Richard Hayman | Posted October 23, 2023
This year's International Open Access Week theme of Community over Commercialization "encourages a candid conversation about which approaches to open scholarship prioritize the best interests of the public and the academic community — and which do not."
As the primary administrator and Library contact for our Open Access Fund, when I was invited to make this blog post I immediately thought it would be a good opportunity to publicly review the Fund and provide some commentary framing the Fund in the larger academic publishing landscape.
Launched as a pilot in 2016, the OA Fund has seen increasing demand ever since. Over the past couple of years demand has been high and we now see the Fund oversubscribed, with more applications and interest than funding available.
As these numbers show, the Library has been actively supporting our community by reimbursing the open access fees, or article processing charges (APCs), levied by journal publishers so that our local scholars can make their research available in OA formats without being out of pocket or having to draw on their limited PD funds.
Throughout, we’ve kept our commitment to the original goals set for this initiative:
These goals align with the Library’s current and historical commitment to promote and support a variety of open access initiatives within and beyond MRU, without limiting authors’ intellectual rights. We also have a strong desire to participate in a sustainable and equitable academic publishing environment.
As the figure below shows, we’ve been responding to interest from across MRU and supported faculty from different departments across campus, and including several repeat authors. Not surprisingly, the highest demand was primarily among faculty represented by subjects in STEM and the health sciences, echoing the OA spending trends we see with other universities’ funds, and pointing to the disciplinary differences between acceptance and uptake of OA publishing overall.
OA funded manuscripts by department affiliation
It’s worth mentioning here that the OA Fund is only one of several initiatives when it comes to supporting open access publishing at MRU. Through our partnerships with publishers and our consortial contracts working with other academic libraries, our Library has secured several agreements with various publishers to reduce or altogether waive APCs. The Library also contributes funding and other support to national and international efforts that directly promote OA and other open initiatives. Standouts include our contributions to Érudit, the Public Knowledge Project, the Open Library of Humanities, Open Book Publishers, and commitments to Knowledge Unlatched, not to mention the employee time and resources we dedicate to participating in the scholarly communications environment. We also manage a local ejournal publishing service supporting MRU community members in their own open publishing journey.
Libraries continue to serve on the front lines as promoters and protectors of open access and similar practices (e.g., open education, open data, etc). But we face an existential challenge when it comes to ensuring our learners and researchers continue to have timely access to published research in the face of outrageous subscription costs charged by publishers.
To give some perspective, last year the Library spent about $1.43 million (CAD) for access to research articles and other content found in the subscription databases, journals, and journal packages available to our users. That money primarily went into the pockets of commercial, for-profit publishers. In comparison, we spent about $13,340 covering authors’ article fees through the OA Fund, and another $56,500 supporting open access programs like those mentioned just above, totalling approximately $69,840 spent targeting OA.
In other words, last year for every 1 dollar we spent on subscription journals we put less than 5 cents toward open access publishing and related initiatives. We know our community demands access to that subscription content, so we are left with little choice but to continue to subscribe to research that should be freely available to everyone.
Academic publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry. Similar to the monopolies that we see when it comes to entertainment and mass media, or newspapers and newsrooms, the Big 5 academic publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Sage) now control more than half of all scholarly research journals (Eger & Scheufen, 2021). The commercialization of research has also led to double-dipping, where traditional subscription publishers offer hybrid journals that charge APCs to make individual articles open access, while continuing to lock most content behind paywalls and expensive subscription fees.
This is the world of academic publishing in the twenty-first century. Publishers have been highly successful in commercializing research, while most academics continue to give away their research outputs to be packaged and sold by those publishers. (Not to mention the time donated by faculty peer-reviewing for the same journals). These are free, unpaid contributions that publishers exploit. And then researchers also pay the publishers again when they choose to publish in those journals?
We know that choice and availability of paid-OA options from traditional commercial publications has led to “hyperinflation” of APCs, with fees increasing at rates that are far higher than inflation (Khoo, 2019). However, paying higher APCs does not guarantee or lead to higher citation impact for a particular article. There is no evidence demonstrating that paying higher APCs, or that paying for OA at all, guarantees that research will be viewed and cited more often than if the author had selected a fee-less OA journal.
