Research Libraries UK (RLUK) estimates that the UK’s universities now pay around £192m per year for access to academic journals and databases: that is nearly a tenth of the total QR budget for research funding.
Journal publishing models are changing rapidly, especially here in the UK where government, research councils’ and research funders’ policies increasingly require publication of research outputs in open access. In the last two years, following publication of the Finch Report, there has been marked growth in the numbers of articles published in the open access sections of hybrid journals, ensuring that they are free both to read and to use.
The true cost of APC's
Article processing charges (APCs) are probably the most familiar of the methods adopted by publishers seeking to recover the costs they incur when publishing content in open access. Usually, these are paid by the author’s institution but in this fast-evolving new publishing environment it is very hard for them to track the true cost of APCs.
There is a pressing need for them to do so, however, so they can manage their transition to open access from a position of authority and monitor their costs effectively.
Much of the difficulty arises from the fact that the market is not transparent: list prices for subscriptions and APCs sometimes bear little relation to what institutions are actually paying. Moreover, the price of the APCs is just one part of the true figure.
As things stand currently, the true total cost of hybrid journals for institutions engaged in research is made up of subscription charges, APCs and also the significant (but hard to quantify) administration costs associated with making and managing APC payments and also with reporting on compliance with funder open access policies. The real cost is probably higher than many have realised.
It also seems that the majority of APCs are being paid to the largest, traditional journal publishers who are receiving a substantial proportion of universities’ total subscription payments. One institution we spoke to recently spent more than £28,000 in annual subscriptions with just one publisher, and also published 12 journal articles with the same company. Those 12 APCs amounted to an extra £21,000 paid by the university to that single publisher.
Mapping the landscape
At Jisc Collections, we have carried out a detailed analysis of data from 23 UK institutions between 2007 to early 2014 and this reveals a sharp increase in the number of APC payments being made from centrally managed university funds over the last two years. Many universities are forecasting that their APCs will more than double in number by 2018.
Understandably, this is a big worry and many want either the higher volumes of APCs to be reflected in reduced subscription charges, or the price of APCs to be reduced to take account of existing subscription charges.
So far, we have focused on mapping the landscape particularly with reference to popular hybrid journal models, on collecting quality data and on modelling the true cost for institutions of compliance with open access policies. That information has enabled us to develop several systems that we believe are sustainable and offer practical ways to offset the cost of APCs against subscription rates; discussions with publishers are already under way on behalf of UK institutions.
We have had invaluable support from many key bodies including RLUK, Russell Group, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and Universities UK (UUK), and from Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills David Willetts, whose open letter to Dame Janet Finch in January gave us a clear mandate to tackle these issues and asked publishers to work with us to develop and implement new charging models.
One offsetting model requires publishers to offer vouchers to institutions when they pay for publication of articles, to be redeemed against the price of journal subscriptions. Another asks publishers to provide credit for future publication of articles when universities take out subscriptions. Alternatively, some publishers and universities are more attracted to the idea of extra (but modest) payments from universities to pay publishers’ APCs into the future.
We are certainly not advocating one particular version of offsetting over any other but we are encouraging publishers to consider ways to address these concerns as a matter of some urgency.
Publishers are reducing the global price of their journals in proportion to the amount of open access articles they publish, but this does little to help research-intensive UK institutions. Because they publish a significant proportion of the open access articles in these journals, if nothing changes they will pay high volumes of APCs while receiving a very small share of the global reduction in subscription costs.
Several large publishers have already signalled their agreement and there are offset arrangements in place with SAGE, IOP and Taylor & Francis, among others. Constructive dialogue continues with a number of other publishers, and we will be monitoring how well these initial agreements work in practice. We will also continue to consult carefully with member libraries and to work proactively to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of scholarly publishing.