Slowing down the Gold Rush: a community resource to keep track of expensive APCs

Gold bars

This is the fourth of a series of blog posts by Imperial’s Open Access Team for OA Week. Our first post on Publisher Problems can be found here, our second post on Accepted Manuscript definitions can be found here, and our third post on Publisher Contacts can be found here.

This blog post is directed to our Open Access colleagues in Higher Education.

The rising price of Gold OA

A big part of what OA Teams in libraries/research offices do – in those institutions that are fortunate enough to have the funding – is make decisions on which publications can (or need to) be published via the Gold OA route. As we diligently work away to process the scores of article processing charge (APC) applications we receive each month, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of what we are actually authorising each time we approve an application: namely, the payment of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’/charities’/institutions’ money to (often exceptionally profitable) publishers.

A recent survey of authors around the world found that many had never published OA, but for 27% of them this was because they could not afford the APCs required to do so. The cost of Gold OA has been rising beyond the rate of inflation for many years now (as reported by Jisc in 2016 and in Universities UK in 2017), and although funders have increased the amounts given to institutions to pay for APCs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet the demand from authors to publish their work OA.

At Imperial College we are lucky to be the recipients of generous block grants from the Research Councils (RCUK – now UKRI) and the Charity Open Access Fund (COAF) to help our authors meet their OA requirements, as well as having access to an institutional fund to pay for APCs in fully OA journals. However, these funds are not bottomless, and can only stretch so far in the face of rising APCs and increasing demand from authors who are publishing more and more. Indeed, we have very recently realised that our RCUK grant is close to running out, and we will be need to be much more restrictive in how we use that fund to pay for APCs for the foreseeable future. This blog post from the Office of Scholarly Communication at Cambridge clearly demonstrates the issues faced in trying to use OA funds in a sustainable way.

Gold bars

The Gold route is of course not the only way authors can make their work OA (and does not always require an APC). When funds run low we can use this as an opportunity to advise how the Green route can meet funders’ and REF requirements, and to promote the benefits of our institutional repository. However, what we aim to offer is a fair and consistent service to our authors, and this is difficult when we cannot be sure how long our funds will last, and whether or not we will be able to approve APC applications from one month to the next.

With the announcement by a consortium of European funders of Plan S (with a key change that hybrid open-access journals are not compliant with their key principles) and rumours of imminent changes to research funders’ open access policies in the UK (e.g. in the upcoming Wellcome OA Policy Review), there is hope that the unsustainable model of increasingly expensive Gold OA will be curtailed. It is important to recognise that the cost of APCs is not the only thing we should be considering, but also the approach that publishers are taking towards a transition to OA (through their self-archiving embargo policies, for example), as is acknowledged in Cambridge’s new policy.

Other institutions (such as LSHTM and Bath) have also already introduced steps to prolong and distribute their OA funds in different ways, by introducing extra conditions such as caps on APC costs and restricting which types of hybrid journal they will pay for. Although at Imperial we have not yet introduced a cap for the APCs we will pay, this is something that is likely to be rolled out by funders in the near future, so we think it is important to record the APCs we have paid for already that were particularly costly.

Recording expensive APCs

Connected to the work done by my OA Team colleague Danny Smith in his Publisher Problems spreadsheet another sheet was created to record particularly expensive APCs. This sheet has been populated with examples of APCs paid for by the Imperial OA Team in 2018, where the cost was £3,000 or over (before VAT), and is now available at the following link:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1fEBud3Xwbrje_43gKbQNmL7K3q6dIKl_eW87Hrf4Nsg/edit#gid=0

How APC costs are calculated and justified by publishers is a contentious issue, as argued by recent Imperial alumnus Jon Tennant in his blog post: “Why the term ‘Article Processing Charge’ (APC) is misleading”. The aforementioned potential caps on APCs from funders are yet to be announced, and in the meantime it is difficult to set an exact figure for what is an “expensive” APC. However, for the purposes of the resource being discussed, this figure reflects what we consider to be a significantly higher amount than the average cost of an APC (calculated as £2,269 in the Wellcome’s 2016/17 report).

