Report: “Towards a Competitive and Sustainable OA Market in Europe”

In October 2016,  Research Consulting, within the scope of the OpenAIRE Work Package dealing with the FP7 Post Grant Open Access Pilot (WP5) – lead by LIBER – was commissioned by OpenAIRE on behalf of the European Commission to undertake an economic analysis study of the Open Access publishing market: “Towards a Competitive and Sustainable OA Market in Europe – A Study of the Open Access Market and Policy Environment”.

The report (pdf) is accompanied by an Annex (pdf) which contains the mid-term evaluation of the FP7 Post-Grant Open Access Pilot, organised by OpenAIRE. This annex will be discussed in detail in the reporting phase of the pilot, which ends on April 30th, 2017.

Building on the findings of the EC FP7 Post-Grant Open Access Pilot, the findings form the starting point for a roadmap towards a more sustainable and competitive market.

It will be accompanied in its final form by a Roadmap document, developed with input from an expert workshop to be organised by LIBER in The Hague, on 20 April 2017. Registrations for this workshop are still open.

With the final report published this week, we discussed some of its key findings with Rob Johnson, director of Research Consulting and the lead author of the report. 

Key highlights of the report

Rob Johnson: “We took the EU Council’s goal of achieving immediate open access as the default by 2020 as the starting point for our work. One unavoidable conclusion is that even getting close to this target will be very, very difficult. The proportion of immediate open access content has been growing by about 15% per annum, but it still only accounts for about 5% of the global market for academic journals.

Some parts of Europe are ahead of the global average, of course, but only by a small margin. There are big disciplinary variations, though, and the situation looks significantly better in areas where research funders have issued firm mandates in the public interest (e.g. life sciences and medicine)….

We also aren’t including green open access in these figures. This is a really important means of increasing access, but as content is usually subject to embargo periods of 6 or 12 months, green OA doesn’t directly address the goal of immediate OA as the default.

Overall, we found that there is a growing market for OA content, but it largely operates alongside the dominant subscription model. What we are not seeing is transformative change in the existing market, with only a few cases of journals successfully ‘flipping’ from subscription-based to OA business models, for example. From an economic perspective, OA journals operate in a smaller, more competitive market, but the subscription market remains characterised by inelastic demand, and dominated by large commercial publishers.

Our report makes clear that we are going to need much more ambitious actions at a policy level if the EU’s goal of immediate OA by default is to be delivered.

Main barriers in the transition to Open Access.

The report identifies several roadblocks that stand in the way of full and immediate OA, which can be grouped in three clusters:

  1. The first is a lack of incentives for authors and publishers to move to OA. Authors want to publish in high impact factor journals, because that’s how they reach their readers and because – very often – existing incentive structures make it difficult for them to do otherwise. At the same time, established publishers lack a commercial imperative to flip their business model to OA. Disruption from sources like Sci-Hub and growth in offsetting deals are starting to change things. For the moment, though, it doesn’t make much business sense for publishers to move to OA.
  2. The second type of roadblock is the absence of an effective market. The subscription market is dominated by a few large publishers, and it is difficult for new actors to acquire market share. We need to create more transparency around the deals concluded with publishers, because this offers the prospect of lower prices and a more level playing field for the new breed of OA publishers. At the same time, we need to be careful not to put all our eggs in one basket. Replacing subscription deals with offsetting deals could allow us to increase access quickly, but ties up publication budgets. We therefore need to support other approaches alongside this, including ‘born OA’ and APC-free journals.
  3. The final type of roadblock relates to infrastructure. This includes the technical infrastructure for OA publishing and archiving (improving institutional and national archives, supporting OA publishing platforms, creating machine-readable metadata). A subset of this is the monitoring infrastructure, which enables all actors to check progress and to enforce policy mandates. Finally, we need ways to increase the efficiency of open access at an operational level – making life easier for authors and support staff working in institutions, funders and publishers.

The perceived significance of these roadblocks varies between countries and stakeholder groups, but if the EU is to meet its ambitious goal all will have to be addressed in some form.

Implications for policy makers

The key message is that there is no silver bullet. The report identifies four pathways to OA, each having its own strengths and weaknesses: hybrid with offsetting, gold OA with APC payments, gold OA without APC payments, and green OA. Having reviewed OA policies and interviewed stakeholders from across Europe, it became clear that European countries face diverse challenges and each one will have to implement a different combination of approaches. It is not about deciding whether Green OA is better than APC payments or offsetting deals – it is about recognising the potential of each model in different contexts and then implementing them in the right way.  It’s important to share best practices and find ways of coordinating actions internationally, but we have to acknowledge the diversity of national – and disciplinary – contexts.

Rob Johnson: “We hope our report will help policymakers and other stakeholders understand the key issues, and build consensus on the best way forward. We suggest a number of different actions in the report, but I think the main piece of advice is to be flexible and to focus on practical, feasible interventions. The transition to open access is not going to be an overnight event, and it cannot be achieved without genuine engagement with publishers. In fact, if we accept that the transition to OA is a long-term project, we can look at actions that make the scholarly publishing market fairer, more competitive and more sustainable. We don’t have to maximise short-term access at the expense of long-term sustainability.

The final report can also be found on Zenodo (doi: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.401029).

Updated on March 21st, 16h CET: The accompanying dataset is also on Zenodo (doi:(https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.290208)

Gwen Franck

Open Access Programme Coordinator at EIFL - Electronic Information for Libraries.

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