D-Lib Magazine
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D-Lib Magazine

March/April 2010
Volume 16, Number 3/4
Table of Contents


An Approach to Open Access Author Payment

Donald W. King
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill



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(This Opinion piece presents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of D-Lib Magazine, its publisher, the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, or the D-Lib Alliance.)


There have been hundreds of articles in recent years exhorting the strengths and warning of the weaknesses of Open Access through author payment. This article discusses a few of the favorable and unfavorable issues and proposes an approach that takes advantage of the favorable aspects and overcomes some of the unfavorable ones. It requires extensive government support, which may or may not be feasible, but the approach is presented here nevertheless. Some evidence is given for the potential savings that would be achieved by scientists, publishers and libraries in the US.


Arguments For and Against Author Payment

The most compelling argument for author payment is that the amount of use of article content in this model should be more than the subscription model and, therefore, the use value of articles is enhanced, which is an important objective of both authors and funders. The subscription model, it is argued, depresses article use in that many potential readers do not read relevant articles because they: (1) are unaware of them, (2) do not have access through library collections and services, (3) do not have sufficient funds for subscriptions (or society memberships), or (4) do not have the substantial time and effort required to obtain article copies. Examples in the US include scientists who are self employed, who are located in small high-tech companies, who are found in non-research colleges (where science is taught nevertheless), as well as, medical professionals in hospitals, HMOs, group practice and medical practitioners. Many of these professionals continue their personal subscriptions averaging about six or so subscriptions, but scientists across the board average reading at least one article from over 25 scholarly journals because they are employed in large universities, government agencies or companies that have sufficient library collections and support services (Tenopir & King 2000).

Some objections to author-payment include the size of author fees, who pays the fees, timing of when the fees are required by publishers, and lack of fairness in that non-authors and their parent organizations no longer pay for subscriptions and, therefore, do not share in contributing to publishing costs. The size of fees required for author payment was initially underestimated by many including some publishers that started exclusive author payment publications such as BioMed Central and Public Library of Science (King & Alvarado-Albertorio 2008, Butler 2006) even though the potential cost of article processing was well established at the time (Tenopir & King 2000).

An issue is who pays the author fees: the authors themselves, their parent organizations, or funders of the research being reported. There is not a great deal of evidence in the US about funding of articles reporting research1. Shieber (2009) suggests that universities and the federal government make an Open Access compact to pay author fees for all articles funded or prepared by their authors and, furthermore, submit these articles only to Open Access publishers (e.g., PloS).

Schroter, et al., (2006) conducted a study of 377 medical journal authors and found that a large proportion of published research is not externally funded, and many funded researchers no longer have access to financial support by the time their paper is finally accepted for publication. Cox & Cox (2008) show that publishers have a range of policies concerning when author payment is due (e.g., at the time the manuscript is submitted, at the time of publication, or some combination of timing).

There is a concern that authors and/or their funders will simply not be willing to pay an author fee2. In the 1970s the Federal Council for Science & Technology (FCST) had a policy that payment of page charges could not be made to journals operated for profit. About this time commercial publishers became more popular with authors and, as a result, society journals began to lose author payment revenue leading to a need for society publishers to raise subscription prices to recover their publishing costs (King & Roderer 1981).

Another issue is that author payment by funders would reduce the amount of funds available for research. Furthermore, non-authors and their institutional libraries would benefit through "free" access to journals and articles. This would be particularly beneficial to non-academic organizations since only about one-fourth of science articles are written by authors not in universities. However, if an objective of publishing is to gain maximum use, this should not matter. Non-university scientists and their organizations benefit substantially from access and use of scholarly journals (Griffiths & King 1993, Tenopir & King 2000).


An Approach to Addressing These Issues

After reviewing the Shieber and Schroter, et al. articles it seemed that a solution to author payment issues mentioned above is for the federal government to make author payment for all peer-reviewed science and medical articles written or co-authored by US authors and, ideally, to agree with other nations and the EU to follow suit. It is clear that such federal expenditures would detract from research funds. However an argument can be made that "free" access to all science literature not only has substantial value to federally funded researchers as readers, but also to other scientists as well which is a gain to science and its contribution to the economy and society.

Advantages of comprehensive 100 percent federal author payment include:

  • All articles are funded and authors, parent organizations and the government funding agencies need not be burdened with payments
  • Publishers bill and receive revenue from a single source
  • The problem of the length of an embargo period is no longer an issue

The Case in the US

A question is how much it would cost the federal government to fund all US science articles? The answer depends on the annual number of articles written by US authors; the proportion of articles that report federally funded research; publishers' costs and fees; and the difference in federal expenditures in funding all articles vs. only articles reporting federally funded research. There is no definitive estimate of the number of science peer-reviewed scholarly articles authored in the US. NSF data (Science & Engineering Indicators — 2010) show that there were about 200,000 science articles published in ISI journals (SCI, SSCI) in 2008. Björk & Roos (2008) provide evidence of the number of non-ISI articles world-wide. Assuming the evidence holds for US, there would be a total of 285,000 US science authored articles in 2008.

