The Pricing Structures of Nature’s Open Access Journals Reflect Intersections of Multiple Supply and Demand Markets

As Springer Nature tests the Open Access waters with a growing fleet of its flagship journals, e.g., Nature, the move can be portentous for the further development of this publishing sector.

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In a seemingly counter-intuitive fashion, with total article processing charges (APCs) for its most in-demand, competitive journal, i.e., Nature, set at 9,500 Euros, Springer Nature exemplifies the possible race to the top that can be taking place in the Open Access market, while leading to high or rising APC levels. As in the pre-Open Access period, journal publishing costs could be distributed across multiple subscribing institutions via periodically renegotiated long-term agreements, absent these, in the Open Access sector, price-setting conditions are exposed to volatility.

Similarly, whereas the emergence of Open Access has been driven by digital and organizational economies of scale that have accrued in recent decades, the same processes can also be harnessed for profitability maximization on the part of corporate agents, under the conditions of constant demand. Yet it is not unlikely that subscription demand for the paywalled journals of Springer Nature has been flagging, while inducing the latter to set the APC levels based on journal positioning in the publishing market.

Moreover, as the increasingly market-wide inclusion of Open Access into publication options shows, it also goes hand-in-hand with the re-equilibration of reader-facing access barriers, as revenue stream sources, with researcher-facing publication fees, in a bid of journal publishing houses to remain either sustainable or profitable. While initiatives, such as the Plan S of the cOAlition S, seek to create frameworks aimed at regulating APC policies of major market actors, such as funders, universities and publishers, these might only have a partial hold and/or impact on market dynamics.

Thus, in the only partially regulated Open Access sector, the highly selective journals can be expected to meet with both an inelastic demand from the side of distinction-seeking researchers and a highly restricted supply of publication opportunities, which is slated to lead to premium, much above average APC levels with optional amelioration via country-wide or institutional subscription agreements.

Conversely, competing journals with lower APC levels will need to demonstrate that their offerings provide sufficient researcher-facing returns in terms of prestige, quality standards or discoverability. Yet APC price competition follows the logic of the race to the bottom, which likely runs contrary to the efforts to maintain journal selectivity, also because regardless of their market positioning publishers need to cover their costs and remain financially sustainable, if they are to demonstrate organizational longevity as well.

Consequently, whereas the publishing market share of Open Access is strongly likely to continue to grow, it can also be expected to involve business model destabilization. That the Open Access sector has won in Springer Nature a fully-fledged champion also indicates that it will continue to fragment into qualitatively different segments, some of which will be governed by upwards price dynamics, whereas others exploiting economies of scale and model innovation to bundle author-facing services with competitive pricing and still others placing a premium on APC affordability.

In this respect cost and price transparency, jointly with stakeholder participation, are likely to be critical for the future evolution of the Open Access market.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: False Creek, Burrard Bridge, Vancouver, BC, Canada, August 26, 2013 | © Courtesy of Harshil Shah/Flickr.

Pablo Markin

Community Manager, Open Research Community

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Pablo Markin about 2 months ago

It is notable that one of the advocates of the paywall-based journal publishing approach leaves out of consideration the subscription costs it entails for libraries, universities and readers, while concentrating on researcher-facing fees: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/open-access-journal-publishing. This indicates that as far as scholarly journals are concerned, their publication and access price dynamics represent developments in multiple markets oriented at different agents, such as research producers and consumers.