Finding sustainable growth in OA

It’s often said that change creates opportunity, and there’s no doubt that open access (OA) represents a major change for scholarly publishers. However, pinpointing the opportunities it creates is harder than it first appears. "A factor that I think is limiting open access’s continued growth is the lack of clean, clear, collected data," explains Deni Auclair, chief financial officer and senior analyst at Delta Think, a consulting and advisory firm focussed on scholarly communications. She estimates that the OA market is growing at 10-15% a year, and represents somewhere between 3 and 6% of the total academic journals market—but actionable data for individual players often remains elusive. The big publishers have research groups of two or three people working solely on the open access market, notes Auclair.

Small wonder, then, that others may struggle to identify and carve out a niche. Auclair therefore advises publishers to look carefully at the actions of competitors, seek external advice, and take account of macro-level trends: "To make really strong, strategic decisions, you have to understand the dynamics of the entire marketplace."

Finding a viable business model
Where an opportunity is identified, the next challenge is finding a viable business model. "There’s still a lot of experimentation, innovation and trying to figure out how to make this work for everybody. And we’re not there yet," says Auclair. Article publication charges (APCs) have become the favoured business model for open access journals, but demand from authors remains muted in many disciplines, and funders are keen to keep prices low. As a result, the majority of subscription publishers are still taking a conservative approach to adoption of OA models. "A lot of publishers are paying lip service to open access," says Auclair, "but what’s really needed is a process-driven approach."

Setting a price point
Publishers developing an open access offer need both to set headline APC prices, and consider what discounts to offer. These might be based on author memberships, national or institutional affiliations, offsetting arrangements or a whole range of other factors. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that open access could simply replace financial barriers to readership with similar barriers to publication, particularly for authors in the developing world. Ros Pyne, head of policy and development, Open Research at Springer Nature, stresses, "If you’re thinking about scaling up OA, especially in the fully-OA sphere, then you have to spend some time thinking about what your approach to waiving and discounts would be." Factor in the need to support some commissioned content, which may not be revenue-generating, and the process of setting and charging APCs quickly becomes complex. 

Meeting institutional demands
Publishers must also be prepared to meet the growing demand for data from institutions and funders. The OpenAPC initiative grew out of a local requirement at Bielefeld University, Germany, to efficiently report APC spending to the German Research Foundation.  As Dirk Pieper, deputy director of Bielefeld University Library, explains: "After publishing our APC cost and bibliographic as open data, the logical next step was to open this up for other institutions." Today, OpenAPC captures over €43m in publication fee spending from 71 research performing institutions and research funders in Europe and North America. Pieper believes the size of the dataset helps libraries drive price and cost transparency in the developing open access market. 
Yet libraries’ growing appetite for transparent data increases the expectations placed on publishers. "One trend that we’re really noticing is institutions wanting great reporting on their open access publication, and seeing that as part of a service that they would like publishers to provide," says Springer Nature’s Pyne. Meeting this requirement can involve significant investment in metadata and workflows, but Pyne believes it is a price worth paying: "Investing in metadata early on pays off in terms of being able to set up open access arrangements much faster and more flexibly."

Taking a data-driven approach
Without good systems, APC pricing can become a black box, with a high risk of error and dissatisfied customers. While some publishers choose to develop in-house solutions, others are partnering with third-party vendors to develop data-driven workflows. Manuscript submission systems like Clarivate Analytics’ ScholarOne and Aries Editorial Manager are evolving to capture crucial metadata at the point of submission. Standards like ORCID, Ringgold, and the Crossref Funder Registry enable the data collected to be easily consumed by other systems. One example is Delta Think’s Open Access Data Analytics Tool, which provides insights through aggregated and curated data and analysis to support strategic decisions. Another is Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink suite of e-commerce and workflow tools which can use this information to drive author-, institution- and funder-centric payment workflows, and provide post-transaction reporting on pricing and discounts.  By leveraging these partnerships, publishers of all sizes can implement a scalable solution to support their internal needs, as well as those of their customers.

Hiding the wiring
Until data-driven approaches become the norm, there remains too much reliance on authors to navigate complex payment processes.  Indeed, Bielefeld’s Pieper argues that inefficient workflows on the side of both publishers and libraries are significantly constraining further growth in open access. He expects European libraries to offer an "open access clearing centre" in future, managing payment and bibliographical services on behalf of their authors.
Pyne also sees scope to streamline the relationship between publishers and institutions, and improve the author experience. She notes, however, that this cannot be achieved at the expense of transparency, and that not every institution has similar requirements.  Retaining the flexibility to meet the needs of individual authors is crucial.

Looking to the future
Views differ on the rate at which open access will grow, but no-one doubts that it is here to stay. What is clear is that the switch to open access business models cannot be made overnight. Publishers need to develop a sound understanding of the OA market, implement transparent and sustainable pricing strategies, and adopt data-driven workflows, all of which takes time. Pieper, however, points to the growth in pirate websites such as Sci-Hub as a harbinger of more rapid change. "In Germany, we are currently learning that research does not stop if we lose access to research articles," he says, "The only thing which happens is that Sci-Hub becomes even more popular. If traditional publishers want to earn money from publishing in the future, they must hurry."

Rob Johnson is founder and director of Research Consulting.