Open Access, but at what cost?

I couldn’t resist passing on the news that the Max Planck Digital Library has signed an agreement with the Nature Publishing Group to enable authors in about 120 German institutes to publish Open Access articles in Nature journals.

That’s the set up, now here’s the punchline.

Each paper published in this way will cost the authors – or more accurately the authors’ institutes and/or research grants – the sum of €9,500.

No that’s not a misprint. It’s about $11,200, or about £8600. For each paper. Typical article processing charges in the range of $2000 or so are already out of all proportion to the cost of publishing scientific papers; at this level they are simply ridiculous. Recent experiences suggest these charges are out of all proportion to the quality of the editorial process too!

The person who negotiated the arrangement, Ralf Schimmer, Head of Information at the MPDL seems to think it is a good deal. It’s certainly a good deal for Nature Publishing Group, but to anyone else it’s yet another egregious example of profiteering by the academic journal industry. The Academic Journal Racket strikes again!

Why is that so many academics and learned societies fail to see the extent to which they are being ripped off by these publishers? The only explanation I can think of is that it is the same reason why some people pay to produce vanity publications…

22 Responses to “Open Access, but at what cost?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Why is that so many academics and learned societies fail to see the extent to which they are being ripped off by these publishers?

    Perhaps because relatively few have worked in business?

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    I’ve long maintained that Plan S and stuff like that makes the problem worse. Since the individual author, institute, or whatever doesn’t have to pay the cost directly, it becomes invisible, and it is even easier for commercial publishers to gouge out over-inflated fees.

    But people don’t publish there because they want to spend money, their own or someone else’s, but rather because they think that publishing in such journals helps their career. So implement the rules of supply and demand. Reject candidtates who publish in such journals and hire candidates who don’t. Do something similar if you are on some appraisal board. Once the word is out, things will change. You could argue that by publishing two papers somewhere else, you could hire a postdoc for sevaral months, which would be better use of the money.

    I was really happy how smoothly my submission to the Open Journal of Astrophysics went and really appreciate the fact that I am responsible for the final apperance of the paper. (After that, I published a paper in MNRAS which went through 5 proofs, eventually converging on something essentially identical to the accepted manuscript.) It could really take off as a sensible alternative if it could guarantee that accepted manuscripts are actually published (which, after all, is the task of a journal), but sadly cannot do so because the author has to submit to arXiv (in both senses of the term). arXiv has solved the technical problem of the distribution of publications, but the reason traditional journals are still around is because they offer something which neither arXiv alone, nor arXiv-overlay journals, can (namely, that an accepted peer-reviewed article is actually published)—and there are options which do not have such ridiculous costs.

    • telescoper Says:

      Plan S does not mandate paying for Gold Open Access.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Reject candidates who publish in such journals and hire candidates who don’t. Do something similar if you are on some appraisal board. Once the word is out, things will change.

      You run the risk of missing out on hiring an outstanding applicant. But with tuning this is an excellent idea. How about saying that papers in inexpensive journals will be weighted more heavily in the application process?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Yes. My reply was obviously (I hope) tongue-in-cheek, somewhat exaggerated, but nevertheless honest. Even in science, one wants value for money when spending, whether it is salary or something else. Also, the person hiring wants value for their money. From the point of view of the employer, the success of the candidate otherwise (e.g. in applying for jobs elsewhere) shouldn’t matter, though of course things are best if the goals are similar or at least compatible.

        Of course, the person doing the hiring isn’t usually paying it from their own money. What if the department’s budget depends on the number of Nature papers? One could then perhaps argue that it is worth paying the gold fee if it brings in another 20,000 or whatever. The question is how to stop such a vicious circle.

        I once heard someone say that he had to delay a publication in the ApJ until next year (and colleagues were similarly affected), since someone else at the institute had published a paper in Nature. By delaying the other papers, they could increase the fraction of Nature papers at the institute, which is what the bean-counters were interested in.

