We have been asked many questions, some of which are answered below by the members of MathOA.

Questions about money:

Questions by editors:


Q: What is “Fair Open Access”?

Originated by LingOA and adopted by the Open Library of Humanities, it’s an extension of the basic idea of free online access to research.

The principles are:

  1. The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and is responsive to the scholarly community.
  2. Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.
  3. All articles are published open access and an explicit open access licence is used.
  4. Submission and publication is not conditional in any way on the payment of a fee from the author or their employing institution, or on membership of an institution or society.
  5. Any fees paid on behalf of the journal to publishers are low, transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out.

Q: What exactly do you mean by “open access”?

Everyone agrees that at a minimum, open access means that the articles are free to read to anyone anywhere, without any technical barriers such as requiring registration.

Beyond that, there are different definitions. The three classic declarations on Open Access (Budapest, Berlin, Bethesda) all agree that OA also includes the right to re-use content: for example, the Budapest statement says “free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself”. To achieve this, the canonical licence to use is the Creative Commons Attribution (CC By) licence.

However, some people feel anxiety about their work being used in ways they do not approve of, and especially of the possibility that others may make money from it without their getting a cut. For this reason, they may prefer a more restrictive licence such as Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

This licence prevents a large and fuzzy-bordered set of re-uses. The problem is that no-one knows exactly what is and isn’t allowed under the terms “non-commercial” — it’s a thing that can be decided only in court, and on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis. For example, it may be that CC BY-NC materials can’t be used in teaching in a university, because the university charges tuition fees — an outcome that surely is not what any scholar intends for their OA works. A court in Germany ruled that any non-personal use counts as “commercial” even when no money changes hands: under that interpretation no CC BY-NC works could ever be used in any kind of teaching.

It’s for these kinds of reasons that many people who have put the most thought into open-access licences have come down on the side of CC BY. These include respected OA publishers both commercial and non-profit (BioMed Central, PLOS, PeerJ), funding charities (Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation) and national bodies (RCUK). As a result, journals which publish open access materials under more restrictive licences will not be acceptable venues for research funded by the Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation, etc.

We therefore strongly recommend the use of the CC-BY licence for all open access journals. But, recognising that different groups may wish to make a different choice, we require only that an explicit statement is made about which licence is used, and strongly suggest that it be one of the widely recognised and understood Creative Commons licences.

Q: Why hasn’t a wholesale switch away from subscriptions to APCs happened already? Why is your project needed?

There are two main reasons. One is anti-competitive behaviour by publishers. So-called “Big Deals”, while superficially attractive in that they give access to a large number of offerings from big publishers, consume library budgets wholesale so that there is no room to subscribe to new and better journals. Meanwhile, cancelling a particular low quality journal makes no difference to the price of the bundle. This has been well documented by Ted Bergstrom and collaborators. Publishers have strongly resisted even making the prices of bundles publicly available – they aim to extract the most they can from a given research community, irrespective of their actual costs. A typical large research university is paying millions of dollars per year to rent access to journals — Big Deals do not usually allow for access to back issues.

The other main reason is a coordination problem. Each individual university library gains little by cutting subscriptions unilaterally. Not only is there often resistance from university researchers, it is not easy to renegotiate with a large multinational company. The per-journal prices in such cases are even more inflated than the Big Deal prices.

Essentially, without the community having control over journals and putting publishers in their proper place as providers of services, there is no way to solve the problem. This is why our project was started. We have spent a huge amount of time coordinating collective action by journal editors and libraries. The migration of value to open-access journals will lead to a clear reduction in the value of the bundles, eventually to a point where publishers will be forced to reduce their cost accordingly.

Q. What do you mean by “belong to the scholarly community”?

This depends — there are a variety of solutions. It is important to avoid duplicating the sad case of the journal K-Theory, which broke away from a commercial publisher only to be involved in a battle between editors over ownership. We suggest that each journal be owned by a nonprofit organization. After the abovementioned false start, K-Theory became Annals of K-Theory, which is owned by a non-profit foundation (http://www.ktheoryfoundation.org/). Other options include ownership by a learned society.

The key point is to ensure that publishers provide services to the journal rather than controlling it, and are not in a position to constrain efforts by the editors, reviewers and authors to improve it. Publishers should compete on quality and price to provide these services and always face the possibility of losing the contract to another provider. Disputes among editors should be able to be solved systematically by a specified process, to be clearly stated by the nonprofit organization owning the journal in a transparent way. We have some experience with these issues and are happy to help.

