RCUK & Gold OA: Counting the Needless Doubled Costs

In Gold Open Access: Counting the Costs, Ariadne 70 (2012), Theo Andrew points out some of the prominent problems with Gold OA costs and RCUK policy, but he misses some of the most important ones:

RCUK stated that Gold OA is the preferred mechanism of choice to realise open access for outputs that they have funded and have announced the award of block grants to eligible institutions to achieve this aim. Where a Gold OA option is unavailable, Green OA is also acceptable; however, RCUK have indicated that the decision will be ultimately left up to institutions as to which route to take.

Theo states the policy correctly but fails to point out that as it stands, the policy is self-contradictory:

1. RCUK prefers Gold.

2. Choosing Green is acceptable where Gold is unavailable.

3. Institutions are free to choose Green or Gold.

So is or isn’t the choice of Green unacceptable where Gold is available? Is or isn’t the fundee free to choose Green?

RCUK has since grudgingly conceded, in supplementary statements, that the institution and author are still free to choose Green or Gold even when a journal offers both; but RCUK have still stubbornly refused to fix the official policy wording, which continues to state that Green can only be chosen if the journal does not offer Gold, rather than simply: Fundees may choose Green of Gold. Perhaps this incoherence and ambiguity is left in so as to bias confused authors and institutions toward RCUK’s preferred choice…

There is a general expectation that over time APCs will settle to a reasonable rate and similarly journal subscriptions will lower to reflect the gradual change in business model from subscription fees to APCs.

General expectations, and speculations. (Whose? and on what evidence are they based?) But meanwhile, if the expectations and speculations are wrong then RCUK authors are being pushed toward an unreasonable APC rate and subscriptions will not lower.

APCs and subscriptions are worldwide matters and the UK only produces 6% of worldwide research.

And if the goal of the RCUK policy is Open Access to UK research, rather than to test expectations and speculations with UK research funds, then RCUK need only have mandated Green.

But in any case, UK researchers, if they can see through the RCUK policy’s formal double-talk, can comply by choosing to provide Green OA without paying any APCs. Moreover, the PCs (sic) (publishing costs) are already being paid, in full — by (worldwide) subscriptions.

Much of this transition period to full open access will have to be navigated through uncharted territory, where no one has a clear handle on the costs involved.

Yes, the transition to Gold OA is indeed uncharted; moreover, the destination is a global one. It is not at all evident that the UK is in a position to steer the world on this uncharted course by unilaterally conducting its expensive and heavy-handed experiment — or it is merely needlessly wasting a lot of scarce UK research money to double-pay publishers.

The most likely outcome of the experiment, however, will be that the vast majority of UK researchers choose Green rather than Gold.

And if RCUK does not implement a mechanism for monitoring and ensuring compliance with the Green OA option, the RCUK mandate will not even generate Green OA.

(All compliance considerations are so far focused on how to spend the Gold funds, and what to do when they run out; not a word yet on how to ensure that Green is actually provided, when chosen.)

[E]ven with guaranteed funding from HEFCE, and other funders of research, large research-intensive universities will not be able to pay for all of their research to be published under Gold OA.

And here is an instance of this blinkered focus on how to spend HEFCE Gold: If researchers and their institutions manage to read through the RCUK double-talk, they will see that what they can do if the HEFCE Gold subsidy runs — or even while the HEFCE funds are still available to double-pay publishers — is to choose to provide Green OA, at no extra cost in APCs.

(Please recall that the UK and the rest of the world are still paying for publication costs, in full, via subscriptions; and that those subscriptions cannot be cancelled until and unless that journal content is accessible by another means: That other means is Green OA.)

“[There is] a positive correlation between APCs and impact factor

And a moment’s reflection will show that the causality underlying that correlation cannot possibly be that paying more money for APCs raises articles’ citation counts! Obviously the journals with the higher impact factors are charging higher APCs.

[P]ublication in hybrid journals (n=185) was significantly more popular than publishing in full OA journals (n=75). This may be due to the fact that there are more hybrid journals to publish in?. the average APC cost for hybrid journals was £1,989.79 compared to £1,128.02 for full OA journals ? a difference of £861.77.

Of course there are more established journals that have offered hybrid Gold OA as an option (cost-free double-earners for them, super-easy to offer) than there are new start-up Gold OA journals. And of course it is the established journals that have the track-record for quality, rather than new start-ups.

And obviously a track-record for quality is more “popular” with authors than a pig-in-a-poke.

What’s not obvious is why any author would prefer to pay their journal-of-choice for hybrid Gold OA, when they can provide Green OA at no cost.

But that is precisely the practice that the RCUK OA policy was meant to have remedied, by mandating Green (with effective compliance ensurance) rather than throwing money needlessly and pre-emptively at Gold while PCs (sic) are still being paid, in full — by (worldwide) subscriptions.

Research-intensive institutions are likely to be hit twice; since they publish more articles and more frequently in higher-impact journals, their share of Gold OA bills is likely to be disproportionally larger.

This is Theo’s biggest oversight: Productive institutions are being hit thrice, not twice!

Not only do they (1) publish more articles, (2) in higher-quality (hence higher-APC journals) but, by far the most important of all, they are still (3) paying in full for PCs, via subscriptions, over and above any APCs they are paying for Gold (whether hybrid or “pure”). Indeed all institutions that produce any research at all are double-paying for whatever OA they buy via Gold APCs, high or low.

In a nut-shell: paying pre-emptively for Gold OA today is unnecessary, premature, and a waste of scarce research funds, while subscriptions are still paying (in full) for publication costs.

