Publishers try out alternative pathways to open access

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Science  13 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6483, pp. 1179
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6483.1179

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In the push for “open access” (OA)—making scientific papers immediately free to everyone—it's easy to forget that publishing costs haven't vanished. They have simply shifted from subscriptions paid mostly by university librarians to fees charged to authors. Those article-processing fees (APCs), which can run several thousand dollars per paper, raise concerns of their own. Universities fear they could end up paying more to help their scientists publish their work than they do now for subscriptions. Scientists who have small research budgets fret that they won't be able to afford APCs. And some nonprofit scientific societies that publish journals worry APCs won't generate enough revenue to support other activities, such as meetings and training.

Now, two nonprofit publishers of prominent journals have debuted new ways to support OA journals without shifting the burden entirely to authors. “Everybody that we work with is watching these two [new models] closely,” says Michael Clarke of the publishing consulting firm Clarke & Esposito. “There is not currently a good solution.”

One approach, called Subscribe to Open and implemented this week by Annual Reviews, would transform the nature of subscriptions. To make a journal freely available, institutions would be asked for a contribution equivalent to their previous subscription—minus a 5% discount that Annual Reviews is offering to retain a critical mass of paying institutions. To deter freeloading, Annual Reviews says it will reimpose paywalls and rescind the discount if not enough subscribers renew each year. It is planning to pilot the approach in up to five of its 51 titles, many of which are widely cited.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) launched a different approach earlier this year. ACM is asking the institutions that publish the most papers in its 59 journals to pay more than they do now for subscriptions—in some cases about 10 times as much, or $100,000 per year. The higher fees will allow all researchers at participating universities to publish an unlimited number of papers in ACM journals without paying APCs. The average cost per paper will beat the average market rate for APCs, the society says. ACM is betting the approach will sustain its journal revenue while it transitions to making all the 21,000 peer-reviewed papers it publishes annually free to everyone.

So far, both approaches are getting a positive response. At Annual Reviews, some 90% of subscribers have signed deals that, on 9 March, allowed the publisher to remove the paywall from the Annual Review of Cancer Biology, says Richard Gallagher, president and editor-in-chief. Annual Reviews could roll out OA for up to four additional journals this spring if other librarians accept the model, Gallagher says. Curtis Brundy, a library administrator at Iowa State University, which is participating in the pilot, believes that “hands down, Subscribe to Open is our best option as an alternative to APCs. It's simpler to implement, and we don't have a lot of other models.”

Universities are also starting to embrace the ACM model. In January, several that produce the most ACM papers, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, signed 3-year deals that lock in the higher payments. ACM is optimistic more universities will follow.

Still, both publishers concede there are risks. A big one is the free-rider problem. “People will start to ask themselves, especially if we experience budget cuts in a given library, ‘Why am I paying for this when other people aren't?’” says Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe of the University Library at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Persuading some institutions to pay more than they do now is another challenge. ACM calculated that it needed to do so because two-thirds of its subscription revenue comes from about 1700 institutions that publish three papers per year or fewer in any ACM journal. The rest comes from the roughly 1000 institutions that each publish more than three papers annually. Once the journals become free, the 1700 less productive institutions will have less incentive to subscribe, and any APCs they pay won't replace the lost revenue.

Instead, under ACM's plan for OA, the 11 schools that publish more than 75 papers per year in ACM journals would pay the highest rate for unlimited publishing, $100,000 annually, a 10-fold increase over current subscriptions. In one of the lower tiers, the roughly 90 universities that publish 20 to 29 papers annually would pay $35,000 annually. Overall, ACM estimates that if half of the top 1000 institutions sign on, their journals can transition to full OA within 5 to 7 years. Whether the pricing structure works might not be known for at least 3 years, when the initial contracts expire.

Even if the models succeed, it's not clear they would spread. The Annual Reviews journals, for instance, are unusual: Although each appears just once a year and contains only review articles, many are must-haves for libraries.

The new experiments underscore that the search for viable pathways to OA publication continues. The road to success likely runs through university librarians willing to dedicate some of their tight budgets to testing new arrangements. “We want to support experimentation,” says Brundy, who recently negotiated a deal under ACM's new model, which doubles what the institution was paying annually, to $17,500. “It comes down,” he says, “to how much of a commitment a library has to open access.”

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