pay a fee to make their individual articles OA. A variant of the hybrid model is the cascade, in which articles that don’t quite make the cut at a highly selective toll-access journal are published in Gold OA form by an affiliated journal. Cascades can be highly lucrative.
Finally we have advertising-supported OA. We include it here mostly for the sake of completeness, but in fact no scholarly publisher has made a success of this model; it is simply too hard to sell online advertising.
Our recommendation to your society regarding OA is not to fear it but to embrace it and exploit it. A good OA strategy would have the following elements:
- Coopt OA in your subject area. Once a society accepts that OA will enter its market, that society should develop the strongest OA service and squeeze out rivals and upstarts.
- Consider a cascading strategy. We have seen this work with wonderful effect. A prestigious toll-access journal typically rejects a number of articles that are scientifically sound, but may be narrow in scope or simply not paradigm-breaking. These articles are candidates to be directed to a Gold OA service bearing a variant of the society brand. Note that this is high-margin business because the articles have already been reviewed by the toll-access parent publication.
- Work with partners on new OA options. We are impressed with the success many established publishers have had. In some instances you may want to create your own OA service, but there may be cases where you should consider piggybacking on an established OA program.
- While this may sound paradoxical, your society should simultaneously explore the creation of new toll-access journals and other publications. The business aim is not merely to publish the best literature in a field but to dominate the category altogether.
- Build your brand. OA publication can help to support this.
We base these recommendation on our view that in the coming years, OA is likely to be additive to, not subtractive from, traditional journals.
Octarine Consulting, LLC