What are we spending on OA publication?

The AOASG Payment for Publication series has looked at many aspects of gold open access. In this, the last instalment, we look at the issue of quantifying what is being published as, and how much is being spent on, open access publication.

We do not know where scholarly communication will end up. Currently it appears we are in an environment where payment for scholarly publication is shifting slowly from the readers to the producers of the work. This is not a bad thing, if the situation is where a fixed amount of funding is distributed between payment of subscriptions and payment for publication.

However, so far this has not been how the landscape is evolving. Instead of the amounts redistributing, there are increased numbers of payments for publication while subscriptions continue unabated (see the double dipping pages for a full discussion of this issue).

It is naive to think that we can have an effective strategic conversation about the future of scholarly publishing without understanding what we are spending in the research sector. This was very clearly summed up by Michelle Willmers in an interview last year:

The absence of coordination and dedicated institutional capacity to engage strategically with where our academics are publishing and what we are paying for makes us particularly vulnerable to exploitative financial practice on the part of the publishing industry.

While it should be relatively simple to determine the amounts spent on subscriptions by institutions, this blog on UK subscriptions to Elsevier is very revealing about how difficult it can be to obtain this information. In contrast to the challenges in the UK, in Australia, the Council of University Librarians (CAUL) publishes openly the annual statistics of Australian and NZ university libraries – including expenditure on many different categories of resources including ebooks, serials etc. This information is delineated for serial subs by each library.

But what about the other side of the equation: how much is being spent on open access publishing? It turns out this information is very difficult to determine.

Flickr/tao_zhyn, 100kr

Flickr/tao_zhyn, 100kr

In Australia, there is no systematic monitoring of any kind of the payments Australian researchers are making for publication. But this page describes some back-of-the-envelope calculations indicating that the numbers are substantial, and we should be doing considerably more to collect them.

There are several ways to approach the question of how much Australian publicly funded researchers (or their institutions) are spending on open access publication costs: searching OA journals for Australian authors, determining how much is being spent from grants, using publisher’s aggregator systems and using the research reporting systems of individual institutions. None of these currently provide us with the answers we need.

Note that in all cases the best we can do is identify articles that have an author with an Australian institutional affiliation. There is no way to determine who paid for an article processing charge – many, many articles are co-authored often by an international team, and the payment for the open access charges may have been made by any of those authors. This means any assessment is a guess at best.

This page describes the attempts I have made to establish the numbers as an interested citizen in this space. It is generally using publicly available information, no FoI requests or other formal attempts were made to obtain further data. The point of the page is to demonstrate that while this information would be helpful for evaluation and strategic discussions, the reality is the information remains challenging to establish, even for an interested, informed party.

Australian research in OA journals

One way to try and obtain some figures is to ask how much Australian research is being published in open access journals for which they have article processing fees.

One specific open access journal that has open access and article processing fees is PLOS. PLOS has article level metrics available which returns a single result for each article that has any author with a specific affiliation. A search for ‘Australia’ for each of the PLOS titles for 2013 multiplied by the article processing charges for those journals in February this year shows that articles with an Australian author totalled US$4,211,000 last year with this open access publisher alone. (Thanks to Michael Morris from PLOS for assisting with this calculation). Note that in some cases the article processing fees may have been paid by a grant from outside of Australia, or by a co-author from an overseas institution – further complicating the calculation.

It is more complex to determine how much is being spent with BioMed Central, not least because they have a ‘membership’ program which means some institutions pay an upfront fee to cover all article processing fees, or fee to obtain a discount on these charges. The list of Australian members in theory allows searching by organisation, but the tool is slow. I undertook an analysis in late 2013 averaging the article processing charges across the titles and multiplying this by the number of articles by Australian authors published in BioMed Central over a 13 month period. This indicated the expenditure for that period was over US$5million. As with PLOS, some of these costs may have been borne by overseas funding agencies or institutions or individuals.

So by these calculations Australian researchers or their institutions potentially spent over US$9 million during 2013 on publication with the two main open access publishers. As identified before, the expenditure may well have been borne by co-author’s international institutions. And this does not include all of the publications with other open access publishers charging an APC. It definitely does not include the expenditure on hybrid publication.

