Would open access journals be better off if they charged submission fees?
A recent report, “Submission Fees – A tool in the transition to open access?“ by Mark Ware for Knowledge Exchange, provides a complex answer to a seemingly simple question: It depends.
By surveying the literature and conducting interviews with stakeholders (including publishers, editors, researchers, librarians, and funding agencies), Ware reports theoretical interest for implementing submission fees, although most players perceived few incentives to change the system and that such a transition was risky.
The clearest case for which submission fees might work was in open access journals with very high rejection rates. In this case, the additional income would be used to reduce article processing charges. Paradoxically, open access publishers were the least supportive of such a business model. The most supportive of submission fees were subscription-access publishers.
Like page and color charges, submission fees are largely found among non-profit society publications in the United States and limited to specialized fields in the life sciences, economics, and finance. Many of these publishers see these fees as an important source of revenue and used to defray the cost of administering peer-review, especially in light of declining support from library subscribers.
One would surmise that open access publishers would be supportive of submission fees, since every manuscript rejected is a cost that needs to be covered by authors of accepted manuscripts. Submission fees therefore separate peer-review costs from article processing costs and, as a result, scale with the rejection rate of the journal. Open access publishers didn’t see it that way:
The open access publishers we interviewed did not buy into the [submission fee] model. Although they saw some (theoretical) advantages, they believed that these were outweighed by the risks. They particularly disagreed that reducing inappropriate (e.g. frivolous, premature, long-shot) or just lower quality submissions was an important advantage, because they were generally in a growth mode and/or because they believed there were better ways to handle over-supply of submissions (e.g. editorial triage or cascade peer review).
In spite of lukewarm support, Ware provides scenarios in which submission fees may be beneficial to open access publishing and could support the transition to a full open access publishing model.
The problem with these back-of-the-envelope calculations is that they are vastly oversimplified, something that Ware admits in his report. Many models assume a fixed and static market that ignores important dynamics — for instance, when a journal with a new submission fee competes with journals without such fees.
These models also do not consider the transaction costs associated with authors, co-authors and funding agencies involved in moving small amounts of money with each submission.
More importantly, these models ignore the fact that humans are fundamentally risk averse, meaning that a $150 non-refundable submission fee added to a $2,000 article processing charge (APC) upon acceptance may be less desirable than a model without any submission fees but an APC of $2,500, in spite of the fact that the first scenario is cheaper for accepted authors. Price insensitivity is further complicated by having someone other than the author (like a funding agency) pay the bills.
But building a more complex model does not address the underlying presupposition of these exercises, which is, that reducing author-side fees is necessary in order to transition to full open access publishing. Considering that more powerful arguments to support open access publishing exist, I find this rather narrow economic view rather unconvincing. Journal publishers have a much clearer picture of whether, and how much, they may charge authors. Creating general economic models just obscures these important details and provides little guidance at the title level.
The main contribution of this report to whether submission charges would benefit open access publishing is not a more complex economic model, but a simple clarification over whether granting agencies consider submission charges as acceptable expenses. This alone may be an important wedge into moving the system toward more open access publishing.
Open access advocates have made a strong and sustained argument that publication is a part of research. Extending publication to cover its antecedent — peer-review — may be the next logical step.
- Sage Open: Open Access Publishing Comes to the Social Sciences, Humanities (scholarlykitchen)
- Cascading Peer-Review – The Future of Open Access? (scholarlykitchen)
- Long Road to Open Access (insidehighered.com)