Report from Equity in Open Access workshop #4 – Part 1: money flows & trust signals in ‘OA for all’

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OASPA has been working on a series of workshops convening stakeholders around the subject of how to increase equity in open access (OA). For workshop facilitation and reporting from these sessions we owe huge thanks to Information Power. Our workshops have brought together mainly publishers and librarians, but we have also been able to include other voices and perspectives, including from researchers, funders as well as infrastructure and intermediary service providers. 

Where the ‘Equity in OA’ workshops have now landed, and why

OASPA’s fourth Equity in OA workshop was one where participants focussed on two broad topics: perceptions in (OA) publishing and finding pathways to sustainable and inclusive OA publishing without the need for any researcher-facing charges. 

Our first workshop confirmed the inequities that prevail in OA publishing, debated the use of article processing charges (APCs), highlighted the need for equity to be centered in the way OA publishing is being delivered across all models, and made a call for reclaiming and reframing what many in the sector term as ‘Diamond OA’. OASPA’s reflections on the APC debate and other points arising from workshop #1 are here. 

Our second workshop further unpacked issues of exclusivity in per-article payments and touched on prestige-chasing (and sometimes OA shunning) in researchers’ publishing choices. The OASPA blog from workshop #2 elaborated on how much of this is driven by (publisher) pricing and prevailing  assessment and incentive systems in higher education. This session also noted the lack of established funding pathways to support OA publishing in a non-APC context.

Harking back to a debate from workshop #1 around whether an ‘APC + waiver’ system could ever be equitable, a set of draft principles around APCs & waivers was discussed in OASPA’s third Equity in OA workshop. The hope was to determine what actions could help make the APCs + transformative agreements system more equitable in the here and now (given how prevalent the ‘charge for publishing’ route has become). Clarity around waiver-eligibility, upfront and clear messaging on sites and in submission workflows as well as minimizing emotional and administrative burdens (including via automation wherever possible) were agreed as short term fixes. Certain principles, as proposed, were considered challenging to even discuss, let alone adopt. Many feel that there is no way to preserve waiver processes and successfully uphold equity or author-dignity. On balance, a “whole new system” seems to be required. In this workshop, the scale of the task of increasing equity in OA publishing was undeniable if it had not been before, by virtue of the many stakeholders with divergent views. 

Bringing us back to themes arising from workshops #1 and #2 OASPA’s fourth Equity in OA workshop took place on 22 June 2023. Here is the formal report arising from workshop #4 as published by Information Power. This post covers OASPA’s reflections specifically on the pathways to APC-free OA, where prices are not set in per-article terms. Points on prestige and perceptions will be covered in a subsequent blog (Part 2).  

 

APC-free wayfinders

Image credit: Mystic Art Design

Participants in workshop 4 were asked to consider the ways in which stable, predictable and reliable funding could be achieved in order to support OA publishing without charging researchers any fees. 

What many publishing organizations rely on in terms of inbound revenue is based on what is already known, what is prominent, and where current focus lies. But the most familiar operations are not all there is. Publishing operations all over the world have achieved and are delivering OA successfully on a no-researcher-fees basis. Publishing operations, in disciplines ranging from the humanities to particle physics, have experience of delivering OA without APCs or author fees; some having done so for decades. However, the pathway to OA achieved in this way remains exceptional. In the 4th workshop OASPA heard about the need to amplify, discuss and learn from these ‘wayfinders’.

The approaches are variously described and applied across the publishing sector. Whether we lump them together under a single descriptor called ‘Diamond’ is debatable, but partnerships, subsidies, memberships, supporter models and more besides are already in use for delivering OA in ways that are more equitable than large swathes of the current system. As a taster of what exists: 

  1. Collective approaches pull in library/consortial funding to support OA publishing.
  2. Membership models do a version of the above, but supporters are provided very specific membership benefits in return for their funds.
  3. Subsidy models seek grant funding or support from smaller numbers of institutions and/or government bodies. 
  4. Conditional models open content on the basis of a threshold revenue/sustainability target being realized, such as seen in Subscribe to Open offerings.
  5. Discipline-specific partnerships involve collective action towards open access programs in clearly defined subject areas. 
  6. Shared, community-owned infrastructure: while not usually a revenue-generating approach in itself, the cost reduction/cost efficiency derived by this path helps to enable sustainable OA publishing, and supports the goal of APC-free open access, especially when used in combination with one or more of the above. 

