## Institutional memberships for open-access publishers considered harmful

### March 1st, 2011

Some open-access publishers offer institutional memberships, whereby a fixed annual fee, often based on the size of faculty or expected number of submitted articles, covers all or a percentage of article-processing fees for the institution for the year.

The issue of OA publisher memberships is interesting and fraught. Harvard University is not currently a member of any of the major OA publishers—BioMed Central, Hindawi, or Public Library of Science. (Actually, Harvard Medical School is a PLoS member.) I’m not involved in Harvard’s decisions about institutional memberships, although I am not a fan of memberships in general, as you will see. I’ll explain my own view of the difficulty with memberships in terms of the market design for publisher services, and then talk about what alternatives there are.

There are a variety of different kinds of membership models but I will start by discussing the basic kind, where a fixed annual institutional fee is charged to reduce the per-article fee for articles emanating from that institution to zero, that is, a 100% reduction. This kind of membership is now rare—most memberships reduce fees by a smaller fraction, say 15%—but it is useful to examine as a thought experiment. There are other sorts of membership based on prepayment or cost sharing, which I’ll come back to.

The problem with institutional memberships (and here I mean the 100% reduction model for the moment) is that they have the potential to create the same moral hazard in the publication-fee revenue model that institutional subscriptions do in the subscription-fee business model. Institutional subscriptions hide the cost of a journal from the readers, leading to overconsumption, inelasticity of demand, and knock-on hyperinflation that is called, somewhat inaccurately, the “serials crisis”. Institutional memberships potentially have the same effect for authors, hiding the cost of the journal fees from the authors, presumably leading to overconsumption and raising the specter of hyperinflation of publication fees and membership fees down the line.

What does “overconsumption” of an OA journal mean? It means that authors publish in that journal more than they should given the relative tradeoff of fee for services. Imagine a university is a PLoS member but not a BMC member (and let’s imagine, contrary to fact, that the PLoS membership uses the 100% reduction model). Authors will see a fee of $0 for PLoS but$1500 (say) for BMC, leading them to preferentially publish in PLoS over BMC journals, even though the true cost to the university is well over $0 for PLoS publication. The result, ceteris paribus, will be that the numbers of PLoS articles will go up at that university, leading PLoS to raise the membership fee for the university over time. Who benefits from the institutional membership at a COPE-compliant university? Whether there is an institutional membership or not, an author pays no fee; either the grant does or, if there is no grant, the university’s COPE fund does. If the article is grant funded, however, the author doesn’t need to use grant funds if there’s a membership. So authors benefit from memberships a bit by husbanding grant resources. But the major beneficiary of a university membership is the funding agency, which no longer needs to fund the publisher’s fee. Institutional memberships are essentially a transfer payment from universities to funding agencies. The whole premise of COPE is that each stakeholder in the scholarly publishing milieu needs to do its fair share, no less and no more. Funders need to fund the fees for articles they support. Universities need to fund the fees for articles written under their auspices (but not those under a funder’s auspices). Memberships break this model. I know what you’re thinking. Memberships mean that overall less money is being sent to the publisher. Isn’t that cost savings a good thing? If the university typically publishes 20 BMC articles a year at$1,500 ($30,000 total) and the membership is$20,000, someone or other has just saved $10,000. It’s not likely to be the university, but someone. Here’s why it’s not the university that saves money: Imagine that 15 of the 20 articles were grant funded. (For science journals, this is a conservative estimate.) Then without the membership, grants would have paid for 15 of the articles, for$22,500, and the university just 5, for an OA fund cost of $7,500. So the university pays$12,500 more with a membership than without. But the funder pays $22,500 less. Together, funder and university pay$10,000 less, but the university is still paying much more. In essence, the university pays $12,500 for the privilege of saving the funders$22,500.

So university memberships have the effect of saving funding agencies some money and authors some grant funds, at the cost of skewing author behavior toward the particular publisher. When you buy a membership, you tilt the playing field toward that publisher; you are playing favorites. I suppose in the short term, there’s probably nothing wrong with playing favorites towards PLoS and BMC. They are nice folks, and maybe a little thumb on the scale isn’t a bad thing. But in the long run, it’s not the recipe for an efficient market.

