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Might Freemium Open Access Be Better than Green or Gold? – A Guest Post by Toby Green

19th May 2015
 | Guest Author

Toby3Toby Green joined OECD in 1998 and has been Head of Publishing since 2007, with a brief to maximise the impact of its publications. In 1999, OECD launched its first e-book and a ‘read-only’ service to allow free online browsing of its books via OECD’s online bookshop. Toby was responsible for creating OECD’s award-winning StatLink service, OECD’s iLibrary and freemium open access publishing model. He began his publishing career in 1982 promoting and selling books for Academic Press before learning about journals with Elsevier Applied Science and encyclopedias and abstracting services with Pergamon Press. He is a past-Chair of ALPSP and is a regular speaker at industry events in UK, France and USA.

I heard that the toilets are coin operated these days
I heard that the toilets are coin operated these days

Funders of scholarly research want everyone to have free access to the results of research they fund, and lots of impact. In the industry’s jargon, they want open access and metrics. However, not all funders choose to foot the cost of publishing and impact-building and look to other stakeholders to pay this bill. How to square this circle?

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) self-publishes its publicly-funded research results in the form of around 250 books, 150 working papers, 350 datasets and a handful of journal articles every year. Since the rise of open access, we have been trying to square the ‘free and impact’ circle without drawing funds away from research. We looked at green and gold open access models, but neither provided us with a financially sustainable model to meet publishing costs and impact-building. So, we looked for inspiration elsewhere and found it in two areas: games and the low-cost airline industry. Many digital games provide free access to the game itself and earn revenue from premium services or upgrades – the key to success is to build a very large audience because only a small percentage will pay for premium features. The low-cost airlines realised they could democratise air travel by unbundling what had been a single, expensive, product with little differentiation into a cheaper, basic, product with chargeable (‘premium’) options. The result is the same; a passenger gets to B from A at a basic price, but the experience is differentiated according to individual need and willingness to pay for extras.

Unbundling to make all OECD content free

Like the flag-carriers and scholarly publishers, OECD had a single, bundled, product, with little differentiation: either you were a subscriber and got everything, or a non-subscriber and got nothing. So we unbundled our product and, taking a leaf from the gamers book, made the basic service free. The basic service makes all the content available in a read-only version and includes discovery, citation, sharing and embedding tools. We put services like copy-paste, download, local printing into the premium service, so PDF, Excel, ePub editions are accessible for subscribers only. Institutional subscribers also benefit from downloadable MARC records, usage reports, customer support and on-site training. So, the content is free, the services are premium. We call this model Freemium Open Access.

For us, this approach has some immediate advantages over green and gold open access. Unlike green, everyone has access to the version of record, so there is no ambiguity about the content; the free version is also released at the same time as the premium versions, so free users are not handicapped by embargoes. As with Chorus, the user experience is better because both free and premium versions are available from the same landing page and both are accessible via the same citation. Unlike gold, we don’t have to siphon off research funding to cover publishing costs because enough revenue is generated from the premium services to cover the costs of providing both the premium and free services.

So, we’ve achieved one funder objective, all our content is free to read by anyone with an internet connection, albeit in a basic form and not yet to the standards called for by many open access advocates, such as the Budapest Open Access Initiative, but in making all our content freely accessible, we’ve made a big step in this direction.

What about the second objective – reporting impact?

As the gaming industry knows, freemium is only sustainable if a very large audience is attracted to the free service and a large enough percentage choose to upgrade for the premium services. Therefore, unlike green and gold where there is no particular incentive to build a large audience, freemium open access makes audience-building an essential priority; fail to build a large audience and you go out of business. In our case, since we went freemium, we’ve tripled our audience size and impact is measurably larger as a result. Better still, because we sell subscriptions we can give funders detailed reports showing which institutions are accessing the content.

If the content is free, who subscribes?

Freemium means we can no longer use our copyright/monopoly rights over the content to hold subscribers hostage – if they don’t value our premium services, they can opt out and access the content for free. More so than we ever did when we were a toll-access publisher, freemium pressures us to think hard about the needs of researchers and librarians and to provide services they value – a discussion that seems strangely absent from the open access debate. With growing usage among subscribers, we have confidence that we are delivering premium services that are sufficiently valued to maintain our financial sustainability even though the content is free for everyone in a basic format.

Progress to 100% open access with green or gold seems both slow and requiring of mandates to force change; both are certainly expensive in both time and money for many stakeholders. Our experience seems to show that freemium open access is a viable alternative to green and gold as a way to make research free for anyone – moreover, it is simpler to put in place and requires just one stakeholder to change – the publisher. However, freemium doesn’t mean abandoning green or gold. If an author’s funder or employer insists that a copy of an accepted manuscript is placed in a repository, that’s fine. Equally, funders are welcome to meet the costs of making one or more premium versions freely available.

But, when it comes to thinking about funders’ objectives, freemium seems to offer significant advantages; it pushes a publisher to find the largest possible audience and to think hard about the needs of readers and librarians. Above all, we think freemium offers a faster route to 100% free access to all research and better impact reports at no cost to funders. This might make research funders very happy.

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