Making Open Access Publishing A Sustainable Reality: The Pay-It-Forward Project

The ambitious and important two year Pay-It-Forward project is now complete. This project sought to understand the implications of funding scholarly publishing through article processing charges (APCs) rather than subscription and licensing fees. APCs are paid by authors (or their agents) upon acceptance of an article. The resulting work is open access, or available to all readers. Academic librarians pay subscription or licensing fees, and are contractually obligated to restrict access to content only to members of their college or university communities.

The project’s final report, bibliography, and data files are now available for anyone to review. After briefly describing the project’s conclusions I will offer a few thoughts. (Disclaimer: My employer, UC Davis, was an integral part of this study. Views and interpretations here are my own.)

The core finding of the study is that a fully APC model would cost highly research-intensive universities (ie, those whose faculty members publish a lot of research) more than they currently pay in library subscriptions and licenses, and would save money for non research-intensive institutions. The specific APC amount a university pays would affect how much they exceed their current spending or save, but this general pattern holds across multiple scenarios (which are delineated in replicable and precise detail).

Given this reality, the only way for highly research-intensive institutions to balance the books in a fully APC world would be to find other sources of funding besides the library budget. Grant funders will often pay APCs, so these are logical sources to tap. And librarians are not duty bound to pay all APCs whatever they cost — they could (and should) cap their contributions at a level that makes sense for their budgets. If the combination of grant funding and library subsidy is not adequate for an author to afford the APC in the journal of their choice, this author would need to find other funds (either their personal income or another university source) to make the publication happen.

The report, delightfully, refers to the need for authors to locate such funds as having “skin in the game.” This reflects another reality demonstrated strongly in the report — the key driver in author publication decisions remains the prestige of the journal and the benefit this has on their career prospects. Publishing open access for the sake of openness is the least compelling of all possible motivations for scholars as authors (although it is the most compelling for scholars as readers). This explains why new open access journals launched by established and prestigious journal brands can command much higher APCs than the overall average. “Skin in the game” dictates that authors who are driven by the prestige of a journal must make a personal decision about how much that prestige matters to them, in actual dollars withdrawn from their own pockets.

It may turn out that authors are so motivated by prestige that they will always find a way to pay whatever APC is charged no matter how outlandish it becomes. But hopefully their skin in the game will incentivize authors to choose among a wider variety of journals, as it has long been true that established prestige markers like the impact factor are deeply flawed.

With those few paragraphs above offered as a hopelessly inadequate summary of a complex project’s findings, I move on to two implications of this work.

The role of grant funders: If the library can spur cost containment via capping APC subsidies, so too can grant funders. The actual cost to publish the median scholarly article remains a hopelessly opaque figure to discern. But with APC rates ranging from $0 to $500 to $5000 depending on publisher and journal brand, it is clear that these rates do not always reflect the cost of production. On the theory that grant funders would like to receive the maximum rate of return on their investments, it may be of interest for them to realize that in some instances they are contributing to exorbitant APC rates.

Or not. Even very high APC rates may be a mere rounding error from the point of view of a grant funder’s budget. Nonetheless grant funders do possess the ability to influence APC rates by capping the APCs they are willing to fund.

The inescapable impact of “publish or perish”: The Pay-It-Forward project does not directly address how to mitigate the impact of publication incentives on author behavior, and with those the downstream effect on journal prices. Indeed, this is explicitly out of scope. Pay-It-Forward assumes that all of these incentives remain unchanged, and focuses on the financial impacts of a fully APC model that would bring about universal open access. While this is justifiable within the scope of this project, the fact remains that scholarly incentives — namely the desire to publish in high impact factor journals — provide the inescapable context behind this discussion. As long as “publish or perish” remains our paradigm, rather than the more inclusive and expansive “produce or perish,” imposing cost constraints will be a challenge. It is outstanding to see a proposal that authors finally have some skin in the game. But changing the game they’re playing remains the ultimate goal.