The APC paywalls are here, now we’re looking for a way out – an overview of the current state of open publishing

In this second part of the Open science annual review 2023, we take a look at a key issue of the past year: the problem of affordability and equity created by the article processing charges (APC) for open access publishing – and the solutions proposed. Among the solutions, the diamond open access model, where no author fees are charged, has been the most discussed. As a complement to the diamond model, guaranteeing the right of self-archiving (green open access), either through legislation or organisational policies, has been discussed. The Plan S group of major research funders also has its own proposal which emphasises the role of researchers. In addition to these, other options will be discussed in this blog article. The first part of the Open science annual review looked at the news coverage for 2023.

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Text: Juuso Ala-Kyyny (Helsinki University Library)

Accessibility, affordability and equity. These are the three principles that have been part of open access since the 1990s. In recent years, accessibility or openness in research publishing has increased, but at the expense of affordability and equality between researchers.

Looking at the debate around open science over the past year, it’s not hard to see that we are at a tipping point: how will openness in research be implemented in the future in a way that is both economically sustainable and fair to all researchers?

This second part of the Open science annual review 2023 summarises the debate over the past year on the present and future of open access publishing, and the various solutions to current problems. The content of the article is as follows:

The first part of the Open science annual review 2023 covered last year’s news and reading recommendations.

Transformative agreements are expensive and not very transformative

Many see the current problems being linked to so-called transformative agreements (also known as read & publish or read & write agreements), where, in addition to traditional subscription fees, open access publishing is also paid for. The first TF agreement was signed in the Netherlands in 2015 and in Finland since 2018.

The TF agreements have increased the openness of scientific publications, but they have also made open access more costly for research organisations. The FinELib library consortium, which negotiates journal agreements in Finland, raised this issue several times last year – in spring, summer and autumn.

TF agreements are signed mostly with big international science publishers that are used to huge profit margins, and there is nothing new about the high cost of journal agreements per se – the so-called ”serials crisis” dates back to the 1970s. In fact, although TF agreements are expensive, they are still comparatively cheaper than the old subscription agreements that did not include open access publishing.

The aim of the TF agreements is that the publishing channels covered by the agreements will sooner or later move from problematic hybrid open access to gold open access, and eventually research organisations will pay only for publishing, rather than subscription fees. This is the transformation that the agreements aim to achieve. And it is expected to make the cost of publishing more affordable over time.

However, the belief in the transformative nature of TF agreements is waning. For example, FinELib’s criteria for journal agreements include ”the publisher’s commitment to open access publishing”, but this does not seem to be the case: ”Publishers have put the brakes on the shift to open access publishing in various ways, allowing them to collect both subscription and publishing fees. This is an unsustainable situation for universities and the scientific community, both economically and in principle,” said Kalle-Antti Suominen, chairman of the FinELib steering group and vice-chancellor of the University of Turku, in August as FinELib prepared for new negotiations.

Publishers are demanding higher and higher fees for reading and open access publishing, even though the scientific community cannot even afford the current costs. Costs have risen to a level that does not reflect the benefits of the service. Finnish higher education institutions and research institutes have long been in a financially challenging situation. Many of them have been forced to reduce their staff through change negotiations. At the same time, publishers of scientific journals have systematically increased the fees for reading and open access publishing, even though in practice publishers receive both the articles and their review from researchers as free work.
– FinELib: Tiedelehtien kustannukset kestämättömällä tasolla


The 114 journal articles that were opened with separate APCs (article processing charges) cost the university €221 700, resulting in an average price of €1 950 per open article. A total of €86 400 was spent on 18 BPCs (book processing charges) for books and book articles, with an average of €4 800 per BPC. With these BPC contributions, seven full books and nine individual book articles were published as open access.
– Sanna Toivola: Avointa mutta kallista (Open Science Centre, University of Jyväskylä)

What comes after transformative agreements?

The deadline for transformative agreements under the major research funders’ Plan S expires at the end of this year – and the Plan S funders have said they will stand by it. This means that publishing in hybrid open access journals will no longer meet Plan S criteria next year.

What research organisations and library consortia such as FinELib will do in the future is still unclear. There is no easy alternative, and therefore TF agreements will probably continue to be used – although the name may change to read & publish or read & write. A report from Sweden last year proposes a deadline of 2025 for the Swedish Bibsam library consortium, after which journal agreements would only be signed with gold open access journals.

