Income models for Open Access: Demand-side models and Free Ridership

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

All demand-side income models intended to support open-access distribution confront a free-rider obstacle. Stated simply: If libraries contribute to provide a collective good, such as an open-access publication, some may fail to contribute, taking advantage of those that do provide financial support. If enough libraries follow the logic of trying to gain benefits without contributing to the costs, then the collective model will fail.

In analyzing the logic of collective action, Mancur Olson argued that the mechanisms available to overcome free ridership depend on the size of the group benefiting from the public good. Members of large groups can only be motivated to collective action by coercion (for example, government taxation) or by the provision of a selective benefit (that is, a positive inducement offered exclusively to those who act in the collective interest) that effectively privatizes the return on a member’s contribution. In the case of open-access journals, such privatized benefits can be difficult to implement: either due to the additional expense of creating a differentiated, value-added version that can command a fee, or because degrading access (for example, via content embargoes) runs contrary to the prevailing definition of Open Access as providing immediate, free availability.

The free-rider problem can be more easily overcome in intermediate- and small-sized groups, where the actions of group members are subject to coordination and made more visible to others in the group. In particular, free-rider tendencies can be reduced via a social network with a leadership that assures participants that their contributions will make a difference. In the context of open-access journals, identifying subsets of libraries that have demonstrated use of a given publication may make it easier to overcome free ridership by introducing the social dynamics of a smaller group.

The observations above inform our discussions below of demand-side income models (such as use-triggered licenses) designed to encourage library support of open-access publications.

3.2 Versioning

Producing various versions of digital information services, each with its own target market segments, perceived value, and willingness to purchase, is a well established method of maximizing the revenue generated by any given content asset. Such versioning requires an ability to manage the access to the various service levels. In their simplest form, open-access journals would not require such potentially expensive access management and control systems. In many instances, the costs incurred by implementing such a system, in order to facilitate purchased service offerings, would consume most or all of the incremental income that such offerings might generate. Therefore, the cost-to-benefits ratio for the approaches discussed below should be considered carefully.

3.2.1 Offline Media

Publishing a fee-based print edition (or, in some cases, a CD-ROM or DVD edition) that complements an open-access journal provides a way to serve the needs of individual and institutional users (as well as authors) that require a print edition. A publisher can provide such a complementary print edition in a variety of ways, including:

  • A cumulative print edition that appears at the end of a volume year:

To address the needs of individual and institutional users that value print for archival and convenience purposes, a publisher can offer a print version that aggregates the papers published previously in digital format. How closely the print edition mirrors the online version will depend on the types of digital content a journal publishes, with large data sets, audio and video files, and three-dimensional modeling necessarily remaining exclusively digital. Although the total pages published during the year may prove less predictable with an electronic format, a cumulative annual edition allows a publisher to determine beforehand how many pages it will be printing, and to set the volume price accordingly.

Some publishers will want to price their print editions on a cost-recovery basis, covering the direct expenses relating to print production and fulfillment. Others will want to generate a surplus (that is, net income after direct expenses) with a print version, in order to partially offset the journal’s overall operating costs. As these types of print editions often use print-on-demand technology, it is not necessary to project precisely the demand for such print units when establishing the per-unit price.

  • A simultaneous print edition that may provide additional, non-research content not available via Open Access:

A publisher may be able to support demand for a subscription-based print edition by including content not available through the open-access version. The additional content could include correspondence, editorials, job postings, event calendars, and other information of value to a particular research community. In practice, this may translate into continuing an existing print journal while making only the research content available via Open Access. Examples of this approach include the journals of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, which makes all of its research content available on arXiv simultaneous with print publication. In effect, journals participating in PubMed Central also operate under this approach, although typically in conjunction with a content embargo.

3.2.2 Offline Media Examples

A number of open-access journals that offer print subscriptions appear to fund the online availability through surplus income from the print sales. The extent of this practice is unclear, as few journals state the funding relationship explicitly. In some cases, the content of the two editions may differ slightly (for example, with the open-access edition only including research articles); in others, the print edition takes the form of an annual print-on-demand volume.

Examples of priced print editions include:

When commenting on this page, please detail your experience with the model in question. The comment area is moderated and reserved for evidence- or experience-based discussion and requests for support in experimenting with different approaches.