(This post is coauthored by Joe Esposito and Michael Clarke. It first appeared in a slightly different form on the Clarke & Esposito newsletter, The Brief #28.)

PLOS, the inventor of the megajournal, is no stranger to innovation. With its announcement of Community Action Publishing (CAP), the company is now seeking to move its two highly selective Gold open access (OA) journals, PLOS Medicine and PLOS Biology, to a new model in which universities agree to underwrite the costs of publishing for their faculty, if they should choose to publish their work with PLOS (and if PLOS’s editors will have them). While the details of the program are interesting in themselves, of greater moment is the aim, captured in the word “community,” to create a system outside the demand-driven marketplace: like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, PLOS believes that “there is a world elsewhere.” Whether CAP will fare better in the end than Coriolanus, only time will tell.

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But, first, how this works. The program is ably explained on the PLOS site (though the color choices may hurt your eyes!), reviewed dispassionately by Kent Anderson at The Geyser, summarized in full by Science, and celebrated by David Worlock, but the gist is this: rather than collect article processing charges (APCs) from the authors of accepted manuscripts, PLOS proposes that institutions become members in the two journals’ respective “communities” for three years. The cost of that membership is calculated by counting up the number of articles a particular institution’s faculty have published in the journals in previous years. A significant innovation comes into play here. Unlike most institutional payment schemes (such as transformative agreements) that associate a paper to an institution using only the corresponding author, CAP looks at the affiliation of all authors of a paper. This substantially increases the number of a institutions in the “community” and, by doing so, seeks to sidestep the greatest problem with OA payment models based on output, namely that such models result, by definition, in concentrating payments at a small number of research-intensive universities while encouraging the majority of institutions to become free riders. The CAP model is therefore, at least in theory (we’ll come back to the practical implications), an elegant solution to a vexing market problem.

The journals will be a kind of hybrid (though not in the way the term is typically applied to journals that offer traditional subscriptions alongside open access payments), which will publish both institutionally sponsored work and accepted papers whose authors pay an APC. The APC (called a “non-member fee”) for unaffiliated authors will rise quite a bit, from $3,000 today to $5,500 and $6,300 for PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine respectively by 2023. Raising the price for individual items as an incentive to purchase a collection is a time-honored practice, putting PLOS in the same camp as other publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, et al.), whom PLOS and its adherents may not see as its peers.

An interesting twist is the “margin cap” — meaning how much profit PLOS will make on these services. PLOS will limit itself to a margin (profit) of 10% after taking direct and indirect costs into account. “Indirect costs” is another term for overhead, the allocation of which is an internal prerogative. If the actual profit exceeds 10%, the members will get a refund. A critic might say that the membership fees are subscriptions by another name, but it may be more accurate to think of the fees as an assessment, not dissimilar to the property tax imposed on homeowners to support police, fire departments, schools, road maintenance, and so forth. CAP is really being conceived as a form of infrastructure.

CAP potentially solves two problems. The first is the matter of inclusiveness. By moving the cost of supporting the service from individuals to institutions, CAP addresses this problem, as no author is barred from publishing in the journals because of an inability to pay (assuming the author belongs to a participating institution — and as we note above, PLOS’s innovation to seek membership from the institutions affiliated with all authors greatly expands the potential institutional pool). We note in passing that the inclusiveness problem was solved centuries ago by the subscription model, which charges authors nothing and distributes the cost of supporting a publication across all interested parties.

The other problem CAP addresses is that of profitability. The two PLOS journals are losing money (“cross-subsidized” in the euphemism of the day), and improving profitability for a selective OA journal is no mean trick. Such a journal could attack costs — but PLOS is already doing this. Or it could publish more papers — but this would likely make the journals less selective. Or it could raise prices — or could it? But this in fact is one thing the new model accomplishes: it raises prices indirectly by setting the membership tiers at a level that will yield more dollars per paper than previously. Some will be disturbed to discover this, as it seems to fly in the face of connotations of “community,” but we say, more power to PLOS if they have come up with a way to get broader support for the (excellent) work that they do.

As elegant as the CAP model is, it has one weakness, which is scale. PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine are selective journals. They do not publish a lot of papers (under 800 papers annually in aggregate between the two titles). This raises the question as to whether it will be worth the trouble for many institutions to participate in CAP. If authors from a given institution only publish a few papers annually in these two journals (and seem to be finding the funds for APCs just fine now), is it worth the trouble for a university to participate?

