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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.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is an independent researcher and publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. His research has focused on the on the dissemination of scientific information, rewards and incentives in academic publishing, and economic issues related to libraries, authors and publishers.

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9 Thoughts on "Should Open Access Journals Charge Submission Fees?"

I think submission fees are a great idea – it might mean authors submit their papers to the appropriate journal to begin with, rather than starting at Science/Nature and working their way down the tree to end up at Journal of Highly Specialised Research: Part C.

I’m not sure I agree with this conclusion. Authors who send their manuscripts to inappropriate journals either get rejected before they go out to peer-review, or are required to wait months to get a rejection letter. Time is an important resource for academics, perhaps a more important consideration than a small submission fee.

This is one of those (many) areas where surveys don’t help. The question is not what the “community” thinks, but whether someone can come up with a sufficiently compelling service that attracts enough customers to fund the operation. You can’t predict what entrepreneurs will come up with; you can’t discover this through a survey. Nor does such a service have to become widespread for it to become part of the overall fabric. It only has to become profitable. I think the likelihood of new submission-based services is very high, and that the key to their success will be in a radically reduced cost structure and the development of post-publication peer review supported by outstanding information technology. No, not for everyone, but to this party not everyone is invited.

Thanks for the write-up, Phil, spot-on as usual.

I do agree about the likely irrelevance of overly-complex models to change in the real world. But I do think there’s a place for back-of-envelope calculations to get a rough sense of whether an idea is worth exploring further, which was all I was trying to do here. (There is in fact a surprising amount of very complex modelling published, e.g. see A Model of Academic Journal Quality with Applications to Open-Access Journals by McCabe & Snyder, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=619264 and some of McCabe’s other work.)

I also agree with all Joe says; innovation doesn’t come out of surveys. In case it’s not clear, this report wasn’t based on a survey, more a set of iterative qualitative interviews and literature review. I’d be surprised if no-one tries submission fees with open access over the next few years, though I’d be hard put to say in advance whether it will be successful.

The idea of a submission fee outside of the OA context has been proposed by Al Greco in the lead article in the October issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing. To help with the transition from print to digital monograph publishing, he suggests a submission fee of $250, added to which would be a $500 fee to cover review costs if the manuscript is sent to readers, and then $10,000 to cover “costs associated with line editing, typesetting, and so on.” I think the time is not far off when this kind of proposal will be implemented, whether or not it is connected with OA.

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