It’s often said that change creates opportunity, and there’s no doubt that open access (OA) represents a major change for scholarly publishers. However, pinpointing the opportunities it creates is harder than it first appears. “A factor that I think is limiting open access’s continued growth is the lack of clean, clear, collected data,” explains Deni Auclair, chief financial officer and senior analyst at Delta Think, a consulting and advisory firm focused on scholarly communications. She estimates that the OA market is growing at 10-15% a year, and represents somewhere between 3 and 6% of the total academic journals market—but actionable data for individual players often remains elusive. The big publishers have research groups of two or three people working solely on the open access market, notes Auclair.

“A factor that I think is limiting open access’s continued growth is the lack of clean, clear, collected data.Deni Auclair, Delta Think

Small wonder, then, that others may struggle to identify and carve out a niche. Auclair therefore advises publishers to look carefully at the actions of competitors, seek external advice, and take account of macro-level trends: “To make really strong, strategic decisions, you have to understand the dynamics of the entire marketplace.”

Finding a viable business model

Where an opportunity is identified, the next challenge is finding a viable business model. “There’s still a lot of experimentation, innovation and trying to figure out how to make this work for everybody. And we’re not there yet,” says Auclair. Article publication charges (APCs) have become the favoured business model for open access journals, but demand from authors remains muted in many disciplines, and funders are keen to keep prices low. As a result, the majority of subscription publishers are still taking a conservative approach to adoption of OA models. “A lot of publishers are paying lip service to open access,” says Auclair, “but what’s really needed is a process-driven approach.”

Setting a price point

Publishers developing an open access offer need both to set headline APC prices, and consider what discounts to offer. These might be based on author memberships, national or institutional affiliations, offsetting arrangements or a whole range of other factors. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that open access could simply replace financial barriers to readership with similar barriers to publication, particularly for authors in the developing world. Ros Pyne, head of policy and development, Open Research at Springer Nature, stresses, “If you’re thinking about scaling up OA, especially in the fully-OA sphere, then you have to spend some time thinking about what your approach to waiving and discounts would be.” Factor in the need to support some commissioned content, which may not be revenue-generating, and the process of setting and charging APCs quickly becomes complex.

Originally published in The Bookseller, March 20, 2017


Author: Rob Johnson

Rob Johnson is the founder and director of Nottingham-based Research Consulting.
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