Some problems with hybrid open access

June 14, 2013

Here’s what Science Europe, an association of European research and funding organisations, said in their recent position statement Principles on the Transition to Open Access to Research Publications:

The Science Europe member organisations [...] stress that the hybrid model, as currently defined and implemented by publishers, is not a working and viable pathway to Open Access. Any model for transition to Open Access supported by Science Europe member organisations must prevent ‘double dipping’ and increase cost transparency.

The term “hybrid open access” refers to a subscription journal in which individual articles can optionally be made open access on payment of a fee — for the Big Four publishers, typically (though not always) in the region of $3000.

We’ve not said much about the hybrid model here on SV-POW!. A year ago, when we were discussing what society journals should do about open access, I wrote:

I also have an increasing sense that “hybrid OA” (i.e. a subscription journal with an optional open-access fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. [...] I think that hybrid is really a bit of a fig-leaf that’s used by publishers and journals that don’t really want to do OA but feel they have to be seen to be doing something.

With the subsequent publication of the Finch report and the strong swing towards a Gold-OA economy, at least in the UK, it’s no longer fair to call hybrid OA a fig-leaf: even the most reactionary publishers are now positively embracing it as a revenue stream that can continue into the increasingly inevitable open-access future.

More recently, while considering what it costs to publish a Gold Open Access article, I wrote:

There are all sorts of reasons to mistrust hybrid journals, including the difficulty of finding the open articles; the very high APCs that they charge is only one.

Why do people use hybrid journals when they are more expensive than fully OA journals and offer so much less (e.g. limited length, no colour, number of figures)? I suspect hybrid OA is the lazy option for researchers who have to conform to an OA mandate but don’t want to invest any time or effort in thinking about open-access options. It’s easy to imagine such researchers just shoving their work into in the traditional paywalled journal, and letting the Wellcome grant pick up the tab. After all, it’s Other People’s Money.

I think that’s still fair comment. Despite legacy publishers’ move towards embracing the hybrid-OA revenue stream, and their forced move towards true open-access licences for such articles, they continue to offer very bad value for money, and generally provide very little help in locating their open-access articles.

As an example of the latter, I have often wanted to find those Cretaceous Research articles that are open access, but never found a way to do it. Their web-site has an Advanced Search option (which searches across all Elsevier journals, not just Cretaceous Research) but that doesn’t seem to have any way to narrow to only open-access articles. Yesterday, PeerJ’s Alf Eaton found a way: start from the completely different Science Direct site, click on Advanced Search (up at top right), choose the Expert Search alternative, and enter SPONSOREDACCESSTYPE(unlimited OR delay) AND SRCTITLE(“Cretaceous Research”).

One is put in mind of this classic exchange from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Elsevier: But Mister Dent, the open-access papers have been available in the journal for the last nine months!
Arthur: Yes! I went round to find them yesterday afternoon. You’d hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to pull much attention to them have you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.
Elsevier: The papers were on display.
Arthur: They weren’t immediately obvious to the eye were they?
Elsevier: That depends where you were looking.
Arthur: I eventually had to go down to the cellar!
Elsevier: That’s the display department.
Arthur: With a torch!
Elsevier: The lights, had probably gone.
Arthur: So had the stairs!
Elsevier: Well you found the papers, didn’t you?
Arthur: Yes. They was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

This isn’t mere whining about a badly designed web-site. It seems to me that such unconcern with the plight of users trying to find free content indicates a fundamental lack of interest in the openness of the articles: from the publisher’s perspective, Cretaceous Research is a subscription journal where merely happens to have a bit of of OA fringing around the edges.

By the way, Elsevier are not alone in this. Good luck finding the open-access articles in Palaeontology, published by Wiley; or in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, published by Springer; or in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, published by Taylor & Francis. It just isn’t something the publishers care about.

(In contrast, it’s pretty easy to narrow to open-access articles only when searching in a BMC or PLOS journal, or eLife, F1000 Research or PeerJ.)

Anyway, for these reasons and others, Science Europe is skeptical about hybrid OA — a skepticism that I share. Science Europe’s statement provoked Wiley’s Head of Society Relations, Alice Meadows, in a recent Scholarly Kitchen post:

Hybrid journals are a sustainable way of enabling researchers to publish in their journal(s) of choice while complying with funder requirements to make their articles available OA immediately on publication [...] Clearly, there are some legitimate concerns about “double dipping” (charging libraries for content where a fee has already been paid to make it available open access) [...] However, many publishers, including Wiley, have already developed or are developing solutions to this.

Here we come to maybe the gravest problem with hybrid OA: double dipping. If we take a look at what that Wiley document, Subscription Pricing for Hybrid Journals, says, the problem should be apparent:

We will adjust the variable portion of each title’s price (and of our collection as a whole) proportionately for any shift from subscription-funded articles to gold open access articles. We will calculate this adjustment using the most recent full calendar year data at the time we set prices, and will make available details of the numbers of articles published under each model.

What we have here is a complete lack of transparency. No-one knows how subscription prices are calculated in the first place; the obscure numbers are made wholly impenetrable by Big Deal bunding, so it’s literally impossible to know what a given journal costs; and non-disclosure agreements prevent customers from comparing notes. Against such a backdrop, how can anyone possibly know whether and to what degree individual journal subscription fees are being reduced? (Knowing the number of OA articles is interesting, but not at all the same thing.)

In the complete absence of any actual data on pricing, all we can do is take it on trust from the publishers that they’re playing fair. And unfortunately, they have violated that trust repeatedly. There’s no trust left for the big legacy publishers. On the occasions when they do play fair, they have to show us that they’re playing fair. That means truly transparent pricing, which no-one believes we’re going to get any time soon.

Wiley’s statement goes on to spell out part of the problem:

Not all of the value or cost of a journal relates to the number of articles published. Titles incur fixed costs before we publish a single article [...] A portion of the subscription price is therefore fixed and not subject to adjustment for the shift to Gold OA articles.

This is saying that even if every single article in a journal was Gold OA, and had been paid for by an APC, Wiley would still charge a subscription fee for the journal. To me that seems both self-evidently absurd and wholly exploitative. APCs have to cover those fixed costs (“discovery and platform services, library interfaces, and the development and implementation of consistent standards”) at true open-access journals such as those of BMC and PLOS, so why shouldn’t they do so at hybrid journals?

What this says is that the APC is only part of the revenue that Wiley expects to derive from its open-access articles — in other words, that their true price is higher than the nominal $3000 OnlineOpen fee. They’re still hiding charges.

So there are plenty of reasons to mistrust the hybrid model. True open-access journals have a much simpler financial model, and are far more transparent. You can tell how much you’re paying, and you know exactly what you’re getting in return. (What’s more, you tend to pay much less and get rather more, but that is incidental.)

So I don’t think hybrid journals are the way to go. As Harvard said in their we-can’t-afford-our-subscriptions memo, that means we need to “move the prestige to open access”. Specifically, we need to move it to open-access journals, not band-aid open access on fundamentally subscription-mired journals.

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3 Responses to “Some problems with hybrid open access”


  1. […] few days ago I explained why I don’t think “hybrid OA” is a legitimate path to the full-open-access world we al…. The TL;DR is first that it’s offered at stupidly high prices, and secondly that it’s […]

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, that’s very encouraging!


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