II. What’s in a fair article processing charge?

A companion post explaining why I think scholars should switch to publishing via non-profit open-access is here.

Ideally, a scholar would know before choosing an open-access journal how the article processing charge (APC) is reckoned. It should always be clear what we are paying for. APCs for open-access publishing vary enormously. A few non-profit open-access journals are able to offer their authors gratis publishing, while other journals charge thousands of £/€/$ for ostensibly the same service. Why the differences, and what services are worth paying for?

The most expensive APCs I’ve heard of are charged by traditional, for-profit journals to make individual articles available on a case-by-case basis. Scholars supported by universities or funding agencies that insist on open access might pay these fees to comply with institutional requirements. The APC does not reflect any superior service. It reflects the loss to the publisher incurred when the paper is not exclusively available by subscription. The gratis options I’ve heard of are from non-profit open access journals who have either 1) obtained financial backing from non-profit institutions (such as national science organizations or scholarly societies) that pay the essential fees incurred in publishing for the authors or 2) recruited disinterested, idealistic editors who volunteer their services, and additionally perform the essential professional services usually provided by a publisher (e.g., hosting a journal’s website, maintaining databases of reviewers, sending reminder emails, ensuring articles are securely archived). When open-access publishing is free for the author, that doesn’t imply that there are not costs involved. It means that someone else is paying them. 

Can we decompose an APC to evaluate its fairness? Some of the costs involved in publishing an article are really incurred when the article is accepted and complete when the processing is finished. For instance, we can calculate the exact cost of the hours of expert labor needed to copy-edit and typeset a manuscript. However, many other expenses are less straightforward. Some costs may be bulk-distributed across all the content a publisher handles, and may scale depending on how much content the publisher distributes. These include things like costs of dedicated staff, and server space for housing the journal content. A small journal independently publishing 20 papers a year might approach these costs differently than a larger journal publishing 200 papers per year. Whatever the scale, these costs may still be estimated per paper accepted. You want a professional to handle these issues. There are not going to be lots of academics willing to honorarily proofread content or take responsibility for the integrity of a server (and do a solid job of it). Handling these tasks requires professional skill and we should value people with those skills enough to reward their good work.

Editorial evaluation of submitted content cannot be valued on the basis of accepted articles, because offering differential rewards for accepted papers would create a perverse incentive. Often, editorial work goes uncompensated but I think this is a tactical mistake that we should strive to avoid. Evaluating a manuscript requires skill and effort, and we want the people doing this to be motivated to do this thoroughly and quickly. At the journals I am familiar with where editors are paid (note that frequently they are not), they are either paid an honorary annual lump sum or a handling fee per paper. This sort of compensation does not introduce bias because editor income is not contingent on the decision. So even non-profit article processing charges are not a simple break down of editorial fees plus production fees: the processing charge must be larger than the real cost in order to account for the editorial labor involved in rejecting papers. Assuming that editors are paid a handling fee of €40 per paper and the journal rejects on average 50% of submissions, the APC due to content evaluation is €160: With a 50% rejection rate, each accepted article covers the €40 fee for editor-in-chief and action editor for the accepted article and one rejected paper. Obviously, if the rejection rate is higher, this changes. Obviously, this is in addition to the other costs incurred when a paper is accepted. It also assumes that that peer reviewers work for free; in my ideal world, they would be compensated too. Thinking about this, it is becoming easier for me to suppose that a fair APC will be many hundreds of €.         

Where could costs be cut? If enough scholars and their universities fully endorsed the non-profit open-access publishing model, then one excellent step would be for universities to factor staff’s editorial duties into their workload models. Though academics are currently expected to accept editorial responsibilities and peer review regularly, these activities are not (usually? ever? I would love to hear if any of you are given time each week at work for this) explicitly included in a workload model. If editorial work were not an extra task but replaced other work, then the real cost of a fair APC would be appropriately subsidized by universities, who have a stake in this, and the charged APC would decrease. Rejection rates are another big factor. Reconsidering policies contributing to high rejection rates (e.g., closed editorial decision systems that discourage sharing opinions between journals, placing arbitrary limits on journal size to create scarcity, poor self-evaluation of manuscripts and feedback leading to resubmission of the same rejected content to journal after journal, etc.) would also reduce the need to budget as much for editorial evaluation.

To summarize, decomposing the costs in a fair APC depends on a lot of factors: the size of the journal, its rejection rate, whether editorial work is compensated, whether there are funding sources absorbing some of the costs, etc. The real costs in labor of evaluating and producing an article and ensuring that it remains accessible easily reach many hundreds of €s. We should expect non-profit open access journals to periodically justify its APC to authors, proving that it is a fair rate that allows the journal to properly support its mission.

