Skip to content

The cost of open access publishing: a progress report

28 Mar, 2014


The Wellcome Trust recently published details of how much it spent on open access publishing in the year 2012-2013 in an attempt to make the debate around the costs of open access publishing more evidence-based. The data we released fuelled much discussion online and Robert Kiley, Head Digital Services at the Wellcome Library, gives an update…

At the Wellcome Trust we are keen proponents of openness and transparency so we published details of our spending on open access publishing, (as reported by UK institutions and the Trust’s Major Overseas Programmes who are in receipt of an open access block grant) for 2012-13. Within a few hours of releasing this data we were pleased that the web community were working to enhance and normalise it. The version now available through Google Docs is far richer than the original dataset, and includes additional data elements such as DOI’s, licence terms and impact factor.

As well as enriching the data, crowdsourcing has highlighted examples where publishers have not, for whatever reason, made articles freely available, and where biases in the publishing system are leading to very high open access charges. These are both issues that we want to address head on.

Are publishers doing what they are paid to do?

Publishing the data provided the opportunity for anyone to check that articles, for which an article processing charge (APC) had been levied, were freely available under an open access model, in line with our requirements. Inevitably, with a dataset of over 2000 articles, published by 94 different publishers, problems have been identified. These include:

  •        Content remaining hidden behind a publisher pay-wall;
  •        Content freely available on the publisher site, but not available in PMC/Europe PubMed Central;
  •        Missing, incorrect, or contradictory licence information
  •        CC-BY licensed articles still linked to sites such as the Copyright Clearance Centre, where readers may be charged for re-using open content.

Prior to releasing this data, we analysed all the university APC returns and emailed the relevant publishers in cases where the content was not freely available in PMC. In summary we contacted 20 publishers in relation to 150 articles (approximately 7% of the total number of articles for which an APC had been paid).

In the majority of cases these papers are now available in PMC, though it did highlight a number of issues such as articles which were still “in press” (and thus not formally published), publishers saying they had not been paid, and in the case of one publisher, not having established a workflow to push content to PMC. In all cases we are following up these queries.

At this point in time we have not systematically looked at the licence statement for every article, not least as the CC-BY requirement only applied to research articles submitted after 1st April 2013. However, when we repeat this exercise next year, this element will be checked.

Open Access logoWhat does the data show?

In headline terms the Wellcome Trust spent approximately £3.9 million on APCs for 2126 articles in the year 2012-13. The average APC was around £1821, whilst the median cost was £1837.

Further analysis shows that the average APC levied by the traditional subscription publishers (e.g. Elsevier, Wiley, NPG) is significantly higher than that charged by the born-digital open access publishers, like PLOS.

This finding is in line with the recent study by Bjork and Solomon which concluded that the average APC in a hybrid journal – that is a journal which offers an open access option for individual articles, while continuing to operate via the subscription mode – was found to be almost twice that for a born-digital full open access journal ($2,727 compared to $1,418).

As 74% of articles in the 2012-13 dataset were published in a hybrid open access journals, we are actively considering the policy options (put forward in the Bjork/Solomon study) through which funders can help ensure that the rapidly growing open access market delivers high-quality services and value for money for the research community.

Elsevier: a case study

As much of the comment regarding the APC data set has been directed at Elsevier, we have looked in more detail at this data and found that:

  •        Elsevier is the single biggest publisher of Wellcome-funded research, publishing 422 (20%) of the articles listed in this dataset. The second biggest publisher was PLOS, with a total of 305 (14%) articles, and Wiley was third, publishing some 271 (13%) articles.
  •        Of the 422 Elsevier papers in this dataset, all but six (1.5%) are freely available at ScienceDirect. Elsevier are investigating why these six articles have not been made open access, but have confirmed that if articles for which an APC has been paid are not freely available, then they will rectify this and reimburse the institution which made the payment.
  •        An additional eight papers are also not available from PMC and Europe PMC. Elsevier have investigated and confirm these do not yet appear in PMC for a variety of reasons (some to do with authors, others to do with Elsevier systems, some to do with PMC/NLM systems). These papers will be deposited shortly.



We expect every publisher who levies on open access fee to provide a first class service to our researchers and their institutions. We recognise that subscription-based publishers are actively developing their systems (see this article) to accommodate the open access business model and we urge them to makes these changes as quickly as possible. Even though there are only a small number of articles that the Wellcome Trust has paid to be open access that have remained behind a pay-wall, this is not an acceptable situation in any instance.

The bigger issue concerns the high cost of hybrid open access publishing, which we have found to be nearly twice that of born-digital fully open access journals. We need to find ways of balancing this by working with others to encourage the development of a transparent, competitive and reasonably priced APC market.

Finally we would like to extend many thanks to all those who have enriched our data and highlighted the problems. Crowdsourcing analysis of this data has proved to be highly effective and truly in the spirit of the open access thinking of the Wellcome Trust. With you, we will continue to monitor this space to ensure that our open access requirements are fully adhered to.

