Open access: report suggests funders ‘could set threshold’ for hybrid fees

Research funders worried about high open access fees charged by “hybrid” journals could refuse to pay fees above a set threshold, a report suggests.

The report, commissioned by a group of funders including the Wellcome Trust, Research Councils UK, Jisc and Research Libraries UK, examines the effectiveness of market forces in driving down open access article fees.

It finds that the market for fully open access journals is working well. This is because a “significant proportion” of the fees paid comes from authors’ own funding, making them sensitive to price.

However, the report, authored by Bo-Christer Björk, professor of management and organisation at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland, and David Solomon, professor of medicine at Michigan State University in the US, finds that hybrid journals (subscription journals that allow authors to pay to make their articles open access) typically charge almost twice as much in article fees.

It says that, consequently, take-up of open access options in hybrid journals has been low and suggests three possible routes by which “a number of influential funders worldwide”, acting in consort, could fix the “dysfunctional” market in hybrid fees.

One would be to pay for open access fees only in hybrid journals which lower the subscription fees paid by the authors’ institution by an equivalent amount. This would prevent “double dipping”, whereby publishers make money both from subscription and article fees for the same paper.

This option was also recently suggested by UK universities and science minister David Willetts in response to the reconvention of the Finch Group on open access. The Institute of Physics’ publishing arm recently agreed to such a move, at a national level, in Austria following an agreement with its main science funder and its research library consortium.

The report hopes that pilot will demonstrate the mechanism’s feasibility. But it fears such schemes would be “very challenging” to implement and would “not promote price competition, nor do anything in respect of overall cost control”.

Another option would be for funders to set tiered caps for the maximum payment they would make based on a journal’s quality, measured either by impact factor or its range of service to authors, such as quality and efficiency of peer review. However, the report admits such factors would be difficult to quantify and monitor.

A third option would be to pay only a certain proportion of an article fee if it exceeded a certain threshold. It says this would be the most direct way to give an incentive to authors and institutions to consider price when deciding where to publish.

The report says funders and universities should choose the approach that best suits their needs and goals.

Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, said: “In supporting this work, we as funders have signalled our commitment to ensuring the future open access market delivers value for money and meets needs of the research community.”

Tony Peatfield, RCUK policy lead on open access, added that the report would be a “key input” to RCUK’s review of its open access policy later this year.

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, welcomed it as “a useful contribution to the debate”. However, he said the report’s claim of low take-up of hybrid open access options was not borne out by publishers’ experience.

“We haven’t got hard and fast figures but, anecdotally, some publishers are seeing three-figure percentage increases in take-up since April 2013,” he said.

It was not surprising, in his view, that hybrid open access fees were higher than for purely open access journals since the latter had “lower overheads and fixed costs”. 

He said the report’s authors should have engaged with hybrid publishers to learn more about their costs, but he noted that the only publishers among the report’s list of interviewees were pure open access organisations Plos and PeerJ.

Mr Mollet added that it was premature to draw conclusions about the evolution of open access: “We should wait a minute and see where this is going. We are not even 12 months into the RCUK mandate and the [funding councils’] mandate hasn’t been applied yet. It is too early to say anything is broken.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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