Screenshot of the Spreadsheet for Most Expensive APCs

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all journals that would fit within the cost criteria, as it only includes APCs we have paid for at Imperial in 2018, and may miss those journals where we have received a discount that reduced the end cost below the threshold. Although we have paid for APCs for multiple articles in many of the journals included, we have included one example article for each to avoid duplication. We would like this to be a shared resource so we would encourage members of the community to add their own examples from different journals. So far the sheet includes examples of articles published in 39 different journals, from 10 publishers, with a total net cost of £137,609.17 (see table below). More detailed data on APC payments is available through the various reports that institutions produce (e.g. for Jisc).

Publisher/Journal APC Cost (excl. VAT)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (total) £3,508.70
Science Advances £3,508.70
American Chemical Society (total) £32,922.75
ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces £3,049.24
ACS Chemical Biology £3,630.05
ACS Nano £3,049.24
ACS Photonics £3,005.92
ACS Synthetic Biology £3,630.05
Chemical Research in Toxicology £3,787.00
Chemical Reviews £3,029.60
Chemistry of Materials £3,634.41
Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling £3,077.64
Macromolecules £3,029.60
American Heart Association (total) £7,090.52
Circulation £3,616.23
Hypertension £3,474.29
Elsevier (total) £34,223.11
Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health £3,023.60
Current Opinion in Structural Biology £3,271.28
European Urology £3,907.51
Fuel £3,034.82
International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology £3,019.27
Journal of Cleaner Production £3,139.53
Journal of Power Sources £3,077.64
Lancet Infectious Diseases £3,907.50
Lancet Public Health £3,934.46
The Lancet Haematology £3,907.50
Elsevier (Cell Press) (total) £24,062.69
Cancer Cell £4,031.36
Cell Reports £3,970.34
Cell Systems £3,934.46
Current Biology £4,031.36
Molecular Cell £4,031.36
Structure £4,063.81
EMBO Press (total) £4,200.00
The EMBO Journal £4,200.00
Nature Publishing Group (total) £3,300.00
Nature Communications £3,300.00
Oxford University Press (total) £4,228.53
Journal of the Endocrine Society £4,228.53
Rockefeller University Press (total) £3,811.55
Journal of Cell Biology £3,811.55
Wiley (total) £20,261.32
Advanced Functional Materials £3,750.00
Advanced Materials £3,750.00
American Journal of Transplantation £3,010.00
Angewandte Chemie £3,537.32
Clinical and Experimental Allergy £3,000.00
Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism £3,214.00
Total £137,609.17

 

As identified in the Publisher’s Problems spreadsheet there are many factors that can make the process of paying for an APC unnecessarily complicated. One issue that the Expensive APCs sheet has further highlighted is the confusion and variations in price that can arise from APCs being advertised, invoiced and paid in different currencies. We have also included a column to identify those publishers who (often confusingly) separate out the cost for a “standard” APC and additional charges for CC BY licenses (including an eye-watering example of this where $3000 was paid just for CC BY). Other potential areas for discussion are the differences between APCs for open access and hybrid journals, and the value and impact of discounts/offsetting.

While we should recognise that much progress has been made by the OA movement in disrupting and reshaping traditional academic publishing models, there is still much work to be done, as is passionately argued in the documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship which has received many screenings in OA Week. It is hoped that this spreadsheet will be useful as a way of not only identifying those publishers that are currently charging seemingly excessive amounts, but also monitoring change over time and (hopefully!) a transition away from rising costs. There is also the potential to use the examples to help authors make educated choices about where they publish, and increase their awareness of the charges levied.

We plan to add a link to the sheet (and the other resources we have shared) on the forthcoming UKCORR resources page. Please go ahead and start editing/adding your own examples (checking the notes and instructions first), and we welcome any feedback for how these resources can be improved and best used.

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