Open access at no cost? Just ditch academic journals

Abel Polese

Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries. His ORCID is 0000-0001-9607-495X.

Abel’s post discusses the implications of Plan S, which requires scientists and researchers who benefit from state funding in member countries to publish their work in open repositories or in journals that are available to all (thanks, Wikipedia).


An open padlock, hanging on a door.

Photo by iMattSmart on Unsplash.

Plan S is clear: science must be public and publicly funded research must be accessible by anyone. Like many colleagues, I am keen to see this happening.

How to make it happen is, however, a different story. In an effort to liberalise the market, Plan S asked the publishers to disclose the price for open access publication of an article. Once the market becomes transparent, it is assumed, competition and new business models should bring prices down.

So, recently, Springer Nature has candidly responded – just give us US$9,500 per open access article.  “My brother bought a used car for $10K. What a fool, he could have been published open access on Nature” was probably the best response I saw putting things in perspective.

My problem is not even Springer’s selling price. As a for-profit company, their goal is to squeeze as much money out of people and organisations as they can.

My problem is that many of us are ready to buy it and may even consider it a fair price. OK, Springer journals are the iPhone of academia but for someone who runs an open access journal on a budget of less than $5K a year (a refurbished old phone, in comparison), that’s quite some money. The same can be said for academics from countries where $10K is their annual salary.

Unsurprisingly, Open Science is moving at two speeds with scholars based in Austria, UK the Netherlands, in Sweden and the like being much more likely to publish open access than the rest of the world.

All this at a time when scholars are encouraged to publish more. Ironically (or not), profit margins by commercial publishers are similar to those declared by Apple ranging around 30-40%. So, exactly as with iPhones, those who can afford it will say “Yes, it’s expensive. But we can’t wait to get more of that”.

The hidden variable

Are there alternatives? The Open Library of Humanities pools article production costs to reduce them and make them affordable through membership fees. This is economically viable but depends on who agrees to participate.

In the humanities, economic interests are lower but for medicine or life sciences, if the top journals in your field are not available, would you send your manuscript to a journal considered “good” knowing that it might not be taken into account towards your annual evaluation? Or knowing that someone might get the grant you applied for because they had papers in more prestigious journals?

In Estonia and Finland, for one thing, core funding to public universities depends on the number of “high quality” articles (and books) produced by that university over a given period. Here “high quality” merely refers to whether a journal is included in Scopus, Web of Science or ERIH PLUS.

In a similar fashion, some donors may pledge to ignore Impact Factor and look at the quality of the publications of the applicant. But how many reviewers would give a higher score to a candidate with publication in lower Impact Factor journals over someone publishing only in top journals?

If you are Krugman or Fukuyama, you can publish on a restaurant serviette and people will still read you. Until you get there, though, your value is defined (to some extent) by the journals you publish in. Early career researchers thus domesticate themselves into targeting the most prestigious journals.

But what is prestige if not the perception of a certain percentage of the people who will assume your article is good simply for having been published there? Prestige does not necessarily mean quality. On the contrary, in some cases, more prestigious journals have higher article retraction rates. But prestige is what counts in academia and it is distributed unevenly.

The cracked tank

If the monopoly of prestige stays with the usual journals, there is no way for emerging alternatives to compete. Not in the short term, at least. So, Plan S sounds to me like “boss, there’s a crack in the tank, shall I keep on pouring to keep water at a decent level?”.

No. In my view, you should replace the tank.

In New Zealand, the estimate spending on journals subscriptions for 2016 was between US$30 and $45 million. This means $3-4.5K each for the 10,000 academic staff employed in the country. In Canada, for the same year, the amount is $260 million or $5.5K per staff on a population of 45,666 scientists .

If all journals were managed by universities (university press model), a fraction of the money paid out would return to the university, thus reducing expenses for article access. A recent model proposed by the platform F1000Research is based on pre-review publication, transparent review process, relatively low costs for publishing and open access of all published articles. Things seem to be going in the right direction but the platform must still co-exist with the more prestigious journals and their exploitative strategy, who retain the monopoly on academic prestige. An even more radical step would be to completely ditch academic journals and decentralise everything so that:

  • Authors identify reviewers and ask them for feedback.
  • Peer review is open, names of reviewers function as endorsement (like “Dr X has reviewed the paper and, after the requested amendments, thinks it is of publishable quality”).
  • Copy-edit and typeset using free templates.
  • Publish the paper under creative common license and upload it into as many repositories as you want: your university one, the disciplinary one, a regional one.

