John Bohannon’s article Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?, which details the “little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals”(1), has gone viral in academic publishing circles, and has led some to believe that the Open Access movement can’t - or is less likely to - deliver good scholarship.

Bohannon’s article focuses primarily on poor quality control and the paucity of rigorous peer review among predatory open access academic journals. He briefly touches on what I find to be the most distressing part of the piece: that publication fees can incentivize journals to publish subpar scholarship.

If a journal can charge a thousand dollars to publish an author’s work, the journal has a monetary incentive to publish as many articles as it can – rather than the ideal incentive we want journals to have, namely, to publish quality scholarship that benefits future scholars and the world more broadly.

Someone outside of academia would be quick to ask, “why would anyone pay a publication fee that high”? The answer is a very simple: because publication fees have been inherited from a print paradigm and are still accepted as a normal practice in a increasingly printless world.

Over the years, publishers have charged fees for all sorts of things, including color images, page charges, and, more recently, open access charges. Anna Sharman has an interesting blog post where she does a roundup of some of these types of charges. At the time of the post, for example, Evolution (Wiley-Blackwell) charged $500 per color figure(2). Likewise, J Biol Chem had page charges of “\$80 per page for the first nine pages and $160 per page thereafter.”(3)

Of course, these are used by journals that do print publications. One would find it reasonable that charges like this are justified in terms of ink, paper, shipping, etc.

That said, we would expect these prices to fall as more journals publish electronically, but we see nothing of the sort. Instead, we find that the traditional publishing fee has been replaced by the open access publishing fee. For instance, Wiley asks authors to pay a $3000 fee for their published work to be available in their open access platform, Wiley OnlineOpen(4). Furthermore, “Any additional standard publication charges will also apply, such as for color images or supplementary datasets.”(5) You read that correctly: if the author wants to do something like include a color digital image – fees still apply.

Sami Kassab, Executive Director at the investment company Exane BNP Paribas, monitors developments with large publishers (including Elsevier, Wiley, etc.), and despite the challenge from open access Kassab “is positive about the sector”^6^. He believes that gold OA is something that publishers will co-opt, and that their profit motives will lead them to publish more articles so they can then collect more article publication fees:

…in a recent report Kassab and his colleagues estimated that Elsevier currently rejects 700,000 out of 1 million articles each year. With Gold OA, they argue, “these articles are likely to be monetised.”(7)

Even the PLOS open access mega-journals have prices that are close to what authors might expect to pay from print journals(8).

PLOS BiologyUS $2900
PLOS MedicineUS $2900
PLOS Computational BiologyUS $2250
PLOS GeneticsUS $2250
PLOS PathogensUS $2250
PLOS Neglected Tropical DiseasesUS $2250

I’m in no way saying that PLOS is predatory – what I am saying, however, is if we can reduce the costs of publication, then predatory publishers wouldn’t be able to continue justifying exorbitant publication fees.

Open access isn’t the problem – it’s that we have a system of publication fees, mostly a relic of a bygone era, that has provided monetary incentives and legitimated rationales for predatory publishers. If we can empower journals to manage these processes themselves, costs would go down. It’s not unheard of for journals to do peer-review through volunteer labor so why can’t journals, powered by faculty and grad students, also copyedit and publish scholarship online at a low costs as well? As journals begin to embark upon this path, costs will decrease and predatory publishers become less able to convincingly continue their pay-to-play enterprise.

If you have any thoughts on predatory publishers or publication fees I’d love to hear your thoughts over in this conversation thread.

Further reading:

  1. Who’s Afraid of Open Access?
  2. Journals that charge authors (and not for open access publication)
  3. Wiley Online Library: OnlineOpen
  4. Open and Shut: Media research analyst at Exane BNP Paribas Sami Kassab on the state of Open Access: Where are we, what still needs to be done?
  5. PLOS: Publication Fees

Rob Walsh

This post was written by Rob Walsh,
Co-founder, Design