PLOS, the nonprofit publisher that in 2003 pioneered the open-access business model of charging authors to publish scientific articles so they are immediately free to all, this week rolled out an alternative model that could herald the end of the author-pays era. One of the new options shifts the cost of publishing open-access (OA) articles in its two most selective journals to institutions, charging them a fixed annual fee; any researcher at that institution could then publish in the PLOS journals at no additional charge.
The new PLOS plan includes other features novel in scientific publishing, and it joins other emerging OA financing models that also do away with fees paid by authors. Together, the developments suggest the days of researchers directly paying journals to make their papers free—a system that has made PLOS one of the largest OA publishers—may be numbered, says Sara Rouhi, director of strategic partnerships at PLOS.
The 3-year pilot at PLOS will test the new model with the selective journals PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. It aims to “demonstrate that highly selective open access journal publishing can cover its costs without charging high [article-processing fees (APCs)] or indeed any APCs” and “to equitably distribute cost amongst institutions that publish most in those two journals,” PLOS said in a statement.
The upside for corresponding authors, especially at North American institutions, is that they would no longer have to scramble for money to pay APCs. That has often required tapping diverse sources, including grant funds, and sometimes their own pockets.
PLOS acknowledges it will likely take time for its new model to take root. To join, institutions will have to carve money out of flat library budgets already stressed by rising subscription costs. To incentivize participation, PLOS is brandishing a stick: Corresponding authors at institutions that don’t opt in would face a “nonmember” fee of nearly $7000 per paper by 2023 to publish in the selective journals, far higher than the $3000 APC the journals now charge.
PLOS publishes seven journals in all, and its plan details new fee structures for them. For the two selective journals, institutions would pay one of 12 tiers of annual fees; the fee is based in part on how many papers all researchers at all institutions in the tier have published in recent years in the journal, either as corresponding or contributing authors. The annual prices range from nearly $40,000 to as little as a few hundred dollars, or less than the cost of a single APC. PLOS set the fees to cover its costs, plus a profit margin capped at 10% to pay for improving the journals. If more institutions than PLOS expects sign up, it will use the surplus revenue to lower fees the following year.
The publisher also unveiled today a separate policy change for its five other titles. These include its high-volume, multidisciplinary PLOS ONE, which charges an APC of up to $1695. Institutions can instead pay a single annual fee to publish papers by their authors, regardless of whether they are listed as the corresponding or contributing ones, broadening the pool of papers covered by the deals.
PLOS announced an initial customer for both models—Jisc, a nonprofit that provides library services to U.K. universities and colleges. (Under Jisc’s procedures, each institution would need to opt in to the deals.) The plan for the selective journals has “the potential to help shape the future of [OA] funding,” said Caren Milloy, Jisc’s director of licensing, in a statement. Rouhi says PLOS has also received oral commitments from about 30 additional institutions and consortia.
The plan for PLOS’s selective journals attempts to serve the needs of both scientists and its own finances, Rouhi says. Selective journals are expensive to produce because they publish a minority of all manuscripts they review. PLOS says it has been subsidizing the APC prices for its biology and medicine titles with revenues from its other journals; without the subsidies, PLOS says it would have to increase APCs by $1400 to $3100 for each paper. The publicly posted fee structure also meets a growing call among customers for transparency in journal pricing, Rouhi says. (Many other journals subsidize APCs but don’t reveal by how much.)
In addition, the new model offers PLOS a path to make its selective journals self-sufficient through recurring annual revenues, avoiding the volatility of APC income. That could aid PLOS’s other efforts in recent years to achieve overall financial stability after it reported losses from 2016 to 2018 and the volume of papers published in its primary moneymaker, PLOS ONE, fell. But the organization instituted cost cutting and CEO Alison Mudditt tweeted this month that PLOS achieved a surplus in 2019 and she expects it will again this year.
The new experiment with the two selective journals represents a modest part of the entire portfolio: Their $3.4 million combined expenses represented about 9% of PLOS’s total expenses in 2018, whereas their papers accounted for 2.5% of all PLOS papers this year, publishing consultant Kent Anderson reported on his blog, The Geyser.
Rouhi says the PLOS plan is also designed to spread the burden of paying for scientific publishing beyond research-intensive universities, which otherwise face the prospect of footing the lion’s share of APC bills. Contributing authors work in a wider pool of institutions, including non–research-intensive ones, she notes.
PLOS is starting the pilots partly out of concern that a push by many European institutions to strike “transformative open-access agreements” with publishers, which eliminate APCs by redirecting subscription revenues, could leave little money for other publishers, such as PLOS, that rely only on APCs for revenue, Rouhi said. But PLOS is unlikely to end APCs for all its publications soon, she added. “There are parts of the world that are deeply invested in APCs, and that’s how they want to do business.” In the meantime, she says, the pricing experiments are meant to explore alternative ways of reaching a PLOS goal of eliminating “barriers to either reading or publishing in PLOS journals.”