Note that this effect holds even if the membership doesn’t reduce the fee to zero. A membership that reduces the fee by 15% still hides 15% of the true cost from the author, so it has a smaller but still non-zero skewing effect. And the cost savings issue is the same as well. With a 15% membership, the university is still paying (though less) to save the funding agencies (though commensurately less).

There may be a way of making memberships consistent with an efficient market, namely, by transferring some portion of the cost of publishing back to the authors even where a membership is in place. When an article is published, the author’s funder could be charged their share of the membership fee. If the article is not grant-funded but there is a COPE-compliant OA fund where (as in the Harvard and Cornell funds, and perhaps others’ as well) there is an annual per-author cap on fund reimbursements, the author’s cap would be charged against. If the cap is maxed out, the author would be charged for the remainder. Moral hazard eliminated. The bookkeeping is daunting, and the whole thing is cumbersome, but in theory at least it would work.

To my mind, the right thing is just not to pay for (these kinds of) memberships. Let the publishers charge what they think is an appropriate fee, and let them have to worry about whether the fee is so high they will scare off authors. If, in the short run, an institution wants to put a thumb on the scale for certain OA publishers (say because they think that in these early days OA publishers need special help—affirmative action so to speak), then buying a membership may be a good idea, but I’d hope they would realize that that’s what you’re doing, and plan on dropping the memberships once OA publishing is fully robust and can stand on its own.

Now, what about two different membership models: (i) BMC’s prepayment model in which the university prepays funds in return for a discount on processing fees, and (ii) BMC’s shared support model in which the university prepays funds to be used to cover a fixed percentage (say 50%) of each processing fee, again in return for a discount on processing fees.

In the prepayment model, there is still a per-article fee directly attributable to a given author (even if it has been prepaid), and the author—or the author’s funder if grant-funded, or the author’s OA fund cap—can be charged that fee. In the first two cases, the mechanism for doing so may be problematic. You’d have to invoice the funder for the article fee even though it was prepaid perhaps a year before. I’m not sure how the accounting would work. Similarly for charging the author if he or she had used up the annual allotment of OA funds. But assuming you could make that work, the prepayment model at least doesn’t have the moral hazard problems of the institutional membership. Given all the accounting and logistics difficulties of the prepayment model and given that almost all of the savings from prepayment is being recouped by the funders and not the university, I wonder if it is worth the trouble.

The shared support model only makes sense if you are not planning on charging back the university’s prepaid share of the fee, in which case it has all the same moral hazard and funder-gift problems as the institutional memberships.

There is something simple—and, if I say so myself, elegant—about the bare COPE model without memberships. The journal charges the author a fee. The author charges it off to the funder if there is one, or, if there isn’t, to the OA fund up to the capped limit. Done. The university supports the OA publishers (like it does the subscription publishers) without a major moral hazard or transfer payments to funders. I’d hope that universities considering OA publisher memberships would consider COPE-compliant OA funds instead.

[For my non-computer-scientist readers, the title of this post is a reference to a famous phrase used in the title of this classic CS article.]

Update June 21, 2013: The Open Access Scholarly Publisher’s Association has posted a response to a request for input on the Finch report, in which they pick up on many of the same themes:

However, OASPA also recognizes the possibility that such schemes could lead to a lack of transparency regarding the cost of publication in different Open Access outlets, particularly if the terms of these deals are not publicly disclosed, which could be detrimental to the functioning of the market. Moreover, OASPA feels that membership schemes that are based on up-front commitments for a university to publish a particular volume of content with a given publisher can potentially reduce competition within the Open Access ecosystem, making it difficult for smaller publishers to compete on a level playing field with larger publishers, who are inherently better positioned to negotiate individual deals with universities.

It’s good to see that OA publishers recognize the incentive problems with membership arrangements.