Q: Do you recommend creating an arXiv overlay journal, which does not actually publish papers?

Not necessarily, although that is one possible route. It’s the approach taken by some new journals such as Discrete Analysis. It would make little difference to the costs of Discrete Analysis if it hosted the papers on the journal’s website. The main areas in which costs are cut is in copy-editing, paywall maintenance, legal costs, etc. Like many new mathematics journals, DA provides a style file but otherwise takes the attitude that the final author submission after refereeing (“postprint”) is usually perfectly adequate, as the widespread use of arXiv shows. Of course, paid copyediting can be included in any journal’s offering as funding permits.

Switching publisher does, of course, give an editorial board a good reason to review their procedures and consider innovations in any area that may improve the journal’s quality.

Q: What happens to the old papers?

This depends on whether the old journal continues to publish. If it does, then the back issues will be available as much as they were before. If the journal ceases to publish, then back issues are supposed to be available via services such as Portico, LOCKSS or CLOCKSS.

Q: What about other services of publishers, such as DOIs, plagiarism checking, and indexing?

This depends on which new platform is chosen. The cheapest publisher options leave all this to the editors. The most complete ones that we recommend provide all these services, and also an a la carte option whereby some subset of these services can be chosen. Indexing needs to be set up only once for Scopus, Thomson Reuters, etc, so it is not an ongoing job. In most cases, the indexing process is streamlined, because the journal is recognized as the continuation of a previously indexed journal under a new name.

Q: Is there a need for all this fuss? Don’t most scholars already post their papers somewhere, such as their personal homepages?

Even if it were true that all manuscripts are freely available on arXiv or personal pages, this would not be sufficient. For example, there is the question of which is the version of record: most such papers are preprint versions, sometimes postprint (after refereeing and corrections), but rarely identical to the published copy. Few authors or journals systematically ensure that the version of record, or even the last submitted version, is available; some publishers even forbid the updating of the preprint to the post-refereeing version. Finally, because posting the final version often violates the copyright agreement, even if many do it in practice we will never get near 100% by that route.

A survey in 2013 showed that even in mathematics, arXiv coverage is still very spotty. In fact fewer than 25% of papers published in mathematics journals listed in Thomson Reuters ISI journal list were listed on arXiv.

Some fields have better coverage by preprint servers than others, but even 90% would not be enough: if we have trouble accessing 10% of the papers we need to look at, given we make dozens of citations in each of our papers it means we will be unable to read several references. Things are even worse than that, since we usually have a ultra quick look at many more papers to decide the few dozens we will cite. If this ultra quick look requires e-mailing the authors, it is huge waste of time for everyone and some papers will stay inaccessible.

Ultimately, either we do need more access than provided by preprint services and personal webpages, or we should ask right now our libraries to cancel all subscriptions and use this money more usefully. Why are we currently paying subscription fees if they do not provide better, badly needed access?

Q: What is the legal situation? How hard is it to actually switch publisher?

The situation depends on the status of the journal. In many cases, the publisher owns the title: then if cannot be persuaded to agree with the Fair OA principles, the board has the option to resign and create a successor journal with a different name. Caution must be taken with respect to the contract the Editor-in-Chief may have with the publishers, which may contain a non-compete clause. We have solid legal advice and previous experience to provide. On the practical side, switching publisher does require some work but one point of a Fair Open Access Alliance is to remove much of this burden from editors. We expect the time needed for the transition to eventually become a net time profit thanks to the effectiveness of the new publisher.

Q: Why go to all this effort to change an existing journal? Why not start completely new journals that are run in the right way?

This is sometimes a good idea, but has some drawbacks.

First, starting new journals does not solve the problem of library budgets being consumed by Big Deals, so no money is freed to pay for the new journal and libraries will still need the old journals for decades before they (hopefully) lose relevance.

Second, it may have less effect on the overall publishing landscape, notably because the prestige associated with journals has a tremendous inertia. Quick transfers of prestige are usually the result of board resignations, so we aim at either changing existing journals (if the publisher agrees) or replacing them by new journals with the same board to ensure the same standard.

Also, many people think that there are already too many journals and it is hard to keep track of all of them. If it turns out that the barriers to conversion are greater than we imagined, we will seriously reconsider starting new journals, but for now that is not our main plan.

Q: Publishers do not seem more evil than other large companies such as Apple, Samsung, etc.

