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Librarians are facilitators of scholarly communications, a field with two competing goals. The first is to increase access to knowledge, and the second is to reduce the cost of knowledge. In recent years, Open Access (OA) has been a movement intended to increase access to knowledge, but the question has been how it would affect costs.

“What we’re trying to do is think about the health and financial sustainability of the whole system,” says MacKenzie Smith, University of California Davis librarian. “There’s a lot of money in the scholarly communications system today, and libraries are often the stewards of that money.”

She’s also a principal investigator on the school’s Pay-it-Forward Project, which has explored sustainable APC models.

The question of how to deal with the costs of OA is part of that dynamic. Because OA journals don’t charge subscription fees, they need to recoup publication costs in other ways. Different publications have used a variety of models to address this issue, but one common feature many of them have is the presence of article processing charges, or APCs. This leads to the question of who will pay these often-hefty fees.

Who provides the funding?

A variety of funding sources are available for APCs at most universities. Grant money, departmental funds, and the research office all play central roles. Sometimes the library is involved, and, in some cases, individual researchers may also pay the fee, themselves.

Most grants today allow funds to be used for APCs in both traditional and OA journals, and this is a significant source of funding for publishing costs. This is one of the most significant sources of APC funding. In some instances, individual authors do pay out-of-pocket for their own APCs, though perhaps not as often.

This can be a hefty fee, but neither Smith nor Beth McNeil, Dean of Library Sciences at Iowa State University sees scholars dissuaded by these publishing fees. It’s more of a logistical problem to be planned for than something to discourage publishing.

“I’m not seeing a trend away from OA,” says McNeil. “And in many disciplines, APCs have been around for a long time, even in non-OA journals, so it’s not a surprise to scholars necessarily.”

Alternative OA models

There have always been multiple OA models, and some of them do reduce the burden of APCs. Some philanthropic foundations, for example, have been able to fund OA publications using their money and donations. ELife is funded this way, as are the AMS’s journals, as well as titles from MIT Press. This allows the journal to be free to the author and OA. The question is, as Smith notes, whether such a model would be sustainable over time.

Other journals offer memberships to journalists, so they don’t pay APCs on an article-by-article basis. Instead, these authors pay membership fees which allow them to publish any articles at no extra cost.

“I can also pay a membership fee to the library to certain publishers, and then they will reduce the APC,” says Smith. “Those are offsetting agreements, and that’s becoming a common thing nowadays.”

Some campuses also run their own university presses and publish their own scholarly journals, and many also run OA institutional repositories. All of these can reduce publishing costs for their faculty and researchers.

“[They’re] using digital repository software to work with faculty members to start to move journals from commercial platforms to campuses,” says McNeil. “That’s not without costs, certainly, but it’s a model that’s worth exploring.”

In a similar vein, the Wellcome Trust also recently launched a new OA platform for researchers to publish articles ahead of peer-review.

Librarians can help

APCs are currently the dominant model, though, because they seem to be a sustainable one. The question becomes how to ensure no research is lost because a researcher can’t pay a fee. Libraries can play a major role in this.

Firstly, an increasing number are offering OA funds. This means they hold some money that researchers who meet certain requirements can use to pay their APC. By doing this, libraries are acting as a safety net for scholars who don’t have another way to pay their charges.

Most libraries also help increase awareness and guide scholars through the OA publishing process. They help people avoid predatory publishers and even act as their agent with legitimate publishers. This means they negotiate on behalf of authors to ensure they retain the right to their own work, and other important issues.

“Just as a book author would have a literary agent, it’s that sort of function,” says Smith.

Regardless of how the costs are addressed, librarians must play a key role in ensuring that scholarly work can continue and that knowledge can be preserved and disseminated in a sustainable way.

“That’s the other thing we’re spending a lot of time considering,” says Smith. “How do we make sure we’re not increasing the cost, because right now scholarly journals are very expensive. There’s more to it than just converting to OA.”