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Pay It Forward (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education sought to explore what the authors of the 10 most-downloaded Sci-Hub articles think of Sci-Hub. Aside from cherry-picking its facts (the journalist interviewed three authors out of dozens involved in the papers), the question itself is a red herring. After all, because publishers assume financial risk for scholarly and academic authors, the economic answer is obvious a priori — authors should have little problem with piracy of their material if said piracy might increase the number of people reading their work. After all, they suffer no harm from this.

It’s like asking publishers if they care that academics are having their bank accounts hacked — the question is not relevant because it’s not their money at stake.

Money has been a central and simmering issue in the access debates, including the fact that research authors are unpaid. In the Chronicle article, the perceived unfairness of unpaid research authors is referenced in two sentences regarding an author named Pober:

Mr. Pober says he doesn’t mind that many people download his paper free since he didn’t make money from its publication. In fact, like most academics, he paid to submit his article.

(Two small corrections for the journalist — Pober is an MD/PhD, but is referred to as “Mr.” per Chronicle of Higher Education editorial policies. I doubt Dr. Pober paid to submit his article as submission charges are rare. Instead, he most likely paid some fee after acceptance.)

The issue came up again recently in a Bloomberg Views overview of Elsevier’s acquisition of SSRN, as the writer tried to explain the economy of research publication:

The university-professor authors, editors and referees of the journals, meanwhile, usually receive no monetary compensation for their work.

It was also raised in a comment this week on a Kitchen post.

The implicit complaint each time someone mentions paying research authors in passing is that not paying them is unfair. To generate this effect, the idea of paying research authors is presented as if it makes perfect sense and would be normal. But I’ve never seen the idea and its potential consequences explored at length, and normal is a relative measure.

Of course, most of the readers here know it’s not unfair or abnormal. Authors have the economic relationship to publishers in which they are not paid, and in many situations pay fees prior to publication (color charges, data charges, submission fees, page charges, and/or APCs), because their financial risk is eliminated and their rewards for publication are indirect but significant — by publishing, they lay claim to their findings, making them rivalrous; by publishing, they claim priority over potential competitors; and by publishing, they show their employers and authorities in their field they are not shirking. Publish a paper in the right journal or earn a stellar publication reputation, and you can go far. Many careers have been made in this way.

Putting aside the fact that Pober and his co-authors likely benefited indirectly from a strong research effort and well-cited and popular paper in a very good journal — getting more grants, more budget, better postdocs, better facilities, more speaking invitations, more press coverage, more influence, a greater reputation — let’s pursue a scenario in which they also would make money directly from their paper’s publication.

The strawman question for today: What if publishers paid research authors to publish, on a widespread basis, and in amounts that would be meaningful?

For payments like this to make sense in the long-term, the positives would have to outweigh the negatives. The question becomes: Do they?

There are some potential positives — for instance, authors might be more willing to defend publishers against piracy sites like Sci-Hub, and might understand publishing economics more completely. Authors might be greater advocates of driving traffic to their papers (although incentives and abilities might remain mismatched here). The PR problems publishers have faced over the past 15-20 years might be blunted if academics saw publishers as a path to self-enrichment. It could also quiet the voices crying “exploitation” to some degree, as payments would appropriate authors into the financial upside of publishing.

But now we have to look for the downsides.

For the sake of this part of the discussion, I’ll avoid a standard royalties model, as it is overly complicated and unlikely to be implemented on a wide scale. There is an example of this. In 2008, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press began paying authors and editors royalties for one of their journals (CSH Protocols), setting aside 10% of subscription revenues and then dividing this up based on the share of usage each author received. Authors received about $300 for papers getting the highest usage, while some received as little as $3 (publishing at the end of the year meant low usage, so low royalties for that year). If they received less than $25, Cold Spring Harbor rolled the payments over to the next year. Protocols typically have few authors, and the program apparently didn’t generate many more papers for the journal, according to one of its founders. The amounts certainly were below the $600/year threshold that would have required Cold Spring Harbor to provide the royalty recipients with 1099-MISC tax forms and file these earnings with the IRS. The program has since been discontinued. In its place, a one-time honoraria has been substituted, something not unusual for commissioned works in journals (e.g., review articles). According to those who inherited the program, the administrative burden of a royalty program was too high given the small amounts being paid out.

Since the royalty model is unrealistic, I’ll instead focus on a per-article fee to authors, as this illuminates many of the downsides that would arise in either case, while allowing us to do some straightforward math.

The first downside — paying authors in a meaningful way would probably kill Gold OA and CC-BY in their tracks and move the entire industry fully back to the subscription and licensing model, with stricter copyright enforcement and authors more directly appropriated into copyright enforcement. Piracy would not be tolerated throughout academia, and payment terms would probably require authors to control distribution of their works beyond the publisher’s own channels. Authors would be more reluctant to share reprints without payment as this could imperil their reputation for future payments, which would mean that ResearchGate and Academia would probably wither and die. You only need to think a moment, and these effects become clear — publishers would have more control over author behavior in general having paid them. (Note: Some people may view some of these effects as positives.)

