Publishers’ market power ‘drives open access charges’

Journal reputation also a factor but likely to have only a small bearing on rapid rise of APCs

August 26, 2020
Dollars coming out of a padlock
Source: iStock/Talaj

Most of the charge levied for making articles open access is driven by the market power of big publishers rather than the reputation of a journal, a study has suggested.

Researchers from a university in Germany analysed data on the size, age and market concentration of publishers and the reputation of journals to estimate the underlying drivers of article processing charges (APCs).

Their study suggests that of the average fee of some $3,000 (£2,300) charged to make articles open access, about half can be ascribed to traditional publishers’ use of a “hybrid” model, where papers remain behind a paywall unless an APC is paid.

Bigger publishers that command a large concentration of journals in a particular discipline can reap even more returns from this model, according the paper, “Drivers of article processing charges in open access”.

“Our analysis of the price-increasing effects of market concentration, the choice of the hybrid strategy, as well as the size of the publishers, they all support the hypothesis that market power inflates APC,” the paper says.

The analysis found that the reputation of journals – measured by their citation impact – was also linked to open access charges, but the researchers estimated that it drove only about 5 per cent of the average APC.

Although the authors stress that the analysis did not provide evidence of “causal links”, it did reveal “an obvious imbalance between the drivers of APC, which does not reflect the intuition that reputation would be the traded good between publishers and researchers striving to successfully disseminate their scientific insights in a reputable journal”.

The analysis also “strongly supports the hypothesis that academia runs the risk [of not taking] advantage of the cost-reducing opportunities inherent to digitisation”.

“Via a hybrid-OA strategy, big publishers may nonetheless be able to sustain their comfortable profit situation [by] leveraging their existing market power from the subscription-based to the open-access publishing era,” the paper in the journal Scientometrics adds.

Co-author Oliver Budzinski, director of the Institute of Economics at the Ilmenau University of Technology, said the study was different from many other papers on the topic in that it attempted to measure the impact of large publishers’ market power on APCs.

“The insight that market concentration along with long-standing and leading market positions is one of the driving factors for APCs – but not the only one, of course – shows, in my opinion, that typical market mechanisms must not be overlooked when analysing academic publishing markets,” he said.

Professor Budzinski added that his team was now exploring potential ways to bring down the rate of increase in APCs, which, for hybrid model publishers, have been increasing by more than 5 per cent year, the study says.

Although he said he was reluctant to suggest what specific measures might work until the further research was completed, the key question might be how competition between journals and publishers could be “intensified”.

Jens Wolling, professor of communication research at Ilmenau and another co-author of the paper, said it might help to improve the situation if non-profit organisations were “more active and develop new journals without commercial interest”.

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