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Working towards a transition to open access

Thoughtful contributions from the Max Planck Digital Library and the University of California Libraries have shown how gold OA could play a central role; as the world’s second largest gold OA publisher, we offer insights to make the transition possible


Two years after the publication of Max Planck Digital Library’s white paper Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access, the debate around the best way to move to a fully open access world continues. Elsevier is proposing constructive next steps, specifically thinking about how the principles behind SCOAP3 or alternative access models tailored to geographical needs and expectations can help us further advance open access.

The European Commission has made the transition to open access a priority, and many countries are exploring how to reach 100 percent OA by 2020. Some are focused primarily or exclusively on the gold open access route to achieve this transition. This is partly because of the benefits this model brings: immediate open access to the final published article. When focusing on the costs associated with gold, many point to a conclusion of the Max Planck white paper: that there is enough money in the system to support a full cost-neutral transition to gold open access.

Elsevier and other STM publishers generally agree with many of the authors’ observations and recommendations, notably that there may be enough money in the system overall to transition globally to gold open access. However, there are other considerations that need to be taken into account when thinking about a flip to 100 percent gold open access. In particular, there are structural challenges that need to be overcome and worked through by all stakeholders together. As we move closer to 2020, we are presenting a number of considerations and suggestions that can help inform this important discussion and the structural challenges around open access.

Different routes to open access have different trade-offs

Currently no international consensus exists that any single open access model is best, and it’s clear that both gold and green will continue to play an important role in the foreseeable future.

While gold open access offers immediate access to the final published article, the trade-off is cost. For those that can’t or don’t wish to pay the article publishing charge (APC) for gold open access, green open access – making a version of the subscription article widely available after a time delay or embargo period – remains a viable alternative to enabling widespread public access. Indeed, in a world where over 80 percent of articles continue to be published under the subscription model, green open access will surely remain an important component of many transition strategies.

You can transition to gold open access without international consensus

We all need to think creatively about how open access can be made to work in practice on a regional scale to cater to different paces and approaches to open access in different parts of the world. Europe is a region where a transition to fully gold open access is likely to be most cost-neutral and, perhaps for this reason, where gold OA currently has the highest policy focus. This is in stark contrast to other research-intensive countries such as the US, China and Japan, which on the whole have pursued the subscription/green open access path. Therefore one possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available gold open access within Europe and green open access outside of Europe. In this way, Europe could move forward to achieve its goals without waiting for international consensus. And if this approach could be shown to deliver benefits to Europe, then it would create a persuasive evidence base from which to encourage other regions to follow Europe’s lead. At the same time, such a regional approach would have the advantage of enabling different parts of the world to move at their own pace and in line with their own needs.

Learn from successful experience

Transition details matter, and we therefore need to learn from experience. One successful model is the SCOAP3 program. A particularly powerful aspect of SCOAP3 (even if initially cumbersome to administer) stems from the detailed and systematic planning of the various ways in which money needs to flow through the system for journals to become exclusively gold open access. Money is carefully redirected from library budgets to a central pool administered by CERN, and from there to publishers in the form of APCs. SCOAP3 also focuses on a specific subject area and specific titles within it, and this transition to gold open access has been supported by researchers and made to work through collaboration among all stakeholders. Drawing on the principles of this program could help us all with the much broader challenge of transitioning all hybrid journals to become fully gold open access. Researcher support and cross-stakeholder alignment will be crucial.

Be realistic about cost

We believe that the primary reason to transition to gold open access should not be to save money (it won’t, and there will be winners and losers as costs are redistributed) but that it would be better for research and scholarship – that it is a goal worth achieving even if it were to cost some institutions more money. Advocates for a global transition to gold open access alone should be clear that an entirely gold open access system would cost more in some regions and for some institutions – especially those that are highly research intensive and therefore pay more in a “pay to publish” model – and that they consider this a price worth paying.

It would also be helpful for stakeholders to develop a shared view about future costs of APCs, which are likely to be higher in a fully gold open access world than they are today. The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) argues that average APCs would need to rise to fund the infrastructure currently paid for via the 80 percent of articles published under the subscription model. In any event, APCs are likely to be higher than they are today even just accounting for inflation and the continuing global growth in research output, which is currently about 4 percent a year.

Another reason APCs would rise is that the money flowing into the current system from outside the academic research community – i.e., journal subscriptions from industry – is estimated to be about 25 percent of the total. In a “pay-to-publish model,” systemic costs would need to be borne by the academic research community rather than shared with industry. This is because the costs of publishing in a gold OA system are covered entirely by those who publish articles – the academic research community – and not spread among consumers including the commercial sector, which accesses large amounts of research but publishes comparatively little. These two points have not been addressed in discussions to date but need to be worked through if gold open access is to be a viable, long-term solution globally.


Although the global system may currently contain sufficient funding for a full transition to gold open access, there is a structural challenge to overcome: individual countries have different subscription spend and publication output profiles. How much a country publishes greatly impacts whether gold open access would be economically viable. The financial impact of gold OA would be particularly acute for countries that are high research performers. In some cases, the amount needed to publish all articles gold OA would be more than what a country currently spends on subscriptions. Of course the reverse may be true: a country that currently publishes fewer articles may pay less overall. But there will be financial winners and losers as the costs in the system are allocated differently.

Further, there is the perpetual first-mover challenge: even if 100 percent gold open access were cost-neutral in the long term, in the short term it would not be. In a world where more than 80 percent of articles continue to be published under the subscription model, any country that moves to gold open access first would need to pay to broadcast its articles while also continuing to subscribe to the rest of the world’s content published under the subscription model if they want to retain access to articles published elsewhere (and not supported by gold OA). A country could choose to only pay to publish or broadcast its research globally, but the implications of this are likely to be significant: without access to the majority of the world’s research, it is easy to see how a country’s own research profile would suffer.

And finally, the quality and integrity of the scientific record is essential to researchers, policymakers and the public, who rely on the advances in knowledge researchers deliver. It is imperative that in the transition to open access, adequate funding is provided to maintain quality assurance processes. A fully gold open access world inhabited only by predatory publishers who will publish anything as long as they are paid is not a healthy and prosperous world.

At Elsevier, we remain ready and willing to collaborate with all stakeholders to advance the transition to an open access world. The pace of change will ultimately be driven by researchers and the choices they make about how they wish to disseminate their research outputs. We can help them embrace open access by working closely with funders and research institutions to move beyond advocacy to possibility.

Read more about open science at Elsevier.




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