Flipping journals or filling pockets? Publisher manipulation of OA policies

As part of Open Access Week 2017, the Office of Scholarly Communication is publishing a series of blog posts on open access and open research. In this post Drs André Sartori  and Danny Kingsley look at examples of where publishers have structured pricing to take full advantage of funds available through UK open access policies.

We are spending a lot on open access in the UK. The 2017-2018 RCUK block grant allocations alone to support the RCUK Policy on Open Access add up to more than £8 million. So, what happens when a country makes a decision to introduce a significant  extra boost to the publication budget?

As was predicted early 2013, by the Chairman of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee: “Current UK open access policy risks incentivising publishers to introduce or increase embargo periods”. By September 2013, there was clear evidence this was happening.

Now, in the final year of the RCUK transition period, the situation is far, far worse.

No flipping going on here

Five years on from publication of the Finch report, whose recommendations helped to shape open access policies in the UK, it appears that relatively few journals have flipped from toll access to fully open access. For instance, a comprehensive dataset of embargo periods imposed by Elsevier journals indicates that only 42 of the publishing giant’s 2,300 active journals flipped from toll access to open access in the period 2013-2017. Precise figures for other publishers are not readily available, but compiled lists of converted journals are all very short, as described in this paper.

What several publishers have done instead is to adapt their policies to maximise the ability of their journals to capture the additional funds being injected into open access, by either imposing non-compliant embargo periods or charging more for mandated licences.

An embargo period is the time counted from the publication date of an article during which the author’s accepted version may not be distributed in open access repositories. There is a distinction between a press embargo and a publication embargo. The latter is what is being discussed here. We should also note that there continues to be no evidence to support publisher’s justification for imposing embargo periods.

Several funders (e.g. European Research Council, National Institute for Health Research, RCUK and Charities Open Access Fund partners including the Wellcome Trust) stipulate that open access to funded scientific research must be provided no later than 6 months after publication (with some funders allowing up to 12 months for humanities), either by self-archiving or by purchasing immediate open access.

Hence, any hybrid journal imposing an embargo period exceeding the maximum allowed by these funders will require authors of funded research to purchase immediate open access in order to comply with the funder’s policy. And, sure enough, this was exactly the response of several publishing Goliaths to the introduction of funders’ open access policies.

Increased embargo periods = revenue

For instance, from 2004 to 2011 the largest of them all allowed posting of accepted manuscripts on personal websites or institutional repositories without an embargo. In 2011, Elsevier required that papers affected by a funder or institutional mandate were only able to be deposited if there was a specific agreement with Elsevier. In 2013, shortly after RCUK announced its open access policy, Elsevier published the first version of its embargo list, which listed only six journals (you read it right – six of 2732 journals) with an embargo period within the 6 month maximum allowed by RCUK for policy compliance via self-archiving. The number of journals compliant with RCUK’s self-archiving option for compliance has increased to 10 since then.

Springer, the world’s second largest journal publisher, also allowed authors to deposit their work in institutional repositories with no embargo until 2013, when it introduced an embargo period of 12 months for all their journals, effectively blocking the green route for compliance with major funders’ policies for all articles in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

The other three of the big five publishers—Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage—also impose embargo periods that are mostly incompatible with compliance via self-archiving for the funders listed above. Wiley has adopted, since April 2013, embargo periods of 12 months for STEM and 24 months for HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) journals. Only 44 of Taylor & Francis’ 2,577 journals are hybrids that support self-archiving without embargo. Finally, Sage mirrors Springer’s policy of a 12-month embargo period for all their journals.

Introducing or increasing embargo periods is a very effective method of encouraging funded authors to select a paid-for open access option, but it lacks the creativity of some of the strategies considered below.

Higher charges for a CC BY licence

Funders aspire to maximum reuse of published results of the research they have invested in, so many require a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence when they are paying for open access. Examples are Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, RCUK and COAF partners. Charging a premium for this licence type is therefore yet another method used by publishers to take advantage of funding for open access.

Below are a few examples of publishers charging extra for a CC BY licence.

As pointed out here, publishers rarely feel the need to explain the reasons for the differential pricing. Of the examples above, only AAAS justifies the surcharge by stating that “We assess the surcharge to account for potential lost secondary revenue such as permissions and reprint sales”.

Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that their base APC ($3,000) is well above the average charged by open access journals, and consider the potential revenue from the sale of reprints. Given the alternative licence offered by Science Advances (CC BY-NC) allows anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format (but not to sell it), what revenue could be reasonably be expected from reprint sales?

Targeted embargo periods

A third and more complex strategy to capitalise on research funders’ policies, and which fortunately appears to be losing ground, is to have policies specifying more strict self-archiving conditions for authors of funded research, or longer embargo periods for deposits in PubMed Central and Europe PMC, the subject repository mandated by several major funders of biomedical research (e.g. BBSRC, MRC, NIHR and COAF partners).

BMJ journals, for example, set a special embargo of 12 months on deposits in PMC, while allowing deposits in other open access repositories without any embargo.

Elsevier, Wiley and more recently Emerald are all examples of publishers that have at some point dictated different conditions for authors following open access mandates, but as of the date of this post do not discriminate authors on the basis of their funding.

Call us cynics

This last technique to squeeze every penny out of government funds is possibly the most cynical and puts even more lie to the claims publishers make about the necessity for embargo periods. Either making an author’s accepted manuscript available in a repository causes the cancellation of journal subscriptions or it doesn’t. The funding behind the research described in the paper is irrelevant.

And yet we continue to comply and we continue to pay. The RCUK is morphing into UK Research and Innovation on 1 April 2018. This is the time to take serious stock of the policies that have lined the pockets of big academic publishing companies and change them to achieve the actual end goal which is the dissemination of research. Green over gold people.

Published 26 October 2017
Written by Dr Andre Sartori and Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

3 thoughts on “Flipping journals or filling pockets? Publisher manipulation of OA policies

  1. Important and infuriating information. I would also like to know how these ridiculously long embargo periods are directly impacting postprint deposits into IRs. I have no doubt they are.

    The complacency of most researchers to exert some level of control over publisher decisions to implement practices that directly affect dissemination of their research is baffling. As members of societies and associations, researchers could collectively voice publishing terms they are willing to accept and those they will staunchly oppose.

    It’s refreshing and inspiring to read about the push back of individual researchers, academic institutions, librarians, and others against publishers who impose high journal and database costs, untenable legalese in agreements, and unrealistic embargo periods. To those groups a resounding “Hurrah!” just for trying.

  2. Hi Danny
    You focus on the situation for Elsevier in 2011 rather than 2017. Authors are able to post their accepted manuscript on their institutional repository immediately and can make this publicly accessible after an embargo period. No agreement with Elsevier is needed for IRs to host manuscripts. Your statement that only ten of our journals is compliant with RCUK policy is incorrect. All of our journals have OA options in compliance with funder policies. Our UK embargo list reflects the fact that we revised our embargo periods down in the spirit of compromise and cross-stakeholder discussion and consensus that informed UK OA policy in 2012. The overwhelming majority of our embargo periods are between 12-24M.

    1. Gemma,

      Your argument is beside the point.

      Surely you are able to understand that “embargo period within the 6 month maximum allowed by RCUK for policy compliance via self-archiving” is not the same as “journals have OA options in compliance with funder policies”.

      The point is not whether it can be deposited but when it can be accessed from the IRs, which would be a form of compliance with the RCUK policy, which is only limited by the embargo policies of Elsevier journals.

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