Rethinking the sustainability of Open Access and Open Science

Leuven, Belgium

Meanwhile, I am enjoying my stay as ‘visiting scholar’ at the Institute for Cultural Studies (KU Leuven) I am collaborating with Dr. Frederik Truyen exploring mechanisms to better understand Open Access from the sustainability point of view.

Open Access (OA) is a term widely used to refer to unrestricted online access to articles published in scholarly journals. Here a compilation of a (open) work-in-progress…

Several authors have highlighted that in the Digital Era we are reinventing discovery, with a new area of networked science that speeds up discovery highly influenced by digital technologies providing social and technical platforms for openning science, allowing scientists to share knowledge and to collaborate in ways that were not possible before. However, and as Scheliga and Friesike (2014) rightly stated despite the broadly acknowledge concern regarding the need of transforming science and opening up the research process, there is a clear discrepancy between the concept of open science and scholarly reality. 

These authors stated that this discrepancy is the result of two main categories of obstacles: individual and systemic obstacles. Here we will address one in particular: the current transition in the business models of Open Access journals. As indicated by Chesbrough (2012) a business model performs two important functions: It creates value, and it captures a portion of that value.

Open business models help create value by leveraging many more ideas because of their inclusion of a variety of external concepts. They also allow greater value capture by utilizing a organizations’s key asset, resource or position not only in that institutions’s own operations but also elsewhere (Chesbrough, 2012)

Björk & Solomon, (2012) organize in three phases the transition of Open Access journals.

  1. Lacked the prestige: In the latter half of the 1990s when journals created by individual scientists were dominating OA publishing, these journals were not considered by most academics a serious alternative to subscription publishing. There were doubts about both the sustainability of the journals and the quality of the peer review (usually not  indexed in the Web of Science).
  2. Digitalization: A second wave of OA journals consisted of established subscription journals, mainly  owned by societies. These publishers decided to make the electronic version of their  journal(s) freely accessible.
  3. Economic Sustainability: The third wave of OA journals was started by two new publishers, BioMedCentral and  Public Library of Science (PLoS). They pioneered the use of article processing charges  (APCs) as the central means of financing professional publishing of OA journals. The results highlighted how OA journals have achieved a share of around 15% of all SCOPUS indexed journals for Asia and Africa and a remarkable  73% for Latin America.

Aligned with this description Crow (2009) describes that since the year 2000, the average annual growth rate has been 18% for the number of journals and 30% for the number of articles. This can be contrasted to the reported 3,5% yearly volume increase in journal publishing in general. The Pioneering years (1993–1999), the Innovation years (2000–2004), and the Consolidation years (2005–2009).

The most compelling argument for Open Access, according to Cow (2009) is that improves the efficiency, effectiveness, and equity of the research process, delivering greater social and economic benefits as a result. Greater social utility, however, does not necessarily translate into reduced costs from a local library procurement perspective. Some interesting findings are:

  • OA journals that fund publishing with article processing charges (APCs, fee charged to authors in order to publish an article in academic journals) are on average cited more than other OA journals.
  • Several studies have shown that gold open access journals have had a larger uptake in the biomedical fields, where authors usually have less problems in financing APCs and where many research funders also require some form of OA for the results.
  • Laakso and Mikael (2011) the relative volume of OA published peer reviewed research articles has grown at a much faster rate than the increases in total annual volume of all peer reviewed research articles.
  • It is expected that publishers will continue to apply a variety of income models to support open-access distribution. Laakso and Mikael (2011) add that open access business models have been introduced in parallel to traditional subscription-based models; a journal might charge authors for submissions or rely on advertising revenue as a source of income.

Some criticisms to the emerging alternative income models used to support open-access journals are:

  • A given model lacks universal applicability to all journals regardless of type or discipline.
  • A particular model maintains a publication’s current cost basis, without restructuring the underlying economics of publishing.
  • The operations with APCs (i.e Golden Route) might lead to journals lowering  their review standards in order to maximize their profits.

This is a transition that might take a still unknown amount of time to distill into the academic and publishing world. However, as the authors suggested, only by ‘fostering openness in research cannot simply mean forcing scientists towards openness’ (Scheliga and Friesike, 2014).

It’s the economy stupid!


Here’s something interesting to think about, by revising the four models of cross-subsidies described by Anderson in his book Free (2009).

Cross-subsidies: in return to the free product or service provided the attention given can contribute to enhance the visibility or the reputation of the provider. Paid products subsidizing free products (i.e. free gift inside). Here, paying later can subsidize free consumption now. Alternatively, paying people subsidizing free people (i.e. Evernote offers a premium and a free version). In both cases, the hope is that the free consumers will attract or bring with them paying consumers or that some fraction of the free consumers will convert to paying consumers.

Cross-subsidies can work in different ways, here four of them:

WHAT’S FREE: Any Product That Attracts You to Pay for Something Else.
FREE TO WHOM: Everyone Willing to Pay Eventually, One Way or Another.

Here organizations look at a portfolio of products and price some at zero (or close to it) to make the other products, on which they make healthy profits, more attractive (i.e. offering open access to online books or some sections of it and selling the hard copy).

WHAT’S FREE: Content, Services, Software, and More.
FREE TO WHOM: Everyone.

The most common of the economies built around free is the three-party system. Here a third party pays to participate in a market created by a free exchange between the first two parties. A well known case is the advertising but it goes far beyond that. Media companies, for instance, make money around free content in a variety of ways, from selling information about consumers to other companies; via subscriptions, direct e-commerce, etc. The costs (i.e. of the media companies) are distributed and/or hidden enough to make the primary goods feel free to consumers (i.e. free newspapers).

WHAT’S FREE: Anything That‘s Matched with a Premium Paid Version.
FREE TO WHOM: Basic Users.

Freemium can take different forms: varying tiers of content from free to expensive, or a premium version of some site or software with more features than the free version (i.e. Skype). In the freemium model, that means for every user who pays for the premium version of the site, nineteen others get the basic free version.

WHAT’S FREE: Anything People Choose to Give Away with No Expectation of Payment.
FREE TO WHOM: Everyone.

This can take several forms: From the ‘Gift Economy’ perspective, the incentives to share can include a range of possibilities from reputation and attention to less measurable factors such as expression, influence, visibility, leadership, and simply self-interest. From the ‘Labor Exchange’ the act of using the service creates something of value, either improving the service itself or creating information that can be useful somewhere else (i.e. using Beta version of softwares).

Taking into account initiatives such as Altmetrics or ImpactStory, which stress some of the additional ‘knowledge currencies’ (i.e. visibility, influence, knowledge transfer, etc.), to what extent would be possible to explore innovative cross-subsidies that could provide sustainability (and even profit) to Open Access publications? We will continue the exploration from the cultural capital of Brussels.


Anderson, C. (2009). Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Hyperion.

Björk, B.-C., & Solomon, D. (2012). Open access versus subscription journals: a comparison of scientific impact. BMC Medicine, 10(1), 73. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-73

Chesbrough, H. “Why companies should have open business models.” MIT Sloan management review 48.2 (2012).

Crow, Raym. “Income models for open access: An overview of current practice.” Washington: SPARC (2009).

Laakso, Mikael, et al. “The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009.” PloS one 6.6 (2011).

Scheliga, Kaja, and Sascha Friesike. “Putting open science into practice: A social dilemma?.” First Monday 19.9 (2014).