Open Access

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Disclaimer. This document is in a non-definitive status, i.e., it might still be subject to revisions.

Alfonso Pierantonio

Release notes

2019-06-19: Plan-S delayed
2019-05-24: Market
2019-04-15: Different OA models


  • Plan-S delayed by one year

Publishing Market

The scientific publishing industry is a consolidated sector that has been active for decades. Over the years, commercial publishers acquired many journals that were managed by non-profit academic societies. In 2013, five for-profit companies accounted for 50% of articles published.

Publishers sell two different kinds of knowledge: scientific and bibliographic knowledge. To this end they provide

  • content: the research results
  • certification: it is strictly related to the scientific reputation of journals and series
  • organization: content collection, workflow management, and platform definition and maintenance

Traditionally, the cost of publishing was a proportional cost depending on the number of printed copies and the number of distributed copies. However, today papers are electronic resources that can be redistributed by publishers at no cost provided that they sustained the costs for production and for the platform. Besides, the market is inelastic, where the publishers exercise a monopoly: an article is an individual product that cannot be substituted by a similar article despite the existence of related articles. As a conseguence, the scientific publishing market is not a perfectly competitive market because the price of the products (e.g., cost per accessed paper) is much higher that the marginal cost and the players have high marginal revenues. Nowadays, these publishers have profit margins of around 40% (see [5]). These factors have contributed to the increase of total expenditures corresponding to 7.6% per year from 1986 to 2005, yet the number of serials purchased increased an average of only 1.9% per year.

Overall, scholarly publishing relies upon an unusual economic model.

Open Access help reduce the difficulties in accessing science, but who pays?

Conventional wisdom suggests that Open Access (OA) should help reduce the difficulties in accessing knowledge and research products. In fact, research outputs published according to OA can be distributed online free of cost, or other barriers in contrast with traditional (non-open access) journals that requires subscription fees, site licenses or pay-per-view charges.

Open Access vs publishing costs

While OA can be applied to all forms of published research output, including peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed academic journal articles, and conference papers, the publishing costs still need to be covered. An article processing charge (APC), also known as a publication fee, can be charged to authors to make a work available open access in either an open access journal or hybrid journal to cover organization, review, formatting and archiving expenses.

This gives place to different OA models.

Open Access Models

Hybrid Open Access

“Hybrid” open access means that one or more articles in a subscription journal may be open to anyone on the internet even though all the rest of the content is available only to people and institutions with paid subscriptions. This is possible in some journals that offer their authors a choice of paying the APC to make their article freely accessible or leaving it behind the subscription barrier.

Green Open Access

“Green” open access occurs when the publisher of a subscription journal allows the author to keep the non-commercial rights to her article so it can be posted in open internet archives. Archives may be institutional repositories or discipline-specific archives maintained by scholarly associations. In some cases, the publisher requires that open access in the archives be delayed for 6 to 12 months.

A variety of platforms are available, including disciplinary repositories (e.g.,, PubMed Central) and institutional repositories hosted by a university or organization. The benefit of green open access for researchers is the avoidance of costs that may otherwise accompany the gold open access model (see below).

Gold Open Access

“Gold” open access refers to journals in which all articles and content are open access — available to anyone on the internet without any subscription fees or sign-in. Publishers cover the publishing costs by means of the APC, which is charged to authors to make a work available open access. This fee is usually paid by an author’s institution or research funder rather than by the author themselves. An article processing charge does not guarantee that the author retains copyright to the work, or that it will be made available under a Creative Commons license (see below).

Platinum Open Access

“Platinum” (or Diamond) open access means permanent and free access to published scientific works for readers with no publication fees for the authors – 100% free. All articles are published under the most flexible reuse standard – the CC BY license. Publication costs are funded by non-profit associations, academic institutions or governative information centre. Platinum open access platforms maximizes the potential for exchanging ideas and provides a valuable contribution to those with limited financial means by leveling the playing field and giving everyone an equal chance to publish and read scientific publications of high quality.


In Gold OA publications are typically operated on commercial platforms with the APC shifting the burden of payment from readers to authors (or their funders), which creates a new set of concerns:

  • publishers are incentivized to accept anything submitted,
  • institutional budgets may need to be adjusted in order to provide funding for the article processing charges required to publish in many open access journals, while retainong the old subscriptions.

Requiring to pay the APC to be able to publish a paper might induce a financial bias since * authors from countries with low incomes may have difficulties in publishing; and * non tenured academic staff might have different access to the institutional funds to pay the processing costs.

Interesting readings and references

  1. Plan S, Coalition S website
  2. Why UC split with publishing giant Elsevier, Berkeley News, Feb 28, 2019
  3. The Guardian view on academic publishing: disastrous capitalism, The Guardian, March 4, 2019
  4. All scientific papers to be free by 2020 under EU proposals, The Guardian, May 28, 2016 (This article is more than 2 years old)
  5. Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?, The Guardian, June 27, 2017
  6. Area-wide transition to open access is possible, Max-Planck Gesellschaft, April 27, 2015
  7. Academic publishing, Wikipedia
  8. Russel, R. D. “The business of academic publishing: A strategic analysis of the academic journal publishing industry and its impact on the future of scholarly publishing.” Electron J Acad Spec Librarianship 9.3 (2008).