Questions about the development of open access journals which charge authors

Two colleagues from British and German universities have recently invited me to become associate editor for a newly created section of Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, the academic journal they are involved in as scientific editors. I am greatly honoured of this invitation to contribute to the development of a subfield of research in which I have been involved for several years. I trust and respect greatly these colleagues and I have no doubt their work is a guarantee of high scientific standards and integrity in the peer reviewing process .

I know the European Union, as well as the French scientific funding agencies such as the French Agence nationale de la recherche or the CNRS, support the publication in open access journals. This policy, known as Plan S, was launched in 2018. Personally, I am also convinced that open access journals bring huge visibility and easier access to research. Nevertheless, I think that the Article Processing Charges (APC) mechanism1 raises several ethical and political issues. Therefore, I am uncomfortable to encourage publication in APC-led journals, and I fear I have to, at least temporarily, decline my two colleagues’ invitation.

I wrote this text in order to highlight this new trend and stir a collective discussion among my scientific community at Sciences Po, among the French academia and beyond (which is why I wrote it in English).

A system that increases inequalities

Obviously, the system creates a barrier for young researchers who do not hold stable or tenured positions and who do not have access to substantial research funds. I conduct my research in France, where academic precarity is widespread, and I know that APC would indeed exclude those young and promising researchers. Tenured researchers without (or with limited) research funding are actually also at risk of being excluded by the development of Author Processing Charges. APC journals come at a moment when the research units that are part of the universities (the so-called ‘laboratories‘) undergo increasing financial pressure and lose the small autonomy they had managed to keep. Consider for example a research unit where every year, around 100 articles, assuming 50% of them would be published in APC journals; publication fees would amount 50.000 € if we assume the APCs correspond to those billed by Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, which are not the highest, by far. These sums would have to be distracted from research, fieldtrips, conferences, salary or from library funding, who cannot stop their subscriptions to journals.

For me, encouraging APC would mean being part of a system that increases inequalities between established and aspiring researchers, between well-funded and not funded ones, and reinforce the hierarchy inside the academic world. With research funding characterized by a very high selection rate, and in substantial proportion determined by trendy topics and pre-existing researchers’ reputations, in the end, the probability that non-mainstream topics are ignored is high.  

A system that encourages the ‘Publish or Perish’ race

A second issue relates to current trends in academic publishing is the race to publish, the well-known “Publish or Perish” (PoP) dynamic. PoP is the result of the convergence of multiple factors, among others: researchers’ careers based on quantitative metrics; the funding of projects based on competition between researchers and between institutions; and the increasingly lower technological cost of publishing digitally. One of the consequences of the PoP “rule” is the increased pressure to submit articles to a limited number of well-established and highly recognized journals. As a result, the selection process has become very competitive, excluding a large number of good articles only because there is no room in these top-journals, and because editorial board members, reviewers and copy editors don’t have enough time to review, follow-up and edit so many articles. The development of digital platforms for academic publishing such as Frontiers fits in this general landscape. APC platforms and journals surf on this scarcity in academic journals, with demand increasing faster than offer. The recent shift of research funding agencies such as the UE (H2020, ERC) or national agencies towards open access publications, in the name of open science, has only stimulated this trend and increased market opportunities for APC journals. My accepting the invitation in this journal and proposing theme issues as suggested, would only feed these dynamics. Obviously, as a researcher and leader of collective research projects who needs to deliver research outputs in academic journals, possibly as theme issues, I feel that I could take advantage of this APC system. But I am also wary of fueling a move in a direction that I feel is insane.

Insane capitalistic accumulation at the expense of public money

A third issue relates to the political economy of the science publishing industry. For years, researchers have complained about the concentration of this industry and the enormous profits oligarchic corporations are ripping, due to their commercial practices with libraries, with oversold bouquets of journals and hardly justified price hikes. The move towards open access publication and the rise of the APC model (with article processing charges reaching up to 5000 € in some journals, and currently about 1000 € in the case of Frontiers in Sustainable Cities) is a new strategy those corporations are implementing in order to alleviate the risk that the open-access policy represents for them. APC are becoming a new source of profit for the publishing industry. This needs to be discussed in relation to two questions: are the prices of APCs fair? How does this new business model impact scientific integrity?