This is a non-exhaustive list and nearly all such approaches can (and often are) being used in conjunction with others; there isn’t a ‘one particular model’ solution. For instance, the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) uses a combined strategy to achieve APC-free OA. It relies on a ‘Library Partnership Subsidy ‘LPS’ membership route through which the OLH has built up support from over 300 university libraries worldwide. Members of the LPS scheme are entitled to membership of the OLH Library Board which is one of three entities overseeing admission of new journals to the OLH platform and year-on-year budget increases. The OLH additionally drives some revenue from its in-house Janeway platform, and is also active in pursuing grant funding. Finally, since the OLH merged with Birkbeck, University of London it no longer pays for office space, HR, corporate management and administration, insurance, legal support, taxes and other business costs. In this way, the OLH is using five of the above six principles. Read more about the OLH model

Most OA publishing taking place along the above principles are resource limited small/er operations that have little ability to promote their processes or advocate for themselves. One suspects that what fixed capacity they have for such things is routed towards outreach that is selectively directed at the sustainability of their OA publishing effort. We heard in the workshop how these publishers often have no ‘sales’ departments but they do need people dedicated to ‘outreach’ activity.

OASPA clearly has a role in amplifying and highlighting case studies and examples where creative solutions are already delivering a more equitable and inclusive form of OA that is free from researcher-facing fees. 

 

Choreography of money flows to support OA for all

If many are already doing it, then what is the sequence of steps and movements that moves publishers from per-article charges to OA for all papers without researcher-facing fees? And how to do this at scale?

Although the APC-free approaches seem several and distinct when enumerated in the section above, one workshop participant noted that there is a fundamental commonality to these paths. In each case we see distribution of library/institution and/or government funds to publishers (or to a platform or infrastructure). The inbound income ranges from one grant/sponsor at a time, to a handful of supporter-led funding streams, to a larger collective of supporters, all the way to several hundred sources or members or subscribers. In return for the inbound funds, all resulting publishing activity provides immediate OA of all published articles for all authors, by default. This is OA granted without any discrimination at the per-article or author level, and without any charges facing researchers. (Of course, we also take for granted in this description that robust and meaningful peer review is taking place as part of the publication process. We will come on to more about the publishing process in a future post.)

Participants in OASPA’s workshop #4 discussed what would be needed for a shift towards these more equitable ways of publishing OA. The emerging themes were that a shift away from article-based thinking, a different approach to institutional budgets and demonstration of ‘trust signals’ by publishers were essential. We will explore these in turn.

1. “Non-atomized” thinking will move us forward

We heard how the shift away from a system of APC-based OA publishing cannot take place unless institutions, libraries, governments, learned societies/associations, researchers and publishers alike are able to drop their ‘atomized’ thinking around an article. An article (or book chapter) as the unit of payment, an article as the basis for pricing, an article as the ‘packet’ that defines career progression, an article that is the sole format for research output – this thinking holds us back.

We heard that payers need to be willing for their funding flows to be used towards sustaining OA publishing in a way that is free from the per-article restraints imposed by serving just their institutionally affiliated authors (for institutions) or just their grant recipients (for funders). Only then can payers’ funding streams support and sustain truly non-discriminatory open scholarship. 

On the publisher side what is needed is ‘non atomized’ thinking when setting prices for individual payers. With this, the many learnings of what has been harmful practice in the subscriptions and APC worlds (to the point of being seen by some as exploitative in terms of pricing) need to be applied. Affordability and fairness are key areas of focus for publishers wanting to adopt and find support for an OA-for-all operation. 

So, both publishers and payers (in this context one can consider them to be sustainers, supporters, members, participants or partners) need to be willing to think in revised terms that are not dependent on the article as a building block. Rather, the entire and ongoing stream of OA publishing activity, on a continuous basis, for all researchers everywhere, should be what drives value and pulls in financial support. This will be in return for professional and innovative services that support open reporting, uphold good standards, enhance and improve the outputs under consideration, weed out misinformation and spurious reporting, and operate along equitable and inclusive workflows.

Non-atomized thinking was the first thing participants felt was needed to move from a system that computes price points and negotiates on the basis of volume of articles, to a place where payers are funding and sustaining the ongoing activity of a publisher in general, because, (say it softly) the publishing activity delivered has inherent value. 

This, of course, can never happen without that value actually being delivered, and without trust signals being met by publishers. More on this crucial point later as well as in a subsequent post. 

