As was highlighted by Imperial’s Director of Library Services Chris Banks in her blog post earlier in this International Open Access Week 2022, the past few years have seen a rapid increase in the number of publisher agreements that Imperial College has signed up to. We now have 33 agreements in place that allow for open access (OA) fees to be fully covered for corresponding authors affiliated with imperial College London at no further cost.
This has unsurprisingly led to a significant increase in the number of papers being made OA through such agreements. The below graph shows the number of papers covered over the last year via four of the most used Read & Publish agreements that we currently have:
This adds up to almost 1000 OA papers from these four agreements alone, which does not include the figures from other publishers we have agreements with such as SAGE, Oxford University Press, Taylor & Francis, and Cambridge University Press.
A shift away from individual APC payments?
As was predicted in an earlier blog post from OA Week 2020, the number of papers now being covered through publisher agreements has now overtaken the number of individual Article Processing Charges (APCs) that we pay for from the OA funds that we administer. For the period from 1 October 2021 to 30 September 2022 we paid for a total of 759 APCs, compared to well over 1000 covered through the agreements.
While we have only seen a slight drop in the total number of individual APCs paid for compared to last year, the most significant change has been an ongoing reduction in the number of APCs we have paid for papers in hybrid journals specifically (i.e. subscription journals that have an OA option) as shown in the below graph:
This reduction in individual payments for APCs in hybrid journals should not be attributed to the increase in publisher agreements alone, as changes to funder policies in recent years have also introduced tighter restrictions on hybrid APC payments, and have offered authors alternative routes to compliance via the green OA route through rights retention. However, it is certainly one of the main reasons behind this shift and is a desired outcome in the transition away from a publishing model that allowed for ‘double-dipping’.
Imperial Open Access Fund
As most publisher agreements do not require authors to be funded, they have allowed many papers to be made OA via the gold route that would otherwise not have been eligible. As well as our funder OA block grants, we are also fortunate to be able to offer our authors the Imperial Open Access Fund. This is available for those without alternative funds available, and can be used to pay APCs for original research papers in fully OA journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals.
Although some of our publisher agreements do cover fully OA as well as hybrid journals (e.g. Wiley’s), most of them do not, and there are many publishers who exclusively offer fully OA journals with compulsory APCs. This means the Imperial OA Fund continues to have a big part to play in enabling our authors to publish OA and covered 363 APCs in the last year (nearly half of the total amount):
In 2018 a group of funders and national research agencies launched Plan S, an initiative with the central aim that by January 2021 “…all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” Implicit in this goal is the intention of funders to move away from supporting the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing, whereby journals offer a paid open access (OA) option for authors to make their paper freely available upon publication but continue to charge a subscription fee for the rest of their content.
As with many other institutions, at Imperial we are recipients of block grants from certain funders, which authors acknowledging support from those funders can use to pay for individual Article Processing Charges (APCs) in both fully OA and hybrid journals. Although we have already introduced some restrictions on when we will pay for hybrid APCs, due to limited funds, with funders increasingly adopting the Plan S Principles authors may be concerned that they will soon be completely prevented from choosing OA publishing options in hybrid journals.
This is where Plan S Principle 8 comes in, which states that “…as a transitional pathway towards full Open Access within a clearly defined timeframe, and only as part of transformative arrangements, Funders may contribute to financially supporting such arrangements”. So, while Plan S funders will no longer support the payment of individual APCs to hybrid journals, institutions are able to redirect OA funds to pay for arrangements with publishers to transition away from the hybrid model towards being fully OA (until the end of 2024).
Read & Publish agreements
There are several types of transformative arrangements, but perhaps the most common are Read & Publish agreements. Instead of institutions (generally via their libraries) paying separately for subscriptions and OA fees for the same journals (aka ‘double-dipping’), Read & Publish agreements combine the costs. This provides those affiliated with the institution access to journal content that is still paywalled, as well as allowing authors to choose the OA option for their publications at no further cost.