A few surveys have tried to estimate the sums spent on APC at the European level, for instance the OPENAPC project by Bielefeld University. Similar initiatives regarding the cost of publishing are scarce because the industry keeps doors closed in the face of outsiders. Such a survey was undertaken in France however. It shows that the median cost par page of Social Sciences and Humanities published article’s page stands at 66 €. For an average 10 pages article it makes around 660€, to be compared to the 970€ charged as APC in the journal I was invited to2. Is the difference the Frontiers’ profit margin? If so, then it’s a lot. Things are worse if you consider that APCs amount to 3800€ in the top-ranked journals, and up to 5000€ in some case (not SSH)3. Data from the OPENAPC project show an average APC at 1976€, and up to 7400€. According to my correspondent at Frontiers, “ we use our Market Intelligence team to ensure that our APCs are competitively priced’’. At the launching of the journal, APC may be ‘’competitive’’. But they may increase later. So APCs are not based on just taking into account the real cost plus a margin that is already big. They vary based on the dynamics of offer and demand across and within academic subfields in order to generate more profit. This means that APC journals are in fact speculating on their reputation to extract more profit from public money and researchers’ work without contributing themselves to adding value beyond the service of providing access and copy-editing.

Another way to increase the revenues of such journals is to publish as much articles as possible. This is their direct interest. Some APC journals (at least those labelled predatory journals or publishers according by Beall in 2012) have repeatedly been suspected of lowering the review process standards, since their business is based on publishing as much as possible . A clear and neat separation is needed between scientific editors and commercial management. I don’t say it’s the case of Frontiers, despite some rumours and individual claims found on internet. I trust my colleagues for not allowing this for the new section they are launching. To be fair, one must recognize the development of journals operating on this market also meets the interests of scholars throughout the world. To alleviate the risks associated with this double pressure, from some publishers and some authors, editorial boards have to implement a very strict monitoring of the review process, for instance regarding the not so rare practice of requesting that authors propose a few names of potential reviewers.

The development of such journal contributes to increase the shameful process by which an enormous amount of public money (profit rates are typically between 20-30%) ends up in their pocket while many universities and above all researchers, junior or senior, have their own pockets depleted, because of job policies in the academia and the increasing concentration of research funding.

Being part of the APC model means working for free for the profit of this industry: as an author, as an editor, and as a reviewer. The only reward is a bit of academic glory and the opportunity to have articles or theme issues published. One can object that this new world is not better, economically and financially speaking, than the existing world of journals run by the scientific publishing oligarchy. In my view, the advantage of the latter is at least that everyone can submit and publish an article with having to pay the APC. Clearly, we need other solutions.

Other solutions are available 

As I have mentioned above, I fully recognize that there is a serious need of new journals, in particular for emerging scientific fields, in order to ease the pressure on existing journals. However, there are many different editorial models and the APC “gold path” is not the only one. France is probably particularly lucky because the early mobilisation of researchers from social sciences and humanities, and the support of the CNRS and of several universities have allowed the rise of a publishing ecosystem making full use of digital technologies to support open-access journals. Hence most journals either remain under a classical subscriber system (but less expensive than in the anglophone publishing industry), or under a system, in which the cost of editorial staff and system maintenance is borne by the universities and the CNRS (the OpenEdition platform is a case in point, but there are other instances). Similar solutions, even if not as widespread as in France, also exist in other European countries and in South America . In my field of research, I think of ACME, a journal of critical geographies, and of Geographica Helvetica, where the cost are supported by several Swiss academic institutions, or the Italian journal of political sociology Partizipatione e Conflitto (PACO), just to name a few. These solutions rely on the strong involvement of academic communities and the support of the national and local academic institutions. Apparently, this kind of solutions are not as developed in the anglophone academic world. I wonder if this can be explained by the fact that researchers are more pressured to invest their time and energy to gain research contracts through competition, and are less available for community led journal projects, which require cooperative practices. It is true that researchers are not editors, publishers nor IT specialists and they should not waste time when efficient publishing solutions exist. However, the drive towards the APC journals bear with it many shortcomings. Collective, cooperative and at least more prudent attitudes are needed to avoid to spring in without further reflection.