One thing we should acknowledge for now is that the proposed non-atomized thinking applies, of course, to both the APC and transformative agreement (TA) contexts. And, by its nature, necessitates rethinking the long-established system of value and prestige conferred upon certain journals which Part 2 will explore in greater depth. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, we must also not forget the money flows locked up in libraries supporting paywalled/subscription content, and the opportunity that now exists to unlock and support ‘OA for all’ in publishing (rather than supporting content being published behind a paywall).


2. ‘OA for all’ requires a different approach to budgets and spend policy

Picking up where the previous section ended, vast amounts of institutional budgets are still rooted in and directed towards payment for subscriptions and content acquisition. Thinking back to OA market interviews from early in 2023 many librarians still see their role as primarily (and sometimes solely) purchasing access to paywalled content. Other institutions (mostly well-resourced research-intensive organizations), however, are diverting resources towards TAs leading to aggressive growth in TAs, with the B16 conference reporting that first movers in TA negotiations are approaching 100% OA coverage of their national research outputs. 

While some of this can look like a win for OA, conversations about equity in OA have shown that APCs and TAs will not take us far enough, are exclusive, and resources spent on paywalled content are still significant. Let’s also remember that institutions with less intensive research and publishing activity still need access to scholarly information and can have a pivotal and vital role to play in enabling a system of OA for all. 

OASPA workshop #4 participants agreed that a second requirement in any successful dance to default, APC-free OA for all authors, needs to be less about TAs and more about transformation in the way institutional budgets work. Put another way, an institution or a funder cannot be a sustainer / supporter / partner or member of a collective in enabling equitable OA if the spend is not authorized – i.e., if budgets are rigid or organized in a way that does not permit such spending in the first place.

The illustration below makes an attempt at depicting some of the funding flows in scholarly publishing stemming from library budgets. This depiction is offered as a first draft and to stimulate thoughts and discussion. What we have seen and heard so far underpins what we sketch below. Feedback and input to help this view evolve is welcomed. This isn’t the full picture of institution-dependent money flows supporting OA. For instance, investments in and support of repositories, research office contributions to OA publishing, inputs from external research funders, as well as those from researchers themselves – whether from grant money or otherwise – are relegated to footnotes or not properly captured. However, based on the below draft OASPA is making the assertion that budgets continue, too often, to be organized in a way that supports paywalled content; and with the recent proliferation of APCs and TAs, they are now (often additionally) supporting forms of OA that are exclusive and inequitable. 

This picture, therefore, illustrates how many prevailing money flows (green and orange) are falling short of supporting a better way to achieve OA.

 

OA = open access; APC = Article Processing Charges; TA = transformative agreements – including Read & Publish
as well as Publish & Read agreements; ‘Atomized’ = pertaining to approaches on a per-article basis. 

Of course, libraries and university research offices fund pro-OA activities in more ways, including hosting and managing repositories (no researcher-facing fees) as well as setting up library presses (many are APC-free). Yet, the pathway to OA that is open for all (blue) is unestablished, underutilised and largely unprioritised. 

We may have moved on from a time that libraries (or publishers) needed coaxing to sign up to the principles of OA. But despite the ongoing ‘OA transformation’ and in the face of a huge proliferation of articles published under the APC/TA models, how many publishers, institutions or funders can say that their OA efforts are supporting equitable open access for all

Reorganization of institutional budgets was felt to be needed in order to enable pathways for funding a more equitable approach to OA in general (e.g., in the blue pathway in the above illustration). One suggestion in the workshop was that libraries need information budgets rather than acquisition and ‘OA budgets’ that are essentially APC/TA budgets. As (some) libraries also pivot to become publishers themselves, revised and holistic ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ budgets could more easily and more effectively be used to support equitable OA publishing ventures – whether internal and/or external to the institution. 

The depiction of money flows above does not separately demarcate the situation of a university press, or other similar publishing functions, that arise/operate from within an institution and face scholars everywhere. The university press (or equivalent) could and sometimes does fall into the ‘blue flow’ in the above diagram, but it has not been labelled as such because several university presses operate on legacy (subscription, APC/TA) models. 

With a different structure to budgets (and OASPA would add: revised spending policy so money can flow in different and newly purposeful ways), institutions won’t just have more creative use of funds to increase accessibility of information for society at large, but libraries will also have a mandate for engaging in and supporting OA publishing for all, with authority. OASPA reflects that this would put institutions not just in closer alignment with equitable OA goals, but also with the wider Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations where access to good information underpins so much. 

