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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In a hybrid open-access environment, “double dipping” refers to cases where a publisher sells their services to an author (author-pays open access) while simultaneously selling the end product to libraries (a subscription). Typically, in the journal world, this happens when an open-access article appears in a subscription journal (for which the author pays) but the publisher does not lower the cost of subscriptions to the journal. In other words, they receive the same amount of revenue from subscriptions while also charging authors. They are paid twice, hence the term “double dipping”.

Elsevier, a large scientific publisher, is the go-to hate figure for the Open Access Movement. It is a massive, for-profit entity with, many would claim, a chequered history as regards open access. For now, Elsevier has a strongly worded policy with respect to double dipping: "Elsevier's policy is not to charge subscribers for open access articles and when calculating subscription prices only to take into account subscription articles – we do not double dip". There are signs, though, at least in my view, that Elsevier is attempting to get rid of the concept so that it can charge whatsoever it likes. For instance, Alicia Wise, in a recent Research Fortnight interview said: "I’m not exactly clear what that term [double dipping] means in conversation any more". As the interviewer continues: "According to Wise, there is no connection between subscriptions and APCs: they are “decoupled”. She says the money coming in through a journal subscription is used to pay for a particular number of articles, and that open-access articles in hybrid journals are additional to that". In other words, APCs are a way in which Elsevier can just grow, rather than transition.

What is perhaps interesting, though, is that double dipping, as a general concept, relies on the notion of a cost-per-article, or cost-per-book, that a publisher would ideally like to recoup. In a subscription environment, publishers take a risk with content, particularly in the book sphere. They cannot predict, in advance, how well many volumes will sell and attempt to spread risk across their list. The same is not true, clearly, of an open-access environment with any kind of author- or institution- pays model. The risk is evaporated because the service is sold upfront. The criteria for the client to pay is that their work is accepted through a system of peer review, meaning that the funds can practically be guaranteed from academic institutions where researchers produce high-quality work.

This is where things get interesting. Models like Knowledge Unlatched proposed, in conjunction with participating publishers, a "title fee" per book that was to be covered up front. Book Processing Charge-models, like those run by Palgrave at a price of £11k/$17,500, likewise work on a title fee to be paid in advance. Palgrave states that: "The level of the publication charge, which in many cases we envisage being met by funders, has been calculated by looking at all costs involved in our publishing process, from editorial to production, marketing, dissemination, and supporting discoverability. It reflects the fact that content published via Palgrave Open will be subject to the same rigorous professional process as all other Palgrave Macmillan publications. We appreciate that not all academics are able to meet such costs, but our purpose in launching Palgrave Open is to provide an option to those that are interested in publishing through this route."

This is interesting for books because one of the most commonly cited ways in which it is believed that book publishers can thrive in an OA environment is by selling print copies alongside the OA version (there is an enduring desire for print -- see also the Hybrid Publishing article on books and double dipping). However, if book publishers are basing their prices on the return they want, then any print sales are pure profit and they totally eradicate risk. I don't know whether book processing charge levels are being calculated on a risk-share basis. Are these based on covering the costs with no print sales, or is a mid-point between how much they want to make per book? It strikes me as probable, at the prices that are listed by many larger commercial publishers, though, that there isn't a huge amount of give and take here. In other words, it looks to me as though this mode is publishers offloading their risk function onto libraries.

In fact, you can do a simple calculation. I don't mean to pick on Palgrave in particular, but Palgrave's humanities books cost £50 in hardback, which is their usual option for niche monographs. The usually cited figure of sales-per-book by publishers at meetings I attend is 200-250 copies. This gives an expected return of £10,000-£12,500. The exact midway point is 225 copies which would make them £11,250, almost exactly equal to their price for OA. In other words, Palgrave's processing charge cost for an OA book seems to me to be calculated on making back the entire return up-front, with no risk sharing or discount for the fact they also make money through print. I suspect others do the same (and perhaps someone at these entities can correct me if I'm wrong or give me some better figures).

Perhaps that's OK in a service-driven mode. However, if that's the case, then isn't this what we might call double dipping? If an author/institution pays a fee and the publisher recoups the same amount or more on print, an amount that they claimed was necessary to make their activities profitable, should they not begin offsetting that back onto libraries/institutions? Of course, there are additional costs to print that I would deem it acceptable for publishers to cover. They are not the majority of costs, though, in a print-on-demand world.

This probably depends on the publisher-in-question's goal. Mission-driven university presses would probably be more sympathetic to this kind of symbiotic arrangement, whereas profit-motivated corporates are usually keener to take the money wherever it lies. What seems clear to me is that if publishers like Elsevier are beginning rhetoric against double dipping in the journal sphere, then it may already be being smuggled in by stealth into OA books. This might help publishers with their economics but it certainly won't help libraries on the same front. Not everyone agrees that double dipping is bad. I think I do think it is wrong and bad, because I don't ultimately support the idea of profit-driven scholarly publishing, which, again, is not a view everyone shares. It also doesn't have to be a 100% offset; if mission-driven scholarly publishers (like university presses) are in dire economic straits, then print subsidy (even at some kind of partial double dip) might help. Working with libraries to help with their costs, though, is something that I feel any decent publisher should be doing. If libraries are your partners, then continue to share risk.