I value the reputation of the journals to which I submit articles. Mostly, I wish to confront my work with the most competent researchers in my field through peer review, in order to have an expert opinion on its quality. In my field, the best ranked/most reputable journals are dominantly subscription-based (although all offer 3'000$ open access (OA) options, that not many researcher choose). So I give priority to reputation/quality over OA policy. On the other hand, I'm well aware that subscription journals are a big weight on universities budget.

So, does OA* really help access to science and save taxpayer money?

The arguments I know about that suggest it does:

I'm aware of the arguments (very efficiently publicized by big OA publishers like Frontiers) that OA is good karma because it gives access to science 'for free'. People argue that when the taxpayers pay for research, they should also get to read the results without paying a subscription.

Reasons for which I'm not sure it does:

I believe that if every article costs 500-3000$ just to publish, and the total number of article explodes, taxpayers (or private scientific funding agencies) are not winning a lot in the change. I also think that people can go to the library to get access to research.

Isn't it reasonable to use the options that we have to freely give access to our work (self-archiving, sending preprint to people who ask politely, etc.).

ps. I published in both OA and subscription-based, and I will gladly submit to OA journals if they end up being the highest quality ones in my field.

*I'm talking about OA journals with article processing charge. I'm aware of the existence of completely free OA journals (funded by universities I presume), but they are only relevant for a few research topics. And not mine.

Edit apparently the science funding agencies of the UK think that gold OA is not that good of a strategy.

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    Not all open access journals require author fees.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 23:53
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    There is absolutely no reason every article should cost $500 to $3000 just to publish. By the way, you may want to look at the example of the Journal of Machine Learning Research. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 4:24
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    Can we call "OA with processing charge" "pay-to-publish"? I feel that the expression "open access" is used to mean too many things and it would be better if we phased it out completely. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 12:49
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    @FedericoPoloni The established term for this is gold open access. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access#Implementation_practices. I've edited the title accordingly. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 15:00
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    +1: What a great question. It's questions like this that make me want to be a part of this site. (You know you've asked a good question on academia.SE when "Ask your advisor!" is not a plausible answer...) Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 22:20

7 Answers 7


I also think that people can go to the library to get access to research.

You're assuming that libraries can pay for access. That's not the case anymore. Even Harvard univerity, one of the richest in the world, can't pay for all the journals its researchers need. I think none of the Universities I know have access to all the journals it needs. So, you can imagine a public library won't grant access to all the existing literature.

That's even worse in developing/not too rich countries. In this case, you can notice that most Open Access (OA) journals adapt the cost of publication to the wealth of the country the article comes from (for example Plos).

It can also be a problem for small enterprises, that aren't very rich, so they can't subscribe to journals and have to pay "per view", but need access to the latest research in order to innovate. So, non-OA journals are an impediment to the technological progress too.

And I will also add the fact that, even in rich countries, it is not always that easy to go to a library. For example, when answering here on Stack Exchange, I try to add links to research articles which can be more precise than my own answer. If the OP is really very interested in a complete understanding of the answer, he could go to a library. But in most cases, if he doesn't have access to an article through the Internet, it will just waste an opportunity for him to learn.

I published in both OA and subscription-based, and I will gladly submit to OA journals if they end up being the highest quality ones in my field.

However, you're pointing to a real problem here. If the "best" journals are not OA, do you have to compromise your career (or your students') to publish in an OA journal? In fact, some people would answer that the Impact Factor-based ranking of journals doesn't make much sense (see for example this article). And it is one of the reasons for the creation of Plos One, a "mega-journal" accepting articles only based on their scientific value, and not on an estimate of the interest its conclusions might have in the future. But for sure, this is a hot topic.

And another real problem here is money. If the Universities have to pay both for keeping access to non-OA journals, and for publishing in OA journals at the same time, it will be even more expensive. No university can afford it. A proposed solution is green Open-Access, where the articles are just put in repositories, and nobody needs to pay neither for publishing, nor for accessing. With a good post-publication peer-review system, this could work. But it also implies a huge paradigm shift, with new problems.

