Of Subscriptions and Article Processing Charges

By Jan Velterop

I am seeing more and more criticisms of Article Processing Charges (APCs). Whilst many of them concern the size of the fees, there is also criticism of the APC concept itself. Of course, fees are often high. Too high, particularly in the case of so-called “hybrid” journals. More about that below.

The idea of APCs, however, has to be seen in the context of subscriptions. Not only do subscriptions need paywalls, and so prevent open access, but there are other problems with them as well. They prevent science publishing to take full advantage of the possibilities the internet provides. This is not unexpected, as the idea of subscriptions was developed for printed journals. It is now archaic, and shoehorning the subscription model into an internet environment is deeply problematic. Because of their print legacy, subscriptions presume a certain, more or less fixed, amount of material to be published in a given journal in a given year. This makes sense in a print world, where too much fluctuation in the number of articles – even pages – can seriously throw the finances of a journal. This led to things like publishing journal issues early: giving them a publication date of the following year, or late: giving them a publication date of the previous year. Or just to holding off on publication in the last few months of the calendar year if there was too much material, and waiting until January to release it. These things were also “gamed” in order to try and influence citations and consequently impact factors. Such fudges have no place in the electronic publishing era anymore – if they ever did even in the print era – and it is only the subscription model – and not the APC model – that keeps them alive.

There is also another consequence in the need for a fixed number of published pages in a given period: rejection of perfectly good articles. And, by the way, acceptance of lesser articles. All depending on the manuscript submission inflow. If there are too many submissions that warrant publication according to the advice of peer reviewers, the thresholds are simply increased – often enough arbitrarily – and fewer articles are published. This is presented – marketed – as “selectivity”. The opposite, when there are fewer submissions, is somewhat trickier for a publisher, as “less selectivity” isn’t a good marketing strategy, so it isn’t talked about. Especially in the case of “elite” journals, this means that perfectly good articles are sometimes rejected, purely because there is no space. Journals that do not belong to the “elite” echelon often work somewhat differently, and they maintain a “pipeline” of accepted articles, which causes another problem: publication delays.

A system of article processing charges not only avoids paywalls and delivers open access, but it avoids these problems of the subscription model as well, albeit not necessarily in “hybrid” journals. That said, APCs have their own problems. For a start, the fees do not generally pay for the “processing” (arranging peer review, some technical/presentational work, and delivery on an electronic platform) of the articles that are being published, but also for (part of) the processing of manuscripts that are rejected: meaning the arranging of peer review. The APCs can therefore be very high for journals with high rejection rates. What it comes down to is that the APC is not a payment for the processing and publication of an article, but for the acquisition of a label. A “ribbon”, if you will. An accolade which says “this article has been published in a journal with a good reputation and, more importantly for my career, a high impact factor”. Are these “ribbons” even necessary? Of course, I’m not trying to stop authors who think they need “ribbons” from paying for them. But it’s their problem, their cost, and theirs alone (at least it should be). As long as the results of their research are freely and openly shared in one way or another, in spite of a desire for those “ribbons”, we should be fine with that.

Even in a system in which “ribbons” are considered needed (I don’t think they are, but that’s just me, though I may not be the only one), there are ways to combat these problems, although the general inertia of the scientific world is not encouraging in terms of moving in the direction of any solutions. One solution might be to take “article processing charges” literally, and require payment for the “processing” of all manuscript submissions, and not just for those that are being accepted for publication. Of course, charges are never popular and the prospect of paying and then being rejected for publication is too much for most researchers. On the other hand, it might lead to more careful preparation of manuscripts that are submitted, especially if the criteria for acceptance are objective. For instance the requirement that experiments, analyses, statistics have been performed well and described in such detail as to make replication possible, that the research data are made available, that any ethical standards have been adhered to, and that the presentation is clear. Judgements as to an article’s “importance” are not needed at the point of publication, even if those judgements could be made (which is unlikely). Those judgements will emerge over time from those who read and possibly try to replicate the research. Or cite it. In such a publishing environment, well-prepared manuscripts are much less likely to be rejected, and APC payment is therefore less likely to be objected to. Also, in such a system the APCs will reflect the cost of the actual processing better, as every manuscript contributes and the published articles are not carrying the cost of all the rejected manuscripts too. But… in a system like that the concept of “ribbons” is less relevant, of course. Though not the concept of quality; only that it is not attached to the article immediately upon the publication of an article in the way that a journal “ribbon” is. Articles will have to prove their quality and importance to the whole community in a given discipline, and not just to a few peer reviewers.

