Wellcome and COAF open access spend 2018/19

This is our analysis of the spending by 38 organisations that received a grant from the Charity Open Access Fund (COAF), or a block grant from Wellcome to cover publishing costs, between October 2018 and September 2019.


Each year, we ask all organisations in receipt of a grant from COAF to provide details about their open access (OA) publications and their associated article processing charges (APCs). The analysis covers research funded by:

  • Blood Cancer UK
  • British Heart Foundation
  • Cancer Research UK
  • Parkinson’s UK
  • Versus Arthritis
  • Wellcome.

It provides details of the costs of OA publishing incurred by COAF and the extent to which the published articles comply with the common OA policy of COAF partners (the COAF OA policy).

Overall, full compliance with the COAF OA policy – articles freely accessible through Europe PMC and made available under a CC-BY licence – was 95%, an increase on last year’s figure of 90%.

Cost analysis 

In 2018/19, COAF funded the APCs of 3,410 articles at a cost of £7.1 million (see table 1).

This analysis excludes 244 articles that were either:

  • published ahead of print and therefore not the final, published version
  • in publisher deals with a reported APC of £0 – we’re not able to calculate the real cost of these articles.

This year, the average APC was £2,410 and the median was £2,300. Compared with the previous year (2017/18) the average APC fell by 0.5%, while the median rose by 2%.

Table 1: APC spend for the years 2015-19
Item 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
Number of articles for which an APC was paid 3,552 3,474 3,601 3,410
Total cost of APCs £7,252,915 £7,881,899 £8,729,201 £8,218,283
Total Wellcome/COAF spend on APCs (some APCs’ costs were split between COAF and another funder) £6,600,690 £7,166,874 £7,458,045 £7,052,837
Average APC for the total spend £2,044 £2,269 £2,424 £2,410
Median APC for the total spend £1,944 £2,081 £2,250 £2,300

Our analysis splits journals into fully OA journals (in which every article is made OA – for example PLOS One or Nature Communications) and hybrid journals (which are published under a subscription model, but where individual articles can be made OA).

Table 2 provides a breakdown of the number of publications and average and median prices by publication type.

Table 2: APC spend by publication type, 2016-19
  Fully OA journals Hybrid journals
Year 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
Article count 1,037 1,154 1,207 2,437 2,447 2,203
Average APC £1,943 £2,090 £2,082 £2,401 £2,581 £2,591
Median APC £1,564 £1,656 £1,758 £2,304 £2,400 £2,464

Publication in hybrid journals remains the predominant publication route for COAF-funded researchers, with 65% of articles for which an APC was levied published this way. Hybrid journals continue to be more expensive, with an average APC of £2,591 compared with £2,082 for fully OA journals.

The average APC for fully OA journals reduced by 0.5% this year. In contrast, the average APC of hybrid journals increased by 0.5%. We saw median APC increases of 6% for fully OA journals and 3% for hybrid journals. 

As seen in previous years, a small number of highly-priced, fully OA journals continue to have a big impact on our data. This year, we saw a drop in the number of articles published in the more expensive fully OA journals – Nature Communications (95) and Cell Reports (30) – relative to the previous year (2017/18). This accounts for the drop in the average APC of fully OA journals. 

The increase in the median APC of fully OA journals is a combination of the impact of the more expensive fully OA journals, and a gradual increase in APCs at the lower end of the APC range. If we remove the 4% of articles published in the more expensive OA journals from our cost analysis of fully OA APCs, the average is £1,845 and the median is £1,680.

We have also analysed the APCs associated with publisher schemes – including read and publish, offsetting, prepayment, discount and membership schemes (see table 3). These will become more common as organisations make their content OA in future. This year, 26 organisations gave us data about their publisher schemes. 695 articles (27% of the total reported by these organisations) benefitted from some form of publisher scheme – for these articles the average APC was £1,457.

Table 3: articles benefiting from read and publish, offsetting, prepayment, discount and membership schemes, 2017-19
  2017/18 2018/19
  Number of articles Average APC Total spend Number of articles Average APC Total spend
Fully OA journals 205 £1,518 £350,424 265 £1,392 £359,167
Hybrid journals 478 £1,935 £1,079,349 430 £1,496 £635,857
Total 683 £1,810 £1,429,773 695 £1,457 £995,024

The average APC total of £1,457 (see table 3) is significantly lower than the average APC total for all articles which is £2,410 (see table 1). The reductions provided through publisher schemes are greater for hybrid journals than fully OA journals. This year we have seen a significant drop in the cost of APCs charged to us for hybrid journals included within these publisher schemes. 

Table 4 breaks down the publication costs reported to us for the top five publishers (by volume) of COAF-funded articles published in 2018/19.

Table 4: top five publishers (by volume) of COAF-supported research and APC spend, 2018/19
Publisher Journal type Number of articles Average APC Total spend
Elsevier Fully OA 100 £2,975 £297,519
  Hybrid 652 £2,990 £1,949,465
Totals   752   £2,246,984
Springer Nature Fully OA 436 £2,233 £973,564
  Hybrid 124 £2,457 £302,246
Totals   560   £1,275,811
Wiley Fully OA 19 £1,642 £31,199
  Hybrid 326 £2,324 £757,599
Totals   345   £788,799​
Oxford University Press Fully OA 35 £1,541 £53,930
  Hybrid 216 £2,412 £520,964
Totals   251   £574,894
Wolters Kluwer Fully OA 14 £1,934 £27,072
  Hybrid 90 £3,757 £338,136
Totals   104   £365,208​

Elsevier again has the most expensive APCs associated with fully OA journals, with average APCs of £2,975 – far higher than the other publishers in the top five. This year Wolters Kluwer had the most expensive APCs associated with hybrid journals, with an average of £3,757. 

