So regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a pretty big fan of open access (OA) publishing. I wouldn’t call myself a “self-proclaimed OA advocate” as some seem to use pejoratively against me, but I support the principles of OA: free, unrestricted access to research for everyone. To that end, during my PhD I promised that every paper I published would be made OA. As a NERC funded student in the UK, this means I was in the fortunate position that the government had given the Research Councils UK (RCUK, which NERC is part of) millions to cover the ‘transitional costs to OA’, thereby alleviating any personal financial burden I might have had in pursuing OA.
What I want to provide here are reasons for the choices I made of where to publish in order of time throughout my PhD, and the associated costs with that. Indicated costs are the APCs, or article processing charges, unless stated otherwise.
Justification, or not..
- PLOS ONE. When I first heard about OA during my second Masters, it seemed absurd to me the way the current system worked. Why would I *not* want my research to be available to be read by anyone? PLOS ONE was the first OA journal I heard about, and I pledged that my first paper would be with them. And it was! Some of the work from my Masters thesis. Cost: $1350. Paid by: Imperial College London (via NERC). Also available via my institutional repo. Almost two years later, this paper is still getting media coverage!
- PeerJ: At this time, PeerJ didn’t have an impact factor. I wanted to show that it was risk free for junior researchers to publish here and explore new publishing models, so I did! Despite one colleague saying that “It doesn’t count” because it didn’t have an IF (what a lovely sentiment..), I still think it’s a good piece of work. Cost: free. Both me and my co-author got fee waivers; him for peer reviewing for PeerJ, me for commenting on another article. Also available via my institutional repo.
- Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. I was brought on last minute during the review process for this one as a croc specialist (note that at this time I hadn’t actually published on crocs, and this was known purely through Twitter!), and had no influence over the publishing venue. This paper formed part of a special volume, and I thought it was OA (it seems to be free at least from time to time), but I think is now only freely available via ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and I thought it was available through my repo but apparently is not, which I will fix as soon as the system doesn’t return errors. Cost: free (not free at source) [edit: fixed now, took about ten minutes tops].
- Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. This was a joint choice between myself and the co-authors based on the suitability of the research. Cost: $3600. Paid by: Imperial College London (via NERC). Thoughts? I have no idea what that APC went on. The type-setting and minor copy-editing were no different than at PeerJ, and the process was considerably slower. Also available via my institutional repo.
- Nature Communications. A choice beyond my control by the lead authors of the study. Originally submitted to Nature, and rejected without review. Cost: $6000. Paid by: Imperial College London (maybe through a dedicated library fund). Again, the actual publishing process to me did not seem any different from any of the other journals. The peer review quality was also about the same, with a high level of constructive feedback from referees. Also available via my institutional repo.
- Biological Reviews. A review paper. The only other journals which accept review papers in my field are operated by Elsevier, a publisher I have personally been boycotting since around 2011 along with more than 15,000 other researchers. This paper originally got rejected based on some very poor reviews (as in, very low quality), a decision which we appealed and was overturned (thanks to the Editors!), and subsequently the paper was handled much better by the referees and Editorial team, and was accepted with minor revisions. Cost: $3600. Paid for by: Imperial College London (via NERC). Available via my institutional repo.
- Proceedings of the Royal Society B. I went for a ‘mid-tier’ journal with an OA option as the research was firstly pretty cool, and secondly intensively analytical. Cost: £1700. Paid by: Imperial College London (via NERC). The payment for this was a mess. I got invoiced by both the Royal Society and Imperial College, who kept adding VAT even though that had already been included. Eventually resolved, but I kept thinking, why do they both keep asking me?! The only communication needed to be between the publisher and the payer. Again, production no different from any other journal. Faster process than Wiley. Available via my institutional repo.
- Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. In press. A highly specialised article about fossil crocodilian taxonomy (atoposaurids, for regular readers!). This journal also has unlimited page lengths for submissions. Why did I choose this instead of PeerJ? The subject speciality, I think. Was it worth it? Nope. Especially as Imperial College have a deal with PeerJ for free publications. Seeing as I knew how much it would cost, this was a bad choice. Available via my institutional repo, but embargoed until the year 10000 (not even kidding..). Cost: $3600. Paid by: Imperial College (via NERC).