        If things are to change, people with common goals should pull together, even if smaller issues divide them. As Ben Franklin said, we must hang together, otherwise we shall hang separately. There are some people whose livelihood does not depend on publishing in overpriced journals (nor on appearing on arXiv); they should take the lead and do the right thing. Also, people should demonstratively stop publishing in over-priced journals, even if they can afford the fees.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Some applications require you to be judged on what you consider your best 3 or 4 papers. Perhpas Nature etc could be excluded at that point?

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    The link above goes to the Nature website, and even there the headline says “critics say it comes with a high price”.

    Instead of “accept all cookies” perhaps they should have a button which says “drink the Kool-Aid”. 🙂

  4. Phillip Helbig Says:

    If you’re a high-flying scientist considering moving to a new institute, make it part of the condition that neither you nor anyone in your group will (be allowed to) publish in a journal with inflated costs, regardless of who pays them.

  5. Does the cost include the journal subscription for the participating institutes?

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      I don’t know, but it probably doesn’t matter in the longer term, since the trend is to force people to publish in open-access journals. Somehow EUR 9000 per paper is OK, but a subscription costing 2000 is not (with no charges to publish).

      The main reason that people publish in a certain journal is the reputation of the journal. Thus, it is difficult for any pay-to-publish journal to compete with the established ones: if they accept too many papers the reputation suffers, if they accept too few they collect too little money. There is also a conflict of interest since once the basic costs are covered, each additional fee is essentially all profit, so the more they publish, the higher their profit, which will continue long after people notice that the quality has dropped (see Nature, which is still a goal for some, even though many bad papers appear in it).

      • I try to do my part by providing good referee reports, and not miss anything crucial. That is the same for Nature, MNRAS, etc. For my own papers I pick what I think is the best place for it. It seems wrong though to criticise a paper because of where it is published.

        One reason why some journals can charge such high fees is the large number of predatory journals with no quality control whatsoever. Universities and funding agencies want to make sure that papers are published in proper journals, but the only knowledge they may have is the rankings. They then demand that we use the best ranked journals.

        I used to maintain a list of astronomy journals for which I was willing to pay page charges. If people wanted to publish somewhere else, they had to pay themselves. When publication money was handed to the libraries, that kind of quality control was lost.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “It seems wrong though to criticise a paper because of where it is published. “

        One can’t read everything. One can’t even skim an appreciable fraction. So some filter is needed. People—correctly—think that a paper is likely to be better if published in MNRAS rather than in the Journal of Cosmology. Nature has a reputation for publishing stuff which sounds senstational but, more often than with other journals, turns out to be incorrect. (I even remember an interviewer with a Nature editor who said that it is more important to publish interesting stuff than correct stuff.) For a “regular” paper, then the chance that it is correct is probably about the same if in Nature or in, say Physical Review. But suppose there is a really sensational-sounding paper: would you think it more likely to be correct if it were in Nature or in Physical Review?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “I try to do my part by providing good referee reports, and not miss anything crucial. That is the same for Nature, MNRAS, etc.”

        Yes, of course. My guess is that referees provide the same sort of reports regardless of the journal. But the journal decides on which articles to referee in the first place, which referees to send them to, and whether to publish them (based in part, though not entirely, on the referee’s report).

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “For my own papers I pick what I think is the best place for it. It seems wrong though to criticise a paper because of where it is published.”

        There are definitely some journals appropriate for some papers and others for others. For example, some journals don’t publish reviews, some publish reviews as well, and some publish only reviews. Of course, the topic plays a role as well. But it would be sad if there are papers for which the most appropriate journal charges 9,000. 😦

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “One reason why some journals can charge such high fees is the large number of predatory journals with no quality control whatsoever. Universities and funding agencies want to make sure that papers are published in proper journals, but the only knowledge they may have is the rankings. They then demand that we use the best ranked journals. “

        Blessed are those who don’t have to depend on bean-counter funding for their existence.

        That’s the first time I’ve heard that argument, but there might be something to it. There is certainly a correlation between predatory journals and high fees of otherwise respectable journals, though of course correlation does not necessarily imply causation. On the other hand, presumably one could be a highly ranked journal without charging exhorbitant fees, such as MNRAS or Physical Review, say. (Granted, without paying for open access. But both of these journals allow one to put (something equivalent to) the final version on a personal, institutional, or public archive.)

