What would a Gold-OA world look like? Three issues briefly considered
April 1, 2016
What would the world look like if, as proposed by the Max Planck Institute, the scholarly world flipped from being dominated by subscriptions to Gold open access? I think there are three things to say.
First, incentives. A concern is sometimes expressed that when publishers are paid per paper published, they will have an incentive to want more papers to be published. Would this exacerbate the existing publish-or-perish culture where we are flooded by quantity of publications, sometimes at the expense of quality?
It’s certainly true that in a Gold OA world, the publishers would like to see more papers (and monographs) published. But whether we the academic community respond to that desire by publishing more is not a decision that the publishers get to make. This — like so many issues — comes back to the problem of what incentives apply in academia. While scholars gains rewards like promotion and tenure by publishing many papers (for example because committees evaluate people based on their H-index), it is inevitable that those scholars will seek to publish many papers — and this would be true whether in a subscription-based or Gold OA-based system. Thus I think the problem of publishing quantity rather than quality is quite independent from the problem of how we pay for publications.
Second, costs. I sometimes hear a concern is that a flip to Gold OA would create an environment where funds are tied up, and resources are not sufficient of fund new and innovative journals.
I’m sure these numbers are not new to regular readers, but it seems pretty clear that a flipped world would have much lower total costs than the present system. Here are the numbers:
The STM Report for 2015, page 6, reports total publisher income in the STM field as $10 billion for 2013, and says that about 2.5 million papers were published that year. That gives an average income per paper of $4000. (We can probably assume a broadly similar figure for non-STM papers, too.) By contrast, the Wellcome Trust’s recent report on its APC spending in 2013-14 shows an average APC of £1837, currently about $2634. This is slightly less than 2/3 what the world at large is paying per paper.
In other words, even using the relatively high APCs paid by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s 2.5 million papers per year could be published for $6.6 billion — saving $3.4 billion to spent elsewhere.
Third, markets. This one is a question, and I think it’s crucial for the prospects of a Gold-OA ecosystem: will we get an efficient market in APCs? If we do, then prices will be forced down until they are very close to costs — which publishers like Hindawi, Ubiquity Press and PeerJ have shown can be in the $400-500 range, almost literally an order of magnitude less than the world presently pays for publication. But if no true market emerges, prices will not fall — indeed publishers may have the leverage to raise APCs at rates greater than inflation, as they have been doing for subscriptions.
That is why I believe that, however tempting “APC Big Deals” are to individual libraries or consortia, they should be strenuously resisted. As with subscription Big Deals, the short-term savings (while real) would be absolutely dwarfed by the long-term losses.
If I’m right about this, then we face a tragedy of the commons during this phase of transition from subscriptions to Gold OA: it will be in the short-term interests of each library to accept a Big Deal on APCs; but again the interests of the community. We will need to communicate well, and function as a global community, to avoid falling into this trap.
[I first wrote this post as an email to a list for delegates of the OSI2016 conference. Then I realised that it’s of broader interest, and edited it into the form seen here.]