We don’t think large commercial publishers are evil at all. They are not even bad, at least not at their job of making profits in the scientific publishing business. However there is an important difference between Apple and Springer for an academic researcher: while she can easily choose not to buy an iPhone, she cannot easily choose not to use Springer’s product. Each researcher has a professional duty to be aware of her colleague’s work, and cannot ignore previous work just because she happens not to have a subscription to the original paper. So we all have to have access, and that is why the legacy publishers still sell their journals without having to provide good services for the money they ask – their systems are slow and ineffective, they waste a huge lot of time and money on ensuring non-subscribers don’t have access, on lobbying, etc.

Large commercial publishers are inefficient for our purposes, although they may be efficient for their stockholders. We thus need to make it necessary for them to become efficient and useful in order to earn money, and in our opinion the best way to do that is to go OA and control the journal titles.

Q: What about learned societies in this plan?

We acknowledge that certain learned societies publish journals themselves, and these societies are natural partners for a later stage of our development. Right know we are focusing on journals published by large, expensive commercial publishers because that is where the gain of flipping a journal appears to us to be greatest. If you represent a learned society and would like to discuss possible collaboration, you are most welcome to contact us!


Q: What exactly do you mean by “low” APCs?

This depends on technology and disciplinary requirements. For mathematics, given authors’ extensive use of LaTeX to do their own layout, but taking into account various levels of copyediting and editorial assistance, anywhere from $0-500 per article can be defended. We believe that a typical mathematics journal can be run very well with at most $300 per article, and possibly much less. For other scientific fields where professional typesetting and layout is expected, the cost per article is likely to be closer to $1000. These per-article costs depend heavily on volume. Note that the current (2016) typical price charged by the large commercial publishers is $3000 or more, even though they also make income from subscriptions (“double dipping”).

Q: How can anyone provide professional journal services so much more cheaply than the charges of the major publishers suggest?

The large publishers (essentially Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis) have a large investment in old-fashioned systems which are much less efficient than those used by newer publishers. These systems are not optimized for specific disciplines — for example, any mathematician publishing with Elsevier will quickly realize that they often worsen the quality of the author manuscript, by retyping or using copyeditors with little knowledge of mathematics.

On top of that, many have very large profit margins, higher than that of Apple Computer for instance. Also, they provide some services that are of marginal value (such as managing payments from readers or authors, preventing non-authorized people from reading the articles, and arguably typesetting).

Some newer publishers are non-profit organizations, rather than multinational publicly listed companies such as Reed Elsevier, which spends large amounts of money, in addition to its profits, on large salaries for senior management and leasing basketball courts for staff.

Q. How can it be possible that profit margins are so high in the academic publishing market?

Profit margins for the big four publishers are between 32% and 42% of revenue — compared with about 20% for companies as innovative and successful as Apple Computer and Google, and less than 5% for BP.

These margins are possible because there is no true market in journal subscriptions. The publishers are not competing with each other, because each publisher has a monopoly on the journals that it publishes. A library that wants to provide its patrons with access to Nonlinear Analysis: Hybrid Systems can only get it from Elsevier — if the price is too high, they can’t go to a different supplier. As a result, publishers have been able to keep raising prices far above the rate of inflation, and libraries have been unable to negotiate effectively.

But profit margins are not really the most important problem in the price of traditional publishers. Each subscription paper costs the world on the order of $5000. Even if the publishers reduced their prices to the break-even point, cutting them by a third, they would still be charging well over $3000 per article — six times what we consider the highest reasonable cost. That is due to the inefficiencies of outdated systems, and all the baggage they have to carry around to maintain paywalls.

Q: I understand why low costs are important. Why is open access important? Why not just use a publisher that provides subscription services at a reasonable cost?

There are several issues here, but they mostly come back to the key question of who is to control the scholarly record. The status quo is that scholarship is created by scholars, and restricted primarily to scholars, but is owned by corporations who can and do limit its dissemination and so raise barriers to the progress of that scholarship.

This shows up in lots of ways. One is the unavailability of published works to anyone outside of a university: entrepreneurs, retired academics, patients with chronic illnesses, commercial researchers, policy makers and their advisers, people who want to apply academic research to practical problems. Another is the difficulty of using published works in teaching: subscription publishers typically charge prohibitive fees for the reproduction of even small parts of published works. A third issue is the uncertainty of future availability: publishers who today are helpful and inexpensive may be acquired tomorrow by one of the large commercial concerns, or may even go out of business altogether. The only way to be sure that the published works survive and remain available is for them to be fully open from the start.

