Rethinking author fees for open access
Author fees play a big role in open access publishing, but both research and UMN experiences give cause for critical thinking. This page is an overview with links to research.
The Libraries are committed to investment in models that have the potential to lead to real, lasting change to open access (OA) publication systems. Read more about our philosophy on OA at z.umn.edu/TowardsOA
What are author fees/APCs
Article processing charges (APCs) are fees paid to make a work open access (OA), usually charged to authors. They were initially introduced to create an option for publications to cover publication costs without charging subscription fees, either as part of a transition from a subscription-only model, or for new all-OA publications.
When a journal makes all articles openly available (via APCs or other funding models), the journal can be described as “fully open access.” Journals that keep most articles closed (i.e., available only to subscribers), but make some articles available upon payment of an APC are referred to as “hybrid” access.
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How APCs have played out
APCs have not created broad systemic change around open access. While they have been a mechanism for opening some articles, they have not decreased subscription costs, or shifted many previously-closed publications to open models. Instead, many APCs simply provide an additional revenue stream to publishers. The APC model has not shown itself as scaleable or effective for changing the landscape of scholarly publication.
Publication, even online, has costs but we have yet to see APCs fully cover these in a systemic way. Sometimes APCs are the only means of funding a fully-open/OA journal. However, how transparent a publisher is about their publishing costs and how they use income from APCs varies widely. Some publishers are transparent (see FOAA and Ubiquity) about their processes and we know they have set APCs near or below the cost of publication. Unfortunately, most publishers do not provide a clear accounting for how APC funds are used, or how APC prices are set.
Open access is not inherently costlier than closed access—there is no additional cost associated with making an article open access if it was free (to the author) to publish closed: authors still provide their works to publishers for free and researchers still conduct peer review for free. Publishers’ expenses do vary, but the variation in APCs is broader than what can be explained by production costs.
Hybrid journals further highlight issues around what APCs are funding: instead of supporting a transition from closed to fully-open, many hybrid publications have remained hybrid. They continue to take in subscription money, while also enjoying APC income. To date, few publishers have reduced subscription prices to reflect this additional income; instead subscription prices have continued to rise, far outpacing inflation. For example, the average chemistry journal subscription was more than $6,300, a 6% increase from 2019 and a 50% increase from 2012 (Bosch, Albee, Romain, 2020).**
Finally, changes in APCs over time illustrate that publishers are using APCs in very different ways. Some publishers have kept APC fees stable over time but many other publishers have increased APCs very rapidly—on average, APCs are increasing three times the rate of inflation (Khoo, 2019). Fees now range from a few hundred dollars, to over $5000 for some fully OA journals, and more than $11,000 for hybrid journals.
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The APC model is not equitable
Charging a fee to share one’s research cuts many researchers out of the scholarly conversation. APC models favor select voices: researchers with grant funding, researchers at institutions that can afford an expensive publishing agreement, researchers from High Income countries. Publishers have suggested that a system of waivers can address this problem. But waivers only partially address the issue: they reveal "a patronizing view of scientific sharing which translates into the control of science in the hands of rich countries and diminishes the Global South as a mere passive observer with no control...” (Debat and Babini, 2019).* Publishers also limit the number and size of waivers they provide. Although they might give an automatic 100% waiver to authors from Low Income countries, they often only provide partial waivers to other authors. Even a guarantee to waive 50% of an APC could still mean an author faces a bill of $1000, often even more. For example, despite being at a highly funded institution in a High Income Country, even authors at the University of Minnesota are simply not in a position to pay all or part of an APC.
Scholarship from researchers in the Global South, from researchers who do not receive grant funding, from researchers who are not affiliated with a research institution matters. Publishing models that systematically prevent many researchers from participating are inherently inequitable.
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What this means at the University of Minnesota
For these reasons, in consultation with representatives of University governance, including faculty and graduate student authors, the University Libraries and OVPR decided to stop providing direct subsidy of individual fees as of June 30, 2019.
Instead, we focus on more global, collaborative, and strategic investment that will have greater overall impact, fostering more accessible and sustainable models of scholarly publication. In addition, we are working with scholars to pursue the many ways for authors to make their work open that don’t involve paying an APC.
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Additional perspectives on APCs
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. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/lq.10280
**Bosch, S., Albee, B., & Romaine, S. 2020. Costs Outstrip Library Budgets Periodicals Price Survey 2020. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=Costs-Outstrip-Library-Budgets-Periodicals-Price-Survey-2020. Note that although Chemistry is one of the more expensive disciplines, journals in all disciplines have exhibited price increases over this time period, often 50% or higher.
*Debat and Babini (2019) Plan S in Latin America: Primum non nocere. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3482932
Kowaltowski, A., Oliveira, M., Silber, A., & Chaimovich, H. (August 31, 2021). The push for open access is making science less inclusive. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/push-open-access-making-science-less-inclusive
Mekonnen, A., Downs, C., Effiom, E.O., Razafindratsima, O., Stenseth, N.C., * Chapman, C.A. (August 12, 2021). What costs half a year’s pay for African scholars? Open Access. Nature (596): 189.
South African National Information Consortium. (2020). SANLiC Statement on Open Access https://sanlic.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/SANLiC-Statement-on-Open-Access-November-2020.pdf
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