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Open access: The price of diamond

 Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

The push for non-profit academic publishing is raising questions about how to pay for it

In May 2023, research ministers from EU member states did not pull their punches on the state of academic publishing. 

The costs are “becoming unsustainable for public research funders and institutions accountable for the spending of public funds, decreasing funding available for research”, the ministers said in a joint statement released by the Council of the EU.

The strong words added political weight to a push by the academic community to reclaim ownership of scholarly publishing, taking power out of the hands of for-profit publishers in favour of non-profit journals and platforms. While there has been a shift in recent years towards open-access publishing—taking research results paid for by taxpayers from behind paywalls—this has largely led to the costs of publishing being transferred from the reader to the author.

This ‘gold’ model of open access, where for-profit publishers still hold the reins and can demand steep article-processing charges, has led to a build-up of pressure from dissatisfied institutions, researchers and academic groups demanding a more radical approach. Momentum has been growing for ‘diamond’ open access, a non-profit model where neither authors nor readers are charged fees.

For many in the research community, diamond is a more desirable and equitable publishing model. But ambitions to change the landscape of open-access publishing have raised questions over both funding and coordination. So who will pick up the costs for diamond open access? Will it ultimately be cheaper than gold—and if not, is it still worth backing? 

A different principle

The push for diamond open access is particularly strong in Europe, demonstrated by the fact that the Council called for national governments and the European Commission to “step up support” for non-profit open-access publishing. But for a step change to happen, research funders need to get behind diamond open access—and that requires a new approach. 

“Diamond has an urgent need for the financial and political support of funding agencies,” says Pierre Mounier, a coordinator at Operas, a European research infrastructure for the development of open scholarly communication in the social sciences and humanities.

He says diamond open access addresses issues of equity and scientific integrity: “It advocates for research to be published based solely on its validity and academic merit, rather than the financial resources of its authors.” 

He tells Research Europe he thinks there is political will and commitment from the Commission, universities and the academic community to push diamond forward, but it is “imperative” that funders play their part in financing it. 

While many funding bodies are unhappy with the gold model, grant programmes tend to be geared towards paying for the costs of publishing research that they directly fund. Diamond open access operates on a different principle, with funders and other organisations providing broader support for journals and platforms, such as through grants or multi-year publishing deals, to publish research however it is funded. 

Mounier says that the current funding model for diamond “relies heavily on in-kind contributions and access to shared public infrastructures”. The funding programmes of many research funders, however, are structured to support article-processing charges.

Some funders—including the Commission, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust—have launched their own non-profit platforms to publish the research they fund, but these only account for a fraction of the diamond open-access landscape.

Others are funding broader initiatives. The ANR, France’s national research agency, has allocated €250,000 towards the launch of a European capacity hub for diamond open access in 2024. The Commission and the CNRS, France’s multidisciplinary research agency, are also funding the hub.

Operas is one of 23 organisations involved in the EU-funded Diamas project—a €3 million initiative to map the landscape of diamond open-access publishing in Europe within an ambitious 36-month timeframe. 

Coordination of diamond open-access journals is needed because of their fragmented nature—Operas led a study in 2021 that found there were between 17,000 and 29,000 diamond journals worldwide, publishing 44 per cent of all articles in fully open-access journals. Journals are often small, independent ventures and struggle to receive recognition and funding as a result. Mounier says that Diamas is seeking to address this by creating a coordination service that will facilitate the pooling of resources between different journals.

Economies of scale

With growing support for diamond open access sparked by concerns over the costs of for-profit publishing, non-profit alternatives would seem to offer a cheaper option. But it may not be so straightforward. 

Rob Johnson, a UK-based independent research consultant and open-access expert, says there is a “general feeling” in the academic community that diamond will be cheaper but his own investigation into the costs using modelling scenarios does not fully back up this sentiment. 

“For now, diamond is only going to be cheaper at a small scale or a large scale,” he says. It works well at a lower level, when the labour is being done at the fringes of people’s day jobs. “But this is not a scalable model,” he explains, and how labour should be recognised and remunerated is still an open question.

As journals scale up and their output grows, overheads increase, including substantial marketing costs. This is an area where major traditional publishers hold an advantage: they have economies of scale, so their costs are driven down, Johnson says. 

Traditional publishers are unsurprisingly cool on the idea of changing the status quo, even though commercial providers could play a role in non-profit publishing by providing many of the services required for the publishing process. 

Unless diamond can be scaled up, this might seem to pose an obstacle for its advocates. However, Johnson points out that diamond is the dominant publishing model in the global south—working well in Latin America for decades—so it has already proven itself to be scalable. Even so, there are wide-ranging institutional and cultural differences between the global north and south that need to be considered.

Sustainability over cost

For some, including Johnson, the question is less about whether diamond is cheaper and more about the long-term sustainability of academic publishing.

Vinciane Gaillard, deputy director for research and innovation at the European University Association, is confident that diamond is more sustainable than gold. “It is a long-term sustainable way into a more community-led way of publishing,” she says.

“While the full costs of diamond are not known, there are plans to investigate this. We don’t have the evidence yet to say whether diamond will be cheaper than gold, but we do have evidence of the huge costs associated with article-processing charges in gold, as well as related subscription deals,” Gaillard adds.

She points out that it may ultimately fall to taxpayers to pay for diamond open access, if public research institutions and research funding organisations choose to support non-profit scholarly communication instead of signing deals with big publishers.

Both Johnson and the European University Association agree that diamond will not replace the commercial publishing system, at least not in the short term, and that there is a need to boost the non-profit model’s prestige for it to be adopted more widely (see box). For now, it is likely to continue as a complementary system, in need of more funding.

Diamond is based on the idea that the academic community, rather than commercial players, should be at the heart of scholarly communications. Making that a reality will take more than just punchy political statements—a radical change in culture needs everyone to put their money where their mouth is.  

Prestige problem

One hurdle faced by non-profit open-access journals is perception—the prestige of big-name journals owned by commercial publishers still holds sway in the academic community. Rob Johnson, a UK-based independent research consultant, says that more prestige needs to be attached to diamond open-access journals and that a bigger marketing budget is required.

Pierre Mounier, who is part of the EU-funded Diamas project mapping the landscape of diamond open-access publishing in Europe, says studies have shown that while diamond journals are lacking in marketing resources, the vast majority still uphold “rigorous scientific and editorial standards”, which is not always recognised by funding and administrative bodies.

Similarly, Federica Garbuglia, policy officer at the European University Association, says that a common misconception among funders is that diamond journals are less trustworthy than traditional pay-to-publish journals. But she said that diamond journals “undergo the same process as traditional journals and are held to the same high-quality standards”—and that more awareness of this is needed in the academic community.

This article also appeared in Research Europe