You can find the Wellcome Trust data on open access spending 2012-2013 on Figshare and our open access policy on the Trust website.

Image Credits: (top) “An Open Book” by Jeremy Brooks CC-BY-NC, (lower) “open books” by muffin9101985 CC-BY-NC-SA on Flickr

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 Mar, 2014 9:21 am

    Reblogged this on Shane O'Mara's Blog.

  2. 29 Mar, 2014 4:33 pm

    “We expect every publisher who levies on open access fee to provide a first class service to our researchers and their institutions.”

    Well said Robert.

    You can also find a more detailed and collaborative spreadsheet of the Wellcome-paid APCs at this Google doc:

  3. 29 Mar, 2014 7:17 pm

    The impact on independent researchers is accumulating quickly. I Now refuse to referee for journals demanding these massive fees who require me to pay heavily personally…unless they pay me an equally substantial sum for the task….

  4. Stevan Harnad permalink
    31 Mar, 2014 1:43 pm

    HEFCE/REF has adopted the optimal complement to the Wellcome and RCUK OA Mandates:

    There are two essential components to an effective “Green” OA mandate (i.e., one that generates as close to 100% compliance, as soon as possible):

    (1) The mandate must uncouple the date of deposit from the date the deposit is made OA, requiring immediate deposit, with no exemptions or exceptions. How long an OA embargo it allows is a separate matter, but on no account must date of deposit be allowed to be contingent on publisher OA embargoes.

    This is exactly what the New HEFCE policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework has done.

    (2) Eligibility for research assessment (and funding) must be made conditional on immediate-deposit (date-stamped by the journal acceptance letter). Again, this is in order to ensure that deposits are not made months or years after publication: no retrospective deposit
    The deposit requirement for eligibility for research assessment and funding is not itself an OA requirement, it is merely a procedural requirement: For eligibility, papers must be deposited in the institutional repository immediately upon acceptance for publication. Late deposits are not eligible for consideration.

    This engages each university (always extremely anxious to comply fully with REF, HEFCE and RCUK eligibility rules) in ensuring that deposit is timely, with the help of the date-stamped acceptance letter throughout the entire 6-year REF cycle, 2014-2020.

    These two conditions are what have yielded the most effective of all the Green OA mandates to date (well over 80% compliance rate and growing) at University of Liege and FRS-FNRS (the Belgian Francophone research funding council); other mandates are upgrading to this mandate model; Harvard FAS has already adopted immediate-deposit as one of its conditions. And now RCUK — thanks to HEFCE/REF — will reap the benefits of the immediate-deposit condition as well (see ROARMAP)

    OA embargoes are another matter, and HEFCE/REF is wisely leaving that to others (RCUK, EU Horizon2020, and university mandates) to stipulate maximal allowable embargo length and any allowable exceptions. What HEFCE/REF is providing is the crucial two components for ensuring that the mandate will succeed: (1) immediate deposit as a (2) condition for REF-eligibility.

    But let me add something else that will become increasingly important, once the HEFCE/REF immediate-deposit requirement begins to propagate worldwide (as I am now confident it will: UK is at last back in the lead on OA again, instead of odd-man-out, as it has been since Finch):

    The immediate-deposit clause and the contingency on eligibility for research assessment and funding also ensures that the primary locus of deposit will be the institutional repository rather than institution-external repositories. (Deposits can be exported automatically to external repositories, once deposited and once the embargo has elapsed; they can also be imported from extrenal repositories, in the case of the physicists and mathematicians who have already been faithfully depositing in Arxiv for two decades,)

    But besides all that, many of the eprints and dspace institutional repositories already have — and, with the HEFCE mandate model propagating almost all of them will soon have the email-eprint-request Button:

    This Button makes it possible for users who reach a closed access deposit to click once to request a copy for research purposes; the repository software emails an automatic eprint request to the author, who can click once to comply with the request; the repository software emails the requestor the eprint. (Researchers have been requesting and sending reprints by mail — and lately by email — for decades, but with immediate-deposit and the Button, this is greatly accelerated and facilitated. So even during any allowable embargo period, the Button will enhance access and usage dramatically. I also predict that immediate-deposit and the Button will greatly hasten the inevitable and well-deserved demise of publisher OA embargoes.)

    Sale, A., Couture, M., Rodrigues, E., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2014) Open Access Mandates and the “Fair Dealing” Button. In: Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (Rosemary J. Coombe & Darren Wershler, Eds.)

    Let me close by noting another important feature of the new HEFCE/REF policy: The allowable exceptions do not apply to the immediate-deposit requirement! They only apply to the allowable open-access embargo. To be eligible for REF2020, a paper must have been deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication (with a 3-month grace period).

  5. Vernique permalink
    1 Apr, 2014 1:55 pm

    Elsevier # 1!! You’re Wellcome!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: