Open Access is Free, Actually

By Molly Minturn | October 26, 2023

Guest post by Brandon Butler, the Library’s Director of Information Policy.

Oopen Access Week banner

As we celebrate Open Access Week this week, and in particular as we reflect on the theme “Community over Commercialization,” the time is ripe for highlighting the difference between open access as a copyright choice, open access as a compliance step, and open access as a business model for commercial publishers. Seeing the difference between these three things can help us make clear-eyed choices about where and how to invest time, money, and social capital in support of this broad, multifaceted thing we call “open access.”

Open access as a copyright choice

Ordinarily, copyright requires that someone ask permission before sharing, adapting, or otherwise reusing in-copyright works (unless, of course, your use is a fair use). Open access as a copyright choice describes making your work available with an open license so that anyone can share and reuse it without any additional permission (typically subject to some basic conditions, like attribution). Publishers are often seen as the ones in charge of permissions, and the choice to assign an open license often takes place as part of an author’s interaction with a publisher, but there’s nothing in copyright law that requires things to work this way.

Indeed, unless an author transfers their rights (or grants an exclusive license), the power to grant permissions is entirely theirs from the moment a work is created. There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule: institutional policies, privacy concerns, and other issues can constrain author choices. But in general, any research product that could be published by a traditional publisher or posted to a public platform (which would require the author as copyright holder to grant the publisher or platform a license) can also be openly licensed (which is simply the author offering a license to the general public). Choosing and applying an open license involves some thought and a little bit of work, but it’s something that any academic author can manage fairly easily with a little help from an online tutorial. (I’m always happy to help, too, if UVA authors have questions about choosing a license. Just drop me a line.) In other words, open access as a copyright choice is free in both senses of the word: “free as in speech” because authors have the legal right to use open licenses, and “free as in beer” because there is no cost to do so.

Open access as a compliance step

Authors encounter open access as a compliance step when their work is subject to a policy that requires them to make it openly available. A high-profile example of such a policy is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s bold plan to make all published results of federally funded research freely available to the public without delay. A crucial thing to understand about this plan is that funded researchers can comply with it simply by placing a copy of their published work in an agency-designated repository. Such repositories are almost certainly going to be operated by agencies themselves (like the enormously successful PubMedCentral repository hosted by the National Institutes of Health) or by universities (like our own LibraOpen). The same can be said of other policies that might impact researchers, such as university open access policies: compliance generally just requires depositing a copy in an open repository. These repositories are certainly not free for institutions and agencies to operate and support, but they are relatively affordable, and they are completely free to authors to use. So, here again there is no cost to researchers who need open access as a compliance step.

Open access as a business model for commercial publishers

Although these two fundamental elements of open access — assigning an open license and complying with open policies — are generally available to researchers at no cost to them, the mention of open access still leads most researchers to think immediately of paying a fee — often a hefty one. That’s because most researchers encounter open access as a business model for commercial publishers. And since we have seen that there is no cost to assign an open license and no cost to comply with open policies, it’s important to understand what you’re actually paying for when you buy “open access” from a commercial publisher. There are two main answers.

First, and most importantly from an author’s perspective, you’re getting the journal’s imprimatur on your research. Unfortunately, publishing in “high quality journals” is still seen as a sine qua non for career advancement in many fields. For decades the commercial publishers’ oligopoly control of these journals made it possible for them to squeeze eye-popping profit margins from library budgets in the form of extractive subscription fees. Using the “article processing charge” (APC) mechanism, publishers can run the same play against a group with even less bargaining power than libraries: authors. If having a particular journal listed on your CV is the difference between receiving tenure and having to find a new line of work, the price of admission to that journal could get very high, indeed, and authors would still feel compelled to pay. As the academic TikTok/YouTube persona Dr. Glaucomflecken has suggested (jokingly, of course), it’s a model that bears at least a passing resemblance to extortion. In any case, what you get for the money is not open access (remember, that’s free); it’s prestige. And when prestige has a price tag, inequity and predation are never far behind.

Second, and perhaps more generously to the publishers, you get the services that publishers generally describe themselves as providing: organizing peer review, copy editing, marketing and promotion and so on. In a toll access model, subscription fees cover the costs of these services; absent subscriptions, the publishers say, they must make their money from authors. But what is the real cost of publishing an article? Notoriously, peer reviewers are unpaid, as are authors. (Dr. Glaucomflecken has a great bit on this, too.) One study found that the actual cost of publishing a scholarly article likely ranges from $200-$1000 an article, with $400 as the average. Where does the rest of your APC go? Executives at the biggest publishers are paid very well, as are their shareholders, but it’s not clear why any academic author would be interested in subsidizing these payouts rather than hiring more research fellows or buying more equipment, all else equal. And it’s not clear that authors choose a publisher based on (rather than in spite of) the service they receive. Most authors don’t have the time or the market power to shop around. Because of the prestige factor described above, this is not a market where the price of the service is likely to bear much relationship to its cost or its quality. Indeed, the main driver of APC price appears to be market power.

Why we don’t pay individual article processing charges

As interest in open access grows at UVA, the Library has been asked more and more often about whether we have a fund to pay or subsidize individual APC fees as a way of supporting open access. We do not, and I hope understanding what I’ve just laid out about the three kinds of open access helps make clear why. Through copyright consultation and support for our open repository service, we can provide any UVA scholar with free, high-quality open access options. Collective deals (sometimes called “Read and Publish” deals) at least let us negotiate and pay below-retail fees on behalf of all UVA authors, and you can see the deals we have in place currently on our Writing and Publishing resources page. These deals have their risks and detractors, too, however, and we should be clear-eyed about the trade-offs involved in participating. As the open access landscape evolves, the Library will continue to pursue our strategy of supporting sustainable scholarship, including sustainable open access models.