Small scholar-led open access publishing

Update December 2019: the final report of this project is available here:

Morrison, H. (2016). Small scholar-led scholarly journals: Can they survive and thrive in an open access future? Learned Publishing, 29(2), 83–88.
For other posts on this topic, use the Resource Requirements category.

This post provides some background and a status update on one the Resource Requirements for small scholar-led not-for-profit open access publishing project, flowing from the second objective of  Sustaining the Knowledge Commons:

2. an examination of the resources needed by small not-for-profit scholar-led publishers (e.g. needs for editorial or technical support)

Background and rationale

Up until the end of the Second World War, virtually all scholarly journals were published by scholarly societies. In the latter half of the previous century there was a tendency for increasing commercial involvement in scholarly publishing, and within the commercial sector a tendency towards concentration. Today, a very large proportion of scholarly journals are published by a small number of highly profitable large commercial publishers, particularly in the sciences, technology and medicine (STM) areas, while other areas of scholarly publishing, particularly social sciences and humanities publishing and monograph publishing, suffer from a lack of financial support.

In recent decades, one factor in the trend towards commercial publishing and outsourcing of the technical work of publishing by scholarly societies was the difficulty and expense of creating online journals in the relatively early days of the computer and the internet, up until the end of the last century.

The not-for-profit scholar-led sector of scholarly publishing is still very large and active in scholarly publishing; even many of the journals published by commercial publishers are actually partnerships with scholarly societies, or in effect scholarly society publishers that have outsourced some of the work to commercial companies.

It should come as no surprise that at about the turn of this century – about the time of the official start of the open access movement – the underlying conditions pushing scholars to outsource the work of publishing change, thanks to the internet. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were free online journals, but not that many; it wasn’t easy to publish online, for many people this required equipment, software and expertise that they didn’t have. Today, this is no longer the case. Anyone with a computer and internet connection can publish a blog, using free software.

This has led to what Edgar & Willinsky, reporting on a survey of over 900 journals using the open source Open Journal Systems, describe as a renaissance of scholar-led publishing. As I discuss in my 2013 First Monday article, the figures reported by the journals in this survey suggest the potential for a fully open access scholarly publishing system that costs a small fraction of what academic libraries (the major source of support for scholarly journals) currently spend, on average, for scholarly journals on a per-article basis.

The First Monday article reflects early stage research that the SKC project is intended to pursue to the next level by more fully articulating the needs and potential costs of a scholar-led open access publishing system. The next phase of research involves two separate paths: articulating the needs of scholarly journals (through interviews, possibly focus groups and/or surveys, followed by economic modeling) and university (usually) library-based journal hosting services.

Resource Requirements is the first phase of this research and involves conducting brief interviews with people involved with scholar-led journals that either are open access, or would like to become open access if the means can be found. These interviews focus on the needs of these journals expressed in qualitative terms, such as what work is done, who does the work (e.g. volunteers or paid staff, academic, professional publishing staff, support staff etc.), the technical work of journal hosting and support.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Small scholar-led open access publishing. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

OA APCs: beware introductory pricing

Kudos to BioMedCentral for this explanation of why there is no APC (yet) for some of their journals: “† No article processing charge is payable for this newly-launched journal, for a promotional period.” from: How much is BioMedCentral charging? (viewed Aug. 1, 2014).

This is a straightforward explanation of a very common business model (for many kinds of businesses, not just OA journals) of free or low cost introductory pricing, the purpose of which is to attract customers with a view to eventually instating different and quite possibly substantially higher pricing. This is most important to keep in mind when projecting potential future costs, as the low costs of commercial for-profit open access publishers today may be substantially less than what some intent to charge after their journals become successful.