It would be more compelling (for institutions) if PLOS ONE were included in the CAP program, but that would be challenging for PLOS for two reasons. The first is that while CAP limits the margins for these two journals at 10% (which represents a substantial margin increase), PLOS is able to realize a higher overall margin via its other journals, most notably PLOS ONE. So CAP is in fact artfully designed to create a margin floor for the organization but not a margin ceiling (including PLOS ONE would turn CAP into a true 10% cap). The second reason is the technical challenge of linking authors to affiliated institutional accounts. It is challenging to link merely the corresponding author of a paper to the affiliated institutional account. That is because it requires normalizing institutional names and sorting out parent-child relationships (and in some cases grandparents or consortia affiliations). If, for example, PLOS Medicine receives a paper from an author at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, which institution needs to be a CAP member? The Children’s Hospital or the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine of which it is a part? Or is it the main Northwestern University campus that might be a member? Will those linkages be articulated in PLOS’s submission systems? Publishers must keep track of these relationships with regard to subscriptions (and have had to build new systems and processes to support the complexities of transformative agreements), which are complicated by the fact that institutions choose to pay for certain subscriptions (or memberships) from certain accounts — one title or package may be paid for by the medical school and another from the main campus and a third via a consortium. The same will be true for CAP, and while it will be challenging for PLOS to manage this complex web of affiliations and institutional relationships, it is feasible given the relatively small output associated with PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. Scaling up to manage this for the approximately 20,000 papers published annually by PLOS ONE (multiplied by the number of authors on these papers) would be a technical and data management feat that would be daunting for the largest of publishers. It is for this same reason that we question whether CAP represents a model that is viable for other publishers — implementing CAP at a small scale poses market adoption challenges and implementing it at a large scale poses significant technical and logistical challenges.

Since CAP was first announced, a number of critiques have emerged. For example, can an organization really get by on a 10% margin if there were no additional subsidy from a PLOS ONE-like property? It would be tough. Organizations have to go through periodic capital investments to accommodate marketplace changes, new technology, and new demands from the communities they serve: a thin margin leaves little room for large-scale investment. This is particularly problematic for not-for-profit publishers, which have limited access to capital (can’t sell stock, constraints on borrowing money). Another question is what it means to use CAP globally, as economies vary enormously around the world. It seems probable that PLOS will have to negotiate accommodations for less developed economies, which carries the cost of taking up the time of management. (We can hear the pitter-patter of new FTEs coming to the post-pandemic office to help with these negotiations.) Another tactical question is how to deal with authors with multiple institutional affiliations: which one is used to determine eligibility? None of these questions is insurmountable (except the one concerning access to capital), but they all take time to think through and to promulgate policies, which in turn adds to administrative costs. It may be that community publishing inherently has a higher cost basis than market-based publishing.

But let’s put all these logistical matters to the side (after all, it is PLOS that must implement this — we just get to watch!), what is interesting about this model is the bigger picture it represents. Traditional publishing is based on market demand. Publishers create products that have to satisfy customers; if they did not, there would be no demand and no business. Satisfying demand in this way is the task of both for-profit and not-for-profit publishers — for Elsevier as well as the university presses of Chicago, California, and Duke. It is our constant refrain to society publishers, among many not-for-profit organizations, that despite their IRS status, they will have to learn to operate in the marketplace directly against for-profit firms whose primary mission is to benefit their shareholders. CAP is a rebuke to this perspective. While it will operate in a business-like way (the strategic analysis and business modeling that went into its creation is impressive), it is built upon a platform of community cooperation. In this it is of the same spirit as calls for the academy to “take back” publishing from commercial firms. It is thus not only a business model or a publishing service, but a social experiment. What would the world look like outside the rigors of the marketplace? Perhaps there is a revolution brewing in the PLOS offices in San Francisco and a generation from now we will look back and say, that is where it started.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services.


23 Thoughts on "A World Elsewhere: PLOS’s Community Action Publishing Model"

I am a little confused about the nature of the “revolution” that you see this new model leading. While the model is wrapped in rhetoric of community, I am having trouble seeing it as being all that very different in nature than any other “pure publish” model. Where is the community revolution here that could be threatening to commercial open access publishing? Is there something transformative here beyond the adoption of the rhetoric of community, which I agree could itself grow to become a powerful competitive wedge?

