Hybrid open access – an analysis

Welcome to Open Access Week 2016. The Office of Scholarly Communication at Cambridge is celebrating with a series of blog posts, announcements and events. In today’s blog posts we revisit the issue of paying for hybrid open access. We have also published a related post “Who is paying for hybrid?” listing funder policies on hybrid.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of funder open access mandates, the terms of which can differ markedly, adding to the confusion of an already complex area. The Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies (ROARMAP) lists 80 funders with open access requirements, and the list continues to grow.

Within the UK, policies fall into three broad categories: those that mandate green Open Access without paying a fee, such as the HEFCE policy; those that prefer gold but make no additional funds available, such as the NIHR policy, and those that have a preference for gold and offer block grants to institutions to help cover the associated costs, such as the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Charities Open Access Fund (COAF) policies.

Accompanying this expansion of mandates, unsurprisingly, has been an increase in the amount being spent to support Open Access. The Open Access Directory lists 179 funds for OA journal articles worldwide, compared with 81 in early 2014.

All this brings into sharper relief the question of how open access funds support hybrid publishing. But first a quick history lesson.

Hybrid origins

Hybrid journals provide open access to specific articles where an Article Processing Charge has been paid in an otherwise subscription journal. A few learned societies offered hybrid options in the early 2000s. Hybrid open access options were first offered by large publishers in 2004 with Springer’s Open Choice product charging USD3000 per article. This price has not changed in the past 12 years. In the UK the Springer Compact now pays for hybrid under a different model.

Wiley Online Open’s trial began the same year, charging USD2500. Today the price ranges from USD1,500 – 5,200. Oxford Open launched in 2005, and in 2006 Elsevier Open Access and Sage Choice began. In 2007, Taylor & Francis Open Select, Cambridge Open and Nature Publishing Group’s open access offering began.

The uptake of hybrid began slowly. It is very difficult to obtain statistics on what percentage of journals have hybrid Open Access content but in his 2012 analysis The hybrid model for open access publication of scholarly articles – a failed experiment?, (open access version here ) Bo-Christer Bjork found the number of hybrid journals had doubled in the previous couple of years to over 4,300, and the number of such articles was around 12,000 in 2011. This represented a small proportion of eligible authors (1-2 %).

That analysis was published the same year as the Finch Report which recommended a gold path to Open Access. The resulting RCUK Open Access Policy and RCUK Block Grants to fund Open Access APCs has dramatically increased the  expenditure on hybrid in the UK since 2013. According to a report published in 2015, “the UK’s profile of OA take-up is significantly different from the global averages: its use of OA in hybrid journals and of delayed OA journals is more than twice the world average in both cases, while its take-up of fully OA journals with no APC (Gold-no APC) is less than half the world average and falling.”

At Cambridge University we have spent literally millions of pounds on hybrid Open Access – which constitutes approximately 85% of our total APC spend. This is a higher percentage than estimates across the country, which are a 76% spend on hybrid Open Access.

Double dipping

Hybrid represents a second income stream to publishers and has raised questions about ‘double dipping’. Some publishers manage this by reducing the cost of subscriptions in proportion to the percentage of hybrid in a given journal, such as Nature Publishing Group. However ‘big deals’ for subscriptions can render this relatively ineffective, and the reduction is spread across all subscribers, regardless of who has paid the article processing charge. This means research intensive institutions (such as Cambridge) are contributing heavily to the system but not receiving a relative reduction.

To address this issue at a local level, several publishers have created offsetting arrangements, where discounts or refunds are provided in proportion to the contribution the institution has made in APC payments above subscriptions. However, each of these schemes operates differently and they can be complicated to administer, or have other preconditions such making large prepayments to publishers.

The biggest problem from an implementation perspective, however, is that they are by no means universal. By far the biggest publisher, Elsevier, for example, offers no form of offsetting at all, although they nevertheless assert that they do not double dip. The result is that in very many cases, institutions and authors continue to have to pay twice for material in hybrid journals, swelling publisher coffers at the expense of research funding.

Very expensive

One of the problems with hybrid is that even ignoring the added cost of subscriptions to the non Open Access material in those journals, hybrid Open Access charges are more expensive than those for fully Open Access journals.

In March last year both the Wellcome Trust and the RCUK undertook a review of their Open Access policies. The Reckoning: An Analysis of Wellcome Trust Open Access Spend 2013 – 14  noted: “The average APC levied by hybrid journals is 64% higher than the average APC charged by a fully OA title”.  In Wellcome’s data, the average APC for a hybrid article in 2014-15 was £2104, compared with only £1396 for fully OA journals. Worryingly, the data showed that fully OA APC costs had risen more than their hybrid counterparts since the previous year.