Roughly $56 billion US federal funds were spent in 2008 on basic and applied research (over half by NSF and NIH). Shieber (2009) and Cox & Cox (2008) give $1,500 as a typical/average author payment fee. Conservatively it could be $2,500 and both averages are used in calculations below3. Assume that 40, 60, or 100 percent of US science articles are funded by government at $1,500 or conservatively $2,500. Below are calculations of what the total federal obligations would be if 40, 60, or 100 percent of articles were funded federally and what additional funds would be required by 100 percent of articles funded federally (at an author fee of $1,500 per article).

Articles Currently Supported from Federal R&D Funds Total Current Potential Federal Obligations Additional Funds Required for 100% Funding
Proportion (%) Number ($millions) ($millions)
40 114,000 $171.0 $256.5
60 171,000 $256.5 $171.0
100 285,000 $427.5


If 40 percent of US science articles (i.e., 114,000 articles) result from federal R&D funds and the government pays $1,500 in author fees for these articles the cost to the government would be $171 million. If the government pays for all 285,000 articles it would cost $427.5 million or an additional $256.5 million. The $427.5 million is 0.76 percent of the $56 billion total R&D budget in 2008 with the additional funds being 0.46 percent. Assuming that 60 percent of science articles are federally funded, the additional funds required to pay for all science articles would be $171.0 million or 0.031 percent of the $56 billion federal R&D funds.

If the average author payment is $2,500 the results are as follows:

Articles Currently Supported from Federal R&D Funds Total Current Potential Federal Obligations Additional Funds Required for 100% Funding
Proportion (%) Number ($millions) ($millions)
40 114,000 $285.0 $427.5
60 171,000 $427.5 $285.0
100 285,000 $712.5


Therefore, at 40 percent of articles federally funded the current potential obligation is $285.0 million and at 100 percent funding of all articles would require an additional $427.5 million or 0.76 percent of the R&D budget and at 60 percent of articles the current potential funding would be $427.5 million with $285.0 million additional required at 100 percent funding of all articles (or 0.51 percent of R&D funds). The $712.5 million total funds represents 1.27 percent of total R&D funds4. Under these conditions the worst case additional funding required would be less than one percent (i.e., 0.76%).


Evidence of Outcomes from 100 Percent Article Funding

The question then is what is gained by federal supporting of all science article payment? Two recent studies provide evidence of savings that might be achieved by the science community. One study was conducted by the Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (2008) for RIN (Research Information Network) in the UK. They claim that if 90 percent of all articles are made Open Access upon payment by authors or their representatives, there would be total savings in the global costs of publishing, distribution and access of £562 million which is split almost equally between publishers and libraries. Another study by Houghton and colleagues (2009) funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) in the UK concludes that the average savings from author payment publishing is £813 per article or £213 million per annum in the UK. Furthermore, with 20 percent social return to publicly funded R&D, a five percent increase in accessibility and efficiency would be worth £172 million to public sector R&D.


Assumptions and Potential Cost Savings to Scientists

One important outcome is the effect of 100 percent article funding on the entire journal system costs which are roughly sub-divided as follows based on data from four national studies of costs:

Donated time of reviewers and editors3%
Publishers (including paid editors)9%
Libraries and intermediaries11%

About 80 percent of the total costs involve scientists' time (based on an average from CEPA 2008, Houghton et al. 2009, Morris 2005, King et al. 1981). Theses costs represent the total cost of all resources in the system (i.e., labor, systems, facilities, etc.). The library costs do not include journal purchases since that would duplicate publisher costs (and purchase price paid is not a resource in libraries). In the US these costs are currently in the neighborhood of about $29 billion. The amount of costs suggests that the target for cost savings should be in scientists' time (i.e., about $23 billion).

With 100 percent federal funding of all articles all scientists would no longer need to subscribe to journals or receive them from society memberships in which case membership dues could be reduced accordingly. As mentioned above many scientists do not have access to library collections and services. The 2006 NSF SESTAT data show that there were about 4.5 million scientists and engineers with their highest degree in science or engineering and employed in jobs that are closely related to their degree5. About 17 percent are self-employed; 19 percent are found in small firms with less than 100 persons employed, and eight percent are in non-4year college education. These scientists are all likely to benefit substantially through author payment Open Access thereby supporting the science community and outcomes from their work.

