Donations as a Source of Income for Open Access Journals: An Option To Consider?
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Online open access journals allow readers to view scholarly articles without a subscription or other payment barrier. However, publishing costs must still be covered. Therefore, many of these publications rely on support from a variety of sources. One source of funds not commonly discussed is donations from readers. This study investigated the prevalence of this practice and sought to learn about the motivation of journal editors to solicit donations, and also to gather input on the effectiveness of this strategy. Results show that very few open access journals solicit donations from readers, and for those that do, donations represent only a very small portion of all support received.
Introduction / Background
As the co-founder and co-editor of the open access journal Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (palrap.org), I was interested in learning about different methods we might pursue as we try to keep up with some necessary and ongoing costs. While our journal operates largely on the volunteer efforts of authors, reviewers, and editors, there are still bills to pay. Anyone involved in scholarly publishing knows that while articles from open access journals are free to read, they are certainly not free to produce. To help address this challenge, we recently began soliciting donations from our readers by placing a “support” button on our website and a link to an online donation form, along with a brief explanation of why we chose to do this. Because little is known about this fundraising method, and because it has not received any significant attention in the literature, other than what was mentioned in the reports cited below, the intent of this project was to gain additional information and insight from the experiences of others.
One of the most well-known and frequently debated methods open access journals use to generate revenue is the author publication fee, or article processing charge. However, there are many other possibilities to consider, and open access journals continue to use a mixture of these methods. After a large scale survey of journal publishers in 2005, the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers noted that “the most prevalent source of financial support for full open access journals was display advertising income” while “volunteer labor also figured prominently in full open access journals’ ongoing operations” . Other significant sources of income included “in-kind contributions [e.g. use of office space, staff time, equipment, or technology resources], corporate sponsorships, and third-party licensing”. At this time, approximately a decade ago, only 6% of journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) received gifts or donations . Another document published by the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in 2009 identified a number of ways for open access journals to generate revenue, without requiring payment from authors or readers . Possible options included advertising, sponsorships, internal or external subsidies, donations, endowments, in-kind support, and partnerships. Here it was concluded that “in the context of peer-reviewed journals, donation-based models typically work better as appeals to individuals, than to institutions,” and a targeted campaign is often necessary for success, as a link on the website is not enough . Finally, a third study conducted from late 2009 to early 2010 investigated income sources of open access journals by collecting information from journal websites. At that time, observed practices for generating income included the use of article processing charges, membership fees, advertisements, sponsorships, subsidies, subscriptions to print versions, hard copy sales, donations, and other miscellaneous fees to authors and/or readers . Donations were only included in an “other” category for income sources, and there was no further discussion or acknowledgement of this strategy for raising funds.
Donations as a Viable Source of Support?
It is fairly well established and commonly accepted that donations are a critical means of support for many activities. For example, consumers of public radio and public television are frequently reminded that if they value the service and wish to see it continue, their voluntary financial support is needed. Further, community and nonprofit organizations of all types are regularly supported by financial contributions. Clearly, donations can be a viable source of support for initiatives that are valued, even though individuals may have little incentive to contribute, especially when the product or service will continue to exist and be paid for by others . However, this is fairly new territory for open access scholarly journals. Can the same approach be successful here? This article describes an updated investigation into the number of open access journals accepting donations, their experiences, and the overall effectiveness of this practice.
Key questions of interest were:
- How many open access journals currently ask for donations from readers?
- What are some strategies for soliciting donations?
- How are donations collected and processed?
- Who is donating, if anyone?
- What other sources of income do these journals have?
- Are donations a good solution for other journals to consider?
The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) was used as a starting point for data collection. All journals classified as English language and published in the United States were included in this study. In June 2014, 1,148 journals met this criteria and data was exported from DOAJ. Fifteen titles were removed because they no longer existed, were not in English, or were not open access publications, resulting in a total population of 1,133 journals. The website of each open access journal was visited to determine whether or not readers were asked to financially support the publication through donations. Next, for each journal that appeared to solicit monetary contributions, each website was visited to obtain email contact information for the editor or editors. A survey was then administered from September 2014 to October 2014 that asked the editors to provide further information about why donations are sought, how they are handled, and to what extent this strategy is effective. The invitation to complete the survey is included in Appendix A.
The analysis of the websites of 1,133 English Language open access journals published in the United States (as listed in DOAJ) revealed that very few, only 54 (4.8%), appear to ask for and accept donations from readers (Table 1).
Feedback from journal editors revealed further insight about this practice. Of the 54 contacted, 26 (48%) completed at least part of the survey. This data is reported in tables 3 through 20 below. In addition to the 26 editors who completed or partially completed the survey, another six responded by email to report some information about their journal (Table 2).