Similarly in the Research Councils UK 2014 Independent Review of Implementation the observation was that article processing charges for hybrid Open Access were “significantly more expensive” than fully OA journals, “despite the fact that hybrid journals still enjoyed a revenue stream through subscriptions”.

A Max Planck Digital Library Open Access Policy White Paper published on 28 April 2015 noted that The Wellcome Trust had a significantly higher average APC cost than German, Austrian and SCOAP3 figures. This was because the Wellcome Trust pays for hybrid APCs, “which are not only much higher than most pure open access costs but are also widely considered not to reflect a true market value. In Germany and many other countries, hybrid APCs are excluded from the central funding schemes.”

A study undertaken last year considered APCs in the five-year period between 2010 and 2014 found the mean for fully-OA journals published by non-subscription publishers was£1,136 compared with £1,849 for hybrid journals. The same study also found that traditional subscription publishers are capturing most of the APC market. The top-10 publishers in terms of numbers of APCs received from participant institutions (who received 76% of the total APCs paid from the sample) “only included two fully-OA publishers (PLOS and BMC). The others were established publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and so on) who are mostly gaining APC income from hybrid journals.”

The 2014 report Developing an effective market for open access article processing charges was written for a consortium of research funders comprising Jisc, Research Libraries UK, Research Councils UK, the Wellcome Trust, the Austrian Science Fund, the Luxembourg National Research Fund and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics. The authors noted of the hybrid journal market that it is “highly dysfunctional, with very low uptake for most hybrid journals and a relatively uniform price in most cases without regard to factors such as discipline or impact“.

Value for money?

A second issue which has become apparent as open access mandates have expanded is the extent to which publishers – mostly of hybrid journals – do not deliver the Open Access option that has been paid for. In many cases, the ‘immediate’ Open Access for which an author or institution has paid an APC may take months or even years to be made Open Access; some articles are never made Open Access at all. Even when articles are made available, there is no guarantee that it will have the appropriate licence. It is by no means uncommon for articles to carry more restrictive licences than those requested, or for the appropriate licence to appear on a journal website while the PDF of the article itself bears only a publisher copyright notice and a prominent ‘All rights reserved’.

In March 2016 the Wellcome Trust published a report into compliance among its paid-for articles in 2014-15, concluding:

The good news is that we have seen an improvement in correct and programmatically identifiable licences (from 61% of papers in ’13-‘14, to 70% in ’14-‘15) and a similar increase in overall compliance from 61% to 70%.  The bad news, however, is that in 30% of cases we are not getting what we are paying for.

The source of this non-compliance was overwhelmingly hybrid journals, and the largest publishers were the worst offenders: in the Wellcome data, 31% of Elsevier hybrid articles (and 26% of their ‘fully OA’ articles!) were non-compliant, as were 54% of Wiley’s.

One might conclude, then, that hybrid Open Access represents a bad deal for funders and institutions, with poor service and double-dipping.

Other hybrid issues

To further complicate matters, some have argued that the open access/hybrid dichotomy is too stark. Some journals, particularly coming from learned societies, (e.g. Plant Physiology, from the American Society of Plant Biologists) make all articles open access after a certain period, but charge an optional APC to make them available sooner. This would generally be considered hybrid publishing, but could be seen as a rather different category from the majority of corporate hybrid journals, in which articles never become Open Access unless an APC is paid. There is a possibility that strict funder mandates against hybrid could close off such journals to researchers, exacerbating the anxieties regarding open access felt by many learned societies.

Where does this leave authors and institutions? It’s clear that the situation remains very much in flux. The problems that have existed with hybrid since the beginnings of Open Access are far from resolved, despite the expansion of journal offsetting schemes. Meanwhile, prices continue to rise and while many funders have taken the step of allowing their funds to be used only for fully Open Access journals, it is still a minority of the largest and most powerful funding bodies.

The result is confusion for researchers and an increased administrative burden for institutions, who have to manage and advise on a proliferation of divergent funder and publisher policies, as well as conducting regular and extremely resource-intensive compliance-checking of hybrid publications to ensure publishers have delivered what has been paid for. As numbers of Open Access publications increase, it is questionable how sustainable this will be.

Published 24 October 2016
Written by Dr Philip Boyes and Dr Danny Kingsley 
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