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|ScienceOpen disciplines:||Education, Information & Library science|
|Keywords:||Journal Subscriptions, Open Access, Scholarly Publishing, Article Processing Charges, Open Access Transition|
This is a piece with a very clear argument. That argument is that the costs of journal publication as reflected in APCs is significantly lower than the costs of journal subscriptions. In consequence a shift from a subscription model to a (‘gold’) open access model would not bring any financial problems with it. This argument is substantiated for various European countries. The conclusion drawn is that a transition should be made from the subscription model to a (‘gold’) open access model.
The article depends upon juggling various figures, a number of them hypothetical. So the total number of journal articles is a guess, based on the number of articles in Web of Science inflated by one third. That is not implausible, but Web of Science doubled would also not be implausible. The total cost of library subscriptions in various countries is also based on estimates. And, most importantly, the average cost of APCs is arrived at by discounting the APCs charged by hybrid journals, on the basis that there is some doubt as to whether they accurately reflect true economic costs.
The importance of the figures APCs is clear. If we ran with the Wellcome Trust figure (effectively EUR2500 per article), reckoned that Web of Science reaches only 60% rather than 75% of published papers (i.e. that the total number of published papers is 2.5 million not 2 million), and that library journal subscriptions have been overestimated by 20% (i.e. that there is only 6.08 billion in the library subscription budget) then we would be comparing the Wellcome Trust figure of EUR 2495 average APC with a figure for the amount of money available per article from the library subscription budget of EUR 2432.
But there is a more fundamental point here. The paper makes no distinction between papers in the hard sciences and papers in arts, humanities and social sciences. But as many have insisted since discussion of Open Access began, the situation in the sciences and in the humanities is quite different (and indeed very different in different branches of the humanities). Journal subscription costs are generally distinctly smaller in arts and humanities, but the actual cost of publishing a paper can be much larger. The British Academy Report Open Access Journals in the Humanities and Social Science published in April 2014 reckoned £2000 (= EUR 2723) an easily justifiable cost per article for an arts and humanities journal publishing 25 papers a year – suggesting that for arts and humanities the historic Wellcome Trust figure is as likely to be on the low side as on the high.
The distinction between hard sciences and humanities and social science is important because to effect the transition that the authors of this paper desire, the business model needs to work not simply overall or for one section, but for each section separately. But as soon as the financial situation ceases to be as comfortably in favour of funding journals by way of APCs as the paper suggests, the danger that the transition would bring changes in publishing practice that militate against what is currently regarded as good practice become significant. We need to start to worry that the transition would result in a reduction in the number of referees reports sought by journals, in rejection of papers with massive potential but in need of significant editorial input, in institutions pressurizing academic staff to publish where the APCs were lower because quality control less stringent and editorial assistance less forthcoming, and so on.
The failure to address the different shape of the journal market in arts, humanities and social sciences is one aspect of the failure of the paper to address the practical question of how the transition from the current situation to the brave new world of universal (‘gold’) open access. As the authors at various points imply, publishers are currently very happy with hybrid models and ‘green’ open access. In arts and humanities, at least, few scholars feel seriously disadvantaged by the embargo periods that green open access involves, and it is hard, in the UK at least, to see any head of steam behind a move to compel a change to ‘gold’ open access. Given this, where is the pressure to create the brave new world to come from? Is it proposed that governments should legislate? What would that legislation look like? The observation that the transition could be afforded, even if true, is a trivial one unless accompanied by serious proposals as to how practically the transition could be achieved.
As a stimulus to further thought this paper’s simple proposition that open access could be funded easily from journal subscriptions is valuable. But the assumptions involved seriously oversimplify a much more complicated picture at every stage and papers like this risk discrediting open access.