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Martin Paul Eve

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

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The things that concern me about article processing charges (APCs) for open access are not those surrounding quality control, “predatory publishers” or so forth. Given that we want the services of publishers, their labour costs must be met. If we want to have open access and then the material can’t be sold, an author-side payment mechanism looks the most obvious.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the problem that most concerns me is how uneven distribution and availability of library funding causes cost concentration. Today I was playing around with some sample numbers to see what this problem might actually look like. Consider three example institutions:

  • Institution A: department of 10
  • Institution B: department of 20
  • Institution C: department of 30

Let us say that these are English departments in the UK and that they have the following budgets for serials subscriptions (certainly this is near to my knowledge and experience; perhaps someone would like to get some real data?):

  • Institution A: £3,700 per year (£370 per researcher per year)
  • Institution B: £10,000 per year (£500 per researcher per year)
  • Institution C: £20,000 per year (£666 per researcher per year)

Over a five-yearly period (discounting inflation and cost rises for the purposes of this simplified demonstration):

  • Institution A: £18,500
  • Institution B: £50,000
  • Institution C: £100,000

Let us next assume that each of the researchers in these departments wanted to publish 4 journal articles every 5 years in an open-access form and that this is to be achieved by an APC mode.

  • Institution A: 40 APCs
  • Institution B: 80 APCs
  • Institution C: 120 APCs

The APC payments then work out (at £1,500, £1,000, £800, £500 and £400 per article) at the following over five years:

Institution APC @ £1,500 APC @ £1,000 APC @ £800 APC @ £500 APC @ £400
Department A £60,000 £40,000 £32,000 £20,000 £16,000
Department B £120,000 £80,000 £64,000 £40,000 £32,000
Department C £180,000 £120,000 £96,000 £60,000 £48,000

APCs plotted

Assuming that everyone switched immediately to fully gold OA (which isn’t what happens) and that these costs substituted for departmental outgoings on subscriptions, the first time that a saving is seen over the 5-year period is for institution C (the biggest and wealthiest) but only when the APC is at the £800 mark.

Other savings in this type of constricted environment where APCs are priced equally as in the sciences (such as in Taylor and Francis journals) but the former subscriptions are not (humanities journals are cheaper) mean that it is vastly more expensive for humanities departments to operate through APCs. It is also clear that it is those departments on lower budgets for subscriptions, but that are still beholden to the same level of output requirements, who suffer disproportionately in an APC mode.

These figures are extremely rough. They’re just supposed to start showing how we might model these types of costs and the challenges faced specifically in the humanities disciplines. Even if you think my figures are low (they certainly aren’t for the smaller department, I promise), it still takes a substantial ramping up for APCs to be cheaper. And this is assuming that all subscription payments have been eliminated, which simply can’t happen.

it may well be, at a national and global level, that we could invert the system immediately and end up paying the same but get OA. In the messy transition period, though, the uneven distribution of budgetary funds with the desire for universal open access makes this a very tricky proposition, hence the prevalence of green but also the need for experiments in business models for gold that act against this uneven distribution, instead of locally concentrating costs through APCs.