But let’s continue to explore the idea of paying authors beyond this one major set of consequences.

One important baseline difference in academic and scholarly journal publishing is that the sheer number of authors we deal with far outstrips the number in trade publishing, either book or magazine. A single research paper in some fields could have more authors than exist on a book publisher’s entire author list or a magazine publisher’s entire cadre of writers. This is a key difference.

Because of the scale generated by large author lists — lists that are growing longer with each passing year — a major and clear negative is that aggregate expenses across the board would rise, as more money would be needed in the system than before in order to pay authors while leaving other aspects funded as they are now. Because the scenario of authors being paid would cancel revenues from author payments to publishers, payments would trigger two sources of price increase — the costs of paying authors, and the costs of recovering revenues no longer coming from authors. Estimates aren’t easy to make, but to sketch a model, let’s assume payments to authors would be large enough to be personally significant, to serve as an incentive.

Identifying who would get paid would not be a simple matter for many papers. There are many types of “authors” for scholarly and scientific papers. There are contributors, first authors, last authors, and research team participants. There are authorship groups that sometimes number in the thousands. Creating a payment system might lead to a great deal of negotiation around payment contracts, authorship roles, the authorship list itself, and so forth. This could slow the production of papers, the publication of results, and the advancement of early career scientists who would be negotiating from a weak position to be included on paying papers.

Let’s assume, for simplicity’s sake, that each author on a scientific research paper receives $100 for getting a paper published in a journal. For some articles, especially in astrophysics and epidemiology, there can be more than 1,000 authors per article, with an upper bound of more than 3,000 listed authors in some cases. This means that a publisher would have to pay as much as $100,000-300,000 per article and cut 1,000-3,000 checks. Let’s pick the midpoint, and assume the model’s paper has 2,000 authors. The administrative costs for one of these papers would be astronomical (pun intended), while the consequences aren’t clear. Would authorship lists shrink to incentivize publishers to prefer one group’s work over another’s (because it would cost less in author payments)? Would authorship lists grow, so more people could get on the gravy train? Would the model last long, or would it move to a flat per-paper payment model (discussed below)?

The per-author approach would make fields with large and collaborative authorship groups far more expensive for institutions and individuals paying to access content, while each individual author would receive a token amount at most. How much would prices rise in order to support these mini-payments to authors? Right now, I would speculate that an astrophysics article can be published for at most a few thousand dollars in costs to the publisher. Imagine that small amount ballooning by $200,000 or more. Imagine what carrying those costs in author-intensive fields — astrophysics, microbiology, epidemiology, geological sciences — would do to library budgets.

Let’s continue the scenario, where to the new $200,000 in author payments, we add the administrative costs to deal with checks, snafus, and disputes, which I’ll peg at a normal 30% overhead. Now we’re adding another $60,000 in processing costs. So an article that might have cost $2,500 in expenses for the publisher to publish now costs $262,500 to publish. Assuming 1,000 articles per year for a robust astrophysics journal, an expense line of $2.5 million explodes to expenses of $262,500,000, and this does not take into account the previous payments from authors now foregone, which may be another $1 million in a year. That’s at least $260 million in expenses the publisher would have to absorb — costs that would certainly be passed on to libraries, subscribers, and others. Estimating 5,000 institutions for a rough estimate, that would be a greater than $50,000 price increase for one title. Clearly, that is not going to work.

Astrophysics has an extremely robust and collaborative authorship community, so let’s move to an area where fewer authors typically work together — biomedicine. Here, let’s assume an average of 12 authors for the sake of discussion to see what problems might occur in groups this small.

Biomedicine is also collaborative, and multi-center trials are not unusual. First-author position and last-author position mean a great deal. Multi-national collaborations are fairly common in this and other fields. Ethical issues are more front and center.

For this, let’s write the story as it might occur a few years after author payments have become the norm involving a paper that’s slightly above average in size, and slightly more complex than average in composition:

A savvy editor receives a multi-national, multi-center study with 15 authors from six institutions in three countries. She experiences a few still-unfamiliar thoughts before commencing with scientific review, as now authors are being paid. There’s been a lot of training over the past few years, and the editors have quickly learned the tricks of the trade that come with experience, but it still feels strange. First, how will the authors in the other countries want to be paid? In local currency? How will their tax authorities deal with the payments? Do we have nexus there? Will this create it? What about the institutions involved? One of them, the editor knows, requires that payments go to the researcher’s department, while one of the institutions insists that any payments go to a fund for scholarships.

The editor also sees that there is a long “contributor” list, which she knows now means that there are going to be authorship disputes down the road, especially if the manuscript moves toward acceptance and publication. Why? Because ever since publishers started paying authors, senior academics have become notorious for pushing younger colleagues off the author list and into this unpaid “contributor” category to make things go more smoothly early, and then to demand that some or all of the contributors move onto the author list once the journal has made a decision. The big names starting throwing their weight around when they think the editor is invested in the paper. She’s seen these battles before, and they can be bruising. The senior academics have probably made promises they shouldn’t have, there will be a battle between the authors and her publisher, and she’ll be caught in the middle. How much does she want to deal with this?