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I. Why non-profit, open-access publishing is better for scholars

Scholars, who do the bulk of the work involved in academic publishing, are faced with a choice: 1) give away your work to a for-profit journal to publish, or 2) pay a non-profit journal an article processing charge. Let’s look at the costs of publishing, both in terms of money and effort, incurred at every stage from the start of a research project until it finally appears in a journal, to discover where the costs come from, and who benefits most. 

The initial costs of producing a scholarly article are borne by scholars and the universities or funding agencies supporting them. Scholars conceived the idea for the project, made sure that the work necessary for writing the article was accomplished, which can involve hours of management, pain-staking data coding, costly data collection, and/or many hours of data analysis, all on top of actually writing the article. On the day you finally submit your article for publication, you and the institutions supporting you have incurred all the costs for producing that work. What next? Well, we all know that we can’t sell scholarly writing. If we charged for it, few people would ever read it. But scholars and their universities want the work to be available to interested readers in perpetuity, and they also want some indication about its quality. So we give the article to a journal capable of determining its quality, and if they accept it, the journal handles its distribution. Ideally, scholars get what they want from this arrangement: the assurance that their work will be forever available to a wide audience, and that its quality will be certified by the editorial process.

Whether we chose a for-profit publisher or a non-profit publisher, the article must now be evaluated by one or two of the journal’s editors plus an additional 2-4 peer reviewers. Assuming it is eventually accepted, staff at the journal copy edit it, check that all the references are right, apply their house style so that it doesn’t look like a term paper, and distribute it. If it is rejected, the author will submit it to another journal, where the evaluation process recommences. So, in order for the scholar to get the credit and exposure they hope for, hours of skilled labor are required from at least 4 additional people. How is that labor paid for? At a traditional for-profit journal, this comes from the earnings the publisher makes from selling subscriptions to the journal. The publisher makes as much as 37% profit, which you might naturally assume enables them to pay a fair rate for the skilled labor that made the whole process possible. But, just as authors give their work to a journal for the honor of letting that journal publish it, scholars evaluate articles for the journal for the honor of doing so, or possibly for an honorarium that does not amount to a fair rate for the labor needed to do a thorough job. For the effort of recruiting some honorary scholar labor (a task that is also usually farmed out to scholars), proofreading, and type-setting your paper, the publisher takes control of your work so that they can charge your university money so that your students have the opportunity to read it. Honorary scholarly labor is the backbone of this system, and for providing it, your university has to pay for access to the final product. 

The emerging alternative is to instead choose an open-access journal that does not operate by selling subscriptions. In this model, authors (or preferably their universities) typically pay an article processing fee when their paper is accepted for publication. Paying to give something away may seem suspicious, but the value of this fee depends on what the fee covers and what you get in exchange. Suppose you just want your paper to be publicly available, perhaps because it is a stipulation of your funding source or a rule of your institution. For-profit publishers charge huge fees to for a la carte open access to offset the decrease in income they would see from paid subscriptions if many author chose open access. This justification of the fee does not benefit the author at all. Non-profit open access journals charge lower rates designed to reflect the actual expenses incurred from evaluation and production of the articles. The published article is made freely available, so the university will never need to pay anything further for its students and staff to access the final product.

In terms of giving scholars what they want (i.e., credit and exposure), how do these publishing models compare? First, let’s agree that it is not really the publisher who provides the lovely feeling of esteem we get from having a paper accepted: that’s the editor and peer reviewers, who are respected colleagues. The process of editorial review is identical at for-profit and non-profit journals. The for-profit model adds nothing essential here. In terms of distribution of your article, there is no comparison between models: the non-profit open-access model makes your paper freely available to anyone, forever. The for-profit publishers will try their hardest to ensure that only the interested readers with a current university ID can possibly access your paper without paying for it. Anyone else will be charged a ludicrous fee, a fee which probably exceeds what your editor received for handling your paper! 

So to avoid paying for the necessary services to evaluate and distribute your article represented by a non-profit article processing charge, you (with your effort) and your university (with their money) are willing to perform most of the work needed to produce an article, sign away control of it, and then buy the copy-edited and typeset product at a marked-up rate. Universities are arguably better off paying a non-profit publisher an article processing charge to procure the services they want to ensure access to an unrestricted finished product. This financial benefit for the university increases as more scholars and their universities choose the open-access model and less new content is subscription-restricted. 

Next up: What’s in a fair article processing charge?

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