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APCs, BPCs, can I have some money please – who pays for OA?

Photo by Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash

This is one of the most important questions for authors: if the reader doesn’t pay, who does? BPCs (Book Processing Charges) and APCs (Article Processing Charges) are fees levied on authors, their institutions or their funding bodies to pay for Open Access publishing (also known as author-side fees). It’s important to note:

  • Not all publishers charge these (OBP doesn’t, for instance).
  • In some cases, these charges are essential to the continued work of the publisher and the costs of publication are laid out in a transparent manner.
  • In other cases, the calculations behind the fee are not transparent.

BPCs and APCs are a big challenge for Open Access publishing.[1] Simply flipping the costs of publishing from the reader to the author does not achieve the aim of making knowledge available for all regardless of financial means; it imposes a new set of barriers and entrenches other forms of inequality. These charges also spark academic hostility towards OA: it becomes a drain on resources and a source of worry, rather than a powerful way to disseminate research.

The valuable services publishers provide – including working with authors to develop a manuscript, editing, copyediting, typesetting, indexing, tagging, and distribution – do not come without cost. However, academic publishers do not pay for the labour and expertise of the authors, whose work is typically funded by their academic institutions, research organisations, grant bodies or by the authors themselves (whose only recompense comes in the form of royalties, typically a tiny percentage of sales).[2] Another essential component of academic publishing, peer review, is also usually undertaken on a voluntary basis. At OBP we believe that the role of the academic publisher is to make this work available to a wider audience in a financially sustainable way, not to lock it behind a paywall and milk it for profit margins of more than 30% while claiming to be engaged in knowledge distribution.

We have developed a sustainable Open Access funding model that does not involve charging authors to publish with us (which we have never done and will never do). The model is discussed more fully in this blog post, but essentially our income derives from sales of our modestly-priced paperback, hardback and digital editions; grants; donations; and our Library Membership Scheme in which libraries pay an annual sum for institutional access to all OBP’s digital editions and discounts on physical copies. The Scheme has gone from strength to strength with almost 130 members worldwide, and it is also a ‘proof of concept’ – a model showing how library budgets can support sustainable Open Access publishing for all rather than being drained by the expensive subscriptions charged by legacy publishers, who often also charge institutions large amounts of money to make work available on an Open Access basis.

It is important to note that although all our books are available to read and download free of charge on an Open Access basis, sales of our paperback, hardback, and digital copies form an important revenue stream that helps to fund our work. Open Access does not mean zero sales, and Open Access funding should not proceed on this basis. Open Access also enables more cost-efficient distribution, resulting in significant savings for publishers.

OBP has demonstrated one model by which the work of publishing can be done more cost-efficiently while enabling access for all and without charging authors or their institutions hefty fees, and other Open Access journals and publishers have also found alternatives to the ‘author pays’ model. There is a large amount of money in library budgets that is currently allocated to pay the high prices charged by legacy publishers for access to their books and journals, but some of this money could be put to other uses – for example, UCL Press have shown the value for a university in having its own Open Access press, while institutions in Germany and Sweden have reacted against the high prices and unwelcome bundling tactics of science publisher Elsevier by cancelling their subscriptions to Elsevier’s journals.[3]

At OBP we believe that if research dissemination is prohibitively expensive for individual readers or authors, drains institutional budgets, and produces publications that are accessible only to a tiny number of people, then it is fundamentally failing. Universities and publishers should take the opportunity provided by modern technology to work together to find and fund equitable models of publication. The good news is that this work is beginning to take place – there are successful Open Access university presses such as UCL Press and White Rose University Press, and OBP is working as part of a consortium of not-for-profit Open Access publishers, ScholarLed, to develop infrastructure and funding channels that eliminate the need for BPCs.

The scholarly community must be alert to, and vocal about, the various developments in Open Access publishing, so that the costs of an outdated distribution model are not simply shifted from readers to authors in the name of Open Access.

This blog post is part of a series for academics who want to find out more about Open Access. Click here for the other posts.

[1] Although, as Peter Suber has pointed out, such charges are not unique to Open Access publications: he has suggested that more than two-thirds of peer-reviewed Open Access journals do not charge author-side fees, while many closed-access journals do.

[2] At OBP our authors are entitled to royalties, but many authors generously forego these in order to further support our work.

[3] These photographs come from a presentation by UCL Press given at the British Academy on 11th September 2018 at an event called ‘Open Access Monographs: An Event for Learned Societies and Subject Associations’.

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