Researchers are already too busy, I was told. I agree, but money to support them is there. No subscriptions means that $5.5K (in Canada) is saved per researcher, per year. Pool this for a whole department, say 20 faculty, and you have over $100K to hire a part-time assistant, copy editor and even (drums roll, please) to pay reviewers. Pool this for multi-authored papers and you have even more money available.

Bonus idea: limit the number of papers that can be submitted for career and department assessment to 1-3 per year (depending on the discipline) so that you need to submit the most representative piece of your work, not roll out the zillion papers you have produced by recycling your material with different sauces. The rest could come in the form of shorter pieces or research reports.

This would lead to scholars being assessed by committees that have the time to read their papers, rather than basing their evaluation on their metrics.

Sounds too far from reality? Well, most of these elements already exist, they are just never pulled together into a single system. In astronomy self archiving co-exists with official versions of articles. Some universities have already stepped out of quantitative evaluations, releasing the pressure on their staff.

Can we survive without metrics?

Getting rid of metrics is scary, sounds like anarchy will prevail and we will have no longer references. But aren’t academics, like blindfolded sommeliers, supposed to have the expertise to identify the authorities in their field without relying on metrics? I rarely hear anyone say “they are good because they have many publications”. It is rather “they are good and, besides, they have many publications”.

Metrics have been used to translate science results into “objective” figures that can be intelligible to non-academics but they are far from objective. Is there a way that you could consider a  harasser with an h-index of 45 “better” than someone collaborative and helpful with an excellent ethics reputation but with an h-index of 10?

Disruptive change is hard and requires plenty of effort, negotiation, and thinking. Pouring money into the system is easier, especially for wealthier countries – and the scientists who have the influence and power to raise their voices against the current system to endorse viable, cheaper open access alternatives are mostly also those who can access money to pay for article processing charges (APC).

20 comments

  1. An absolute breath of fresh air. Thank-you for a refreshingly thoughtful challenge to the ongoing push for Q1 and Q2 publications that forms the bedrock of ‘prestige’ in most parts of the Australian academic sector.

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    • Thank you, that’s not just Australia but most of the world and it’s not just Q1/2 but also to produce “more” with no guarantee that this means better

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  2. A thought-provoking article, Abel. I don’t have general answers but will say that the system is totally and utterly broken and to pretend otherwise is beyond ridiculous. My other thought, a clear addendum to your article, is to consider the rise of predatorial publishing, massive rise of predatorial publishing in the wake of the more general disintegration. You know the guys, offering peer review, “Scopus” indexing, publication within days and for supposed bargain prices, normally in the range of $200-1000. Crazy money effectively for nothing, but a lot less than $10K. People are desperate enough, combined with unknowing enough about indexing, etc to simply pay up. In fact, unless Mum was helping you write while in the womb how does it all fit within the doctorate that is increasingly structured as three-year maximum? BTW, my own personal answer is that I will, these days, only deal with Universities or University consortium publishers.

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    • Predatory deserve a whole separate chapter, one can admire their wicked) capacity to create scams that are worth millions but they need to go! working on this as well (anti-predatory trainings)…but predators are a byproduct of the publish or perish industry as well

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  3. Just realised that I was incredibly unfair to the predators there. Would want to clarify that those predators do offer something I missed: Certificates of Publication. To what academic purpose I’ve no idea, but the tones of red, the gold “embossing” are designed to look prestigious – though other eyes would see them as looking “cheap” and gaudy – and am told by a US marketing Prof. that they really help with the marketing.

