The scholarly journal publishing market is in transition. While a great portion of publishers still operate their journals under the subscription paywall business model, open access publishing is keenly on the rise, as fully OA publishers and platforms are launched and come into maturity, scholarly publishers experiment a variety of new open access business models, and, not least, the number of research institutions and library consortia negotiating transformative agreements proliferates.
The visualizations below aim to inform the broader community of a number of key trends in the demographics and distribution of scholarly journal publishing in transition:
- the relevance of publishers for scholars and scientists, as expressed in their share of scholarly articles published,
- the growth of open access via transformative agreements and the impact these agreements have in enabling universal open access to the research articles produced on a local (country) and global (publisher) level, and
- the costs and price points of article processing charges.
Research institutions, their libraries, and library consortia can use the high-level data presented here to better understand their position in the scholarly publishing market and make strategic considerations regarding their interactions with commercial publishers.
While the global research community strives to enable a diverse and equitable scholarly communication system, the first step in any process of transformation is to take stock of the current state of affairs. The following graphs show the distribution of the scholarly articles published on the country level (basing attribution on the affiliation of the corresponding author) and by publisher.
Scientists and scholars from any given country tend to publish their articles in the journals or portfolios of a relatively small number of publishers. We can observe that more than 75% of any given country’s research article output is published in the journals of around 20 publishers, with the majority of articles likely to be concentrated in the journals of 3-4 publishers.
Consequently, there is significant market concentration in academic publishing, with just a handful of publishers accounting for the majority of the scholarly articles published globally. If institutions were to look at their own spending habits with scholarly publishers (subscription payments and open access publishing fees), they would like find a very similar concentration, although likely in different proportions.
Looking at the market shares (articles) of any given publisher, while the specific proportions can vary from one community to another, the Pareto principle highlighted above is evident here, as well: more than 75% of the articles published in the portfolios of any given publisher tend to originate with authors from around 20 countries.
Change the tabs to switch the country-based or publisher-based views.
Transformative agreements (TAs) are one of the key strategies of the research performing organizations united in the global Open Access 2020 Initiative (OA2020), validated and embraced at the 14th Berlin Open Access Conference and by the funders aligned in cOAlition S. Working in tandem with other efforts to support a multiplicity of venues for the open dissemination of research, transformative agreements are a temporary and transitional framework for institutions to convert the resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable OA business models, in accordance with community-specific publication preferences.
The ESAC Registry of Transformative Agreements now counts more than 300 such agreements, negotiated in over 30 countries with more than 40 publishers large and small, leading to the publication of well over 100,000 articles immediately open access in 2021.
Impact of TAs in enabling open access to research articles
The graph below shows the exponential growth of articles enabled open access in the last few years, thanks to transformative agreements, as well as the expansion in the countries worldwide that are adopting TAs as a part of their open access strategies.
Impact of TAs over time, by country and institution and by publisher
The following interactive charts provide a detailed view of the countries (first tab) and publishers (second tab) represented in the ESAC Registry year on year by country and institution and by publisher, with an indication of the number of articles covered by the agreements.
Transformative agreements mark a clear departure from the status quo of the subscription system and move scholarly journals, as well as countries and institutions, forward on a realistic pathway toward a fully open access landscape. Iterative in nature, the viability of TAs is evident in their growing uptake, proliferation and continuous evolution, as negotiating institutions set new benchmarks and build upon these.
Already a number of first-mover national licensing consortia are approaching a ratio of 75-80% of their corresponding authored papers published immediately open access, largely through the successful negotiation and implementation of transformative agreements, and newcomers are rapidly making their entry and bringing up the rear:
The following interactive graph presents the estimated country-level ratios of articles published immediately open access through transformative agreements, in fully open access journals, and behind subscription paywalls (limited to countries represented in the ESAC registry and based on affiliation of the corresponding author of articles). The graph also indicates the distribution of the articles among the twenty publishers with the largest share and the long tail of the remainder (Other).
Over the past decades, many new scholarly publishers and publishing venues supported via various open access models have been established, and a number of these now figure among the world’s largest academic publishers.
At the same time, most of the largest, subscription publishers have established or acquired open access brands and journals, even while maintaining their subscription-based journal portfolios, in parallel, very often offering a ‘hybrid’ publishing option, giving authors the opportunity to publish their articles openly in, otherwise, paywalled subscription journals for a fee.
The following chart shows the estimated share of articles published in fully open access (gold) journals and in closed or ‘hybrid’ subscription journals of the world’s largest publishers (in terms of article output). The chart also demonstrates the impact of transformative agreements in systematically increasing the proportion of articles published openly in subscription or hybrid-based journal portfolios.