As a comparison The costs of going for Gold in the Netherlands published by Wouter Gerritsma has found the total costs for gold OA publishing for the Netherlands (as covered by journals indexed in Web of Science) was just over € 4 million in 2013. This number does not separate payments for fully open access journals and hybrid payments.

Gerritsma’s concluding comment was: “Some research in this area is badly needed”.

The invisibility of hybrid articles

It is almost impossible to determine how much is being spent on hybrid publication, as paid open access articles in subscription journals are not necessarily clearly identified as open access.

The Web of Science is a (subscription based) tool which lists a large proportion of published scientific research. There is now a ‘refinement’ tool which allows researchers to filter by ‘open access’. This tool, however seems to need some work. A search in April 2014 for the word ‘history’ in the title for the period 2012-2014 resulted in over 21,000 results, of which 1,349 could be refined out as ‘open access’. But not all of these items are open access, including the book The New International Telecommunication Regulations and the Internet: A Commentary and Legislative History, which is available for EU83.00. So this is not yet a reliable method to gain the data.

It is, in theory, possible to establish (using sophisticated tools) that work is published in open access journals and calculate the expenditure on article processing charges from there.

But there is no known way (within the literature) to calculate how much research by those with an Australian affiliation is being published in hybrid journals, and therefore how much we are spending on this. A substantial international study released last year, Proportion of Open Access Peer-Reviewed Papers at the European and World Levels—2004-2011 was able to track articles published in open access journals but was unable to distinguish between open access articles which had been made available in repositories and those made open access articles from payment for publication in hybrid journals.

There are also issues with bringing publishers to account in terms of hybrid. Peter Murray-Rust (who has history with chasing publishers who do not make paid open access articles available noted:

I have suggested that libraries or Universities should identify all their paid APCs and  list them publicly. Assuming the payments went through finance it should be possible to do this. Then we can challenge publishers – Elsevier currently asserts it is in a better position than Librarians to tell us what Hybrid Gold articles it has published – I have challenged them by asking for a public list and will highlight their response (if any) on my blog.”

While this seems like a good idea, if the institution has no idea what they are spending, then this is impossible.

Funder expenditure

While bearing in mind that their policy states funded published work must be made available open access, and they provide funds for article processing charges, the Wellcome Trust’s expenditure in 2012/13 indicates the numbers are substantial. That year they spent over US$6.5million on OA publication fees. This paid for 2,127 articles, with an average cost of US$3,055 per article.

Both the ARC & NHMRC allow some of their funds to be used to pay for dissemination of the results of the research. The definition of dissemination includes publication charges.  While final reports have the amount spend on dissemination, the total figures each year spent on dissemination of research are not published. The ARC has recently removed the 2% restriction of the fund allocation that is able to be used for dissemination, it now states that “publication and dissemination of Project outputs and outreach activity costs” are ‘supported’ budget items.

The ARC does not compile data about expenditure on open access publication from the financial section of Final Reports from their grants. These reports are provided to the ARC and held within institutions. An examination I undertook in 2013 of a subset of some financial reports from ARC Final Reports obtained from my home institution demonstrates it is clear there is no separate reporting line specific for open access publication. It is very challenging to determine which of the costs allocated under ‘Books Subscriptions Datasets’, ‘Consumables Publications & Printing’ and ‘Consumables Media’ are specifically for open access article processing charges.

The way the ARC Final Reports financials are currently configured mean that there is not a separate budget line for open access publication charges, so this data could not be aggregated even if that was a desired outcome.

Institutional numbers

Australian universities do collect considerable information about their publication output. Apart from informing the institution of its publication output, this information is used to report for the Higher Education Research Data Collection which informs Block Grant Funding, and also to contribute to the Excellence in Research for Australia assessment. But these collections are currently not required to identify if the works are open access, and generally that means institutions are not collecting information about whether article processing charges have been paid to make the work available within an otherwise subscription journal.