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  4. One issue is the unwillingness of otherwise critical or radical social scientists and humanities to take time out of teaching/research to learn editorial skills, and to run the sorts of OA journals found all over Latin America and Eastern Europe, where most journals are run by small societies and university departments. And, that type of work is valued there. The June 2021 round of Scopus indicates that many of these are quite successful in attracting citations as well. https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-decent-open-access-journals/ But in the mainstream anglophone academic system, that type of work is not valued much. It could be, as the current and next generation of scholars ascend the academic ranks and value social justice publishing strategies much more among job applicants and promotion candidates. The DORA declaration, now getting a bit more traction and signatories, asks universities to sign up to a sensible principle that the quality of a scholar’s work is assessed objectively, regardless of place of publication. https://sfdora.org/ I use these principles when conducting tenure reviews.
    I edit the Journal of Political Ecology. Free OA and with no budget since 1994. Nicely ranked, for those who care, and our lack of funding only impacts us during busy teaching times for the 2 main editors [both of whom have continuing positions, so we require no salary for editing]. https://journals.librarypublishing.arizona.edu/jpe/ So I have put these ideas into practice, but I do attract a fair bit of criticism for suggesting that critical scholars in well funded universities a) don’t hold to the principles of Open Science/knowledge b) support the publishers with massive profits and huge CEO salaries, when they publish with them and c) don’t always hold to DORA principles. I can understand why these three things are hard in the neoliberal university, but the academic culture in anglophone western universities needs to slowly change to recognising quality of work, ethics in publishing strategies, and recognising those who break the mold to commit time and effort to a fairer and more just [and multilingual] publishing system. I am not sure PLAN S helps those issues too much, since commercial publishers with their high APCs are continuing as usual [disallowing hybrid OA/subscription journals for research funded by the the signatories could be big, though].
    On actual OA publishing costs per article – they are definitely not as high as Nature! see https://f1000research.com/articles/10-20

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  5. Excellent analysis and proposals, thank you! In particular, I endorse the suggestion of reading all the “selected” articles (or book) when we assess a candidate for a job or promotion, so only a few good publications would make sense, not the fake impact metrics and quantity. Second, I recommend to publish in OA journals which are serious, reliable, well-established, and connected to your own research networks. A useful list is available here (but there are more out there for other disciplines): https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-decent-open-access-journals/ Best regards!

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  6. Many questions still begging for answers concerning open science publishing. I’m still struggling to understand how a researcher with basically no research funding in a low income economy like me will struggle to get some research work done, work hard enough to write it up and still pay someone sitting in a cozy office ten times my monthly salary from my pocket to publish it. Does that sound like fairness?Who is exploiting who???

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see your point and yes, it’s a hard struggle. There are several open access (no fees) journals though and one of the replies to this post offers a few alternatives that you might want to check

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  7. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    I fully agree that the system, as is constructed, is bonkers. I worry that your proposals, though, would end up reinforcing many of the neoliberal trends favouring the already rich. In particular, I feel that to have authors identify reviews themselves, identify where to publish (e.g. repositories) and then essentially be responsible for disseminating the article can be very challenging. If I am a junior researcher or entering a new field, how am I supposed to find reviewers? Who will give me the time and feedback without some sort of mechanism to suggest that they are not wasting their time (e.g. a credible publisher asking them for a review)? And once my research is out there, how am I supposed to ensure that it is widely shared within my desired discourse community?

    I completely understand the impulse to move away from the current model – however, I do question putting so much on individual authors to manage the review, publication and sharing process. Individuals with less connections and fewer institutional resources will suffer in such a model, especially without external publishers supporting the sourcing of peer reviewers, editing and sharing.

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    • I agree Louis and I reflected about that. But in my understanding we are craftsmen (and women) and learn from our senior ones. If my PhD student needs reviewers I will help identifying them. Besides, this is where network events are for: to build a network of people. Nobody says it will be easy but that’s part of the PhD exercise, at least in my understanding of academia. And junior authors can at least avoid reviewier #2 this way

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      • I agree that is part of the craft. Specifically researchers trying their hardest to realise that getting published is about soft and political skills and their understanding of the academic publishing industry not their hard skills – but people are just so into beating themselves up over hard skills for whatever reason they do find that incredibly difficult . Even after endless rejections they will still blame their lack of hard skills rather than considering that they may just be trying to place to the wrong destinations. I find it totally tragic, not least because it doesn’t speak well of general life skills. The idea of a student’s supervisor being helpful, though was a whole new concept to me.

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    • Librarians can help with publishing, cataloguing and making the work discoverable in repositories such as Google Scholar, Trove and CORE.

      Liked by 1 person

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