While the research community is still pondering its solutions, big science publishers would be interested in expanding TF agreements and attracting more research funders. Already, TF agreements have increased the – already significant – publishing power of large scientific publishers. For example, in an analysis by David Crotty, the world’s top ten science publishers have seen their share of Web of Science articles grow from 47% to 64% between 2000 and 2018 – and to 75% between 2018 and 2022. According to Crotty, this growth is explained in the first phase by the Big Deals and in the second by TF agreements, which are seen as the heirs to the Big Deals.

According to a report by ALLEA (pdf link), which represents research organisations, APC (article processing charge) payments in open access publishing amount to around €2 billion per year. According to a national monitoring survey, Finnish research organisations paid publishers €21.5 million for TF agreements in 2021.

For many, the predominance of commercial publishers and gold open access articles does not bode well for a truly open access movement because, firstly, transformative agreements do not resolve the serial crisis concerning the limits and allocation of library budgets. In reality, these agreements consolidate the market share of some commercial publishers, while small publishers, including scholar-led and learned society publications, can become unviable as they lose subscriptions due to academic libraries prioritizing open access publications in response to funding mandates. Small and local publishers are sometimes described as ‘collateral damage’ in the open access movement.
– Lai Ma, Jane Buggle & Marie O’Neil: Open access at a crossroads (Insights: the UKSG journal)


If there is disappointment that UK academic libraries did not walk away from these negotiations [with Springer Nature], it is perhaps because it was never a feasible prospect — politically and practically — in the current climate. – – It is also worth considering what a walk-away is designed to achieve. Is it to gain greater leverage in a negotiation? Is it to reset terms with the commercial publishers? Or is it to take back resources to build a non-commercial future?
– Peter Barr: Why are UK libraries signing a Springer-Nature deal they don’t seem to like? (Scholarly Kitchen)

The APC paywall has increased inequalities between researchers

For researchers under transformative agreements, open access publishing has perhaps never been easier: it has been possible to publish in the same journals as before, but in open access. APC payment processes in organisations have also become more streamlined.

At the same time, TF agreements have made author fees of €500–5000 a common practice in open access publishing. If in the days of subscription fees there was talk of a paywall for access to research publications, now there is talk of APC paywalls: ”the return of paywalls”, ”a new paywall in science”, ”a new paywall on the researchers’ side” ja ”APC barriers”.

[L]ibraries unintentionally perpetuate this situation, with existing (decreasing) budgets predominantly going towards the largest publishers via ”transformative agreements”, a model which locks in the APC/published unit payments and locks out those publishers trying to progress different (more equitable) OA business models.
– cOAlition S: Moving away from APCs

The APC paywall treats researchers differently depending on whether their home organisations are covered by TF agreements or whether they have funding to publish at all. APC paywalls are in front of researchers in poorer countries but also within institutions in richer countries. For researchers, the APC paywall means a reduction in publishing opportunities, but it can also guide their choice of publishing channel: ”If a researcher has the choice of two equivalent journals it is likely that they will choose the one where the APC is already paid for. We have noticed a shift in researchers’ questions from ’which journal is the best for my article to get published in’ to ’where could I publish my article without having to pay an APC?’.” (Sara Parmhed & Johanna Säll: Transformative agreements and their practical impact)

Publishers say they support equity of researchers through APC waivers, but not only is this seen as patronising researchers from poorer countries, it does not seem to work either: the criteria are too restrictive or it is too burdensome for the researcher to determine eligibility.

Alternative to APC fees: no APC fees – aka diamond open access

To summarise: transformative agreements with APC fees have increased the openness of research publications in Western countries, but this has been achieved at the expense of economic sustainability and equality between researchers. Thus, in seeking alternatives to the problems of the current model, the focus has been on affordability and equity alongside openness. In fact, this is a return to the roots of the open access movement, as ex-OA activist Richard Poynder points out in an interview or Sami Syrjämäki, head of publishing at the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies, in an article (in Finnish).

And while many claim that the movement is already a success, on the grounds that more and more papers and preprints are being published OA each year, arguing this requires reimagining the movement as one that was only ever focused on improving accessibility, and obscures the fact that it has failed to address the affordability problem. And unless the affordability problem is solved it will not be possible to solve the equity problem. On the same note, I have seen claims that OA was in fact never about costs, which is simply not true. Indeed, the affordability problem was one of the primary drivers of the OA movement, which emerged at a time when there was huge concern about what was then called the serials crisis.
– Richard Poynder (Scholarly Kitchen interview)

Following the debate over the past year, it is clear that hope is now pinned on the so-called diamond open access model of open access, where no author fees are charged. Diamond publishing is usually funded through scientific communities or research organisations. The University of Helsinki is already involved in various ways in promoting the diamond model.

