The Business of Open Access: Collaborating on a Way Forward

November 26, 2015
Suzanne Kettley
Executive Director
Canadian Science Publishing

Open access, the practice of providing free and unrestricted online access to the products of research, is of growing importance to our scholarly communications ecosystem. Open access has the potential to:

  • Improve access to scientific outputs, expanding the influence of research.
  • Disseminate published work as widely as possible, to academic and general audiences alike, leading nationally to evidenced-based policies, increased innovation, and an informed public.
  • Facilitate interdisciplinary approaches to scientific problems by providing access to research across and between disciplines.
  • Facilitate global collaboration and level the playing field between individuals and institutions with subscription access and those without.
  • Provide free content for librarians to acquire and manage for their institutions.

For these reasons, and many more, open access is a valuable goal for Canada and internationally and one that many individuals and institutions across our industry are working to achieve.

While open access is an important movement and ideology, it is not another way of saying “free” and it does not remove the need for money to be exchanged. One common open access business model, often referred to as “gold open access” shifts the passage of money from the end of the cycle to the beginning, so instead of paying to access published research (via subscription models or on a paper-by-paper basis), the publication of the research is paid for once the article has been accepted, usually via an article processing charge (APC) which is often covered by the authors themselves. With a subscription model, only those who have paid for subscriptions get access, whereas with an open access model, everyone gets access.

It is important to remember that gold open access journals (which make all their content open access upon publication) cannot sustain their many publishing activities without ensuring that there is a viable business model to support these activities and the experts that perform them. Some of these activities include but are not limited to validation of content (that is, by managing the peer review process), formatting of content (copy editing and layout), creation of a robust electronic version of the content (XML publishing), and ensuring content is delivered and discoverable (including publication on a platform, creation of standardized metadata, indexing, and promotion).

For a set fee (the APC), the publisher makes the content freely accessible immediately and indefinitely to everyone in the world. This one fee is meant to replace subscription revenues which would have been collected from likely hundreds of libraries. Setting the proper level for an APC is therefore critical to the publisher to ensure they have adequate funds to cover publishing costs, overhead, and innovation. Many publishers, including Canadian Science Publishing, require an APC for open access journals because as of right now there are no readily available alternative business models that support gold open access publishing for scientific journals.

APCs: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?

Publishers are the first to acknowledge that APCs are not without their faults. For one thing, APC revenues are not predictable, being dependent on the number of published articles. This makes it difficult to ensure that fixed costs are covered by APCs, especially of a new journal. Transactional costs are higher for APCs than subscriptions and having an “article” charge (which is easier to administer than a “page” charge) may lead publishers to limit the number of published pages.

APCs are also the cause of much deceptive behaviour from “predatory publishers” who charge authors but do not conduct a proper peer review. And of course, charging APCs could restrict many potential authors who do not have funding from research grants or institutions.

In Canada, granting agencies leave to the researchers the choice of using their research grants to pay APCs to publish open access leaving them with the difficult decision of using the funds to support their research project or to publish in an open access journal.

For these reasons we believe that open access will be truly successful if the scholarly community agrees to come together and tackle the issues collaboratively.

We can all agree on the merits of open access. Now it is time to work together to agree on a viable path forward for open access scholarly publishing to ensure that researchers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, and the public have access to original research.

Our authors, our readers and our librarian partners have told us that open access is important to them so we at CSP have developed a myriad of open access choices depending on personal and institutional preferences. We are committed to continuing to develop innovative ways of publishing and sharing research and we’re committed to working with you, our partners, to ensure that all stakeholders are working together. We’re looking to our community to continue this dialogue, to ask each other the hard questions and to find the best answers together. How will open access be funded in Canada? Are there alternative models the Canadian scholarly community can adopt to replace the APC model? Who will champion change? Is there a role to play for CFI (Canadian Foundation for Innovation) and the Tri-Council in the innovation around open access publishing? Will Canada be a leader for change?

At Canadian Science Publishing we are not committed to an APC business model. However, we are committed to providing viable publishing channels that meet the needs of the researchers and ensure a high quality output. The scholarly publishing landscape has undergone unprecedented change in recent years and we’re looking to our community of authors, librarians, government funders, and industry to collaborate with us to identify innovative paths forward. And with that, we look forward to hearing from you.