Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, November 28, 2008

Universities would save money if all journals were OA

Philip Johnson, University libraries, budgets, and open access, Biocurious, November 26, 2008.  Excerpt:

Iíve been playing with numbers in my head based on the statistics from my home institution Ė the University of Toronto Ė relative to publications, the real cost of open access publishing, and the U of T libraryís annual budget for journal subscriptions.

It turns out that U of T is listed as an institution on some 6470 publications per year (averaged during 2000-2004, data from Thomson Scientific), and as of 2005-2006, the U of T libraries (spread over a couple of campuses) have a periodicals budget of just over $10 million per year....For the rest of this article, letís assume the American and Canadian dollars are roughly equal in value (which was the case until a couple of months ago)....

What, then, if the university decided to embrace the open access movement entirely? This is obviously a pie-in-the-sky idea, but bear with me, as the result is interesting.

Subscription costs would obviously be nil for an open access journal: we are all free to access the content of an open access journal via the internet, with no restrictions on who can read the content. In contrast, the author would pay to publish the article. This is perhaps the biggest resistance from scientists (and Iím sure the situation would be similar in the arts, or law, or what have you) to the open access movement, many feeling they donít have enough funding for students or experimental equipment as is, and couldnít possibly afford to pay to publish as well. I can appreciate this argument, though some progress is being made as you can specifically request funding to cover open access publication charges from some of the granting agencies.

(Also, letís be honest, the current situation of paying for page charges and to have colour figures means the author is already paying to publish, and sometimes non-trivial amounts.)

The funding supplied to the library for journal subscriptions could instead go towards paying for the publishing costs in open access journals. Using the PLoS journals as our benchmark, premium quality publications would cost around $2500/article (the current fee to publish in PLoS Biology or PLoS Medicine), while the bread-and-butter publication costs are maybe closer to those of PLoS ONE ó $1300/article.

Let us imagine that 10% of the publications coming out of U of T are of the premium variety, while 90% are your more run of the mill papers, and that there are open access journals in which to publish them. Using the current costs from the Public Library of Science, 650 premium papers would run around $1.6 million dollars, while the 5850 ďbread-and-butterĒ papers would cost an additional $7.6 million each year. This is already less than the 2005-2006 periodicals budget of slightly over $10 million!

Letís further assume that the economies of scale would kick in if universities around the world decided to embrace this philosophy. This should lead to an overall lowering of the publication costs, all the while bringing access to academic literature to everyone with an internet connection....

[T]he take-home message is reasonably clear, at least using the University of Toronto numbers: we could already afford going entirely open access....

So whatís the hold up?


  • Johnson is right that universities would save money.  But they'd save even more than he calculates.  His calculation assumes (1) that all OA journals charge publication fees and (2) that universities would pay all of them.  Both assumptions are untrue.  Refining the calculation to reflect no-fee OA journals and fee-paying funding agencies would lower the projected cost to universities even further.
  • See my June 2006 article for a full analysis of those two assumptions, focusing on earlier versions of the same calculation, which tended to show that switching over to OA would cost more than the current cost of subscriptions.  Also see my November 2006 article on the majority of OA journals which charge no publication fees. 
  • Since November 2006 several studies have give us newer data on the the ratio of no-fee OA journals to fee-based OA journals.  The best current estimates are that 67% of the journals listed in the DOAJ charge no publication fees, and 83% of OA journals from society publishers charge no publication fees.  Clearly if Johnson zeroed out the publication fees for two-thirds of the articles published by Toronto faculty, the projected saving would rise significantly.
  • The bargain would be even more compelling if we could subtract the publication fees paid by funding agencies rather than universities.  Unfortunately there are no studies yet estimating that number.