        But someone evaluating someone’s performance must know what are the good journals in the field, otherwise they are incompetent. Thus, there shouldn’t be any danger of someone with hundreds of publications in predatory journals getting funded over someone with fewer in serious journals. If that happens, then there is a much bigger problem to solve.

        In the old days, true, there weren’t the predatory journals, but on the other hand paper publication was the only game in town, so journals could have charged inflated fees then, but didn’t. These days, it is possible to run a good journal without charging high fees, so one should call into question the motivation of, and service to the community by, those which charge inflated fees. Note that the publishers with journals which are seen as good put expensive usually (always) have lower-qualitty pay-to-play journals which will publish, if not anything (though there are those as well), then stuff of obviously low quality.

        Of course, as long as people continue to pay inflated fees, journals will collect them.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        I have to say that I don’t like the term “predatory journals”. Whom are they preying on? Anyone of any competence at all knows what journals are good in the field, which are second-tier but serious, and which are bogus. I don’t think that people are deceived into thinking that they are respected journals. Of course, that raises the question as to why they publish there at all. Perhaps they gain some benefit from it, but probably not from any serious institute. Of course, crackpots have their own community, and then there are misguided people who are not academics yet impressed by academic qualifications even if they don’t understand them, which is why people buy degrees from bogus universities.

  6. Phillip Helbig Says:

    SUGGESTION FOR IMPROVING The Open Journal of Astrophysics:

    Disks are cheap. There is a website already. Thus, the OJA could provide two links for each paper, one to arXiv and one to a copy at the OJA itself. Such copies already exist, of course, since the PDFs of the papers are stored somewhere in the system during the refereeing process, so all that is needed is for the link to the accepted version to become public. I’m sure that there are journals using the Scholastica platform which don’t work in overlay mode. (It is possible—I did it—to submit to the OJA without putting the paper on arXiv first, and even if it is on arXiv I think that the software fetches a copy from arXiv which is then used during the refereeing process.)

    Publication by the OJA would then conisist of making the link to the accepted version available. The author would be free to put his paper on arXiv, before submission, during the refereeing process, or after acceptance, as with most other journals, but there would be a pointer from the OJA to the arXiv version only for accepted papers, as now. The only difference would be one additional, internal link, and there would be the possibility to publish in the OJA without having the paper on arXiv, for whatever reason, as with other online journals.

    Even if the OJA is not willing to negotiate an agreement with arXiv that all accepted papers automatically qualify for astro-ph (not that that would be possible with the current arXiv “leadership”), this would allow publication—no worse than with any other online journal, except that the OJA does not (yet?) have as good a reputation simply because it hasn’t been around that long—based on what the OJA terms to be acceptable. (On the other hand, if the sole method of distribution is to be arXiv, then, since arXiv decides what appears on arXiv, why have a journal at all? One could argue that acceptance by the OJA is an additional hurdle, which is true, and probably useful in practice. On the other hand, if the OJA accepts a paper, then it should be published only if arXiv doesn’t want it in astro-ph (for whatever reason). The argument that the costs of electronic publishing are negligible applies to the OJA and Scholastica as much as it applies to arXiv.)

  7. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “if the OJA accepts a paper, then it should be published only if arXiv doesn’t want it”

    should be

    “if the OJA accepts a paper, then it should be published even if arXiv doesn’t want it”

  8. “Each paper published in this way will cost the authors – or more accurately the authors’ institutes and/or research grants – the sum of €9,500. […] For each paper. Typical article processing charges in the range of $2000 or so are already out of all proportion to the cost of publishing scientific papers; at this level they are simply ridiculous. […]

    The person who negotiated the arrangement, Ralf Schimmer, Head of Information at the MPDL seems to think it is a good deal. It’s certainly a good deal for Nature Publishing Group, but to anyone else it’s yet another egregious example of profiteering by the academic journal industry.”

    I couldn’t agree more. And I find the silence from most of the research community is deafening.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Deafening, but clear: criticize the agreement publicly, and your chances of publishing in the “prestigious” journals go down. Probably the same thing applies to arXiv; at least it’s a valid hypothesis as long as their classification algorithm is kept secret.

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