Making Open Access Work: 5 Tips for Academic Publishers to Support a Sustainable & Scalable OA Ecosystem

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In late 2014 Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) hosted a roundtable to discuss the challenge of making open access work. The event brought together a group of academic institutions from the United Kingdom and publishers from the US and UK to examine the implications of the rapid growth of open access publishing. Those present focused in particular on the challenges surrounding the payment of article processing charges (APCs) and on the role vendors such as CCC can play in addressing these challenges. The group’s findings were published in the January 2015 report, “Making Open Access Work for Authors, Institutions and Publishers.”

The discussions confirmed what many academic publishers will know from their own experience — the current approach to APC management is highly fragmented and beset by inefficiencies in process and scarcity of resources. Academic institutions themselves face many of the same problems, and so publishers and institutions have significant incentives to collaborate on streamlining the process.

The discussions spotlighted five key areas where publishers can take action to smooth the transition to open access.

1. Develop Relationships with Institutional Administrators

Author engagement is crucial to the success of the open access movement, but many authors need support in navigating a complex and ever-changing web of funder mandates and an equally varied set of publisher policies. They may also need help in accessing institutional funding for APCs and complying with institutional mandates and procedures.

As a result, a two-way relationship between author and publisher is transforming into a three- or four-way relationship involving the institution and potentially an external funder. Karen Hawkins, senior director, product design at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), explains, “What we find is that authors are not always clear on funder requirements and the license that they want, and so we know that we need to make the process more institution-friendly.” This means recognizing that in some cases institutional administrators themselves may need to use manuscript submission and payment systems on behalf of their authors. Publishers can also overcome some of the delays in the open access workflow by developing good working relationships with key members of staff in the library or research support office, particularly at the most research-intensive institutions.

2. Review Workflows and Support Structures

Publishers moving from a subscription to an open access publishing model often find that their existing systems and processes are simply unable to handle the new model. In place of the linear workflow associated with traditional subscription publishing, where payment occurs outside of the editorial process, the payment and publishing processes are now intrinsically linked. This means that production and editorial teams must develop stronger links with finance and operations functions, without compromising the integrity of the peer- review process, given that revenue is directly linked to article acceptances under an open access business model. Brandon Nordin, vice president of marketing, sales, and web development at the American Chemical Society, advises publishers to assure a successful transition to open access by thinking holistically, seeking input from multiple stakeholders, and resisting manual exception handling. “This has been a pretty intense learning curve for the whole organization, so getting your operations and finance staff involved early is really important,” he stressed.

3. Evaluate Licensing Options

Subscription publishers typically offer a wide range of licensing options and aim to preserve author choice in this regard. However, funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation require the use of a CC BY license in all publications arising from their funding. If authors are unaware of this, institutional administrators may request a retrospective amendment to correct a non-compliant license, creating additional work for all concerned.

Although licensing represents an important revenue stream for many publishers, many would benefit from re-assessing the range of options they present to authors on licensing. For example, Nature Publishing Group found that when they altered the order of their licenses, authors simply selected the middle option regardless, behaviour that suggests many are giving little attention to the implications of their choice. A three-month pilot of a CC BY license by default across three titles, including Nature Communications, resulted in only 3% of authors requesting an alternative license. In view of this, “…we made a call that we wanted to get behind CC BY,” said Ros Pyne, research and development manager at Nature Publishing Group. This support for CC BY also extends to APC pricing. “We looked at the landscape and realized that differentiating our pricing was very out of line with what other publishers are doing,” noted Pyne. “We felt we could not support CC BY and be charging more for it.”

4. Develop a Scalable Approach to Management and Billing of APCs

As the volume of APCs continues to rise, both institutions and publishers acknowledge that manually processing individual invoices for each article is an unsustainable model. A few institutions remain cautious about the value of aggregated billing arrangements, fearing a loss of transparency in APC pricing, but such arrangements can be invaluable in reducing the administrative burden on both universities and publishers. Some publishers are also exploring more innovative arrangements, by which agreement is reached with a national funder or a consortium of libraries to offset article-processing charges against subscription costs. It is too early to say what will become the dominant model, but ensuring scalability should be uppermost in the minds of all publishers as they develop new business processes to support open access.

5. Adopt Emerging Data Standards and Promote Interoperability

The key to helping institutions meet funder requirements lies in obtaining better quality data at an early stage from publishers. “What we need are actual APC costs, date of payment, license type, DOI, and agreed publication date,” observed Valerie McCutcheon, research information manager at the University of Glasgow. The adoption of standards also creates opportunities for efficiency savings for publishers themselves. Many are already integrating ORCID and FundRef into their workflows, and with the recent release of the National Information Standards Organization’s (NISO) Recommended Practice on Access and Licensing for e-content, standards are beginning to emerge in this area. Publishers also have a vital role to play in shaping the development of new standards, for example, by contributing to the work of the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI).

Conclusion: A Future Narrative for Open Access

At the close of the roundtable discussion, those present were challenged to develop a narrative that could guide decision-making about open access in the here and now. The resulting statement reflects the understanding that making open access work is a shared endeavor in which all the stakeholders — publishers, institutions, funders, and vendors — have a crucial role to play:

We should work towards simplifying and standardizing processes to move towards a sustainable and scalable open access ecosystem which preserves academic freedom and author choice in publishing and makes the research as valuable as possible for the end user.

For publishers, this means developing closer links with institutions, reviewing workflows, licensing and billing arrangements, and adopting emerging data standards. With these building blocks in place, there is every prospect that the sustainable and scalable open access ecosystem envisaged at the roundtable will become a reality.

This article was first published online by Book Business, at

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