Isn't it reasonable to use the options that we have to freely give access to our work (self-archiving, sending preprint to people who ask politely, etc.).

That is in fact kind of green OA. But, depending on the license you agree with when you publish in a journal, that's not always possible.

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    You are raising important points, just to clarify, when I say reputable, I do not strictly speak about impact factor (in my fields, top journals have an IF of about 3) but journals respected by the community. As for not so rich countries: I think that OA publisher are well aware of the huge potential in article-processing charges in these areas.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 21:09
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    In each of my past jobs I have occasionally run into papers that I cannot access given the databases the university has subscribed to. Sometimes, I ping colleagues elsewhere and find it, which is a real hassle. Other times, if the article was only a "nice to have," I just skip it. In this way, not being freely available will affect the impact of your work (all else being equal). In some quite indirect way, this seems to lower the value that taxpayers are getting.
    – Eric Marsh
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 8:57
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    As far as I know, Elsevier does not send take-down orders for pre-prints. They allow those (see sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/search.php?id=30&fIDnum=%7C). The actions you've linked to involve cases where authors posted the final journal version. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 15:02
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    'A proposed solution is green Open-Access, where the articles are just put in repositories, and nobody needs to pay neither for publishing, nor for accessing. With a good post-publication peer-review system, this could work' Agreed, but how do we fund this? Managing high quality publications and hosting the data for ever securely, with a back-up strategy etc, is obviously not free.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 20:23
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    I actually see a shift in favor of green open access, e.g. the new German UrhG. As for gold open access, I haven't done it yet and I'm not likely to do it - instead I use the self-archiving policy. IMHO besides the huge costs the big publishers charge for their gold OA, I do think that this myriad of spamming gold OA journals really threaten the concept - hopefully not the concept of the other OA versions. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 20:35

(Edited to address Anonymous Mathematician's great remark)

Well, my understanding is that you asked a math question: is it better for the tax payers to have academics publishing in Gold Open-Access, compared to the standard journals? Neglecting the fact that the tax-payer won't have access for free to articles published in regular journals, this could be answered by a comparison between the current closed system (all the costs are concentrated in the library subscriptions of journals) and the open system (all the costs are concentrated in OA journals processing costs).

It is hard to have good figures, so I will make a number of approximations... Feel free to correct/adapt these as you like. I also consider only Harvard - other institutions may give very different outcomes.

So, trusting this link, the total library expenditure for research purpose is 3 750 000 $ /year for roughly 20% of Harvard's collection - in other words, the total yearly spending of Harvard's library for science publications amounts to the mind-boggling 19 000 000 $ / year (!)

Knowing that Harvard has roughly 2000 faculty members cf the Wikipedia page, the total expenditure per faculty is between 9000$ and 9500$ per year.

Given that the typical faculty publish maybe 3 papers per year (depending on the field!), any cost lower than 3000 $ per publication in OA journals is worth the money for the tax payer, as this means that the overall cost per year and per faculty is below 9000 $. Furthermore, according to this article from Nature the true average cost of OA publication is around 2300 $ (with some good journals well below), making the open system a better value for tax payers.

