Facing a Wave of OA Closures?

OA closures start, OA funds sunset, and PLOS staff demand a union

If you’ve been involved with the society journals space, you know that many of these organizations launched OA journals in what can only be described as a half-hearted attempt to get OA advocates off their backs and be perceived as neutral when it comes to access politics.

These launches inoculated them for a time, but the OA virus continues to spread and radicalize, and with OSTP and the EU creating new Green vectors and more general pressure, society OA journals seem unlikely to endure. They don’t have the scale to survive financially, and few such organizations have boards that aren’t skeptical of OA, even if they nominally support it.

I would predict many society OA journals will close in the next 3-5 years, and there’s now a canary in the coal mine — CMAJ Open. Apparently, budget cuts are necessitating the closure of CMAJ’s news section and the parent organization’s OA journal.

Both are essentially commodity products. News as a commodity was disrupted by the Internet almost from the jump. OA articles are essentially a commodity in a pay-to-play system of APCs. With its small scale and limited geographical reach, CMAJ Open can’t achieve the volume of articles necessary to make OA financially feasible.

This mirrors the case for a large number of mid-sized and smaller society publishers, who have been subsidizing token and unprofitable OA journals for years now with funds from their subscription titles. As subscription titles concede revenues as OA expands, budget pressures will mount, and the bad economic bargain of the small OA journal will become glaringly obvious to leadership at many societies.

Adding to the likelihood of a wave of OA journal closures, we’re seeing OA funds being sunset or closed at various governmental and university bodies. It seems these entities — many of which called vociferously for universal OA — are now finding it hard to put their money where their mouth is, especially in an economy that seems oddly precarious all of a sudden.

Finally, as another sign of increasing financial pressure, the employees of PLOS have formed a union, asking PLOS to recognize it this week. What are they asking for? You can see for yourself, with the most interesting entry below:

This entry implicitly claims salaries and benefits are undignified, people are leaving, employees don’t know what’s going on, and staff feels helpless.

When subscription subsidies aren’t around for society OA journals, staff wants better salaries, and a balance sheet in the red is all governance finds when it starts poking around the OA journal’s finances, there is really only one rational outcome — the OA journal is shut down. Salary and budget issues are suddenly corrected.

Unsurprisingly and once again, OA is not all it’s cracked up to be — at any level.