Transparency of Hybrid Journals: Are They Truly Embracing Openness?

By Prathima Appaji

As an author, there are a number of considerations when looking to publish your paper. You not only have to choose amongst the many journals and publishers available, you also have to decide the type of journal. Today, there are three general categories of journals based on based on the publishing model: traditional subscription journals, hybrid journals, and open access journals.

Traditional subscription journals, perhaps the most well-known format, require the reader or intermediary to pay a fixed price to access an article. These journals are often licensed to institutions or organizations to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars each – in the EU, top institutions average  £4 million per year on journal subscriptions. On the other end of the spectrum, open access journals make their articles available to the public at no cost, though many instead charge authors an Article Publishing Charge (APC) to cover the expense of publishing.

When the debate between subscription journals and open access journals began in the 1990s, hybrid journals developed as a way of compromise between the two. Hybrid journals offer both business models in one journal; where an author has the opportunity to pay APC and publish the article as open access or let the reader pay a fixed price to access the same.

Hybrid journals do offer flexibility to authors by providing them with a choice of publishing models. At the same time, hybrid journals provide some impetus to the open access movement by leveraging their publishing expertise and large platforms to disseminate certain articles. Additionally, hybrid journals provide editorial quality, peer-review, and established a reputation.

However: while the number of hybrid journals has increased over the years, they have come under significant scrutiny and criticism.

Hybrid journals are often critiqued for ‘double-dipping’, where they charge authors high APCs and high subscription charges to access the journal. These journals sometimes charge APCs of up to $5,000 per article. Average APCs in hybrid journals are 34% higher than average APCs in open access journals. High APCs and subscription charges are costs that are largely placed on the universities, causing a significant portion of their annual funding to be spent solely on journals. In fact, while there is limited data in the US, the European model provides some useful context. European University libraries spend £333 million pounds on journal contracts every cycle, and on an average 65% of all library funding goes to procuring access to these journals.

Read more about why high APCs are a problem: https://creativecommonsusa.org/index.php/2018/06/06/sustainability-of-article-publishing-charge-to-further-open-access/

Additionally, the financial details of contracts between big publishing companies and university libraries and research institutions are not open to the public. With a reported profit percentage of an average of 35% (which is more than Facebook at 27%), and ambiguous contracts with university libraries, much of the publishing cost in these journals remain a mystery. As much of the funding for these journals is taxpayer money provided through universities, there is a strong case for greater transparency in the field.

A number of European universities are pushing back. In Germany, the Projekt DEAL Consortium is a group of universities and research institutions who are negotiation with big publishers to conclude a national licensing agreement. This agreement is to include electronic access to all journals under the publisher, lowering the financial burden on individual institutions, while encouraging open access movement. Similarly, negotiations have reached an impasse between the French universities under Couperin.org and Springer Natural journals after a year of negotiations for lower subscription prices.

It is fair to acknowledge that hybrid journals invest time, skills, and money in publishing quality journals, and those doing that work deserve to be compensated. Nonetheless, the present financial model of hybrid journals needs to be questioned. There is a need to strike a balance in the world of academic publishing, between open access movement and suitable compensation for publishers. Hybrid journals are the step in the right direction. Yet, with criticisms such as double-dipping, and high APCs, more needs to be done to ensure that library journal subscription contracts be made transparent and publicly funded research is made open access. An effort has to be made to gradually shift from the current funding model to a more equitable model to stop excessive corporate profiting from public research.

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