  • 1
    My reading of the $3.75 million figure is that it covers only 20% of the journal Harvard subscribes to ("In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs"). In that case, the spending is more like $9375/year per faculty member. That would fit pretty well with the $3000 figure. My understanding is that it is not based on actual costs, but rather is an attempt by publishers to re-capture all the current spending if the model switched from subscriptions to gold open access. (Fortunately, competition would presumably drive the price down.) Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 21:08
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    The key phrase is "these providers". It refers only to the "certain providers" mentioned in the previous sentence, while the next sentence says that "all periodical subscription costs" are five times larger. Similarly, the Guardian article refers to "many large journal publishers, which bill the library around $3.5m a year" without saying anything about the total budget (not limited to these particular publishers). Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 22:02
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    For comparison, provost.harvard.edu/institutional_research/… says that library collection costs were about $35 million/year in 2009. The Faculty Advisory Council memorandum broke it down the collection costs as 50% journals, so 20% of the journal costs would indeed be about $3.5 million. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 22:15
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    @Jigg: "In fact we could simply trust a company like Elsevier" must be the most ironic thing I've read on this site. :-) Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 4:23
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    @Shree: I'm not sure if ironic is exactly the word I'd use, but it is certainly "one of the lines I am most glad I did not have a hot beverage in my mouth when reading", yes. Or: we could trust a company like Elsevier and unfortunately we largely do even though by now it is painfully clear that we shouldn't trust a company like Elsevier any farther than we can throw it. Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 7:59

To expand on JeffE's comment: the diamond open access (free for both authors and readers) certainly does benefit the taxpayers while for the golden open access (the author-pays model) it is less clear, as detailed in the answer by AlexIok. A detailed discusion of differences among different kinds of open access can be found e.g. here: http://www.jasonmkelly.com/2013/01/27/green-gold-and-diamond-a-short-primer-on-open-access/

EDIT: To make things clear, this answer was written for the original version of the question that dealt with OA in general rather than with the author-pays model.


Isn't it reasonable to use the options that we have to freely give access to our work (self-archiving, sending preprint to people who ask politely, etc.).

Many academics don't self-archive, especially for non-recent work, and consider the idea of sending a pre-print out - first, this implies that the reader knows that they can ask for this (given you're talking about the general public, I don't think it's a great assumption to make), and second that you'll do so in a timely fashion. Consider the circumstance where you're a faintly scientifically literate family member trying to make sense of what the doctor's are telling you about a loved ones medical condition - it's very possible that sending out a preprint, or a PDF, if you can even find a corresponding author, the email address is still current, etc. will come only after several weeks, which can be extremely frustrating.

Beyond that, if they can't get past the paywall, how do they know if it's worth reaching out to you?

I also think "Will save the taxpayer money" is a little bit of a red herring. The argument I've always heard, and advanced, is not that it will save the tax payer money, but given they have already paid for the reseach, Open Access gives them access to what they paid for.

As to whether or not it will save them money, I think that's a question that changes based on the dynamics of the journal publishing industry. Right now, I'd say the answer is no - in addition to authorship fees, I have yet to see a library be able to drop a major publisher because there's sufficient OA coverage in a field (or group of fields). I suspect the cost savings for individual users not having to pay $50 or whatever it is for access to an article pale in comparison to library subscription fees, mainly because per-article readership is fairly low.

Someday, perhaps, but I think cost is one of the weaker arguments for OA.

  • 1
    Can I rephrase the question "Will OA save the taxpayers money?" to be "Under an author-pays OA system, will the public pay more for the same amount of, or less, research?" I think it is a given that taxpayers deserve access to research they have funded, but the trade off may be that less research gets done - is this trade-off worth it? I'm genuinely curious for a response from someone who has thought about this more than I have, because I'm still trying to form an opinion. Thanks! :-)
    – darthbith
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 14:58
  • @darthbith I'll add some thoughts on that shortly.
    – Fomite
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 15:11
  • Thanks for the comments. I agree that in the short term, cost is not a great argument for OA. The far better argument is the moral one, that the public has already paid for the research and they deserve access to it. It will be interesting to see how the field changes now that the new rules in the UK are in place, or whether there will be much change at all. Thanks again!
    – darthbith
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 15:54
  • 'Many academics don't self-archive' well, they should.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 12:52

Let me add a slightly different point. It's slightly off-topic because this is not OA in any of the colorful meanings, but it is on topic for possibilities to lower costs and get the taxpayers access to published papers:

Here in Germany one reaction to the library subscription costs is that now the DFG negotiates nationwide (not only university libraries) subscriptions with some publishers. I believe the DFG is a big enough player to stand their ground when haggling with Springer, Elsevier & Co.

