Economic Overview

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Basics of Scholarly Publishing

The scholarly communication landscape is impacted by various shifting economic forces, such as changes in:

  • Publishing platforms and markets (e.g. emergence of open access business models, consortial funding for subscriptions, funder publishing platforms)
  • Ways research is conducted (e.g. social research networks fostering global collaboration)
  • Public policies (e.g. open access mandates, copyleft licensing models) 

In the traditional publishing model, scholars produce and edit research and manuscripts, which publishers then evaluate, assemble, publish, and distribute. Libraries at the institutions where scholars are employed then pay for subscriptions to license or purchase this content that researchers have created. Typically these are large subscription packages with academic publishers that encompass dozens if not hundreds of journal titles.

The costs of scholarly journal subscriptions have risen unsustainably over many decades, outstripping inflation even relative to higher education markets. As costs have risen, so has the portion of the global research community operating without full access to the scholarly record (including nearly all U.S. universities). The open access (OA) movement, discussed elsewhere on these pages (see Open Access Publishing), is in part a response to this affordability crisis.


Open Access Overview

In an OA world, libraries would not be paying for these out-of-reach subscriptions. But, if academic publishers are still distributing scholarly content through traditional journal systems, they of course would want some other form of cost recovery if subscriptions are off the table. OA publishing models differ in how and whether they address this issue.  

As we discuss on the Open Access Publishing page, two of the predominant open access publishing models are "Gold Open Access" and "Green Open Access."


Gold Open Access

  • Gold OA provides immediate access on the publisher's website. Some Gold OA publishers recoup production costs via charges for authors to publish ("article processing charges" or "book processing charges") rather than having readers (or libraries) pay to access and read it. This is a system in which "author pays" rather than "reader pays." The charges to be paid by the author can come from many sources, such as: research accounts, research grants, the university, the library, scholarly societies, and consortia. Production costs can also be offset by the sale of memberships, add-ons and enhanced services by the publisher. 


Green Open Access

  • Also known as self-archiving, in the Green OA model authors continue to publish as they always have in all the same journals. Once the article has been published in a traditional journal, however, the author then posts the "final author version" of the article to an institutional or subject matter repository. Those uploaded manuscripts are open to all to be read. Often, publishers do not allow the formatted publication version to be deposited, but instead only permit the unformatted "post-print" (referreed) or "pre-print" (author submitted) version to be uploaded.


The (Real) Non-Economic Value of OA

While open access publishing has the potential to reduce costs, this is not the only (or even the main) driving force behind open access advocacy. The benefits to individual scholars, related institutions, scholarly communication, and the general researching public are also primary motivating factors.

Open access literature is free, digital, and available to anyone online. Providing greater access to scholarship can help attract more readers and build impact.

Moreover, in most cases open access literature is also free of downstream copyright restrictions apart from attributing the original author. This type of OA literature can be reused, remixed, and built upon to further spur innovation and progress.

New open access publishing models are continuing to emerge and be evaluated for sustainability. We have much more to say about them and all things open access on our What is Open Access? page.