UNESCO’s 2021 Recommendation on Open Science (pdf) and last year’s Council of the European Union’s conclusion support open access that is free of charge for authors, and there are several ongoing projects in Europe to promote diamond publishing: the Action Plan for Diamond Open Access and the EU-funded infrastructure projects DIAMAS ja Craft-OA. Alongside the development of diamond publishing, research assessment is also being reformed, notably through the European Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA).

Among the trendsetters, Latin America was highlighted several times last year. It has built a system of community-based publishing and 95% of open access journals are free of charge to authors. And you don’t necessarily have to look far for examples. The of Finnish scientific journals represents exactly the kind of centralised infrastructure funded by the scientific community that open science expert Jan Erik Frantsvåg, among others, is calling for: it gives multi-level actors a low-threshold for open access publishing. But the Finnish model has long sought funding for journals – last year a new proposal was made in this regard.

However, the conditions for promoting the diamond open access are challenging. In Western countries, the culture of scientific publishing has long favoured big international publishers, both in terms of financial investment by research organisations (i.e. journal agreements) and in terms of the research evaluation and merit system. Moreover, the field of diamond publishing in Europe is so far seen as too fragmented to offer a rapid change from the current situation. This is compounded also by the low visibility and poor discoverability of diamond OA and the challenges many diamond channels face in meeting the quality criteria for an open access publishing channel.

In diamond open access publishing – and perhaps in the future of scientific publishing more broadly – the question of ownership is central. It is highlighted in the updated Budapest Open Access Initiative and the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science. According to open science expert Mikael Laakso, without ownership, the scientific community has no power to influence the system of scientific publishing.

For the community to be able to have control and say in matters that relate to academic publishing activities it is important that there is sufficient degree of community-ownership and governance. If control and ownership of assets is completely commercialized the interests of the community are likely to come second to the interests of commercialization. The use of commercial services for the purposes of supporting publishing processes is good for keeping competition going and having an environment that strives for renewal and innovation. It becomes a problem when that commercial control becomes the dominant guiding star in combination with having a heavily consolidated market that involves a lot of mechanisms that hinder efficient and fast-reacting market competition mechanisms.
– Mikael Laakso (DIAMAS: Open Access Week Interview)


When we spend money to publish OA research, remember the goals to which OA is the means. Favor models which benefit all regions of the world, which are controlled by academic-led and nonprofit organizations, which avoid concentrating new OA literature in commercially dominant journals, and which avoid entrenching models in conflict with these goals. Move away from read-and-publish agreements.
The Budapest Open Access Initiative: 20th Anniversary Recommendations, 2022

Plan S funders’ proposal: power to the research community

Although the fostering of the diamond open access publishing infrastructure is still in its early stages, the Plan S group of major research funders (CoAlition S) published a proposal in October 2023 that goes beyond the original Plan S in its ambition and, if implemented, would be a revolution in scientific publishing. Of course, the research funded by CoAlition S covers only 3.6% of the world’s research articles, which puts a limit on the revolution.

The proposal, Towards responsible publishing: a proposal from cOAlition S, outlines an ecosystem for scientific communication that would open up the publishing process very widely: beyond just research results and the data backing them, it would include opening up non-peer-reviewed preprint publications and peer-reviewed reports.

The proposal seeks to address four problems in scientific publishing: (1) the inequality created by the subscription fees or APC paywall; (2) the unnecessary delay in publication; (3) the untapped potential of peer review; (4) the problems created by the gatekeeper role of journals.

The proposal calls for a scholar-led communication ecosystem. In practice, this would mean a shift of publishing power from publishers to researchers, whether the publications are non-peer-reviewed or peer-reviewed. The proposal would leave publishers in the role of service providers that are paid for technical editing work (publishers are mentioned as publishers only once in the proposal: ”third-party suppliers, such as publishers”).

Although research funders say they will be responsible for funding this new ecosystem, the proposal would require researchers to be more active in the scientific publishing process. The roles of research evaluators and research organisations have also been outlined in the proposal.

The proposal was already open for comments in November, and a new version should be available in the spring. The proposal has also been subject to public scrutiny, including a critical blog article on the Scholarly Kitchen, where the proposal is seen as posing risks, in particular the fragmentation and complexity of publishing and the requirement for greater involvement of researchers in the publishing process. Peter Suber, a long-standing expert on open science, does not see the ideas in the proposal as new, but the initiative is new when presented by research funders.