In some disciplines there has been a long-standing tradition of expenses associated with publication in the form of page charges. For example it costs $1800 to publish in Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences. The Plant Journal colour charges are  £150 for the first colour figure and £50 for each subsequent figure and the Ecological Society of America charge $75 per printed page and $360 per colour photograph or figure. There can also be copyright reuse charges which are paid from the researcher’s budget.

These charges for publication in subscription journals vary by discipline and have usually been managed at the faculty level – possibly because the perception is there is not much activity in this area.

Payment for open access charges comes from several different sources within institutions. It can be managed at the individual, grant, College or Faculty level. This is a complex issue not least because the funding for subscriptions comes from a different source than the funding for publication payments. There are many issues relating to the management of article processing charges. A 2012/13 survey of Australian university libraries (in press) showed that only two Australian institutions had central funds to pay for open access at the time. In these instances because the payments are managed centrally there is some data to gain an indication of the expenditure involved.

Thought experiment

An alternate way of approaching the question is to consider the percentage of all literature published open access in a year cross referenced against the publication output where at least one author has an affiliation with a given country.

However, this approach throws up some challenges. A study undertaken in 2009 looking at the percentages of research available one year from publication – Open Access To The Scientific Journal Literature: Situation 2009 – showed  8.5% were freely available at the publishers’ sites. For an additional 11.9% free manuscript versions could be found using search engines, making the overall OA percentage 20.4%. But the distribution was not even. Chemistry (13%) had the lowest overall share of OA, Earth Sciences (33%) the highest. In medicine, biochemistry and chemistry publishing in OA journals was more common. In all other fields author-posted manuscript copies dominated the picture.

In August 2013 a follow up study was published for the European Commission. The report Proportion of Open Access Peer-Reviewed Papers at the European and World Levels—2004-2011 stated that ‘the tipping point for OA’ (more than 50% of the papers available for free) had been reached in several countries, including Brazil, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the US, as well as in biomedical research, biology, and mathematics and statistics. The study was able to articulate the amount available gold open access but conflated all green and hybrid open access work.

Steven Harnad made the important point that the EU study does not say when within the five year period the work was made available, and much of this material would be delayed open access, which would not incur any costs.

But there is a common issue with using any studies trying to establish these numbers as a basis for estimating expenditure for open access publication. There are inconsistencies, both between countries and the uneven distribution across subjects. This was also identified in the study Green and Gold Open Access Percentages and Growth, by Field. So even if the full output of Australia’s research publication were known, broken down into disciplines, extrapolation of open access estimates out to the Australian situation would be complex to do and highly inaccurate.

Who cares?

The need to quantify this expenditure is recognised by scholarly communication specialists around the globe. In March 2014, the Research Information Network published a report from a working group: Monitoring Progress in the Transition to Open Access which proposed (amongst a raft of ideas) that:

Aggregate data should be gathered annually from a stratified sample of universities on their expenditure on APCs and other publication charges, and the numbers of articles for which they have been paid.

Other researchers are also starting to collect information. The University of Ottawa has had an Author Fund for several years, and as part of their regular workflow they check the article processing charges asked for by the researcher against the amount posted on the journal website and record this amount. One of their researchers is starting a project on tracking open access article processing charges and has released the data openly.

Why does all of this this matter? Because our institutions (universities and government) cannot make any strategic decisions about future publication policies if vital information about where we are publishing and what we are paying for it are absent from the conversation. It also leaves institutions entirely open to exploitative financial practice on behalf of the publishing industry.

That’s one argument. Or we could just consider that this is (generally) taxpayer’s money and it is probably a good idea to know where it is being spent. It would be sensible to consider ways that this information could be more easily collected and aggregated. Researchers, grant management offices, libraries, institutions and funders all have a role to play to increase our knowledge of expenditure in this area.

This is the last in the current AOASG’s Payment for Publication series. We hope you have found it helpful and informative.

Published 30 April 2014, amended 2 May 2014
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by AOASG under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International 

4 thoughts on “What are we spending on OA publication?

  1. Thank you Danny, this has been a very important series for our institution in guiding our thinking about OA, and how to tactically approach the problems you raise. We have started the difficult process of assessing our OA costs, and it is reassuring to know that others are finding it difficult.

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