Half of the 26 responding editors represented journals from the social sciences; those from the humanities and physical sciences made up the remainder, with the exception of one journal from the life sciences/medical field (Table 3). No commercial publishers were represented in the data collected. All journals were published in association with universities, scholarly societies, or other nonprofit organizations. About half of responding editors represent journals that have been in operation for over 10 years (Table 4) and half publish three issues or less each year (Table 5). While asking for donations is new for some journals, others have been doing this for several years (Table 6). Generally, it is the editor or editorial board that has made the decision to start asking for donations from readers (Table 7). For 64% of the journals represented here, this strategy is reported to be very ineffective or somewhat ineffective, while only 36% consider this to be very effective or somewhat effective (Table 8). For the journals that have received contributions, on average, nearly 70% of donations come from individuals (Table 9). At the same time, a number of other journals have yet to receive any donations. It appears that most publications can potentially earn a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars per year, although it is also quite common to receive no donations at all (Table 10). Payments are often processed online using PayPal or a web form managed by an office within a university or professional association (Table 11). A number of journal editors reported also accepting checks and money orders, while some others reported accepting cash (Table 12). For the responding journals, the primary sources of support reported (other than donations) are subsidies from related organizations as well as volunteer effort of authors, reviewers, and editors (Table 13). Based on observations made when visiting the websites of individual journals, of those that responded to the survey, only three appear to both accept donations and charge an author publication fee. About 70% of the journals represented in the survey rely only on their websites to solicit donations, while 30% are more proactive and also ask for contributions in other ways (Table 14). Only three reported using any type of targeted campaign such as with phone calls, mail, or email (Tables 15-17). Comments provided in response to several open ended questions revealed some other practices and experiences of those involved with publishing and editing an open access journal (Tables 18-20). A common theme is that these scholarly publications are largely made possible due to the volunteer efforts of committed individuals, and donations typically represent only a very small piece of any support a journal may receive.
Discussion and Conclusion
The primary limitation of this analysis is the source of data used. While the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of open access scholarly journals, it is not entirely complete or accurate. First, the scholarly publishing environment is constantly changing so it is very difficult, if not impossible, to capture information about all open access journals that may exist. Therefore, many open access journals (some of which may receive donations from readers) are not included in DOAJ. Second, one may question the quality or the legitimacy of some journals included in DOAJ. For example, several titles had no articles published, while others are included on Jeffrey Beall’s well-known list of “possible, potential, or probable predatory scholarly open access publishers”. DOAJ is aware of this and is taking important steps to address concerns related to accuracy and the quality of journals included in the directory . In my analysis I made no attempt to systematically evaluate the quality or merit of any journals listed in DOAJ. All 1,133 journals, as defined in the methodology section above, were considered for inclusion. However, as noted in the results section, no commercial publishers were found to be actively soliciting donations from readers. Finally, although DOAJ attempts to categorize journals by country of publication this is difficult to do accurately because the editor, or members of the editorial board, are commonly in a location other than that of the organization hosting or sponsoring the journal, which complicates the question of “where” a journal is published. Is it where the journal is physically hosted, where the sponsor is located, or where the editor is from? Some of the journals listed as being published in the United States clearly had significant participation from international authors and editors as well as readers.
For open access journal editors or managers who are considering donations as a source of income, this investigation provides some interesting and potentially useful evidence. First, a very small percentage of open access publications are currently experimenting with donations, and for those that are, they are experiencing varying degrees of success. In fact, it appears to be quite common for some journals to receive no donations for a long period of time. Of those that do receive some income, it is generally not a large amount of money. Editors should also remember that the costs of any fundraising program must be weighed against the potential income, especially when dealing with donations or other online payment methods that could incur transaction or processing fees . Fortunately, the costs involved with simply placing a link and web form on a journal’s website are quite low and the process is fairly simple, and the risks involved are minimal, even though some editors may feel that this strategy is largely ineffective. Open Journals Systems (OJS), the open source software program used by many open access journals, even includes instructions for configuring the software to accept payments and donations . To obtain a greater level of success, it appears that the earlier advice presented in Ryam Crow’s 2009 SPARC report remains relevant, and editors may need to invest more resources into a targeted campaign to reach out to potential donors . A link on the website asking for donations is probably not enough to make a substantial difference in a journal’s overall budget.
The donation button on the website of Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (palrap.org) has seen some activity since it appeared last year, but contributions have been few and far between. Despite the low level of use, we will likely continue to offer this option to our readers and supporters. In time, we may want to consider a more proactive approach, where we seek out donors through a well-coordinated fundraising campaign.
At this point in time, the conclusion seems to be rather clear. Donations from readers are not likely to represent a major source of income for open access journals but could certainly be used as one part of a broader fundraising and income producing strategy. Opportunities may exist for future researchers to explore in further detail why open access journals are not having a great deal of success with this strategy. Future work may also consider alternative ways to encourage greater financial support from those who value the work of open access journal editors and their teams.
Thomas Reinsfelder is a librarian at Penn State Mont Alto. He is the co-founder and co-editor of the open access journal Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (PaLRaP.org). His dissertation research, completed in 2012, focused on open access scholarly publishing and the roles of various stakeholder groups.
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Invitation to Complete Survey
Subject: Survey for Editors of Open Access Journals that Accept Donations from Readers
Editor First Name,
You have been identified as an editor or co-editor of [Journal Title] based on information in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).
[Journal Title] is one of only 5% of English Language open access journals published in the United States (as listed in the DOAJ), that seeks donations from readers.
As a co-editor of an open access journal that recently began soliciting and accepting donations as a source of revenue, I am interested in to learn about the experiences of others. I invite you to share your perspective by answering just a few questions. Results will be shared with all who participate in this brief survey and also published in a professional open access publication.
For the purposes here, the term donations will mean “payments made from individuals or institutions not directly affiliated with the journal in order to help support and sustain the publication”.
This is only being sent to one email address for each journal. If it should be directed to someone else, please forward this message to them.