In a recent assignment, we learned that the Editorial Board members of a major journal — content experts but not publishers — had rejected the notion of a spinoff journal using an author-pays model because they believed it was inherently expensive for authors and provided a low-quality experience for the readers. Most professional and scholarly publishing people understand this isn’t necessarily so, but this experience reminded us that plenty of non-publishers can benefit from an overview. This blog post draws on material we prepared to help our consulting clients educate their esteemed Editorial Board, and perhaps it will help others with a similar challenge.So, here’s our potted history of author-pays publishing:
The concept of authors paying some or all costs of publishing their ideas has a long provenance: Since at least the 1600’s, authors themselves have financed the printing and distribution of pamphlets and books, and at present self-publishing platforms enable thousands of individuals to bring their books to market without the selection process and financing provided by publishers. This practice is sometimes known pejoratively as “vanity” publishing.
At this time, a critically important form of author-pays publishing is the Open Access movement, which developed as the Web became a major channel for disseminating scholarly information. Broadly speaking, Open Access enables any Web-enabled user to access a particular piece of content at no cost. Open Access can be provided by journals, institutional repositories, or even authors’ own websites; rights to reproduce and/or republish the content (with or without attribution) vary depending on licensing provisions that apply to the paper; and sometimes content becomes Open Access only after an embargo period during which it is available behind a paywall of some kind. The Directory of Open Access Journals provides a broad overview that covers the great majority of Open Access publishing.
Open Access does not imply that all submissions are accepted: Legitimate Open Access journals have peer review processes, and editorial standards can be as rigorous as the editors believe are appropriate. For instance, a so-called mega-journal such as PLOS ONE accepts all articles that meet the non-trivial criteria for respectable scientific research, across all areas of science. Note that there is no specific requirement that the paper represent a significant advance in a field, only that the research be competently and ethically performed. Nonetheless, this is a hurdle. A more focused journal such as BMJ Open publishes articles strictly on medical research and is selective enough to cite an article acceptance rate of 55%.
In principle, Open Access need not imply an author-pays model: Publication costs could be absorbed by the publishing platform itself, for instance. And in reality, in STM publishing, authors rarely write personal checks to cover the cost of author-pays publishing; instead, authors are supported by their research sponsor, their academic unit, the library serving their institution, an industry supporter, and so on. In the humanities and social science, on the other hand, there is minimal third-party support for author-pays models, with commensurately slower development of Open Access publishing.
Almost as soon as Open Access publishing developed, so-called predatory Open Access journals emerged. These journals solicit articles through mass emails, collect payment upon submission of an article, and perform minimal (or no) peer review or editing. In other words, predatory Open Access publishers are similar to “vanity press” book publishers. These predatory publishers have cast a pall on the large number of legitimate Open Access journals.
Legitimate Open Access journals generally charge nothing to author who submit articles. After an article is accepted for publication, the author is invoiced for a so-called Author Processing Charge (APC). Posted APC’s are generally in the range of $1000 to $3000 per accepted article, depending on the journal. Most journals provide discounted or even gratis APC’s for certain categories of authors, and for authors who claim a specific financial hardship. Some Open Access publishers have introduced the concept of annual fees for “institutional members,” in effect having the institution bear the cost of publishing articles written by some or all individuals working at that institution.
So, author-pays models can be ethical or predatory; highly selective or weakly selective; high-priced, low-priced, or sometimes even free; Open Access or subscription-based; and apply to journal articles, conference proceedings, or even monographs. If you think that potentially covers pretty much the entire spectrum of scholarly and professional publishing models, you’re on the right track.