Tightrope walker, sculpture, Berlin, 2008. Photo from beezerella at flickr.com. Used by permission.
Tightrope walker, sculpture, Berlin, 2008. Photo from beezerella at flickr.com. Used by permission.

The short answer?  Almost nothing.

The Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity is a statement of commitment to “the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in fee-based open-access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds.” Some institutions who were considering signing on to the compact at its launch held off because of a worry that it might cost a lot of money at a time when library budgets are under phenomenal pressure. I had predicted that the costs would be minimal in my PLoS Biology paper proposing the compact. There, I said

By design, the overall cost to a university of implementing the compact, in the short term, would be quite small. Hybrid open-access fees are explicitly eschewed, and true open-access fees tend to be found at present in just those areas of scholarship where grant support is most prevalent, reducing the underwriting load on the university substantially. Rough estimates based on the experience of the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative fall in the range of tens of dollars per faculty member per year.

But I can understand that some universities might have wanted to wait until there is some empirical evidence of this claim. That evidence is now available. Barbara DeFelice, Director of the Digital Resources Program at Dartmouth Library has compiled some statistics from the COPE signatory institutions about their OA fund expenditures, which she discussed at a recent ARL talk. I used her statistics to calculate approximate costs per faculty member per year. The numbers reveal that the outlays are even more manageable than even I had estimated, perhaps by an order of magnitude. (I’ve made these numbers quite conservative by counting faculty conservatively and estimating that each article funded cost $1,500 dollars. The actual average seems to be somewhat less. As more data is collected, I’ll try to make it available.)

Institution Months # Funded Funded/year Faculty size $/faculty/year
Berkeley 31 92 35.61 1582 $33.77
Columbia 7 2 3.43 1377 $3.73
Cornell 11 3 3.27 1594 $3.08
Dartmouth 11 1 1.09 450 $3.64
Harvard 11 1 1.09 1633 $1.00
MSKCC 5 0 0.00 560 $0.00
MIT 2 0 0.00 1025 $0.00
Ottawa 8 25 37.50 1257 $44.75

For universities that run their OA funds in accordance with COPE recommendations (that is, no hybrid fees, no grant-funded articles), the costs come to not tens of dollars per faculty member per year, but single digit dollars. The outliers are Berkeley and Ottawa, both of which will cover hybrid fees (though Berkeley places tighter caps on fee per article) and will cover grant-funded articles (though they ask for grant funds to be used first).

The bottom line is that the direct costs of running a COPE-compliant open-access fund are trivial, and the administrative costs of dealing with handfuls of requests are trivial as well. Cost should not be an impediment to setting up an open-access fund in this way. In particular, harangues about open-access funds amounting to throwing away large quantities of valuable dollars can please stop now. For instance, Stevan Harnad likes to say things like “COPE is based on the illusion that there is enough money available in institutions today to pay for OA publication in all the must-have journals — Nature, Science, the American Physical Society journals, and all the other top journals — while continuing to subscribe to those journals (and we don’t as yet have OA for their contents, so it’s premature to cancel).” He either misunderstands the compact or willfully misrepresents it, since COPE-compliant funds need not, should not, and generally do not pay publication fees for the subscription journals he lists. COPE does not support “double-dipping”.

The reason that the costs of COPE-compliant open-access funds are so low is because demand for the funds is low because, in turn, there are very few quality OA journals charging publication fees, because, finally, to do so would be to put the journals at a systematic disadvantage in getting authors as compared to subscription journals that don’t charge fees. (This disadvantage is exactly what COPE is trying to remedy.) Here is how the numbers break down. Of the 5,000 or so open-access journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals, only a hundred or two are of the character that these universities’ researchers are likely to publish in them. For example, only a hundred or so are indexed by Thomson ISI for impact factors. Of these, the majority don’t charge publication fees, so can’t contribute to OA fund demand. Those that do charge a fee are overwhelmingly in the life sciences where grant funding is widespread, hence they also don’t generate demand on the OA fund.

If there is so little demand for an OA fund, why have it at all?  The goal of a COPE-compliant OA fund is not short term maximization of access to an institution’s output. (If it were, then hybrid fees would be appropriate to underwrite. But that goal can be accomplished much more cost-effectively by establishing good green open-access policies.) Rather, the goal of COPE is to provide the basis for an alternative business model, should a large number of institutions similarly commit.  If a large number of institutions were to commit to the compact, publishers would have a viable business model through charging publication fees in a way that they do not now have.

In essence, COPE is trying to establish a kind of safety net.  Safety nets are useful even when they are not used.  Safety nets allow people to take risks that we want to promote.  A publisher changing its business model is incurring such a risk.  We, the universities and research funders, may need collectively to build a very big safety net (university by university, funder by funder) to convince a publisher to take that risk. But given that the cost of each of our pieces of the safety net is so incredibly low, it is worth keeping our pieces up and encouraging others to add their pieces, in the hope that a big enough net will encourage the publishers to take the risk to walk the tightrope from the subscription model to the publication fee model. If we are successful, demand for the OA funds will grow as publishers will flip business model to an OA publication fee basis, thereby freeing up funds to pay those fees. If we are not successful, at least the costs are negligible.

(Thanks to Barbara DeFelice for collecting the data and making it available.)

[Update 11/16/2011: I’ve added a post on how funding agencies might best set up their part of the safety net.]