In place of subscription revenue, most open access publishers charge article or book “processing charges.” These fees are meant to cover the very real costs of digital publishing, like copy editing and server maintenance. That sounds reasonable, since someone has to pay. But the author-pays model has serious flaws. The main problem is that many—perhaps most—authors cannot afford to pay: The charges, even for a single article, can easily exceed $4000. In the natural sciences, funders often pick up the bill; a handful of rich Western universities have also set aside funds for their faculty. But for everyone else—non-Western scholars, most social scientists, all the humanities disciplines—the model doesn’t work. It’s a head-scratching irony that, in the prevailing system, access was won for the reader at the expense—the literal expense—of the author.
At mediastudies.press, an early and easy decision was that we will not charge processing fees. We subscribe to the Fair Open Access principles, which, among other things, state that “[s]ubmission and publication is not condition in any way on the payment of a fee from the author or its employing institution.” To erect toll booths for authors, so that readers might bypass them, strikes us as nonsensical. And also unjust, since the ability to pay is so unevenly distributed.
But the costs of publication remain, even for a lean operation like mediastudies.press. If the reader doesn’t pay, and the cost isn’t billed to the author either, then who can cover the costs? The answer, as Martin Eve reasoned back in 2014, is academic libraries. The idea, since implemented by Eve’s Open Library of Humanities (OLH), is that libraries are already spending billions of dollars for extortionate and ever-rising closed-access serial subscription fees. Academic librarians know—better than anyone—that the current model is unstainable. By devoting a small percentage of their budgets—2.5 percent is gaining traction—to an open, nonprofit scholarly communication infrastructure, libraries might loosen the Elsevier death-grip. A fledgling group, Scholarly Commons, has formed to promote the idea, offering a tool for libraries to measure their investment in open initiatives.
So the basic notion is that libraries subsidize the operations of nonprofit open publishing (in addition to incubating their own efforts), in support of the transition away from the extractivist system that is strangling their budgets. At OLH, dozens of institutions from around the world contribute funds to support its initiatives. In exchange, libraries obtain a seat on the OLH Library Board, which helps make governance decisions.
Despite the 2.5 percent exhortations—and the apparent success of OLH and other OA initiatives (like Knowledge Unlatched)—the library-subsidy model faces a pair of keen challenges. The first is the painful irony that libraries are already squeezed by the prevailing subscription-serial regime. An alternative, open infrastructure is not yet ready for a wholesale abandonment of the legacy approach. Library-subsidy advocates are, in effect, asking libraries to float both systems simultaneously.
The second challenge is that the library-subsidizers don’t get much for their annual contributions. The reason, of course, is open access itself: publishers like OLH and mediastudies.press release works for free. Access for a university library’s constituents is already there, regardless of the subsidy. So there is a classic free-rider problem: The decision to contribute is an altruistic act, on behalf of the collective ecosystem. The governance voice that subsidies grant is no small thing, but it’s plainly not what the voluntary outlays “buy.”
Despite these obstacles, we are bullish on the core idea. Some proportion of library spending—currently propping up SpringerNature and the rest—will support open operations like mediastudies.press. We expect the funding mechanisms to evolve—a pooled fund, with a formalized application process is one option—and look forward to participating in the conversation.