This is not meant to suggest that this is the practice for all open access journals and publishers using the APC method, or even most, rather it is one approach to be aware of that the second-largest publisher using this method is rather helpfully telling us it is a method they consciously employ.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). OA APCs: Beware introductory pricing. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Fee complexity – an example

It is often assumed that article processing charges (APCs) are a single fee, a straightforward approach to providing revenue to publishers to offset the costs of publication. However APCs can be a very complex affair. Take the Frontiers fee grid as an example. They publish peer-reviewed Gold OA journals in medicine, neuroscience, health, and related fields. A researcher wishing to submit a manuscript needs to navigate the fee grid to figure out what the APCs would be.  There are two tiers of articles (specialty-level and field-level). Within Tier 1, there are four types of articles, ranging in cost from free (e.g. book reviews, commentaries); to mini-review articles ( 575 euros); to original research articles as a research topic submission (960 euros, unless the corresponding author is a Frontiers Media associate or chief editor- 770 euros); a regular submission (1,600 euros unless the corresponding author is a Frontiers Media associate or chief editor – 1,280 euros); and lastly, clinical trial articles (2000 euros). In Tier 2, ie focused reviews or commentary, there are no fees. There are additional page charges in some categories.

This complexity speaks to the challenges of developing business models in an OA knowledge economy. As OA publishers experiment with new business models, it is interesting to observe the numerous levels, options, and discounts for scientific publishing fees  that are  emerging, such as in this example. We are living in a period of healthy and robust experimentation in publishing, and we can expect to see much more variety and nuance in fee models in the journal industry in the coming years. Researchers will need to carefully compare APC options and publishing venues- and what they are getting for their money.

About Frontiers – As described on their website:

“Frontiers was launched as a grassroots initiative in 2007 by scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, out of the collective desire to improve the publishing options and provide better tools and services to researchers in the Internet age. Since then, Frontiers has become one of the largest and fastest-growing open-access scholarly publishers: over 20,000 high-quality, peer-reviewed articles have been published in 45 community-driven journals across more than 300 specialty niches in science, medicine and technology, and more than 40,000 high-impact researchers serve on the editorial boards and over 6 million monthly page views”

Articles are published with a fast turnaround time- three months after submission, on average.

Cite as:

Horava, T. (2015). Fee complexity – an example. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Hybrids: print plus OA okay with DOAJ, print plus online subscriptions no. Is this fair?

The Directory of Open Access Journals only lists fully open access journals. Hybrids that offer subscriptions as well as an optional OA publication fee are not welcome. However, there are a number of journals listed in DOAJ that offer print subscriptions. Is this fair? Following is language on APCs for Scientia Agricola that make it very clear that this is a hybrid journal. This pricing model suggests a way to retain individual subscriptions, a model that has some similarities and overlap with membership models.

If the first author or corresponding author subscribes to Scientia Agricola:

  • US$ 35.00 per printed page, up to 6th page
  • US$ 70.00 each additional page
  • US$ 85.00 per color page

If neither the first author nor the corresponding author subscribe to Scientia Agricola:

  • US$ 70.00 per printed page, up to 6th page
  • US$ 140.00 each additional page
  • US$ 85.00 per color page

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Hybrids: Print plus OA okay with DOAJ, print plus online subscriptions no. Is this fair? Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Open access landscape in mathematics

Walt Crawford has posted an analysis of english language open access journals in mathematics.

Of interest:

  • statistics has the highest number of free journals outside the humanities and social sciences
  • there are more articles published in the fee journals
  • there is a relationship between the size of the journal and whether fees are charged, e.g. both prolific journals have APCs while 71% of medium-sized journals do not have APCs
  • article statistics show robust growth
  • journal statistics show a big jump in growth in recent years, both for fee and free journals

Comment: the correlation between size of journal and whether fees are charged is likely based in part on the need for more prolific journals to have paid staff, office space, etc.

This post is part of the OA article processing charges project.

Citation: cite Crawford’s analysis rather than this post.

Sustaining scholarly societies and society publishers: key challenges for open access transition

A recent editorial by Diane Scott-Lichter in Learned Publishing summarizes nicely some of the primary challenges for scholarly societies to transition to open access that many have written about over the years.

I argue that if we want to see a successful and sustainable transition to open access that prioritizes the public good and scholarship per se it is timely to address some of these challenges. Society publishers have a track record of high quality publishing at relatively low cost. Many scholarly societies rely on publishing revenue to sustain the societies themselves and the important work they do, including support for scholars and advocacy in the public interest. The generally modest surpluses of scholarly society publishers that are used to advance scholarship are not the same as the money that flows through commercial publishers to private parties solely for their private profit.