Other alternatives to the current culture of scientific publishing

The diamond open access model and a scholar-led communication ecosystem are not the only proposals to reform the culture of scientific publishing that were discussed last year. A ten-author perspective article, Replacing academic journals, presents a model in which traditional academic journals are replaced by ”a decentralized, resilient, evolvable network that is interconnected by open standards and open-source norms under the governance of the scholarly community”. The model presented in the article bears a certain resemblance to the diamond OA model and the Plan S proposal. Instead of the current monopolies of publishers, it offers a market in which service providers can genuinely compete. The basis for this will be provided by an open scientific publishing infrastructure, for which the scientific community will be responsible.

Plan S funders have also been looking at different ways to implement more equitable open access globally. Last year, these included a fairer pricing system and a more equitable publishing model.

Other types of alternative publishing models to the APC model are also developing, ranging in scale from small to large. In an article in Nature, Who should pay for open-access publishing? APC alternatives emerge presents also alternatives not mentioned above – here is a short list:

  • APC fees are collected, but they are not passed on to the authors, but are the responsibility of the institutions. An example is Open Research Europe (ORE), funded by Horizon Europe. In the case of ORE, the fee per article was set at € 780.
  • Institutional co-funding is used to pay for publication. An example is SCOAP3, managed by CERN and also supported by the University of Helsinki. PLOS, a long-standing OA publisher, is also experimenting with different non-APC models, and the CAP (community action publishing) model is based on co-funding.
  • A subscription fee model where the annual content becomes open once a certain number of subscriptions are received. An example is the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).
  • Traditional self-archiving (green open access) where peer-reviewed manuscripts accepted for publication can, without exception, be stored in a publication archive. This requires a change either in legislation (e.g. France) or in organisational policy (e.g. Universities of Tromsø ja Edinburgh).

In their conference report (in Finnish), Pekka Olsbo and Arto Ikonen from the Open Science Centre at the University of Jyväskylä, presented a combined model of fostering diamond open access publishing and self-archiving, which would be complemented by a reform of research evaluation: ”The scientific publishing should be guided towards a model in which the primary platform for scientific publications is open access journals and platforms that do not charge author fees for publication. Publications that are published on other platforms for one reason or another should be self-archived and immediately opened in the appropriate publication repository.”

In the Olsbo’s and Ikonen’s model, self-archiving should be developed to make it possible in all cases. They argue that this would be best done through legislation. Another option, which has been much discussed, is the rights retention strategy (RRS) which is an organisational policy. Both are already in use around the world. In Finland, a statutory right to self-archive was excluded from the reform of the Finnish Copyright Act last year, but may be revisited when the Ministry of Education and Culture evaluates the functioning of the new law (see Edilex 2.3.2023, in Finnish). The organisational policy on co-distribution has been explored and discussed, at least in the Finnish Network of University Libraries (FUN), and the issue is topical in many countries. Both are already in use around the world. In Finland, the co-distribution right was finally excluded from the reform of the Copyright Act last year, but may be revisited when the OKM evaluates the functioning of the new law (see Edilex 2.3.2023, in Finnish). The organisational policy on self-archiving (RRS) has been explored and discussed, at least in the Finnish University Libraries’ Network (FUN), and the issue is topical in many countries.

Transforming scientific publications into a public good and for the common good requires at least three steps of development and change. Key among these is the development of the responsibility of the current research assessment and the realisation of both the DORA Declaration and the CoARA agreement. This requires a shared understanding in the scientific community that the focus must shift from the publication channels to the publication itself. Secondly, the scientific community must reverse the current funding model, which is fattening large publishers, in favour of funding diamond-based publishing platforms. This also requires building a common understanding and breaking away from the traditional models. Thirdly, self-archiving needs to be developed. This requires not only the technical development of repositories, but above all the joint development of copyright law so that authors always have the right to have their scientific publications immediately accessible in the repositories. It is just a question of the will to change things – as is the case with open science development in general. Anything is possible, it is just a question of how much we want change.
– Pekka Olsbo & Arto Ikonen: Tiedejulkaisemisen markkinoita ja ekosysteemiä muuttamassa (Finnish University Libraries’ Network FUN)

Last autumn, cosmologist Syksy Räsänen, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, also sparked a debate on the future of scientific publishing on the Think Open blog and presented his own alternative model of scientific publishing, which is already in use in physics. The proposal is a combination of online archives and so-called overlay journals, which are responsible for peer review. The Think Open blog seeks views on Räsänen’s proposal from other disciplines. If you would like to put forward your discipline’s perspective or otherwise contribute to the debate on the future of scientific publishing, please contact the editor of the blog (

References used in this article from 2023: