The effects of the internet within many domains of publishing have been fervently discussed and debated for years now, with scholarly publishing being no exception. The ease and inexpensiveness of electronic distribution challenges the need for traditional publishing business models, but does this inevitably lead to Open Access across the academic journal landscape?

That OA is growing more common and popular is easy to see, but it’s not without its detractors and doubters. A big question that remains for open access publishing is how to financially support it.

At Scholastica, we care deeply about open access and good scholarship and we want to help journals do the best work they can. In that vein, we’re interested in the potential of submission fees as part of journals’ business models. We know that in many cases submission fees can help journals support themselves, and that they are less likely to attract bad actors than article processing fees - that’s why we’ve built a feature into our software for journals that allows them to collect a submission fee (but have not built the ability to charge a processing fee).

When Stewart Brand said, “Information wants to be free,” he meant that it doesn’t want to be confined, not that it should cost nothing. He also said, “Information wants to be expensive:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other. - Stewart Brand

The tension Brand meant to illustrate is that information is becoming easier and cheaper to distribute, but that in the resulting info-glut there’s a huge amount of value in knowing which information is truly useful.

Peer review is a powerful indication of high-quality information - it denotes vetted, rigorous knowledge, hard-won through a methodical and deliberative process. Coupled with its labor-intensiveness, peer reviewed research’s (assumed) high-quality contributes to the high price its publishers have historically demanded for it. But as distribution costs plummet, that high price and the very model of charging for a subscription have come into question. Publishers and the journals they represent are being forced to reckon with a dramatically changing market as technology in general and the web in particular undermine the business model they have depended on.

There’s more to this equation than just the tension between new technology and entrenched business models, though. Scholars have a long history and culture built around their particular work of producing good information. They hold strong beliefs about what compromises that information, and money is an oft-cited culprit (with good reason). As technology has allowed for new modes of academic publishing, the scholarly community is still working to update the business models that support these efforts without creating new incentive structures that compromise the scientific process.

With subscription fees becoming less popular and less economically defensible, article processing fees are gaining ground as the de facto revenue source for journals that want to encourage open access to their material. Many legitimate open access journals use article processing fees to support their work, but these fees incentivize journals to “publish or perish” - and in some cases, to overlook or intentionally skip some of the steps to ensure that what is published is properly vetted.

Jeffery Beall has maintained for several years now a list of publishers deemed “predatory” in their practices. Exploring the world of predatory publishers, John Bohannon recently illustrated how open access publishing, mixed with a little entrepreneurialism, can severely threaten scientific virtue with his paper Who’s Afraid of Peer Review, published by Science. In the report, he found over one hundred open access journals claiming to publish peer-reviewed science that offered to publish a fake and obviously flawed paper he submitted. Many of those offers were contingent on an article processing fee.

When you get paid to publish things, well, that’s what you’re going to focus on doing. So, is there a way to financially support journals that incentivize good scholarship but don’t preclude access to the final product?

One solution some journals are experimenting with is charging a submission fee. Instead of charging the author an (often hefty) article processing fee upon acceptance, journals charge every author that submits a manuscript a relatively small fee when they first submit their manuscript. The benefits of this model are several:

  • The cost of being published for an individual author goes down because it is shared with the other authors who submitted.
  • The journal has a strong financial incentive to attract serious submissions.
  • The up-front cost means authors consider more fully whether their submission is a good fit for the journal.

There are also some drawbacks to the submission fee approach:

  • They aren’t the norm in most fields.
  • They may not add up to as much as publishing fees, especially for journals that don’t receive a large number of submissions.
  • They may deter authors from submitting to journals that don’t already have an established reputation.

As a business model, submission fees aren’t the norm and don’t yet offer a complete replacement for publication fees or subscriptions, but the rise of open access represents shifting norms in the scholarly community and a willingness to try out new ideas.

We hope experimentation in scholarly publishing’s business models can help us all pinpoint the sweet-spot where journals can do the costly work of vetting truly good research while still sharing it freely with the world. Charging a submission fee as opposed to an article processing charge may be a step in the right direction.

Austin Brown
This post was written by Austin Brown
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