While observing these trends, their financial implications must also be considered. The ‘hybrid’ model has permitted subscription-based publishers to generate a second revenue stream, fed by author-facing open access publishing charges (APCs), that come on top of institutional subscription fees for the same journals. The early “offset” agreements, negotiated centrally by institutions and library consortia took the first step in counterbalancing the costs of open access publishing in hybrid subscription journals against subscription fees. However, it is their evolution—the many varieties of transformative agreements that repurpose former subscription fees to cover the costs of open access publishing—that hold the potential to invert the trend and dismantle the subscription business model from within, as highlighted in the deltas emerging in the graphs below.
The chart is currently limited to the largest publishers, in terms of articles published annually, but additional publishers will included in due course.
The following interactive graph focuses on the portfolios of individual publishers and provides a detailed view of the estimated proportion of articles published in their fully open access journals, the articles published openly via the ‘hybrid’ option, and the proportion published openly under the control and financial oversight of transformative agreements (article numbers derived from the ESAC registry). The data show how each of the individual transformative agreements reduces the ratio of articles published behind subscription paywalls, highlighting the effectiveness and impact of transformative agreements in driving the open access transition.
Although the majority of the journals indexed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) operate without article processing charges (APCs), the primary business model adopted by most of the publishers represented in the ESAC Market Watch is based on authors paying (APCs). While research libraries have, historically, taken on financial responsibility for fulfilling the scholarly communication needs of researchers as readers, in the context of open access publishing, researchers as authors have largely been left to manage financial transactions with scholarly publishers on their own.
As scholarly journal publishing transitions to open access business models, libraries seeking to protect the financial interests of their institutions and authors will increasingly need to monitor, compare and exert critical market pressure on the costs of open access publishing services and APC price points. Support and tools to facilitate comparisons and conversations around the costs of scholarly publishing services are available in the ESAC Initiative, the OpenAPC dataset, and the pricing and service transparency frameworks developed by the FAIR OA Alliance and by Information Power for cOAlition S.
The figure below shows the distribution of APC price points over time, by publisher and business model, based on expenditure reports of actual APC payments (i.e. after discounts, etc.), contributed voluntarily by institutions worldwide to the OpenAPC dataset.
Assessing market positions with pricing and impact
In addition to cost comparisons, another method to assess the cost/benefit of the open access publishing services of any given publisher is to observe their competitive positioning within the APC landscape. If authors and their institutions value journals for their impact, as expressed, for example, with the journals’ source normalized impact per paper (SNIP), comparisons might be made integrating the average SNIP of a publishers’ journals with their average APC price points, to derive a loose definition of their competitive position with respect to other publishers.
The chart below compares average SNIP with average APCs, grouped by publisher. The size of the bubbles is proportional to the number of journals in the publisher’s price list which have non-zero SNIP values and non-zero APCs price points.
In the case of fully OA journals, there seems to be a stronger relationship between price and impact, with the competitive position of most publishers clustering around lower APCs and lower prices with respect to hybrid journals.
More information and limitations
The visualizations above are based on freely accessible data sources, which have their own limitations, and are intended to provide the research community with an orientation of the scholarly publishing market in transition.
All stakeholders in the scholarly publishing landscape are strongly encouraged to conduct their own analyses to better understand the publishing trends in their local contexts and their financial implications. For tips on where to start, check out how to uncover the publishing profile of your institution prepared by the ESAC Data Working Group.
The analysis presented here utilizes the bibliographic information from the Open Access 2020 dataset (including corresponding-author data through 2018), which holds its own limitations, discussed in detail in the Data Descriptor, and largely based on Web of Science data provided by the German Competence Center for Bibliometrics for research purposes.
While the share of articles published openly under the hybrid model are still hard for the community to quantify, due to article-based license information lacking in the publisher metadata, Unpaywall was used to build on the OA2020 dataset mentioned above and illustrate the growth of hybrid and fully OA article shares and ratios.
Data on the number of articles covered by transformative agreements is derived from entries in the ESAC Registry.
The graphs in this analysis are intended to provide a high-level overview of trends in a complex and rapidly changing ecosystem. While general trends can be observed, it should be noted that the total number of articles published in scholarly journals, annually, can be influenced by various factors; for example, some have observed an above-average growth of articles in 2020, mainly in the biomedical sciences, most likely driven by research in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. ESAC will make best efforts to update the information presented here regularly.
If you have any questions or feedback, or if any aspect of the visualizations presented here seems amiss, please get in touch!
Last updated: 2021-06-02