How can these challenges be addressed? This needs a lot of work – comments, suggestions and research are needed and welcome. Here is one thought: if libraries and other open access activists were to engage faculty in the question of whether the high profit margins of a few large commercial scholarly publishers might be re-directed to more direct means of support for scholarly societies and journals, would this facilitate broadening support for open access – and possibly more radical transformation of scholarly communication – at our institutions? If as a faculty member I had a small fund to spend with spending options including article processing charges or things like society memberships, the benefits to myself and my colleagues of a lowest-possible-cost peer-review overlay publishing system using the institutional repository in order to direct as much money as possible to things like awards, grants, and public advocacy, I could see this being a powerful incentive towards this kind of radical change.


One argument is that scholarly journals have a superior track record for quality in scholarly publishing at an average fraction of the cost of commercial scholarly publishing. As Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006) reported:

For example, in the fields of economics and ecology, the average institutional subscription price per page charged by commercial journals is about 5 times that charged by non-profit journals. These price differences do not reflect differences in quality as measured by number of recorded citations to a journal. For commercial journals the average price per citation is about 15 times that for non-profit journals. Similar price differentials are found across a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

Many scholarly societies rely on revenue from their publications and sometimes other sources such as meeting / conference revenue and grants to fund the work of the society. The work of these not-for-profit organizations that is supported by publication revenue includes (from Scott-Lichter):

Learned societies are advocates for their disciplines, and its members keep government bodies, funders,and the public aware of the issues relative to their fields. Advocacy areas often focus on funding, policy reform, education, and the workforce”


“Society grants, awards, scholarships, and internships supplement the work of funding bodies and schools. Grants support a range of activities from basic research to studying and documenting a discipline’s history. Awards recognize achievements and encourage advancement. They range from student travel awards to attend scholarly meetings to honoring public service or teaching to lifetime achievement for contributions to the discipline. Scholarships and internships support the development of students and faculty and aim both to cultivate qualified individuals working in the discipline and uphold the quality of the discipline. Again, the benefits go beyond the discipline”.

Like open access itself, these benefits from society publishing are in the public interest. We need to figure out how to support both scholarly societies and open access.


Bergstrom, T. C., & Bergstrom, C. (2006). The economics of scholarly journal publishing. Seattle: Retrieved August 28, 2011 from

Scott-Lichter, D. (2014) Learned societies: Resilience not reliance required (2014). Learned Publishing 27:2, p. 83-84. doi:10.1087/20140201

This post is part of the resource requirements project.

Cite as:

Morrison, H. (2015). Sustaining scholarly societies and society publishers: Key challenges for open access transition. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

Library-led journals using Digital Commons: 94% open access, none with article processing charges

A study by Busher & Kamotsky highlights one of the options for sustaining small scholar-led journals. Digital Commons is a software used by library institutional repositories and as a publishing platform, particularly in the United States. In Canada, the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems and Érudit are the most commonly used platforms. The authors found that of nearly 700 journals (now 900) using Digital Commons in 2013, “94% were open access, and none relied on article-processing fees”. Other statistics indicate the growth of both library publishing services and journals hosted. The authors suggest the rationale: “The library has been more than willing to support these journals with software, hosting, infrastructure, and often more hands-on editorial services. The investment has proven worthwhile: libraries have been able to expand their publishing programs even while other library budgets are shrinking”. The authors present several case studies of journals successfully using Digital Commons, and suggest that this is a useful model for new and niche journals.

Comment: the usefulness of this model extends far beyond the new and niche. For example, library-led publishing is now an option worth considering for journals that opted for commercial publishing services in the past couple of decades due to the limited options available for online publishing a few years ago. At least in North America, the majority of journal editorial boards could likely find several options for library-led publishing by canvassing editorial board members.


Busher, C., & Kamotsky, I. (2015). Stories and statistics from library-led publishing. Learned Publishing 2015 28:1, p. 64-68. doi:10.1087/20150110. Open access archived version here:

This post is part of the resource requirements project.

Cite as: Morrison, H. (2015). Library-led journals using Digital Commons: 94% open access, none with article processing charges. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from