It is only if and when mandatory Green OA becomes universal worldwide, and makes it possible to cancel subscriptions by offering an alternative way of accessing all published research, that journals will need to convert to Gold OA — and institutions can then use their annual windfall subscriptions savings to pay the APCs.

And those post-Green APCs will be far lower than today’s Gold APCs; hence they will be affordable and sustainable (rather than bloated, arbitrary double-payments, as now). Why? Because the cancelation pressure from global Green OA will force publishers to cut obsolete goods and services and their costs (like the print edition and the publisher PDF) and to offload all access-provision and archiving functions onto the global network of Green OA institutional repositories, leaving nothing to charge APCs for but the management of the peer review (which the peers do, as always, pro bono).

Moreover, the APCs for the post-Green Gold OA peer-review management will be “no-fault“, which means this it will be charged uniformly for each actual round of refereeing, for all submitted articles — regardless of whether the outcome is acceptance, revision/resubmission or acceptance — rather than bundling the APCs for refereeing the rejected articles into the APC of each accepted article.

Journals will not earn more by trying to charge a higher APC for refereeing: they will earn more by establishing higher quality standards for evaluation (and those may indeed be worth a higher refereeing price). But in any case, refereeing prices will be so low, compared to the windfall subscription cancelation savings, that affordability will no longer be the life/death matter that it is for journal subscription PCs today.

This is all hypothetical, of course (just like RCUK’s “general expectations and speculations”). But the fact that Green OA is already paid for in full by subscriptions today — and hence can provide OA cost-free — is not.

The causes of significantly higher APC costs for high impact factor and hybrid journals are hard to identify and the suggestions made here are purely speculative…

The principal reason higher quality journals (which are often, but not always, higher-impact-factor journals) can and do charge higher APCs is obviously that they are the journals that are more in demand, and hence can name their price.

As to the other potential factors:

“[Possible causes of higher APC coats:] Higher rejection rates

Yes, higher-quality journals reject more articles. Hence, in a pre-Green Gold APC system, they bundle the costs of the costs of rejected articles into the costs of accepted ones.

Post-Green this will no longer be necessary; and meanwhile, pre-Green, it is not necessary to pay Gold APCs for OA: Green OA will provide OA at no extra cost.

“[Possible causes of higher APC coats:] Reprints: various publishers have commented that they maximise their income streams by selling commercial reprints. A fully open licence (for example Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY) would remove this as users are free to distribute and reuse without further payment.

These days most authors respond to reprint requests with eprints, not hard-copy.

But just as pre-emptive Gold is neither urgent nor necessary, CC-BY is neither urgent nor necessary — in most fields. Some fields may indeed need CC-BY more than others, but all fields need free online access, it’s much easier and cheaper to provide (and mandate), yet we do not have even that yet.

And most uses already come with the territory, with Green (Gratis) OA.

“[Possible causes of higher APC coats:] Value: Related to the issue of brand, there is a commonly held view that having high costs for publishing articles in high impact journals is justified as this is a valued service for which researchers are willing to pay a premium.

The value of a journal comes from its track-record for quality, which in turn comes from its peer review standards. Higher quality journals are in higher demand, by both authors and users, so when they double-charge for hybrid Gold, pre-Green, they can ask for higher APCs.

Gold OA APCs post-Green for peer review alone will be so much lower that any price differences will be negligible.

(I also think it will be the lower-quality journals that will charge more, for faster, lower-standard refereeing.)

“[Possible causes of higher APC coats:] Commercial publishers may seek to set the APCs at a price point which they think the market can bear.

But pubishers would have more trouble doing this if it were not for RCUK’s double-talk about author choice: It would certainly keep pre-Green Gold prices down if RCUK fundees had a clear idea that if they did not wish to pay (or could not), they could always provide Green,

In theory, researchers can choose exactly where to publish and are free to publish elsewhere if they don’t like the prices.

Better still, they can provide Green and not pay any price at all (if they can see their way through the RCUK red tape obscuring this fact.)

[W]ith an inelastic market – researchers are unlikely to shop around – and where the costs are sheltered – central funds mean that researchers are not exposed directly to costs – the APCs would remain high because normal market forces would not drive costs down.

If RCUK authors have sense, they will not waste scarce research money on double-paying publishers for Gold OA at all while subscriptions are still being paid: They will simply provide Green.

Hybrid journals seem to be more popular venues for Open Access publication

This was already explained earlier: Established journals are likely to be hybrid Gold rather than pure-Gold start-ups, and they are also likely to be (rightly) in greater demand. — But there’s also need to double-pay them for hybrid Gold. RCUK fundees can simply choose Green.

Hybrid journals generally charge more than full OA journals independent of journal impact factor

That’s probably because unlike pure-Gold OA journals, hybrids still provide a print edition, and if they publish N articles per year, they probably charge somewhere around 1/Nth of their total annual subscription revenue for each hybrid Gold double-payment.

There is a positive correlation between APC cost and impact factor for both hybrid and full OA journals.

Supply and demand. High quality/impact journals are in greater demand, allowing them to get away with a higher price.

Open Access policies require rigorous compliance monitoring to be successful, and seem to be more effective when punitive sanctions are imposed.

“Punitive” is overstating it. Mandate effectiveness needs both carrots and sticks, but RCUK has so far only specified how it will monitor Gold compliance. For Green, RCUK would do well to look to the Belgian model.

Research-intensive institutions are likely to be hit by a cost ?double whammy?; they not only publish more articles, but they also publish them more frequently in high-impact-factor journals.

Triple whammy: They also have to keep paying subscriptions.

Stevan Harnad