Q: How can you fund the cost of converting a journal in the way you describe?

We are pursuing funding precisely for these transitional costs, from a number of charitable, university and government organizations.

Q: So you have some transitional funding. What happens when that runs out?

It is well understood that a worldwide switch by libraries to the Fair Open Access model while simultaneously cutting subscriptions would give huge savings while making published research freely available to the entire world. Libraries would subsidize APCs via payments to a consortium, instead of paying directly or via a consortium to publishers as they do now.

We are closely associated with the Open Library of Humanities, which has formed a consortium of over 200 libraries willing to offer financial support for APCs. When these institutions renegotiate their deals with large publishers, more money will be freed up. OLH plans to extend to other disciplines and this is one plan for long-term sustainability of the journals.

Note that in the current subscription model, it is also not clear who will be paying for running costs of journal in 10 years time — because there simply is not enough money in the system to pay for the increasing subscription prices. Also note that when journals are owned by the community, if funding for APCs ever runs out, they have the option of reverting to a subscription model, or some other model, very quickly. We do not expect that this will ever happen, but it is good to know that it is possible.

Q: How could libraries afford to fund open access journals? They are already struggling paying for subscriptions.

This is why it should be easier to switch journals rather than found new ones: participating libraries will cancel the no longer necessary subscriptions and use the money for the OA journal (be it the same or a different one). There is ratio at least 10 between the very expensive prices of the big 4 (including Springer) and the bids from other, small publishing businesses we have. Thus even one tenth of subscriptions would be enough to fund the OA journal.


Q: If I change publisher, would people recognise a new journal as the continuation of my journal?

Yes. Switches of this kind get a lot of publicity, and sensible authors recognise that the true value of the journal lies with the editors and community, not with the name of the journal or the publisher. The whole point of a switch would be to make this more explicit: a switched journal would belong to the scholarly community and not to a big commercial publishing company. It is likely that many mathematicians — especially young ones — would be keen to support the switched journal and make sure that it succeeded.

Q: What would happen to my journal’s reputation?

We have analysed what happened to the mathematics journals that left large commercial publishers in the last two decades. In every case their reputation has increased, and exceeds (often by far) that of the original title (if that is still being published — some of them have ceased publishing altogether). At its core, a journal is nothing more than its board and its papers: its quality is merely an aggregate of the quality of the papers the editorial board selects. A resigning board can keep the journal’s tradition and spirit alive within a new venue, and no one would be able to dispute their claim to that effect. Some communication would be needed to ensure this message is heard in the community, but we should not let publishers own our work just because they own a name.

Q: What happens to the reputation of the old journal if the publisher keeps it running? I am concerned about reputational damage to authors who have published there in the past.

In most cases the ongoing reputation of the journal as a venue for new work declines fairly rapidly among the research community it serves, because the quality of author submissions and editors is reduced. However, among those familiar with the field, this does not affect the prestige of papers that were published in the journal during its glory days.

Moreover, the decline in the abandoned journal’s reputation takes many years to be noticed by bureaucrats and journal whitelists (such as the widely used ISI list). Our estimate is that any author junior enough to be concerned about such issues will no longer be junior enough to be concerned by the time that the journal no longer “counts”.

Q: How could already burdened editors have time for making this transition?

The project aims at more efficiency, hence saved time in the medium term. In particular, there would be funding to offer staff time or buy outs from teaching if your universities allow this. The project members are ready to work hard to help with the transition itself (as they already have) and while it cannot be completely work-free, the way is well paved by the Lingua precedent and our preparatory work.

Q: Isn’t resigning an aggressive move, with which editors are uncomfortable?

The project is not about resignation. The first move is to propose your current publisher to agree on reasonable terms for the journal (Fair Open Access). Only if the publisher is not willing to negotiate these terms will resignation be necessary. So far, large commercial publishers have not bee willing to accept such terms, but that may change.

Q: What would prevent the publisher from replacing the board and continuing business as usual?

In case resignation does occur, the important point is to ensure the community does not need the old journal anymore. This goal would be pursued in several ways: the editorial board will carry its reputation with them, prominent supporters in the math community (which we are contacting) should publicly state that they regard the new journal as the true heir of the old one, and libraries unsubscriptions will lower the audience of the old journal, limiting the incentive to submit there. The old journal might survive or not (both cases have happened in the past), but the point is really to have the new journal be the relevant venue.