Even with lower APCs – or what are in effect submission charges – there are still some hurdles for those researchers who cannot rely on funders or grants to cover the cost. I have heard someone propose (though I don’t know who it was anymore, and I doubt it was a serious suggestion) that APCs and open access should be used by researchers who can pay (whose funders pay) and subscription journals by researchers without the funds to pay for APCs. An interesting solution, and possibly less problematic as it may seem, if the impecunious authors were to post preprints of any manuscript they submitted to a subscription journal, but an ethically wrong one, as it makes formal open access publication a privilege for those who can pay instead of a right for every scientist. Best to abolish “formal” publishing altogether, at least as a requirement. “Keeping the minutes of science” and archiving the records, can just as well be done with preprints. Which, will just be known as “publications” of course, as “postprints” wouldn’t exist. Come to think of it, any talk of “prints” is archaic in the internet era. Any printing would be limited to readers who feel the urge to waste some paper. Or possibly the need, in which case it’s not a waste.

Which brings me to the conclusion (which I already reached earlier1) that preprints (sorry, that’s what they’re widely called) – with CC-BY or CC-zero licences – may play a vital role in changing the system of scientific communication. The benefits are clear: actual publication is not rejected, even though appearance in a specific journal may be (and a preprint doesn’t preclude potentially very critical open reviews); and global open access to one’s work is guaranteed. Surely, the thresholds of changing the system by posting preprints are low for even the most conservative parts of the scientific research world. Or am I dreaming? That said, it is worthwhile to consider that it was not always the case that the thresholds were low, especially not in biology2.

But it is not primarily about overcoming resistance to preprints from publishers or journal editors. There must also be the right incentives for authors to post a preprint of any of their papers as a matter of course. And those incentives can only credibly be provided by those who have to judge a researcher’s caliber and yet have mainly published articles at their disposal to do that: funding agencies (for funding decisions) and research establishments (for hiring or promotion decisions). They are the ones who could decide to give preprints a status equal to articles published in journals. It is good to see that the Wellcome Trust and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have, in the beginning of 2017, taken a leadership role in that respect3,4, as they also have done with open access in the early years of this millennium. SciELO is due to launch “SciELO Preprints” in the coming year5.

Notes

1. VELTEROP, J. The best of both worlds [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2016 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/06/13/the-best-of-both-worlds/

2. NASSI-CALÒ, L. The (pre) history of biology preprints [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/12/20/the-pre-history-of-biology-preprints/

3. We now accept preprints in grant applications [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/news/we-now-accept-preprints-grant-applications

4. NASSI-CALÒ, L. Grant applications submitted to the NIH can cite preprints [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/05/17/grant-applications-submitted-to-the-nih-can-cite-preprints/

5. PACKER, A.L., SANTOS, S. and MENEGHINI, R. SciELO Preprints on the way [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/02/22/scielo-preprints-on-the-way/

References

NASSI-CALÒ, L. Grant applications submitted to the NIH can cite preprints [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/05/17/grant-applications-submitted-to-the-nih-can-cite-preprints/

NASSI-CALÒ, L. The (pre) history of biology preprints [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/12/20/the-pre-history-of-biology-preprints/

PACKER, A.L., SANTOS, S. and MENEGHINI, R. SciELO Preprints on the way [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/02/22/scielo-preprints-on-the-way/

VELTEROP, J. The best of both worlds [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2016 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/06/13/the-best-of-both-worlds/

We now accept preprints in grant applications [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2017 [viewed 3 January 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/news/we-now-accept-preprints-grant-applications

 

About Jan Velterop

Jan Velterop (1949), marine geophysicist who became a science publisher in the mid-1970s. He started his publishing career at Elsevier in Amsterdam. in 1990 he became director of a Dutch newspaper, but returned to international science publishing in 1993 at Academic Press in London, where he developed the first country-wide deal that gave electronic access to all AP journals to all institutes of higher education in the United Kingdom (later known as the BigDeal). He next joined Nature as director, but moved quickly on to help get BioMed Central off the ground. He participated in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. In 2005 he joined Springer, based in the UK as Director of Open Access. In 2008 he left to help further develop semantic approaches to accelerate scientific discovery. He is an active advocate of BOAI-compliant open access and of the use of microattribution, the hallmark of so-called “nanopublications”. He published several articles on both topics.

 

How to cite this post [ISO 690/2010]:

VELTEROP, J. Of Subscriptions and Article Processing Charges [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2018 [viewed ]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2018/01/03/of-subscriptions-and-article-processing-charges/

 

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