Hybrid Open Access—Mixed Feelings about a Mixed Model

A welcome response to a genuine need in scholarly publication? A case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?” Or... just another devious plot on the part of evil publishers?

hybird open access logos

A hybrid open access model is becoming more prevalent among “traditional” journal publishers. Programs include Wiley’s “OnlineOpen,” Springer’s “Open Choice,” Elsevier’s “Sponsored Articles” and others. Hybrid open access, or open access by article, is a model where an author has the choice, upon acceptance of an article, of paying upfront to make the article freely accessible to all. Other articles in the journal which are not paid in advance remain behind the subscription wall.

There is some dispute about whether this model deserves the name open access. As Catriona MacCallum points out in her 2007 PLoS Biology article entitled “When Is Open Access Not Open Access?”, while hybrid open access articles are available to anyone with an Internet connection, other aspects of open access, like the ability to repurpose works, may be prohibited.

Why would this model be attractive to researchers, as opposed to publishing in a true open access journal? It is a way to publish in their journal of choice and still make their work freely available. Decisions on where to publish are based on factors other than cost, such as journal impact factor, prestige, scope, etc. In some cases, publication in a particular set of traditional journals is perceived as a career necessity. However, this may be changing as studies have shown open access articles have higher citation rates (see detailed bibliography http://opcit.eprints.org/oacitation-biblio.html). Also, searching Journal Citation Reports shows that several prominent open access journals have excellent impact factors.

As is often (but not always) the case with the standard open access models, there is a fairly substantial cost to the author, in lieu of the income the publisher would receive from subscriptions. Though fees vary, they do not seem to vary as widely as journal subscription costs. Wiley’s “Online Open” and Springer’s “Open Choice” generally cost $3000 per article, Elsevier’s “Sponsorship Option” is $3000 for most journals, but $5000 for those from Cell Press. (See a thorough list of hybrid open access publishers and associated costs at http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/PaidOA.html.)

At a cost of approximately $3000 upfront for a hybrid open access article, the question of “who pays” is not trivial. Many granting agencies, including NIH and NSF, do allow use of funds to pay for open access to articles. At various universities, the costs have been picked up by the library (though library budgets, already maxed out by subscription fees, may not be available), the academic department, or the university. Unlike fully open access journals like PLoS and BMC, there are no waivers available for researchers who cannot pay the fee. In the humanities, where authors are less likely to be grant-supported, the question of “who pays” for hybrid open access is especially problematic.

As well as presenting some financial issues to researchers, hybrid open access articles can cause some access problems/confusion on the part of libraries and users. Library electronic journal pages are most effective at identifying and providing access to entire journals, rather than individual articles. It may be difficult for the library to make access to the individual article level in a hybrid open access journal as obvious and seamless as it is to a true open access journal or a journal to which the library subscribes. This may lead the user to assume s/he cannot access this article - which is the last thing the researcher wants after paying as much as $3000 for access!

It will be interesting to see how well this model works for all involved over the next few years… and also what other models will evolve to meet the need for open access.

Enid Karr Senior Reference Librarian/Bibliographer
O'Neill Library