I found some numbers:

  • total costs for scientific libraries (Germany-wide): 793 M€ / a
  • therof infrastructure costs for buildings and staff: 548 M€ / a
  • for buying books and journals: 245 M€ / a
  • the Nationallizenzen cost ca. 110 M€ / a (according to the text linked above they started with much less)

  • I did not find numbers on how much subscription costs the libraries saved. All in all, I assume that the total costs probably stayed roughly the same (at least that's what I hope) but the availability is increased.

The nice thing from taxpayer's point of view is that everyone can access these papers without the need even to go the next university library (need to get a login, though but that's not difficult).


On the topic of save taxpayer money, I think it is important to consider the question - where does the money to pay the publisher come from, in an "author-pays" system? Presumably, PIs will have to add the cost of publishing into the budget they submit in grant proposals. This may increase the amount the grant giver is required to give PIs, or perhaps they will be able to do less research for a given grant. Either way, the taxpayer may end up paying more for research, and it may be research they are not interested in, so even if they can access it all freely, they may not care to.

Now the counterargument to this is that if universities are no longer required to pay subscription fees, the amount they take from a grant should be reduced, and so the PI will end up with more or less the same amount of money as under the old system. I think this may eventually be the case, but the transition time will probably be somewhat difficult, and I would imagine that universities will be loath to give up a very steady source of funding - they will just find some other use for the money if not subscription fees.

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    In the UK, PIs are no longer allowed to add publishing costs to research council proposals. Instead, universities are given block grants for this purpose. In my experience these grants can run out towards the end of the year.... It's also worth noting one of the downsides of the author-pays model that hasn't been mentioned thus far: that it becomes unaffordable for somebody to publish research if they are not part of a university.
    – Flyto
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 12:56

There're two completely different aspects to your question. "Help access to science" is completely different from "save taxpayer money", as will be apparent in the following.

Help access to science: this is relatively straightforward. The answer is yes, as you can see from Wiki:

OA articles are generally viewed online and downloaded more often than paywalled articles and that readership continues for longer. Readership is especially higher in demographics that typically lack access to subscription journals (in addition to the general population, this includes many medical practitioners, patient groups, policymakers, non-profit sector workers, industry researchers, and independent researchers).

Save taxpayer money: this aspect is much more complex, because where all the money in publishing goes to is itself complex, but I'll go ahead and venture the answer "not really".

The reasoning is pretty intuitive. Publishing involves lots of things, and those things cost money. So to actually save money, you need to either do the same thing for less money, or don't do the thing at all.

So the question becomes "is it cheaper for the publisher to publish an OA article than a subscription article?". Drawing on my experience doing editorial work in academic publishing, I am quite confident that the answer is "no". The production process is 100% the same, except that at the end, one bills the author for the APC. Things like the editorial management system, the journal's website, the indexing - they are all the same.

Hence any savings come from other aspects of publishing, like marketing or distribution. Here OA definitely saves on distribution, since OA doesn't involve print journals and therefore doesn't need to be distributed. But then again, it's generally already possible to subscribe to electronic journals only (i.e., you do not request the print journal if you don't want it), which would also eliminate distribution costs. Marketing is a different animal and I am not an expert on it, but my impression is that it really isn't that different. You have $X in budget (in turn this is indexed to the journal's revenue) and you use all of it. Sure you might do something different when promoting an OA journal, but ultimately you still use all the budget.

One thing that isn't complex is whether the publisher gets less revenue if all the journals convert completely to OA. This can be easily calculated by taking the journal's subscription revenue and comparing that to the expected revenue if every paper paid the APC. Here the answer is usually "no"; the publisher does not lose revenue if everything converts to OA. In fact they probably gain revenue. This differential is a big part of the reason why publishers are able to waive OA fees for some authors.

So the answer is not really - gold open access simply shifts the money around. To actually save taxpayer money, one needs to do what I alluded to in the second paragraph: either do the same thing for less money, or don't do it at all.

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