While it’s important to mention that OA doesn’t mean free – infrastructure, storage, and dissemination systems and services do have real-world costs – when it comes to publishing research there’s little reason for authors to pay APCs at all. There are over 20,000 OA journals registered in the DOAJ covering all disciplines and subjects, many of them without fees, and nearly 5900 OA research repositories hosted by universities and research organizations all over the world, including our own institutional repository maintained by the Library.
Finally, as APCs continue to increase the funds we make available to help authors to cover those fees will have diminishing returns. Higher fees means the money we reserve for our OA publishing Fund will support fewer authors (and manuscripts), while paying those fees generates little return when it comes to exposure or citations as compared to fee-less OA publications.
Put plainly, OA journal fees (or APCs) are an unsustainable, unethical practice, no matter whether it’s the researcher, the library, our national funding agencies, other research organizations, or any other public or private body footing the bill. They place an undue and unnecessary financial burden on researchers and their organizations, and can affect both the research productivity and career advancement of academics (Limaye, 2022).
We want to support our authors, and because open access works. Not only does it help meet the national research commitment that publicly-funded research is available to the public, but it enhances the research lifecycle by increasing research speed and discovery. And the benefits for scholars are tangible. Research shows that OA articles have increased citation rates, proven by various large-scale studies (e.g., Piwowar et al., 2018). This is frequently described as the open access citation advantage (OACA). Research supporting the OACA shows that OA articles get more downloads and interest (views) over time (Wang et al., 2015), and also that OA publications see more attention on social media, as compared to paywalled articles (Vadhera et al., 2022). Further, OA research is easier to embed into the curriculum, and easier to share with family, friends, and others who don’t have the privilege that comes with enhanced library access to research databases we enjoy as members of our university community.
Open access and the commercialization of research are aligned on one front: both serve the demand for knowledge dissemination and the desire to promote cutting-edge research to wide audiences. But only open access treats research outputs as a public good while respecting academic freedom, increasing research impact, and ensuring fair and equitable information access.
So, in response to this year’s Community over Commercialization call to action, we must consider the future of our OA Fund in a critical light.
For the record, our OA Fund continues and to-date the MRU Library has not made any decisions regarding the future of the Fund; and we continue to support this and a variety of open initiatives that benefit our university community.
This OA Week blog post is part of our ongoing communication with our campus members. As an author and local expert for open access, it is my hope that commentary will generate further conversations in our community and beyond about the sustainability of open access publishing and research dissemination.
Richard Hayman is Associate Professor and Digital Initiatives Librarian with the MRU Library. He is the current administrator of the OA Fund and the Library’s ejournal publishing program, while his research and professional interests include scholarly communications, open publishing, and evidence-based practice. All of his scholarly publications are available via open access.
Eger, T., & Scheufen, M. (2021). Economic perspectives on the future of academic publishing: Introduction to the special issue. Managerial and Decision Economics, 42(8), 1922-1932.
Khoo, S. Y.-S. (2019). Article processing charge hyperinflation and price insensitivity: An open access sequel to the serials crisis. LIBER Quarterly, 29(1), 1-18.
Limaye, A. M. (2022) Article processing charges may not be sustainable for academic researchers. MIT Science Policy Review 3, 17-20.
Piwowar, H., Priem, J., Larivière, V., Alperin, J. P., Matthias, L., Norlander, B., Farley, A., West, J., & Haustein, S. (2018). The state of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of open access articles. PeerJ, e4375.
Vadhera, A. S., Lee, J. S., Veloso, I. L., Khan, Z. A., Trasolini, N. A., Gursoy, S., Kunze, K. N., Chahla, J., & Verma, N. N. (2022). Open access articles garner increased social media attention and citation rates compared with subscription access research articles: An Altmetrics-based analysis. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(13), 3690-3697.
Wang, X., Liu, C., Mao, W., & Fang, Z. (2015). The open access advantage considering citation, article usage and social media attention. Scientometrics, 103(2), 555-564.