Savings to the science community would result from professionals who do not have libraries immediately available (such as in a university) saving time and money by having "free" access to articles. For example, it is estimated that it costs readers an average of 36 minutes and $10.00 per reading more to obtain an article when a library is not available to them (King et al. 2009). This all suggests that fully funding author payment would achieve substantial additional savings to the US science community. It seems that the potential investment of fully supporting all science articles would be beneficial to researchers funded by the government as well as those not funded, which in turn improves the economy and quality of life.

As a very rough approximation of potential savings to scientists, assume one-fourth of the 4.5 million core scientists do not have library collections and services available and they average 100 readings per year at a cost to them of 36 minutes (at $50 per hour) and $10 per reading in other costs. In this scenario they could save over $4 billion with 100 percent author payment covered by the government. This means science gains by these amounts through 100 percent author payment. Pediatricians working in private practice, hospitals, group practice and HMOs average about 100 readings annually (Tenopir et al. 2007) which suggests that medical practice can benefit in the billions of dollars as well.


Library Assumptions and Sources of Cost Savings

Library costs that would be reduced are based on the following assumptions (King et al. 2004). It is assumed that nearly all print subscriptions would be cancelled (with some continued for a periodicals room and for print journals that are not OA), and most electronic journals would be dropped (with some not OA). Interlibrary lending would drop dramatically. It is not known the extent to which these changes would take place, but they should reduce costs substantially.

Suspension of print subscriptions should save about $330 per title; when print is subscribed only for the periodical room the library should save about $220 per title (assuming they are not bound and shelved); the total costs of interlibrary lending and borrowing should reduce costs about $20 to $40 per loan; suspension of electronic subscriptions should save about $170 per title. These costs are based on a 25-year cycle. The library would continue some use-related and user-related costs which are not included above such as downloading articles and training users. Schonfeld et al. 2004 shows that the processing costs to small libraries are higher due to lack of economies of scale.

There are 3,772 academic libraries in the US that average about 3,690 science journals, or a total of 13.9 million subscriptions, of which 1,950 are in print and 1,740 are electronic. Therefore, dropping 7.36 million print titles would save academic libraries $2.4 billion at $330 per title and discontinuing 6.56 million electronic subscriptions at $170 per title would save an additional $1.1 billion for a total of $3.5 billion. There are 9,066 special libraries of which about 4,100 are likely to subscribe to science journals. They average 560 science journals for a total of 2.3 million subscriptions. A total of 1.6 million print subscriptions would be dropped at $330 each for a savings of $0.5 billion and 0.7 million electronic subscriptions would be drooped at $170 per subscription or $0.1 billion or $0.6 billion total. Altogether, academic and special libraries might save in the neighborhood of $4.1 billion (see Griffiths and King 2009 and King et al. 2004).

Therefore, the library cost savings can be substantial and treated as a "grant" to universities and colleges in addition to savings to special and public libraries. Academic libraries could reallocate their budgets, but university administrators would have to be convinced.


Publisher Assumptions and Costs

Most library subscriptions would be discontinued except for library periodical room subscriptions, whereas most personal or society member subscriptions would continue for the near future. Electronic versions would continue growing. Publisher first-copy costs should remain about the same with author payment processing replacing most subscription maintenance costs (assuming some would continue). Suspension of subscriptions should save about $10 per electronic subscription and $40 to $100 for print subscriptions depending on size, number of copies, and features, etc.

One consideration for publishers is that cash flow might be affected. That is, nearly all first copy costs would be incurred before revenue is received. This means that there must be an investment to cover these costs or the amount must be borrowed. With subscriptions it is estimated that net revenue is positive for only 12 of 27 months covering receipt of a manuscript up to the end of the first year of a subscription (Tenopir & King 2000).


Issues to be Addressed

The outcomes from 100 percent article funding have been examined from a systems perspective including the federal R&D expenditures, scientists, libraries, other intermediaries, and publishers. There are two issues to be considered, among others: (1) should journal brands be maintained and (2) how should access to journals/articles be achieved. (i.e., through libraries, publishers and/or national repositories). There are reasons that publishers should continue journal branding. One value of journals is that they group articles into like topics so that authors know where to submit their manuscripts and readers can rely on accessing articles of potential interest to them. Journals are also useful to publishers in picking editors with appropriate knowledge and to editors in their manuscript selection and in identifying relevant peer-reviewers.

Open Access through author payment raises a question as to where the collections should reside to be made available for access. Options include libraries, publishers or national repositories. The answer lies in the format (i.e., print or electronic) resulting from Open Access. Personal subscribers continue to prefer print by far (Tenopir et al. 2009, King et al. 2006) and some libraries may wish to continue subscribing to print versions to maintain their periodical rooms (but discard copies rather than bind and store). One would assume that libraries would discontinue electronic versions if publishers and/or national repositories would maintain the electronic collections. Publishers could provide electronic access to their journals as many now do (Cox & Cox 2008). An advantage to national repositories is that they could serve as permanent archives in addition providing access to articles.