Fair question, Roger – and yes, many organizations try to wrap themselves in community rhetoric. Our efforts around new business models are driven by core components of PLOS’ non-profit mission: community, equity, and sustainability. While there is still much to do, the PLOS CAP (like its forbears like SCOAP3, OLH, and S20) has transformational components that we hope will inform how other publishers and libraries think through new business models (I believe you and Sara are partnering on a presentation related to this for CNI?)

Innovations we think are worth highlighting:
1. Transparency around price (see our blog post – https://theplosblog.plos.org/2020/10/plos-and-transparency-including-plan-s-price-service-transparency-framework/ – on price transparency and Plan S) – essential to all the new business models we’re working
2. Transparency around our operational margin and revenue targets for both journals
3. Integration of contributing author activity, cost, and benefit into a business model landscape that only ever focusing on corresponding authors
4. Mechanisms for so-called “read” institutional participation
5. Fee structure based on covering cost + a capped margin
6. Tiering based on distributing fees equitably to achieve the target revenue
7. Redistributing revenue accrued beyond the revenue target BACK to community members
8. Facilitating unlimited publish for community members and Research 4 Life institutions
9. Partnership WITH libraries to develop the model
10. Ongoing public transparency about institutional commitments, wins and fails, and progress to targets

So yes, while we certainly won’t have gotten it all right and we’re not unique in some of these things, I think there’s much that’s different to a “pure publish” deal.

Hi Alison, Thanks for this “top 10” list, which is very helpful. I’m sorry that I didn’t make clear that I am fond of many aspects of the model and believe it pushes forward in some important ways the “bundled OA” direction (which is — in being a bundle and not just individual APCs — what I intended by “pure publish”). I was questioning Joe’s and Michael’s closing observation that the model itself represents the start of a “revolution.” And yes — I’m much looking forward to joining Sara and several others on an upcoming CNI panel about some of these issues.

I’m not sure I’d call either of these journals “highly selective” anymore. Rapid increases in publication output since 2018 and declines in the citation performances of papers seems to suggest a different strategy. Indeed, PLOS Biology recently announced a change in the scope of the journal , which now focuses more on process (preregistration and study design) and less on results.

I’ve posted a more detailed analysis here:

It seems to me that what we have here are two financially failing journals within a company which is seeking a way to make them viable. Or to use a medical analogy, we have a dying patient and need immediate medical intervention – paddles and resuscitation stat! Were it me in this situation, I would be up-dating my resume and renewing old friendships.

I think you’re missing a couple of key points, Harvey. First, EVERY journal portfolio has journals that range from highly profitable through breakeven to loss making – PLOS isn’t any different to other publishers in that respect. Different titles play a different role and like any publisher, we take a portfolio approach to managing them. Secondly, one of the key challenges we’re trying to address here (in addition to increasing equity) is that of how to make selective titles more sustainable in an OA model. Many publishers are grappling with that problem and whether or not CAP as launches turns out to be a solution to that problem, developing and piloting new approaches will help everyone in this transition.

Very much enjoyed this succinct and perceptive look at CAP. One major hurdle, as you point out, is that of institutional affiliation. This is something I’ve been interested in since working alongside the team at Digital Science that developed GRID (Global Research Identifier Database, https://grid.ac/). A recent follow-on from GRID is the Research Organisation Registry (ROR, https://ror.org/)a community-led project to develop a fully open database of canonical institutional identifiers (ROR is seeded with GRID data). If institutions and publishers support and contribute effort to the ROR project, this could potentially solve a key part of the infrastructure puzzle needed for CAP along with a wide range of other workflow/data challenges facing the research community.

Exactly! This common infrastructure is so critical for our industry and it frustrates me that these initiatives aren’t better funded.

Hi Nicko – thanks for flagging this. At PLOS we are big fans of both efforts and are using GRID. ROR still doesn’t quite do what we need yet, but we are regularly in contact with that team and always want to bolster any open, community-based infrastructure.