As more of the content in hybrid journals becomes free for all to read in the transition to becoming fully OA, the proportion paid for the ‘Read’ part of the deal will decrease, and the proportion paid for the ‘Publish’ part will increase accordingly. While these kinds of arrangements precede the announcement of Plan S, their uptake has undeniably been accelerated by the initiative. Prior to 2020 Imperial had signed up to one Read & Publish agreement (with Springer in 2016), but we now have 11 In place, all negotiated by Jisc for Imperial and other institutions.
Read & Publish agreements can offer an alternative route for authors to publish their work OA in cases where we would normally not be able to provide funding for an APC. Unlike our OA block grants from funders, which only authors acknowledging the relevant funding can use, these agreements can be made available to all Imperial staff and students (usually with the requirement that they are the corresponding author). The process should generally be much quicker and easier for authors, as they do not need to request an invoice or make a separate payment for an APC, and publishers have also been encouraged to improve the workflows and dashboards used by authors and the staff who administer the agreements within institutions.
Not a panacea
However, it can be argued that such agreements do not solve all of the problems that are present in the existing hybrid OA model. To the authors that are eligible for these agreements it may feel that they are getting free and unlimited OA for their work, but there are still high costs involved to sign up for the deals in the first place, and often there are limits on how many papers can be made OA in a year. This has recently been seen with the restrictions introduced to the Wiley agreement, whereby only authors supported by certain funders are currently eligible for inclusion in the agreement due to high levels of demand.
During an OA Week with a theme of “Taking Action to Build Structural Equity and Inclusion”, it is also important to highlight that such agreements can be seen as perpetuating global inequalities in access to OA publishing, as is argued by Jefferson Pooley on the LSE Impact Blog. A transition away from the hybrid model towards journals being fully OA should benefit everyone wanting to access the outputs of research as a reader. Nevertheless, it is only those authors who are affiliated with institutions wealthy enough to pay for the agreements (predominantly research intensive and in the global North) who are in a position to directly benefit from the OA publishing aspect.
Others who wish to publish OA will continue needing to find alternative routes, such as applying for APC waivers, submitting to OA journals that do not charge APCs, or self-archiving. This is not to say that these other routes are not valid – the option to self-archive (aka ‘green’ OA) is also a key part of the Plan S principles – but for those authors who do not have ready access to APC funds or publisher agreements there is understandably a sense of inequality.
A shift in gold OA at Imperial?
At Imperial we are fortunate to be able to offer our authors a range of different ways to make their research outputs OA, via both the green and gold routes. While the majority of our time (and money) in the gold section of the OA Team is still spent on paying individual APC payments from the funds that we administer (totalling 853 payments from 1 Oct 2019 – 30 Sep 2020), an increasing number of articles are now being made OA through our aforementioned Read & Publish agreements.
The graph above shows the numbers of papers made OA via our four most used agreements (with Springer, Wiley, the Royal Society of Chemistry and SAGE) totalling 567 papers between 1 Oct 2019 – 30 Sep 2020. We also have agreements in place with the Company of Biologists, European Respiratory Society, IOP, IWA, Microbiology Society, Portland Press and Thieme. As previously mentioned, only the Springer agreement was in place prior to 2020, and we are in the process of signing more agreements. We would therefore expect the figures for next year to be even higher, and to perhaps even overtake the number of APCs we pay for individually.
For details on Imperial’s current Read & Publish agreements, as well as other publisher arrangements and discounts available to Imperial authors, please see our Publisher agreements and discounts page.
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.
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:
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).
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).
APC Cost (excl. VAT)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (total)
American Chemical Society (total)
ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces
ACS Chemical Biology
ACS Synthetic Biology
Chemical Research in Toxicology
Chemistry of Materials
Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling
American Heart Association (total)
Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health
Current Opinion in Structural Biology
International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology
Journal of Cleaner Production
Journal of Power Sources
Lancet Infectious Diseases
Lancet Public Health
The Lancet Haematology
Elsevier (Cell Press) (total)
EMBO Press (total)
The EMBO Journal
Nature Publishing Group (total)
Oxford University Press (total)
Journal of the Endocrine Society
Rockefeller University Press (total)
Journal of Cell Biology
Advanced Functional Materials
American Journal of Transplantation
Clinical and Experimental Allergy
Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism
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.