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December 9, 2018 / jpschimel

“Open Access” or “Pay to Play”

This is an e-mail from the lead author on a paper we have just had accepted in Ecology & Evolution—an Open Access Journal:

“Hi everyone, I still haven’t gotten a request for payment on our Arctic paper, but the charge should be $1950; so this is when I send around the collection hat! Right now the only funds I have are for a separate desert-focused project. Unless some of you have the money to cover it, it seems like my other option would be to scrounge around my University to find a way to pay it. Do any of you have experience with similar situations in the past—where the paper comes out after the project money is gone?1

Papers often are accepted after a grant has expired and so this situation is not uncommon: co-authors trying to figure out who can bootleg the funds to cover the publication cost.

Globally, the rate of scientific publication has been increasing at ca. 3% per year2, and given my experience as a journal editor, I suspect that means that the rate of submissions has been increasing even faster3. Hence the total cost of producing literature is increasing. The ultimate questions are: Who carries that cost? and How do we pay?

The “pass the hat” model illustrated above, I would argue, is probably the worst—what would we do if the hat came up empty? We need to balance our concern with “open access for readers” with “open access for authors.” They are equally important. In fact, the latter may be more important: if I can’t afford to publish a paper, then no one will ever be able to read it.

Several years ago, the Ecological Society of America partnered with Wiley to produce the Society journals—doing it ourselves was bankrupting the Society. By partnering with Wiley, we were able to hold the overall price of the journal steady, but Wiley’s size gave them an economy of scale that allowed them to produce the journals at lower cost. Every major professional society I know has partnered with a large publisher for the same reasons: we needed their services as major IT companies to be able to manage the submission, review, and production process at an affordable cost.

We may object to the profits that Elsevier brings in, but given the shift in ESA’s cost structure upon partnering with Wiley, I suspect that if we were to re-fragment academic publishing to avoid dealing with corporate publishers, the loss of efficiency might well outweigh their loss in profits; thus, the total cost of producing scientific literature could well increase.4

Remember that journals provide not one, but two, essential services:  publication and peer review. Readers rely on “brand names” to give them some confidence that what they are going to invest their time in reading has met some appropriate thresholds of quality5. As authors, we rely on peer review for our own quality control. I’m both a “highly cited researcher” and the author of the book Writing Science; I write good papers. Yet, I’ve never had a paper accepted as submitted; in fact, I’ve never heard of it happening. My papers have all been improved, and some transformed, by thoughtful and critical review. No matter how good we are, review makes our work better. Peer review is essential and someone has to maintain that process: publishing isn’t just about posting documents to the web; it’s about editing.

Authors also increasingly want more services associated with publishing (e.g. data archival) and they want it faster and better. Maintaining the tech systems for managing manuscripts and review is becoming more streamlined and efficient so the per-unit cost may drop, but the number of units keeps growing! Managing a large technology enterprise, which is necessary to handle the manuscript flow, is expensive. In the humanities, I understand there remain journals that are managed by a single university academic department, but such “let’s put on a play in our backyard” kind of production cannot fly in the natural sciences, where journals get thousands of submissions each year and authors expect decisions in weeks.

I don’t know what Elsevier’s cost structure looks like; I do know they are behaving like every other large tech company in growing and buying up useful subsidiaries. In that, they are no different than Google, Apple, or Microsoft.

Those profits offend many of my colleagues—but why? We don’t have a problem buying chemicals from Fisher, computers from Apple, or cloud data storage from Microsoft. All these corporations make large profits—Thermo Fisher made a profit of over $550 million in just one quarter this year!6 Why is publication different?

We see commercial publishers differently because we “give” the publishers our work (as authors and reviewers); they then own the copyright and charge us to access our work. That seems wrong when we can post documents to the web for free. But frankly, I don’t give a damn! The copyright has little value to me. I rely on journals for peer review and for giving my work visibility. Open access might increase the public’s ability to read my papers—but mostly I publish specialized soil ecology!7 The people who want to read my papers can—at the least, they’ll see the titles on Google Scholar and even without a subscription, they can email me for a pdf.  And you could pay me to review, but then you’d have to add that to the overall production cost8.

