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.