Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Economics of Open Access

A memo to Harvard faculty from the Harvard Libraries' Faculty Advisory Council has been widely publicized in recent weeks. The subject is the "untenable situation" created by journal pricing practices.
We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.
The story has been picked up by Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, The Atlantic and Time, among others.

The memo urges consideration of open access as a partial solution, urging faculty to deposit their own work in the institutional repository, consider publishing in open access journals, participate in moving prestige to open access, and using their influence on journal boards to convert the journals to open access and/or refrain from publishing with predatory price providers.

A recent UK report attempts to quantify the benefits of increasing open access to research articles for researchers in the public sector. The report is lengthy, with complicated analyses and assumptions, but this excerpt succinctly states the conclusions:

On the basis of the evidence we have been able to collect for this report, the main benefits of Open Access in the public sector are direct benefits: savings in time and money.

• Researchers lose time spent trying to locate copies of articles.

• They pay some PPV or ILL charges.

• Librarians also spend time trying to locate copies of articles

• ILL charges are borne by the library as well as users.

• Some libraries pay subscriptions for low-use journals

All of these can be ameliorated to some extent through increased availability of articles through either form of Open Access, and increased use of Open Access articles.

The total cost to the public sector of accessing journal papers is around £135 million per annum. The savings that accrue from the availability of Open Access articles (using both Green and Gold routes) amount to £28.6 million (£26 million in access fees and £2.6 million in time savings).

Extending the number or articles available through Open Access further increases the potential for savings. Each extra 5% of journal papers accessed via Open Access would save the public sector £1.7 million, even if no subscription fees were to be saved. Increasing the number of journal papers accessed through Open Access to 25% would save the public sector an extra £29 million.
[emphasis added]

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