In some countries efforts are being made to pull the budgetary streams together. Yet, a recent post about libraries signing a transformative deal that they “don’t likesummarizes the current scenario for institutions in the UK and exemplifies how a country widely considered to be relatively progressive on OA is still not much further on beyond the TA approach. This reinforces the problematic nature of the prevailing situation shown in the illustration of money flows above, and highlights how much more is needed to realise a sustainable and reliable funding pathway to support OA for all. OASPA was asked to get involved with advocacy at “the highest levels” to help reorganise institutional budgets. 

We discussed earlier in this post how OA for all is already being achieved by some wayfinders, and, in certain cases, for at least some of their portfolios. OASPA accepts that this may be the intended destination for many more OA publishing organizations. But this is not currently the norm. If publishers know and perceive that there will be a reliable source of funding for OA publishing across all papers / all submissions (i.e., OA for all) then OASPA expects there are likely to be more ‘flips’, and the transition from hybrid to full OA will not just accelerate, but will take place in a way that is more equitable and inclusive for scholars everywhere, at every career stage, and in every country. 

One thing seems clear – there isn’t additional money available (at least from libraries), and the shift being sought is largely a re-direction of pre-existing funding flows. There is a need for publishers to respond – or even prompt action in the first place – with proactive pricing and offerings that deliver on scholarly publishing in a way that is open for all. 

So, there are opportunities for libraries and publishers, and this is before considering the possible role for private R&D funding and support from other application-based industries or professions, ranging from legal firms to tech-based companies, who also need access to and who participate in the creation of scholarly information. 

The focus of the conversation in the workshop and in this post has been to talk about the publishers’ version of content being OA. A separate conversation entirely (and one not covered so far) is to focus on repository-enabled OA that often involves the ‘accepted-manuscript’ version of content. If publishers are unwilling to act on their version of content becoming OA for all it seems inevitable that institutional and funders’ focus on the repository route will continue to intensify.  

3. Signals of trust for new money flows to work

For the money to flow in different ways, and for payers to agree to direct their funding in support of new or transitioned (rather than transitioning) publishing operations providing OA for all, certain trust signals need to be met. 

Here is OASPA’s distillation from workshop #4 around the theme of publishers emitting constructive trust signals:

  • Engage with those who already do it: delving into details with various ‘wayfinders’ will be one way to learn about successful trust signals facing payers. OASPA will help and play an amplifying role here. This OASPA webinar from earlier in 2023 already highlights some cases and useful examples. There will be more in due course from OASPA on the variety of publishers achieving full OA, for all, without researcher-facing fees. 
  • Think in new ways about pricing, revenues, sales and cost management: The importance of globally equitable pricing and careful management of costs were things we heard about in the context of building and winning trust. New options on revenue and cost fronts (detailed above) face willing publishing organisations seeking to deliver OA for all.

  • Acquiring research/grant funding to support OA for all in this new context (where prices are not set per-article) is seen to be vital to the success and scalability of the pathway to achieving equitable OA. Some urgency from those trialling non-APC routes to sustain OA publishing was noted on this point.

  • Conversations between stakeholders was seen as important, and an ongoing convening function from OASPA was thought to be useful. Consensus building across all stakeholders around a next-generation of agreements supporting equitable OA was found to be necessary.

  • Making connections: With an eye to OASPA’s established role in kitemarking and signaling good practice, a clearing-house function for OASPA was also suggested that might serve to match publishers with funding support for OA operations enabling OA for all. A forthcoming ‘library partnership’ rubric and the Global Sustainability Coalition for Open Science Services (SCOSS) were also mentioned in this context.

  • Demonstrate value: For any payer to support default OA publication for all papers, the ongoing value being added by a publisher needs to be evident. This brings us to the theme of perceptions in (OA) publishing, the concept of prestige and the importance of any publishers’ processes and practices inspiring confidence. These topics were the subject of detailed conversation in workshop #4 pointing towards a more general theme of openness and transparency in publishing that includes but also reaches beyond OA publishing and open licensing. Our next post will form a ‘Part 2’ of the report from the 4th Equity in OA workshop and focus on perceptions, process and prestige.  

 

If you are interested in being part of OASPA’s ongoing work around pathways to OA for all without researcher-facing fees, or if you are achieving OA in this way and would like OASPA to know about it, then please write to me – malavika.legge@oaspa.org. If you disagree with OASPA we would love to hear about that too. There is a comment function below if you’d like to make an open comment, or you are welcome to email. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of our reporting from workshop #4. The workshop series may have ended but the work carries on, and there is plenty of it, so if you haven’t yet then do opt in to hear more from us about Equity in OA

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