Does Open Access benefit small universities?

There has been quite a lot of chatter recently about different scientific publishing models. Prompted by Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act, and the resulting proposed  academic boycott.

Let there be no mistake: I value the Open Access (OA )model of publication, for both moral and practical reasons that have been elaborated upon in many other places. Briefly: 1) OA is the right thing to do, as the results of publicly funded research should be available to the public and 2) it is the practical thing to, as the broadest sharing of knowledge possible is fundamental to educational and scientific advances.

This post deals with the difficulty  that still exists on the ground. I see the current author-pays model of OA publishing as still somewhat problematic, with the result of driving many of my colleagues away from OA. One supporting argument for OA is that small universities and four-year colleges, and institutes in developing countries can ill-afford to subscribe to a large number of close-access publications. this places researchers and students at a disadvantage. Therefore, the OA model of publishing does them a favor by reducing subscription fees, granting broader access to publications.

On the the flip side , it is in those very same institutes that researchers have less “disposable income” to pay for publications.  $2500, a typical OA fee, for a lab funded by an R15  (small NIH grants given to less research-intensive institutes) or a small NSF grant is a larger chunk of change than $2500 for a lab holding a couple of R01s (the larger NIH “workhorse” grant). Knowing the limit on these grants, a researcher squeezed for funding would rather budget for an extra month for a graduate student than for OA publication fees.  In way, OA fees are something of a regressive tax: it hurts those with less disposable income more. The OA advocates would say that the money saved by the institute from the reduction of library fees can be rolled into subsidizing publications. Some institutions do that by subscribing to OA journals, thus reducing the publication fees their authors are required to pay. However, many do not, and 10% of $2500 still leaves $2250 to pay.

Yes, PLoS grants “hardship” fee waivers, but many other publishers do not. However, requesting waivers in many cases is something of a dilemma: Prof. SmallU may have the $2500, but using those towards publication would mean running out of lab materials earlier than needed, or letting a graduate student off for the summer. In many cases it is not that the money is not there (after all, Prof. SmallU did manage to fund the research!) but facing this tough choice is problematic, and many people would be reluctant to ask for a subsidy or a waiver. Also, there is hardly any reward in small universities  for publishing in OA. Publishing OA, by itself, figures very little, if at all in promotion & tenure  decisions.

Therefore, when publishing those journals which have both options, OA and closed access, there is very little incentive to shell out the $2500 (usually more in the “two option” journals)  once the paper is accepted. OA-only journals are often shunned altogether.

So what would be the solution? I agree with FakeElsevier that it has to come from the funding agencies. But maybe, instead of OA being a flat-fee, and hence regressive, it can be turned, with the help of the granting agencies, into a progressive fee. After all, those same agencies know how much funding a lab has anyhow, as this must be provided with every grant request, award, and progress report. If a lab is able to demonstrate a “publication hardship”, perhaps an extra subsidy can be given once a paper is accepted, provided it is used towards an OA publication. Knowing that this extra money is there may help nudge Prof. SmallU in the direction of publishing in OA. Also, the subsidy can be contingent upon the university subscribing to the OA journal, thus sharing the burden and creating and incentive for departmental library committees to pressure administrators to allocate funds towards OA access.

As it stands now, the motivation for low-budget labs, the supposed best beneficiaries of OA publishing, is not to publish OA. Unless stronger incentives are given, those labs will continue to get their reading material via those journals their library subscribes to, and through emailed electronic copies. Incidentally, a practice that the scientific publishing industry is starting to notice and is even attempting to stop.


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11 Responses to “Does Open Access benefit small universities?”

  1. As a researcher without funding, but who likes the idea of open access, I’m in a double bind. I don’t have a source for the $2000-3500 fees, but all publishers assume that everyone at an R1 institution is rolling in dough, so getting waivers is tough (I managed to get one once, from Nucleic Acids Research, but it was such a hassle that I won’t be publishing in NAR again).

    The author-pays model is a way of limiting publication to those with money, which has a much bigger effect on what gets published than the referee-based editorial decisions ever did.

    Having granting agencies pay doesn’t solve the problem, if they are only paying for publication of their grantees’ research.

    I think that we need non-profit, grant-supported journals, in which both subscription and publication are free (or nominal for hardcopy). I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

    (More comments along these lines at

  2. Iddo says:

    @Kevin: I agree. Having money provides more choices of publication venues, in journals of all tiers, an that being unfunded now makes it quite hard not only to do research, but also to publish initial results that would be needed to restart funding.

    My beef was somewhat different: there is little to no incentive at the moment to publish OA. Unfortunately, it does not translate to those tangibles which are needed for academic promotion, especially at the young faculty level. However, the two are linked. I have written before (“The Revolution would be Convenient”) that OA is in the same position now that Open Source Software (FOSS) was 20 years ago. A good idea would be to look to the adoption pattern of FOSS. The Internet made developing using the FOSS model profitable. Let’s hope that an analogous model could be found to make OA more widely accessible and desirable for publication. In particular, not only granting agencies but university administrators will recognize the merits of OA publication. This would translate to faculty favoring OA publications, for career reasons as well as for financial ones. (Edited for clarity).

  3. MRR says:

    Thanks Iddo for making this point honestly. I have gotten quite a bit of feed-back from colleagues who are in the grey zone between rich labs and really poor. They cannot afford to publish systematically OA. This affects a lot of places in Europe (in Switzerland I won’t complain too much – but note that our NSF refuses to pay these bills).

