To Buy or Not to Buy: Proprietary vs. Packaged APC Solutions

“Tools and standards are changing faster than companies can react,” warns McKinsey & Company in “Digitizing the Consumer Decision Journey.” In the field of Open Access publishing, this challenge is writ large. Between new business models from publishers, a growing network of relationships with institutions and funders, and requisite author expertise on article processing charge (APC) policies and practices, the landscape is complex and evolving rapidly.

It’s clear that publishers must examine their author programs with a focus on creating an integrated workflow between the editorial process and the payment of APCs. Publishers who undertake this introspection are faced with a critical question – the answer to which can mean the difference between prosperity or failure in the market: Can they deliver the infrastructure and service demanded by stakeholders in the OA ecosystem on their own with their existing systems? Or should they find a partner?

Publishers who undertake this introspection are faced with a critical question – the answer to which can mean the difference between prosperity or failure in the market: Can they deliver the infrastructure and service demanded by stakeholders in the OA ecosystem on their own with their existing systems? Or should they find a partner?

The “build versus buy dilemma,” of which this is but one example, is a perennial topic of debate in the field of software development. Conventional wisdom suggests that building your own solution may be the right decision in areas of key competitive advantage, or where there is no suitable commercial product to deliver your core business requirements. By contrast, buying is often a more cost-effective way to automate and standardize core business processes, and allows the organization to manage risk by transferring the burden of software development and maintenance onto a third party.

So, which of these scenarios applies in the case of the management of author fees? The answer depends on the needs of each organization, but when faced with a rapidly changing environment like Open Access publishing, McKinsey suggests many organizations need to adopt a different approach to managing the consumer decision journey — one that embraces the speed that digitization brings and focuses on capabilities in three areas: Discover, Design and Deliver.

Metadata and the Discover Phase

In the context of Open Access, the Discover phase entails drawing upon information to develop a full customer portrait such as:

  • the author
    • their country of origin
    • their institution
    • their funding sources
    • their membership status
  • the manuscript
  • the publication

Publishers are under growing pressure to capture and share industry standard metadata such as ORCiDs, ISNIs, DOIs, FundRef IDs and Ringgold IDs. Investment in interoperability of existing systems that contain data about authors and their institutions is critical. What’s more, publishers must find ways to allow external systems to draw on this information. Unfortunately, all too often, the information in question resides in disparate disconnected legacy systems which rely on proprietary identifiers rather than external data standards. Such systems are also ill-equipped to handle the high-volume, real-time transactions characteristic of OA. In order to develop a robust author-centric solution, publishers typically have to dedicate significant resources to both unifying legacy systems and building a new transaction system that can evolve with the marketplace and be ready for numerous emerging standards. A fully unified set of internal systems might be the ultimate goal, but it is likely to come at a high price in terms of development costs and management time. For this reason, an outsourced solution can often make more sense in a resource-constrained environment or where there is a need to deliver a solution within a shorter timeframe.

Publication and the Design Phase

The design phase is about creating a frictionless experience that uses the data gathered in the discovery phase to ensure interactions are expressly tailored to an author’s stage in his or her publication journey. Publishers have rightly identified that maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction among authors is critical in an Open Access model. In this new paradigm, authors cannot be kept at arm’s length from billing and payment processes, which now form an integral part of the author experience. This requires publishers to dramatically shift how their organizations operate — from a business-to-business (B2B) model centered on selling subscriptions to a business-to-consumer (B2C) model centered on managing an exponentially greater number of micro transactions for APCs. Furthermore, authors’ expectations of online payment solutions are very high, thanks to regular consumer interactions with digital titans like Amazon, Google and Apple – services which set the benchmark for a seamless user experience. Authors expect intuitive user interfaces (UIs) and robust workflows when they submit manuscripts and pay author charges. Manual or slow payment solutions that seem clunky and antiquated negatively impact an author’s perception of a publisher. Sophisticated algorithms are generally required to meet these expectations.

Collaboration and the Deliver Phase

Finally, the Deliver phase requires the creation of a more agile organization with the right people, tools, and processes. McKinsey highlights the need for cross-functional teams with “strong collaborative and communication skills and a relentless commitment to iterative testing, learning, and scaling — at a pace that many companies may find challenging.” For publishers, this means developing closer links among editorial, production, finance and operations teams who may hitherto have had little contact. To make it easy to support these cross-functional teams, a robust APC solution must offer simple management of complex pricing, discounting and compliance reporting. It should also be robust enough to test and implement promotional codes and discounts based on factors such as location of the author, institutional affiliation, subscription status of the institution, and membership status of the author, allowing publishers to iterate quickly in response to market demand. Flexibility is the key in this phase of activity, and any solution needs to accommodate this or risk undermining the organization’s capacity to evolve and develop.

Reaching A Decision

Careful consideration of these three factors can help publishers tease out some of the complexities in the build-versus-buy decision, which often comes down to an evaluation of the likely return on investment from each of the two options.  When developing a solid understanding of the potential long- and short-term costs and benefits in each case by testing the market for outsourced solutions and being realistic about the resource-draw of in-house development and ongoing maintenance (which are frequently under-estimated), don’t overlook the value of time-to-market, and agility once you get there. The ability to quickly shift technology strategies as the environment changes is often the difference between prosperity and obsolescence.


Author: Matt Pedersen

Matt Pedersen is the Director of Rightsholder Relations, where he runs the account management program for CCC’s publishing partners. Prior to CCC, Matt was Director of Corporate Sales for Elsevier’s Science and Technology Books. Matt majored in theatrical arts, and put his education to good use as a costumed museum interpreter at Plimoth Plantation. 
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