The Perfect Storm of Open Access

A colleague writes of what seems like the perfect storm of open access hitting the students with whom she works…

My students and I publish in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach published by Springer. Great outlet for our work. But, they just went open access (good).The cost to publish for an author now is $1,600 (bad). For grad students, this is prohibitive. I told my dean and she said there is no money to support grad student publications. That wasn’t surprising. Do the math: 60 students times several pubs a year at that cost would be a significant chunk of change. But, more surprising is this journal, which is very good, was now considered by them to be of lesser quality, now that it’s a ‘pay to publish’ journal. My students noted that it won’t be able to count these pubs towards tenure now. So, what was a good outlet now is ‘tainted.’ So, what we need is not only the business model to change, but attitudes have to change too.

My multi-part response amid an increasingly complicated field of openings…

1. If Springer is going open access, and it does look that way, then it may be better to see your librarian rather than dean about article processing charges (APC), as the libraries will save on subscription fees, and libraries are setting up funds to pay APC. But will those funds cover graduate students, and how many articles a year? So I realize that this is currently a limited approach. Nonetheless, as Springer is one of the big four publishers and thus speaks to a bigger movement, to have students saying “no” to open access at this point, or to imagine that open access or article processing fees instantly discounts the quality or prestige, is something that needs to addressed.

2. Further on this “just say no to open access,” it needs to be recognized that this greater public access is happening on a number of fronts, not least of which is the Canadian Tri-Council research funding agencies declaring a common OA policy for 2014, as well as the recent White House initiative intended to see all federally funded research (following on the NIH requirement dating back to 2008) requiring “public access” of the final, peer-reviewed draft, within twelve months of publication. This access can be achieved by publishing in OA journals, with or without APC, or by archiving the article, wherever it has been published, with more on this below.

3. And on the question of prestige, by any measure, including the ISI Impact Factor, open access, and article processing fees, are not a factor. The highest ranked journal, by Impact Factor, in the field of biology is PLoS (Public Library of Science) Biology. It does not appear in print and has always been open access (with APC of $2,900). While one journal hardly makes the case, Google Scholar’s citation count, as well as a move to “article-level metrics” among journals is pointing to the article’s achievement as the measure rather than the journal title. See a Google Search citation counts for articles in Education Policy Analysis Archives for a good example of this. Another relevant point to be made is that open access has been shown to increase readership and citations for comparable work, giving open access journals, in general, an advantage by this measure.

4. Studies of APC and prestige do show that highest APC are levied by the international corporate publishers, such as Springer, while the average for APCs is $900 (Solomon et al.). The majority of the APC journals are in biomedical field , and it is still the case that the majority of open access journals across all field do not charge APC. For example, the Directory of Open Access Journals lists close to 9000 journals by area and includes whether the journal charges an APC or not.

5. In addition, new models are emerging. PeerJ for the sciences charges $99 for life, allowing one article per year (or $299 for unlimited number of articles). They report in Nature that their costs are in the low hundreds per article. SAGE Open’s APC is $99 per article (as an introductory price), with a strong education focus.

6. In the short term, however, the best advice may still be to publish in subscription journals of choice, and take advantage of the journal’s author archiving policy (with publisher policies collected in the Sherpa/Romeo database). For example, Elsevier allows for the final peer-reviewed draft to be posted immediately on acceptance, while Taylor and Francis has an 18-month embargo on authors’ archiving (although their journals in Library and Information Science have managed to reduce that to immediate posting on acceptance, as became clear after the editorial board of one of their journals resigned last week in protest over the APC).

7. The longer term appears to involve the shift of the current $10 billion or so in publisher revenue from subscription to APC in some coordinated way. The libraries could collectively manage this to ensure that publishing opportunities within all disciplines, from biomedical to philosophy are covered, likely through both a shifting of library budgets and a taxing of grants that allows the grant-rich disciplines subsidize the rest. What I am unsure about is whether this will simply prove an opportunity for commercial and societal publishers to increase revenue (at the expense of investment in the research itself); whether large discrepancies in pricing by discipline and type of publisher will continue; and whether APCs will lead to price-sensitive competition for journal articles costs, disrupting what has has largely been a monopolistic pricing model for subscriptions and now for APC.

8. This formative period makes it hard for graduate students and faculty to figure how best to work within this changing system, but it is ideal time, for the same reason, to look for opportunities to promote greater access to their and others’ research, while also showing some vigilance over the cost of this access, so that it is not subject to the excesses of subscription pricing.


  1. Peter Binfield

    To expand on PeerJ’s perspective regarding some of the affordability themes in this post (we were mentioned in bullet 5. In addition to our ‘lifetime membership’ fee structure which is significantly cheaper than paying for each and every publication, we also allow undergraduates to publish for free ( and we offer fee waivers to authors from low income economies ( In addition, as mentioned in bullet 1, libraries are increasingly getting involved in these discussions and so we also have the option for libraries (or institutions) to bulk purchase memberships for their faculty (

    Pete Binfield (Publisher, PeerJ)

  2. This “formative period” will hopefully produce a new model for academic article publication that is open, peer-produced, global and designed for sharing is emerging because of the open-access movement. A start-up site called OPUSeJ (Open-access Peer-reviewed Universal Scholarly electronic Journal at that follows this model is now available. It is designed to handle any academic article. New manuscripts can be registered, along with an author-designated sponsor editor, who manages the peer-review review process. Already-published articles can be registered in a Forum that acts s an interactive repository for discussion and posting of addendum, erratum and citations forward.
    All this is done by volunteers, in an all-electronic mode thereby minimizing costs. Author fees, if any, are currently not being charged while we remain in start-up mode. All articles are made freely available to anyone with internet access under a Creative Commons licence. The project has been started by graduates of Western University, London, Ontario, Canada.
    Don Pezzutto, Editor OPUSeJ

  3. Before Converting to Gold, Mandate Green

    Plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Open Access Publishing (“Gold OA”) are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) (“Green OA”). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

    Harnad, S. (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).

  4. Re: “In the short term, however, the best advice may still be to publish in subscription journals of choice, and take advantage of the journal’s author archiving policy….”.

    As long as the journal impact factor (JIF) continues to be used, inappropriately, to evaluate not only journals, but the individual papers that they publish, this is probably good advice. The subscription journal of choice is likely to be one with a high JIF.

    In the meantime, article-level metrics, increasingly incorporating altmetrics, are being advocated as a replacement for the inappropriate use of the JIF. See, for example:

    Finally, PeerJ isn’t the only promising new open access journal that’s paying attention to affordability. So far, so is eLife, which currently has no article processing fee. Articles published in both of these journals are indexed in the widely-used bibliographic database PubMed, and are also archived in the PubMed Central repository. Both are also providing article-level metrics.