    I have inquired with my university library whether funds can be removed from subscriptions and used to pay OA (no answer yet). In my opinion we need to move in that direction. There is money for subscriptions in every university (especially if we’re speaking not rich but First World universities), we need to rechannel it.

    Anecdotally, when a society journal I know recently passed OA, the secretary of the society told me that he received equal amounts of positive feed-back (people like me), and negative feed-back of the type “I will no longer be able to publish there”. Again, typically good but not rich labs in Europe, who will not usually get waivers .

    I think that the number of authors who chose OA in a dual model journals is not a very good indicator. I would like to see figures for journals which moved to complete OA, such as NAR. Did submissions go up or down? (Correcting for trends in the field, etc.)

  4. Iddo says:

    Hi Marc,

    Some statistics are available, although not necessarily the ones you actually wanted. There is a slide-show at the end of this post from the Study of Open Access Publishing Project (SOAP), a European study which polled researchers.

    Generally, the two barriers to publishing OA were funding (40% of respondents), and perceived journal quality (30%). It also includes breakdown by country, and some data about how OA fees are paid or waived. One interesting statistic is that 9% “did not know” whether they published in OA or not. I assume that those were postdocs whose communication with their PI needs to be improved.

  5. Peter Suber says:

    You assume that all OA charges author-side fees. This is incorrect.
    (1) If you deposit your peer-reviewed manuscript in an OA repository, there is no charge. (In the jargon, OA through repositories is called “green” OA. as opposed to OA thrugh journals, which is called “gold” OA.) More than 60% of non-OA journals give blanket permission for authors to do this, and the figure rises toward 100% for authors working under green OA policies at their employers or funders. (2) Most OA journals charge no author-side fees. The fee model is the best-known, but has only been adopted by 30% of peer-reviewed OA journals. For more info, see my OA Overview,

  6. Iddo says:


    I’d be interested to hear more. You say that most OA journals charge no author side fees, but you provide only about 4-10 per field here: if I missed something, please let me know. How do these journals maintain themselves? Also, I hope you are not referring to junk publishers:

    Depositing in an OA repository is usually subject to regulations such as pre-proof copies, the copyright is still owned by the journal, and no CC licensing (meaning, I cannot reproduce a figure in my blog, for example). While much better than closed-access, it is still not that great. It is true that the NIH has taken a big step by mandating open access publication in Pubmed central. But that is by one year delay, and CC licensing is still not enabled.

  7. Brian Owen says:

    Perhaps we need to develop other funding mechanisms for OA, instead of assuming that OA author fees are the only option. It is unfortunate that a.) so much of the discussion focuses on the high charges for OA author fees, and b.) other OA funding models have not yet emerged. There should be some potential to address the latter via funding agencies and library collections budgets that are not solely based on OA author fees.

  8. Iddo says:

    > a.) so much of the discussion focuses on the high charges for OA author fees,

    Well, it is unfortunate. But it also seems to be the largest obstacle towards a wider acceptance of OA.

    > b.) other OA funding models have not yet emerged

    I agree. More creativity is needed here. The problem is now not so much awareness fo the OA model, I beleive that OA advocates, granting agencies and the recent proliferation of OA journals and OA models in existing jounrnals have done much for this. I see the lack of awareness of the funding bottleneck and how to solve it is the main obstacle now to wider OA acceptance.

  9. This is a healthy conversation. BioMed Central, like PLoS and other commercial OA publishers, works hard to balance business realities with fairness. For instance, we waive the article processing charge if the submitting author is a resident of any of a country on the World Bank’s list of developing countries, which now numbers more than sixty nations. Our intent is to fund access to important research, not punish those who have limited resources. We make an effort to set article processing charges at reasonable levels (typically in the $1600-$1900 range, not the $2500 cited above) and make go to great lenghts to inform grant agencies of the value of open access publishing, since it is not uncommon for grants to now include funds for OA publishing. Our institutional memberships also offer a means for universities and other organizations to lower article processing charges for their submitting researchers. Ability to pay an article processing charge is not a factor used by editors or peer reviewers in the evaluation of an article. Each article is judged on the merits of its research and scholarship. As open access publishing broadens out into more disciplines, through efforts like SpringerOpen, our parent company’s OA imprint, there will undoubtedly be more examination of the best way to support and fund open access publishing. Conversations like this are an important part of that process.

  10. MRR says:

    I have learned that my university now pays BMC a lump sum out of our library budget, in exchange for which we can all publish in BMC journals for free, as of January this year. This seems to me an excellent model. I will now test it, since we just got a paper accepted in BMC Genomics, and they send us the bill…

  11. Dan Scott says:

    Dear all

    I’m very interested to read all of your comments, and as somebody who has left a subscription publisher to set up as an open access publisher (, I have strong views on it. The argument about Quality is a misnomer and has been refuted repeatedly by highlighting the flaws in the peer review process, the poor quality of some subscription journals and the citation levels of open access journals.

    Open access is unquestionably the right way to go and there is a general acceptance that there is a cost inherent in publishing, regardless of the model. I disagree that granting agencies are the answer because these funds will always be at risk of cuts and therefore unreliable.

    The fundamental problem and the answer to Mark’s inital question, is that most APCs have simply been set too high. Even if publishers can justify them in terms of their overheads, they look expensive. Four figure fees are out of reach of the individual and there are not many libraries or departments currently that have money kicking around to be used up.