My concern remains the core bottom line for scholars: how do we most effectively ensure that we can get our research reviewed, validated, and published efficiently, quickly, affordably, and well.  Having to pass the hat to pay publication charges doesn’t achieve that. Paying $2,000 to publish a paper may not seem a big deal if you have a $1 million grant running, but when the grant runs out, $2,000 is a lot of money.

Unfortunately, as philosophically appealing as “Open Access for Readers” is, it can translate into “Pay to Play for Authors.” And that is a real problem.


I’ve slightly condensed this, and added a few words (e.g. Arctic, and the actual listed publication cost) to clarify. The core message is unaltered.

The STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing.  International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers.

I am a Chief Editor at Soil Biology & Biochemistry (which is owned by Elsevier). Our submissions have been growing steadily, with much of that increase coming from China. Yet, for several reasons, the acceptance rate of papers from China remains below that of papers from the U.S. and Western Europe. Hence submissions have grown faster than published papers—and from the manuscript management and review side, it is submissions that take work and cost money. But there is no article submission fee. Hence the “hidden” costs have grown with the growth in Chinese science.

Or maybe not—according to Michael Hiltzik, author of “In UC’s battle with the world’s largest scientific publisher, the future of information is at stake” (LA Times, Dec. 9), “Elsevier makes profit of about 30% on all its business, and operating profit of 38.9% on its STM journals.”

Remember what happened to the music industry when streaming and Napster came along. While it created “open access” for anyone who could produce a track or a video, it was time consuming to sort out the good from the bad.


7 For fast-breaking publically-relevant science, immediate public access is important. But for that kind of work, we do submit to journals like Nature, Science, or PNAS that journalists look at. Most of what we ever publish, however, is targeted at our academic peers in specialist journals and will never get read by “the public.” If someone wants a copy of a paper, it’s both easy and legal to send them a pdf.

I’d guess that a “reasonable” honorarium for reviewing a paper would be $100. That might be nice, but it isn’t enough to change my life or even my decision as to whether to review a paper. But every paper needs at least two reviewers, and sometimes papers need several rounds of review and sometimes the original reviewers are unavailable. I’ve handled papers that ultimately were reviewed by 5 people. Thus real production costs would increase by at least $200 and possibly by as much as $500 or more (would you get $100 for each round of re-review?). On top of a base cost of $2000 that is a lot.  $100 may be “small beer” for a reviewer—but it translates into a big hit for the authors. How is that a “victory” for anyone?





Leave a Comment
  1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent / Dec 14 2018 8:49 am

    I’d be curious how much of the production cost goes to enabling review versus publication. The latter really could just be handled from a university or society website, as just a list of articles that have passed review with a link to the appropriate pre-existing open-access website. Review does indeed require some infrastructure, plus editorial time. I’m assuming editorial time is a smaller component of the cost, minimally it’s one you probably have a better estimate for. The web infrastructure needed for smooth reviewing is definitely nontrivial, but doesn’t seem that much more elaborate than, say, arXiv, or INSPIRE-HEP. So I guess the question is, is the kind of funding that arXiv and INSPIRE-HEP have a special case, or could a reviewing site be run along similar lines.

  2. jpschimel / Dec 14 2018 10:04 am

    Even for the Ecological Society of America journals (I had served on the Governing Board and as Chair of the Publications Committee so I knew the overall budgets), I don’t have a good sense of the breakdown. The idea that you could manage peer review systems independent of the web hosting seems unlikely to me. Review systems are organically integrated with the submission and production systems. As for editorial time, I’m guessing you haven’t been an editor. I have to filter through papers to decide whether they justify external review first. Then if I’m not going to decline out of hand (following editorial review; what ESA now call RfER), I may end up going through between 6 and 15 potential reviewers trying to locate likely candidates using the search functions in the journals databases, working through the papers citation lists, etc. For a really strong paper from a really strong group, it’s less work: first I might not bother with the “should I just reject this?” step, it may be easier to get reviewers to agree, and the whole process may go more smoothly. It’s the next tier down that takes more of my time–possibly hours of it over the whole submission cycle. For a high-throughput journal (e.g. Soil Biology & Biochemistry get several thousand submissions a year that need to be turned around as quickly as practical), getting the submission, managing the review and revision process and then converting the accepted document into a laid out journal paper requires an integrated IT infrastructure. The final web hosting is the easy part.

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