Some authors are particularly prolific and some authors might be tempted to write more if the government would cover their publication costs. There are two disincentives for authors to abuse the system. First, the government would pay only for peer-reviewed articles, which helps ensure that quality is maintained by discouraging poor articles. Second, the time required to write is not insignificant, averaging about 80 to 100 hours per article (Tenopir & King 2000) and authors are unlikely to waste their valuable time unnecessarily.

All publishers (commercial and otherwise) would need to compete for relevant and quality manuscripts by keeping their fees competitive and continuing quality value-added peer-review, editing, formatting, and other features. Authors choose journals based on likely use and relevance to their manuscript. It would be helpful to establish a valid mechanism to measure use, other than citations, since overall reading tends to be 20 to 40 times the number of citations (King et al., 1981; Tenopir, 2010). Publishers might be tempted to accept a higher proportion of manuscripts, but peer-review should help control this and authors would soon realize that article quality would decline as the number of articles based on the same body of work increased.

Unless a global agreement is reached, there is a question of how articles not covered by payment should be treated. One possibility is to have some subscription-only journals. Another is to have hybrid journals where the cost/price of subscriptions is based on total first copy costs less revenue from author payment. Governments might wish to audit these publishers to establish that the subscription-related costs are valid.

Libraries and professionals would have to continue to subscribe to journals that have all or some non-US authored STM articles that are not covered by author payment elsewhere. Library expenses would decline, but processing costs would continue with the use of ILL as an alternative to subscribing to infrequently used journals, probably through consortia.



Shieber contends that to be successful the processing fees must be non-fungible and funds for author payment fees should not come from a grant budget, but rather from a separate fund (e.g., from a new administration unit). He suggests that the administration could implement such a system through simple Federal Research Public Access Act-legislations requiring funding agencies to commit to an Open Access compact in a cost-neutral manner. In the US funding should be from a neutral source and be non-politically operated. The question of copyright ownership would need to be resolved between publishers and governments.


Note from the Author

In the late 1970s I led a study to examine the extent of interlibrary lending (ILL) and photocopying to resolve the 1976 Copyright Law revision dealing with the controversy between publishers (who thought the Copyright Law was being violated and that they were losing revenue because of ILL) and librarians who believed ILL was "fair use". As a statistician I felt it important to maintain neutrality in this highly charged controversy and I feel that most observers agreed that this objective was achieved (King Research, Inc. 1977). Later, librarians felt that publishers, particularly commercial ones, were unfairly charging exorbitant prices for their journals and recently there has been a push for "free" Open Access to readers through renewed author payment and/or self-archiving and institutional repositories. This again has raised controversies among publishing participants. Through the last 15 years, during which I joined with Carol Tenopir and others in examining use and cost of scholarly publishing, we have tried to remain "honest brokers" in our studies to provide evidence for others to use. With that in mind I have written this article not as an advocate, but rather as an observer to present an idea others might not have considered.



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End Notes

1 In 1977 about 52 percent of research leading to science articles was funded by the federal government (King, et al. 1981). A 2004 study at the University of Pittsburgh showed that 35 percent of science articles were funded by the university, 33 percent by government, 25 percent by industry, and 17 percent by foundations (although these results do not include articles written by medical faculty which is heavily federally funded).

2 Historically, in the US in the 1970s over 50 percent of science articles had some form of author payment valued at about $900 in current $s (King, et al. 1981). About 18 percent of authors paid some out-of-pocket, 68 percent of fees were at least partially paid from federal sources, and other employer sources contributed 33 percent.

3 First copy costs vary substantially due to a number of factors such as number of manuscripts received and accepted, number of peer reviewers and policies, editorial policies and processes, number of pages, number and type of special graphics (e.g., chemical compounds, mathematical equations, charts, photos, maps, etc.) and language of the text/author.

4 Note that basic R&D funding is about half of all funding. Thus, the proportions above would about double if the basic funds are considered the base.

5 As the Indicators report says: "projections of employment growth are notoriously difficult to make". Thus, estimates given here are approximations.


About the Author

Photo of Donald W. King

Donald W. King, a statistician, has devoted nearly 50 years to describing and evaluating communication and information systems and services. Over the past 20 years his research has emphasized communication patterns of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals, as well as economic aspects of electronic journal publishing. He has published extensively by authoring or editing 17 books (3 award-winning); over 170 articles, reviews, book chapters, etc.; and over 200 formal technical reports. At one time it was reported that he was one of the ten most cited authors in the field of information science. In recognition of his research contributions he was named Pioneer of Science Information, Chemical Heritage Foundation; Fellow, American Statistical Association; Award of Merit and Research Award, American Society for Information Science and Technology; Honorary Fellow and Miles Conrad Award and Annual Lecturer, National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services; among many other awards and honors.

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