So, how do you ‘prove’ who is affiliated with each institution? In New Zealand we have been leading in improving the quality of affiliation data through ORCiD. Using the GRID/ROR data, we have been building ways for institutions to write and maintain affiliation data for researchers, to provide a consistent and trustworthy source. Done more comprehensively this could provide more and more publishers with the ability to more fairly and automatically assess an institution’s fees for publishing.


This approach of membership providing publishing rights can also be applied to Societies, if there are sufficient funds from membership available to support the level of activity required…

Hi Nathaniel,
That looks like a great idea. I hope you get a lot of interest and engagement.

This is really interesting, as someone who advises authors and editors at a grass roots level, making the arguement that the journal of the society is a benefit to everyone, and the social capital of belonging and contributing may be more effective than restricting benefit of membership being the exlusive access of content to can be a hard case to make. It involves a 180 degree change in thinking. To be able to make costs transparent and suggest a supportable and open platform would help enormously in provding a clearer business case in flipping to OA.

Many/most societies that publish journals offer members significant discounts on APCs or publication charges already. For most of these, the savings offered are far in excess of the cost of membership. What’s surprising though, is that they don’t seem to be significant drivers of society membership. This is largely because grant funds cannot be used for things like memberships, but can be used for publication charges. Hence, the researcher is left with the choice of paying a relatively small amount out of their own pocket or a larger amount out of a grant, and most choose the latter.

This is why the original PeerJ membership model struggled so much and they pivoted over to using an APC model as well. And I think it speaks to a larger problem with some recent proposals that look to shift the burden of publication costs onto researchers and society dues (rather than keeping it with funders and universities/libraries), namely that the one group with less money than the libraries is the researchers themselves.

Yes, there are costs to cover and the ability to fund APCs from grants is, understandably, a chosen route to payment and one that has helped support the move toward open access to all. Also it is true that society membership is a tiny fraction of funding and current library budgets. If these larger sources of income can (and wish) to support the future publishing needs of authors, readers, funders, assessors, etc. then all well and good. However, a society is already a community of interest and, among its many services, is interested in sharing knowledge. Societies find ways to use their community’s expertise, membership and even funds to support this.

As a related thought, if funding money was used to publish the research output as simple report in an archive (perhaps a requirement of the funding) articles derived from the research could be shared with a community with the support and approval of a Society. This could still benefit from use of grant funds, in addition to society support, on the assumption that something approved for wider publication has impact (+ve or -ve) that validates the original funding.

Are PLOS Medicine and PLOS Biology authors all from universities? The article discusses that if a university doesn’t publish much in these 2 journals, it won’t make sense for them to be members. But that is even more so for non-university researchers, such as government agencies or commercial entities.

How do non-member fees compare to commercial publishers’ open access fees? It will be interesting to see if the large price increase for non-member researchers will point researchers to other sites.

Hi Rob – great question. Naturally not all universities are represented in the affiliations of corresponding and contributing authors. That said, as this is community-driven, with the goal of ensuring the OPTION to publish in future (even if there’s no publishing history right now) there is always an incentive for institutions that join — it’s just smaller. Contrary to my personal expectations, we are seeing the biggest immediate uptake from the lower fee tiers (Tiers 6-12) because the cost is so reasonable that participating is low cost and low risk. We have had everyone from health systems in Australia to top medical schools eager to participate and we hope to unveil a list of commited institutions in the coming weeks. You can see the fees here in our PLOS CAP FAQ: https://plos.org/resources/for-institutions/faqs/ Hope this helps, and thanks for raising an important question!

I’m very curious to see how this plays out given the policies of Plan S. If one’s authors are Plan S funded, it might be best to stay out of the CAP and keep the funding stream from the funders directly paying APCs rather than diverting your library’s budget to the CAP given that Plan S funders are by and large oriented to paying APCs and will not be supporting library “bundled OA payment” contracts.

Hi Lisa – this has proven to be a challenge already with national funders too. The good news is that several Plan S signatories have indicated enthusiasm for the model and possibly supporting it in other ways. We’re still working this out and hope to have funder participants in 2021. Funders like the Wellcome Trust and UKRI went out of their way to work with Jisc and us to make using their funds permissible under the terms of their block grants. More to come hopefully!

I’ll definitely be watching for the news! I’m sure libraries would be thrilled to have their assessments go down if funders are supporting in other ways.

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