Springer Nature is the only publisher that has published more fully OA articles than hybrid ones.

Compliance data 

In addition to understanding how much OA is costing us, we look at whether publishers are delivering a service that helps our researchers to comply with the COAF OA policy.

In brief, the policy requires that when COAF funds are used to pay for an APC the publisher must:

  • deposit the final version of the article in PubMed Central (PMC)/Europe PMC
  • make sure that the article is clearly licenced CC-BY on their own site and in PMC/Europe PMC.

As in previous years, we used the Cottage Labs compliance checking tool to programmatically determine if a paper is in the Europe PMC repository and, if so, what licence is attached to it.

Overall compliance is 95%, up from last year’s 90% (see table 5). If we look at the two elements of the OA policy separately, the percentage of articles freely available via Europe PMC at the time of publication was 98%, while the number of articles with a correct and programmatically identifiable licence (either in Europe PMC or on the publisher’s website) was 96%.

Table 5: compliance with COAF OA policy, 2015-19
  Numbers Percentage
  2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
Published articles for which an APC has been paid 3,382 3,601 3,410 100% 100% 100%
Number of these articles available in Europe PMC as full text 3,070 3,386 3,343 91% 94% 98%
Number of articles with a CC-BY (or CC-0) licence either in Europe PMC or on the publisher's website 3,090 3,300 3,291 91% 92% 96%
Number of articles with other licence (or no programmatically identifiable licence) 292 301 121 9% 8% 4%
Number of articles for which full text was available via Europe PMC with a CC-BY or CC-0 licence 2,931 3,251 3,226 87% 90% 95%

In aggregate, there are 184 articles for which COAF has paid an APC and which are not compliant with our requirements – this is 5% of the total number of all APC articles (see table 6). 

As in previous years, hybrid journals remain the overwhelming source of non-compliance (89%). The total spend on these non-compliant articles is £417,212. Since some of these articles were split between Research Councils UK and COAF, the total amount charged to COAF for these non-compliant articles is £365,444. If payments are made, we fully expect services to be delivered in line with our policy.

Looking at the 184 non-compliant articles, 35% are missing from Europe PMC and the remainder are available as free, full-text articles, but under an incorrect or unknown licence.

We continue to urge subscription publishers to develop better workflows to make sure that COAF-attributed articles, for which an APC has been levied, are deposited in PMC in line with our requirements. The issue of continuing non-compliance has contributed to the decision that, from 1 January 2021, we will no longer fund APCs in subscription journals unless they are covered by a transformative arrangement.

Table 6: non-compliance – fully OA journals vs hybrid journals, 2018/19
  Published articles for 2018/19 Non-compliant articles Percentage of non-compliant articles
Fully OA journals 1,207 21 2%
Hybrid journals 2,203 163 7%
Total 3,410 184 5%

Of the top five publishers, Springer Nature has the lowest rate of non-compliance (1% – see Table 7). Elsevier and Wiley both have significantly lower rates of non-compliance than last year. Although this is a welcome development it is disappointing that, since making our first APC payments to these publishers 15 years ago, compliance is still not 100%. 

Table 7: non-compliance – top five publishers by volume
Publisher Journal type Number of articles Non-compliant Non-compliant (%)
Elsevier Fully OA 100 5 5%
  Hybrid 652 36 6%
Totals   752 41 5%
Springer Nature Fully OA 436 0 0%
  Hybrid 124 7 6%
Totals   560 7 1%
Wiley Fully OA 19 2 11%
  Hybrid 326 18 6%
Totals   345 20 6%
Oxford University Press Fully OA 35 1 3%
  Hybrid 216 14 6%
Totals   251 15 6%
Wolters Kluwer Fully OA 14 1 7%
  Hybrid 90 3 3%
Totals   104 4 4%

Conclusions and actions 

Overall compliance with the COAF OA policy is 95%. As in previous years, we will be working with publishers and organisations to make sure that non-compliant articles are made compliant as soon as possible. Analysis of the impact of publisher schemes on the costs of APCs demonstrates that they contribute to significantly lower costs for COAF members. 

COAF has been in operation since October 2014 and has spent £46 million in OA fees over the past six years. However, COAF depends on all funders sharing a common OA policy, which will no longer be the case from January 2021 when Wellcome implements its Plan S-aligned OA policy.  

Consequently, COAF will end on 30 September 2020. Once COAF is terminated, the individual funders will continue to support OA costs in line with their policies, but these funds will not be centralised through COAF.


The data used for this analysis was provided by organisations in November and December 2019. The analysis was carried out using Wellcome’s Cottage Labs compliance checking tool on 14 March 2020. The analysis was conducted using the raw data provided by organisations. 

While every effort has been made to provide accurate information, there may be errors within the analysed data. Where errors are identified, we will endeavour to make corrected versions of the data available.

The raw data used for this article is freely available on Figshare.

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