OA Pre-payments (opinion piece)

Martin Wolf, University of Liverpool

Warning – not all opinions expressed are equally dear to my heart!

Pre-payments for open access article processing charges make everyone’s life easier, right? Planned expenditure, the promise of discounts, easier monitoring of spend, fewer forms to fill in – what’s not to like?

Not so fast! While I’ve no desire to see pre-payment options disappear, and can see that for some they will represent an attractive way of pressing ahead with gold open access, this blog post will take a step back and discuss some of the potential weaknesses of the pre-payment model. None of these are absolute show-stoppers (and I’m not even in 100% agreement with some of them), but they are things that should be considered before making a hefty investment in pre-payments.

1. They run the risk of divorcing researchers from the economic impact of their publishing decisions

How you feel about this one will largely depend on how you feel about the economic arguments in favour of the open access concept in the first place.

Most academic librarians would accept that the proportion of their budgets swallowed by journal subscriptions has been on the upward trajectory for many years – the fabled “serials crisis”. From a researcher’s point of view, this has been an invisible crisis in that they’re not aware of it, and so frankly they don’t care about it. From their perspective, access to journal literature has in practice always been free, so what are these librarians complaining about?

This invisibility was as a result of libraries perhaps being too good at managing budgets so as to retain ever-more expensive subscriptions without any obvious detriment to their other services (particularly in those science disciplines where book expenditure has always been low). Libraries had to subscribe to said journals because they were what researchers published in, and researchers were in the dark about how this led to less expenditure on books and other library service elements. That’s one of the reasons why most academics clearly don’t share the same frustrations with publishers felt by libraries.

Open access publishing presents an opportunity for researchers to be confronted with the economic costs of their publishing decisions – to publish here costs £X, to publish there costs £Y, and so on, whereas the fact that journal subscriptions cost £X or £Y was hidden from them. Whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal opinion, but at least it should raise the visibility of the costs of publishing amongst researchers. Pre-payment schemes, where researchers never see an invoice, and may well never have any clue of the price of publishing, could result in a maintenance of the status quo of researchers being kept in the dark of just how much money their publishing venues cost their institutions (leaving aside here the fact that many researchers belong to their discipline first, to their institution a distant second).

If you want researchers to think about the financial impact of where they publish (and you may not want to), then going for a pre-payment scheme might not be the best way to go about it.

2. You may be seen as implicitly encouraging publication in one publisher’s journals over another’s

Again, you may not consider this a problem – indeed, you may actually view encouraging placing work with one publisher over another as an important, proactive part of your open access initiatives – but it’s something to be considered. If you’ve taken out a pre-payment scheme with publisher A, are you tacitly recommending them over publisher B?

Your feelings on this one will vary according to the degree of militancy over the claim that open access somehow impinges on academic freedom that exists in your institution. This claim goes along the lines of “I’m an academic researcher, don’t you dare tell me where I can and can’t publish; regardless of whether or not you’re funding my research, I have the academic freedom to place my work in the least-publicly-accessible journal I wish if it’s the one I deem fit for my purposes”.

You may well gather from the way I phrase the above that it’s an argument that holds no water with me (for me, academic freedom means you work in a country where saying something bad about the government won’t get you locked up in gaol); however, it is an argument that many academics cling to, and indeed one to which I’ve been subjected previously.

So, depending on how much of a political hot potato open access might be in your institution, you may need to be circumspect in taking out pre-payments lest you be accused of trying you force your researchers into submitting to specific publishers.

3. They tie up money you may want to have available for other purposes

Depending on circumstance, you may want to tie up money, for example to show that money is being used on open access initiatives, but in many contexts you’ll want to be as flexible with your (likely limited) open access funds as you can. Tying up money in pre-payment schemes may reduce your ability to respond quickly to changes in the open access environment, and as such may not always be as good a deal as they seem.

4. Do they genuinely free you from administrative hassles?

The answer to this question will rest on your current in-house policies and processes for open access. For example, your institution might have a fairly involved set of conditions that must be met before an open access payment can be paid (note I’m not advocating for needless complexity here!), or you may have devolved open access decision-making and/or budgets to individual academic units, rather than a central service.

In such cases, are the pre-payment options you’re being offered compatible with your institutional situation? Can they accommodate different eligibility criteria according to source of funding, or type of journal (for instance, if an institution only supports full gold journals and does not support hybrid gold)? Will they provide the administrative data you need in the format you want it?

For this latter question the work of projects such as JISC Monitor might help, but it’s worth examining the claims made of the lack of administrative hassle a pre-payment will bring. In some circumstances pre-payments will indeed be the easy option, but for others they might actually prove too restrictive (or not restrictive enough) in terms of what articles qualify for funding.


To conclude, pre-payment deals for APCs may be the right choice for your institution, but they may not. This posting was largely conceived in response to the surprise I sometimes encounter when I express scepticism over some pre-payment schemes, and is by way of pointing out some of the wider issues that need to be taken into account when considering whether or not to sign up.

3 thoughts on “OA Pre-payments (opinion piece)

  1. Are you still of this opinion, Martin? I find that not all prepayment deals are ‘equal’, and certainly not all are appropriate for The University of Manchester. It seems to me that publishers are working on the assumption that we have funds to pay APCs for all our research papers – they seem genuinely surprised when I ask how many RCUK-funded Manchester papers they have published in the past 12 months. Then it’s my turn to be surprised because they usually can’t tell me…

    If you are moving towards considering deals at Liverpool I think it’s sensible to analyse your publication data before working out which publishers to talk to and applying some criteria when evaluating whether the deals are right for you. That way you get value for money, don’t tie funds up and can explain to anyone accusing you of promoting particular publishers that the decision was data-driven.

    The other thing we do – because, like you, we want researchers to know the cost of publishing their paper – is send the author an email telling them that we’ve paid the bill and the amount we paid.

    We’re reviewing some new deals on the table this month – I’ll let you know the outcome at the opeNWorks workshop in December…


    1. This may sound a bit obvious, but I feel that pre-payments would be straightforward if research funding was straightforward – but, as we all know, it isn’t. I’m not sure that pre-payment schemes can adequately give us the data and flexibility we need when it comes to splitting payments between different funding streams (e.g. what do you do when an article is reporting on research jointly funded by Wellcome Trust, MRC and NIHR?), and that’s not even touching the issue of collaborations between universities. I’m not saying it’s impossible to solve these issues, and would be interested in working with publishers to explore this, but there does need to be a recognition by publishers that actually no, pre-payments are not the open access payment panacea they’d like us to think they are.


      1. Yes, I do get that – we’re trying out some different models this year. I’ll let you know how we get on… I was going to chat to you yesterday about this but you were deep in conversation when I was leaving.


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