Daniel A. Gorelick* and Ye Li**
Edited by Lisa D. Cervia and Grant A. Knappe
Article | Aug. 30, 2021
- Biomedical publishing is adopting an open access model, where peer-reviewed manuscripts are free to read, but authors pay a fee to the journal to publish their manuscript
- Funding agencies often pay publication fees on behalf of scientists
- Publication fees are rising much faster than inflation, putting a burden on scientists and funding agencies to adopt open access policies that reduce costs to authors
A brief history of open access in biomedical research
Article processing charges (APC)
Current OA publishing policies
Policy Type 0: Maintain the status quo but eliminate the open access embargo
Advantages: This policy would make the United States compliant with Plan S. All NIH-funded research would be free to read immediately to anybody in the world.
Disadvantages: This policy does not address the costs of APCs to scientists. Journal publishers would be free to set APCs as they wish, with no maximums, as is the case currently. Scientists would need to find ways of paying the APCs, using either grant money, institutional funds or personal funds. Additionally, changing the NIH public access policy would likely require action by the U.S. Congress.
Policy Type 1: Funding agency pays open access costs directly
Advantages: This is the least expensive business model for scientists because scientists would not pay APCs. This model currently works at a small scale for funders with steady financial resources, as evidenced by the journals discussed above. This model would be straightforward to execute, requiring changes to internal NIH policy but not approval by the U.S. Congress.
Disadvantages: Can this model be scaled up to accommodate the millions of peer-reviewed biomedical research articles published annually ? If scaled up, will it limit the publishing
options for those researchers who are not funded by these funding agencies? If a funding agency pays for research and supervises publication of the same work, then there is the potential for conflicts of interest to arise. It would be important to keep journals scientifically and editorially independent from funding agencies. Note that Environmental Health Perspectives demonstrates that it is possible for the U.S. government to publish a peer-reviewed scientific journal that is editorially and scientifically independent from the National Institutes of Health.
Policy Type 2: Funding agencies mandate preprint publications
Advantages: This policy could be implemented rapidly, at little or no cost to funding agencies or research scientists. Results would be free to read immediately.
Disadvantages: The sudden and increased emphasis on preprints would require biomedical researchers to read and comment on preprints, a new ecosystem for biomedical research. It is an empirical question whether this preprint ecosystem will flourish for biomedical research as it has for physics. While preprints are standard in physics, physicists still publish in peer-reviewed journals following preprint submission. Comparing publication approaches in physics and biomedical research is confounded by the differences in the size of each field. The physics preprint server arXiv receives on average 16,000 manuscripts per month . In contrast, PubMed listed approximately 2.5 million peer-reviewed papers per month in 2020 (for a total of 30.4 million) , while the biomedical preprint server bioRxiv received about 3300 manuscripts per month (for a total of 40,022).
Policy Type 3: Funding agencies cap payments of APCs for grantees
Advantages: Compliance would be close to 100%, as it would be difficult or impossible for scientists to spend funder’s money contrary to the funder’s wishes. Lower APCs would benefit
all researchers, not just those directly funded by influential funding agencies. We note that a maximum APC could be determined by funding agencies and publishers working together. However, it is also possible that their conflicting interests could necessitate funding agencies acting unilaterally to set a maximum APC. Funding agencies have powerful leverage over their grantees.
Disadvantages: Funding agencies such as the NIH have extensive bureaucracies that will hamper implementation of an APC cap. Additionally, it will be difficult to determine an appropriate dollar amount for an APC cap. Should the NIH determine an APC cap based on what they are willing to pay, or based on publication costs? The latter requires transparency in the cost of publishing, which does not exist. In 2018, European research institutions formed Plan S, a
plan to have all research funded by public grants published in open access journals. Plan S attempted to set APC caps but received criticism on how the cap should be negotiated and maintained. Publishers argued in favor of the highest possible APC, while researchers and university administrators argued that publishers are powerful and will negotiate with funding agencies to increase the APC regularly, as occurs today with subscription costs . Now, instead of an APC cap, Plan S advocates for a Price Transparency Framework where publishers provide voluntary data on how much it costs to publish articles . If the publishing industry can
be more transparent regarding the true cost of publishing, it could help funding agencies set a reasonable APC cap. On the other hand, Plan S may not have sufficient power to enforce publisher participation because there are no direct incentives for publishers to reduce the APCs. Funders may need to spend additional resources on enforcement and help publishers, especially smaller society publishers, with the transition.
Policy Type 4: Funding agencies require both preprint posting and cap payments for APCs
Advantages: Research results would be free to read immediately, due to preprint requirement. During the conventional, peer-reviewed publication process, funder’s money is protected and spent efficiently. Biomedical scientists might rely more heavily on discussing findings as preprints
(similar to physics) rather than always waiting for peer review, which could take months.
Disadvantages: Requires substantial changes to funder policy and research community culture, making implementation difficult. As discussed in policy type 2, the emphasis on preprints would require biomedical researchers to read and comment on preprints, a new ecosystem for biomedical research. It’s an empirical question whether this preprint ecosystem will flourish for biomedical research.
Policy Type 5: Universities negotiate payments to journals so faculty can publish and read for free
Advantages: An inexpensive business model for biomedical researchers because research scientists would pay reduced or no publication fees. The approach works with the existing publication and biomedical journal ecosystem and few changes are required for implementation.
Disadvantages: This policy will be difficult to scale and could lead to different APCs for different universities. Initially, this policy might be feasible for large universities such as Cambridge, or multiple large universities that operate under a single board of directors, such as the University
of California system, but smaller universities and colleges would either be left to fend for themselves and negotiate at a disadvantage compared to large universities, or they would need to form coalitions with other institutions, which would take time. Additionally, negotiations between universities and publishers could favor large and established publishers, who control a larger share of the market. A large publisher, like Elsevier, publishes hundreds of journals and would have substantial leverage in a negotiation to determine APC. In contrast, a smaller publisher, such as a scientific society that publishes less than 10 journals, would have less leverage in a negotiation. This could create publishing disparities where scientists at some universities are unable to publish in some journals. To explore new pricing models, Massachusetts Institute of Technology is negotiating with publishers to have price based on value-added services provided by the publisher, and not based on the number of articles published by affiliated authors multiplied by the APCs .
Gorelick, D. A. & Li, Y. Reducing open access publication costs for biomedical researchers in the U.S.A. MIT Science Policy Review 2, 90-98 (2021). https://doi.org/10.38105/spr.4nu1qfjf3t.
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