- F1000 Research. In press. Written using Overleaf. Submission took about 10 minutes. First decision took about 36 hours (acceptance). Currently being typeset about 3 days after submission. I cannot think of any reason why not to pursue this system more in future, except for limitations on venue choice (but you can directly submit to pre-print servers, PeerJ, etc). Cost: Free! (part of a special themed collection).
- Nature Communications. In review. Because this is the pinnacle of my PhD research, and my supervisor decided a ‘high impact’ journal would be best, given that the work is pretty awesome 😉 I originally wanted to go for PeerJ, to not be constrained by word count. Decided in the end to compromise by having a lengthy supplementary methods section. Potential cost if accepted: $6000.
One thing I don’t get either is how there can be a fixed price for highly variable items. Why is a 10 page paper the same cost or higher than one with 100 pages? What is the difference in the actual cost of production? APCs seem to be almost arbitrarily drawn out of a hat, and in every case it is extremely unclear what is being paid for in terms of services provided. Note also that costs advertised on publishers websites do not include VAT, so for UK researchers whack an extra 20% onto those APCs.
Does open access just create another form of inequality?
In the UK at least, we’ve created a system of ‘OA privilege’ now, where a cohort of junior researchers such as myself are in fortunate positions to publish OA almost wherever we want. Students not in such a fortunate position with less or zero funding will find themselves either constrained in where they can publish OA, or finding that their wish to publish OA is impossible based on the available options. While most major funders, especially those in the UK, now have funds to support OA publishing, this does not extend to all researchers (for example, those who are self-funded, or from foreign organisations), and we have now allowed publishers to replace one unbalanced system (only the privileged can read), with a different one, in which only those with appropriate funds can publish. While there are many waivers in place to reduce this imbalance, it is clearly far from a perfect system.
This of course all refers to ‘gold OA’, where papers are made freely available at the point and time of publication. While statistically around 70% of journals do not charge an APC for this service according to the DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals), almost all of the big publishers and journals do, and those are the ones junior researchers will usually be more compelled to publish in. What is important is not that there are options available, but that those options are constrained based on financial privilege.
No one has ever said publishing should be free, it is clear that costs are involved. But the question is how much should we pay. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that we get the best value for money in publishing, especially when we’re talking about using taxpayers money. The lack of transparency in APCs, and the total lack of control over how much can be charged and who is willing to pay, or who has to pay, for them does little to resolve this.
Accountability in open access publishing
Those numbers up there are firstly quite variable, and secondly extremely high. However, not a single penny of it was paid from myself. As a government funded student, almost every APC here was paid for by the taxpayer. Did I give them the best value for their money with each of my choices? No. Were the choices I made a compromise between wanting to have career success (by publishing in ‘well recognised’ journals) and wanting to publish OA. Yes.
So I think this is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, it means there is zero accountability for researchers in what they spend on OA, as the money is only being indirectly channeled through them. And secondly, we’re putting researchers in a position where if they want to publish OA, and publish in well-established journals in the hope this will influence their careers (which strong evidence indicates it will), then they have to find often large amounts of cash to fund this.
Now, this isn’t a problem with OA itself. This is the problem of treating something that started off with an idealogical basis, that research should be freely available to all without restrictions on re-use, as a service that many publishers leverage a fee for. And I’m not picking on any publisher here, although it is clear that there are some who are exploiting this financially. I’m saying this is a problem with the system we have allowed to be created around OA. As others like Bjoern Brembs have pointed out, we could publish the entire research outputs of the world OA for a fraction of the present cost we pay, but for some reason we don’t. And I think one of the main reasons for this is because no one is accepting responsibility, or being held accountable, for letting this system perpetuate. It’s no longer a ‘publish or perish’ culture. It’s a ‘publish, pay, and perish’ culture.
But the responsibility to initiate and fight for change shouldn’t be on researchers like myself and my junior colleagues, those in the most risky position at the beginning of their careers, with the most to lose and the least to gain. I take full responsibility for my choices, including the bad ones, but I feel that we shouldn’t have allowed a system like this be created in the first place. In light of this, coordinated change should be coming from the top of academia. From the tenured professors, from the senior admin positions. But nonetheless, I think all researchers need to have a look at how they can improve the system of scholarly communications and OA, and also how they have contributed to it reaching the broken state it’s in.
We need to take responsibility for our publishing decisions, and question what the motivations behind them were, and whether this is in line with the goal of research: to increase global knowledge, and maximise accessibility and re-use of information.
I broke the system.