The expression “pay it forward” refers to spreading a benefit that comes from one gift of money, or one good deed, to many by requiring that the first recipient pass the gift or deed on to others. It is also the title of a report on a Mellon funded study on whether open access article charges could be used instead of subscription fees for funding the publishing of scholarly and research journal articles, thus making more of these open access.
“Pay It Forward: Investigating a Sustainable Model of Open Access Article Processing Charges for Large North American Research Institutions” comes at a time of increasing interest in alternatives to subscriptions funding scholarly and research journal articles, since that funding model restricts access to the final published paper. Although the trend in the U.S. is towards access to articles through policies permitting or even requiring sharing of articles that are funded through subscriptions, there is an equally strong trend in Europe and the UK towards immediate open access to the final published article, usually for an article processing fee. Authors want to have open access to papers they want to read, but continue to favor journals with traditional marks of quality when submitting their own articles for publication.
This 184 page report is quite a dense read, so I was glad to hear an excellent presentation at the Charleston Conference this year about the study and the report. One contribution of the report is a realistic estimate of a minimum APC of $1,103.00, and a reasonable maximum of $1,864.00, which allows for a surplus to support technical and system improvements by the publishing company but not the huge profits that some publishing companies have been making. Some leading publishers currently charge twice this minimum APC. Another valuable contribution of the project is a model that can be used to determine what APC charge would be the “break point” for a library to be able to cover the costs of all article fees for their researchers, given the existing budget for journal subscriptions.
A reason often noted for the rise of subscription prices for journals is the inelastic market, since the authors of scholarly and research articles do not have to pay for those subscriptions, nor do they even know what these cost their own institutions. Price of a subscription is not a consideration in where to publish. Changing to an APC charge where the author has to handle the fee, even if the actual cost is supported by the institution or a funding agency, should help the system evolve to a more elastic market. Within an institution, this could be accomplished by giving each author a subsidy that would cover an APC on the lower end of the price spectrum.
A key outcome of this study is the analysis of the burden on the large research institutions that produce a significant percent of the published research articles, and so who stand to risk the most in a switch from subscription support to article fee support. The model can be used to answer questions for other kinds of institutions such as the “break point” and how sustainable the change would be.
The “Pay It Forward” report and project has potential to benefit many institutions outside of those directly involved in the study, since they can use the model.
Contact the Scholarly Communication Program at Dartmouth with your questions about the economics of open access publishing. We are happy to consult with you about your options for open access to your articles.