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News from the open access movement

Friday, June 19, 2009

Realistic futures in which universities would save money from journal conversions to OA

Bill Hooker, Cost to libraries: OA vs TA, Open Reading Frame, June 18, 2009.  Excerpt:

In 2004, Philip Davis carried out a study of library costs in which he estimated the average subscription cost/article for a subset of ARL libraries and compared this with a range of estimated author-side fees for Gold OA, in order to determine whether libraries might pay more or less if all journals switched to OA. Here I've tried to update that study using information that wasn't available back then.

Davis set the spreadsheet up to make it easy to update his assumptions and recalculate (kudos!), and Peter Suber (among others) pointed out that at least the following assumptions should be updated:

  1. all OA journals charge author-side fees
  2. the full cost of OA fees will be borne by libraries
  3. TA journals charge no author-side fees

We now have five different studies (one recently confirmed, improved and updated) showing that in fact the majority of OA journals do not charge author-side fees. The highest proportion of no-fee journals is in the DOAJ psychology subset (90%) and the lowest is in the chemistry subset (49-58%); the most recent analysis of the entire DOAJ showed 70% no-fee.

We also know that research funders are increasingly willing to foot the bill for OA....A recent RCUK report showed that 45% of authors publishing in fee-based OA journals had their costs covered by their research funders.

Rather than pick a single number for either of these updates, I've plotted the fraction of the OA cost borne by libraries against the number of institutions at which OA is predicted to cost more than, the same as, or less than the TA model. The fractional cost borne by libraries is the product of (100 - %covered by funders)(%OA journals charging fees). (See Figs 1 and 2 below.) ...

...[T]he NIH is paying, on average, about $500/article in page charges. Since this is the largest sample we have, I've used this figure to update the spreadsheet. I added $500/article to the calculated serials expenditure/article and compared this adjusted TA cost/article to the OA costs.

I've updated two further aspects of Davis' spreadsheet. First, we now have better information about the actual range of author-side fees charged by those OA journals that do charge them. Rather than Davis' $2500 - $5000 range, I've used $1300 (PLoS ONE) to $3000 (most of the high-profile hybrid programs). If the adjusted TA cost/article falls within this range, the prediction is that the OA and TA models cost about the same from a library point of view.

Second, Davis assumed that the scholarly literature made up 50% of library serials expenditures. I don't know where this figure came from (the spreadsheet refers to a report which does not give any further information), but I think the real value is closer to 90%. My reasoning is based on my observation (see Table 2) that the average unit cost of a curated list of scholarly journals from UCOSC is about ten times the average unit cost of "all serials" from ACRL, ARL and NCES datasets....

Summary of updates.

  1. plot fractional cost borne by libraries to account for %OA journals that don't charge fees and % OA costs borne by research funders (or other bodies)
  2. add $500/article to TA model costs to account for author-side fees charged in addition to subscriptions
  3. predicted OA fee range = $1300 to $3000
  4. assume scholarly literature makes up 90% of serials expenditure

The updated spreadsheet is here, and the end result is this: ...[PS: Omitting Figure 1.]

At a fractional cost of 0.8, there are no libraries at which OA is predicted to cost more than the TA model, and at a fractional cost of 0.3 the OA model is predicted to cost less than the TA model at all 113 libraries.

To see how the %fee and %funder proportions affect the fractional cost borne by libraries, I constructed a simple matrix and highlighted the two cutoff points shown on the graph above: ...[PS: Omitting Figure 2.]

As you can see, there are a number of perfectly reasonable combinations which result in a fractional cost of 0.3 or less, at which all the libraries in the sample would save money under the OA model. (This, by the way, is exactly what Peter Suber predicted.)


  • I've waited three years for someone to update the deeply misleading Cornell calculation.  I'm gratified by the results and grateful to Bill.  I'm especially grateful that he did the new calculation in the matrix format I recommended (Figure 2), which shows the consequences for university budgets under a range of different assumptions about (1) the percentage of OA journals charging publication fees and (2) the percentage of funders willing to pay those fees.  This way, we don't merely replace specific false assumptions with specific new ones.
  • This calculation doesn't bear directly on university deliberations to adopt green OA mandates.  But it should block a scare tactic which the publishing lobby has used in the past to push back against university support for both green and gold OA.

Update (6/20/09).  Bill has updated his calculation to reflect some new information and correct an error.  Excerpt:

...[The new information] brings the estimated average author-side fee to $1250, well in line with the individual journal estimates I made and the published figures I found....

However! There is a flaw in my reasoning! ...

The new figures also show that the fractional cost [of publication fees borne by libraries] has to drop below 0.2 before all 113 libraries are predicted to save money in an OA model. That still seems to me to fall within a realistic range, given that 70% of journals in the DOAJ don't charge author-side fees and 45% of researchers in a recent RCUK study had their OA fees covered by their research funders, for a fractional cost of 0.135.

Nonetheless, it's worth taking a quick look at the libraries which are predicted to pay about the same in the OA and TA models. At a fractional cost of 0.4, they are...[14 high-output schools].  At a fractional cost of 0.3, only...[6 high-output schools] remain in the "pay about the same" category....