A necessary debate inside scientific communities

At least, before accepting the invitation to become part of this editorial board, I wanted to share these arguments and raise a debate within the scientific community, at the level of my research unit and more broadly in the French academia and, why not, the European academia which is directly impacted by APC journals. and committed to take a stand. If we want to collectively keep the rein of our academic life and make the most efficient use of precious but scarce public funds, instead of moving individually to this new system without questioning it, I believe alternatives should be explored and, at least, that the choice of APCs should be collectively discussed4.

Frontiers‘ answers

Answer from the person in charge of recruiting Associate editors at Frontiers to my message stating I was going to decline their invitation, where I sketched the arguments further developed in this blog post.

The OA model introduces a gap between funded and non-funded researchers
We do charge Article Processing Charges (APCs), however this is the only sole source of revenue for us, all of which is reinvested back into our platform and open science services to allow more communities to benefit from high-quality open access. They also enable open access to all of our content, whereby all articles published are freely and permanently available for anyone to video, download and disseminate (under the CC-BY licence, where authors retain the copyright for articles). We also are passionate about providing assistance to authors who are unable to pay the article processing charges. A portion of the income we generate is distributed to our fee support programme, which you can find more information here.  We also have an institutional memberships programme where we work with universities, funding agencies and research consortia to find ways to remove some or all of the responsibility for APCs from individual authors. You can find out more information on this here. When we launch new journals, we use our Market Intelligence team to ensure that our APCs are competitively priced and are usually less than half the price of subscription publishers. 
 
Trend toward APC funded journals encourages the Publish or Perish race, and journals pushing for quantity rather than quality
At Frontiers, it is the active researchers from our editorial boards who make the content decisions. We do not set acceptance rates, instead, our acceptance and rejection criteria are clearly defined in our editorial guidelines and it is the responsibility of the editors and reviewers to ensure the highest quality research passes through peer review. Their names are published on the final article as a public endorsement of this. Our philosophy is to empower researchers in the publishing process and ensure editorial independence. Therefore, editorial decisions about the acceptance or rejection of articles within the peer review process are taken by our editorial board of subject-specific experts, whom we empower with cutting edge-technology and editorial support to make these decisions efficiently. We completely understand that academics will invest time into the reviewers and editors role, which is why we ensure they have plenty of support from our side from our dedicated peer review team and our internal checks team.
Notes _____________________
  1. this is a fee to be paid by authors once their manuscript has been review, revised and accepted. APC are the main revenue of those journals. In certain cases, there are waivers for these APC, when a scientific societies, or a university compensate for it, which allows the members of the society or the faculty of the university to be exempted from the fee []
  2. Contat, Odile, and Anne-Solweig Gremillet. 2015. ‘Publier : à quel prix ? Étude sur la structuration des coûts de publication pour les revues françaises en SHS’. Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication, no. 7 (July). https://doi.org/10.4000/rfsic.1716 []
  3. see a recent French survey by Leduc, Michèle, and Antoinette Molinié. 2020. « Les publications à l’heure de la science ouverte ». Paris: Comité d’éthique du CNRS []
  4. I would like to thank Tommaso Vitale and Miriam Perrier for their feedback and suggestions, as well as Pierre Mounier and Marin Dacos for pointing to surveys and resources documenting publishing practices []

1 réflexion sur « Questions about the development of open access journals which charge authors »

  1. Eric Verdeil Auteur de l’article

    in the same vein than the journals I cited as examples in this post, I just discovered Via. Tourism Review : https://journals.openedition.org/viatourism/ which is open access, free for authors and is supported by seven European universities (in particular for translating texts, since the journal accepts 7 languages and translates articles in two other languages). Waw!

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