Then she catches that the first author (B.A. Payne) is actually the Payne who is notorious for negotiating after initial decision for a higher-than-normal author payment, sometimes 5-10x normal, like it’s a speaker’s fee for keynote at a major conference or meeting. He’s even been known to require that every author be paid this amount — and he’s gotten it from time to time at some of the glamour journals, so he’s unashamed to ask for it everywhere. While the publisher has a contingency fund set aside which editors can use to secure a certain number of key papers per year, she’s used her allotment by now, and would have to ask for an exception if she moved the paper forward. And it’s the week before Thanksgiving, making it unlikely that she’ll get the person she needs on the phone. There have been a lot of new people hired in Finance to handle author payments, but they still tend to sneak away just before major holidays, and they’re overworked the rest of the year. She sighs. The fact the organization is nearing year-end makes it less likely she’ll get approval, as well.

All considered, even without reading the paper, she decides this one is too much trouble right now. It’s easier to reject it. Let someone else deal with this payment prima donna and his unsorted crew of collaborators. It will save her organization money and headaches. Besides, she had a paper earlier in the day that was different but nearly as good, and the group involved is known to be easy to work with and to donate their author payments to the publisher’s parent society.

This illustrates a number of potential scenarios and responses to incentives. But did this seem like a set of decisions an editor should be involved in? Does it help or hurt the evaluation of the science?

Let’s assume a milder model, in which there is a flat per-paper payment that the authors themselves have to divvy up in some manner, leaving the editor and publisher out of it. Let’s assume the payment is $1,000/article. At approximately 1.5 million published articles per year, the financial impact would be $1.5 billion on the industry. With the industry estimated to be between $10B and $25B in total revenues, we’re talking a 9-15% tax on the system to pay authors. Assuming publishers pass along that tax, institutions would face a 9-15% addition bundled into an annual price increase for a site license. This would not go down well, and would cause ruptures in many library budgets if generally applied in short order. But every publisher would have to agree to do this, which runs into anti-trust issues immediately. For one group of publishers to do it and other to not would create chaotic market dynamics — potentially better papers for some, but a raft of cancellations as the costs hit the market. We are in an era of stringent budgeting. How this stalemate would be broken — a standoff between author payments and risks involved in recovering the fees — is unclear.

There is also the very real possibility that author payments would become another mini-economy within scholarly publishing. We can see this in other industries, where each point of the transaction trail adds costs (credit card fees, agency fees, transaction fees, courtesy charges, and so forth). The $1.5 billion gross estimate could increase another 15%, easily.

In the case of the 15-author biomedical paper, each author would receive about $67. For the 2,000-author paper, each receives 50¢.

Either per-paper model may encourage more “salami slicing” of results, which occurs probably too frequently already — this is the practice of squeezing as many papers as possible out of one study. Imagine this behavior incentivized with money as well as publication.

But let’s assume the market dynamics make this an irresistible change, and it soon sweeps the industry. At $1,000 per article, the costs might be absorbed in a few years, if library budgets could grow to match (we’ll ignore the effect on tuition and fees for this exercise). But how long does the flat-fee scenario last? And what does that do for/to authors?

Soon, a natural market might emerge, one that would defeat the flat-fee model. Some papers are worth more than others, some authors are worth more than others, and so forth. Rather quickly, you’d have bidding. The bidding would have two sides — journals bidding for authors/papers, and researchers bidding for authorship. These both already occur as journals woo authors with promises of priority handling, good placement, cover positioning, and bells and whistles, while researchers ask to be added to papers (or are asked to join papers — in medicine, some authors are already paid by sponsors to do this).

While competition for papers occurs in the current reputational system, we find it distasteful when a senior author is paid to sign onto a paper (as noted above, it does occur). What would a senior author ask to receive in order to join a promising paper and lend gravitas? Would this researcher’s participation increase the bargaining position of the authors to drive up their payments from the publisher? How long do these negotiations take? Is more science published more quickly, or does the system slow to a crawl as everyone is now focused on their immediate financial position?

The bidding war is an interesting item to examine more closely. It brings to mind the story of Jack Andraka, who won a science prize for an approach to pancreatic cancer screening, which he then leveraged into grants and celebrity. No paper was published, his approach was found wanting (and non-novel) as word spread, and nothing substantial other than fame and noise came from it. But at one point, he might have benefited from a bidding system, pocketing a high fee based on unsubstantiated claims. How would a bidding system avoid these problems? How “in the blind” would the bidders be? Would they only be given the author names, the grant number, and the abstract, then asked to bid? Authors would be tempted to pimp their papers, as they would gain notoriety for being pursued. What if the winning bidder found fatal flaws in the paper? Could they get a refund? What kind of retraction would this be?

This scenario also brings up the ethical problems already extant in scientific and scholarly publishing — plagiarism, exaggerated claims, fraud, image manipulation — and seemingly amplifies them. After all, adding an incentive to an already heady pile of incentives would promise to only bring out more bad behaviors.

It’s entirely possible that new disclosure rules and limits akin to the Sunshine Act would be developed. Readers may come to implicitly trust journals that don’t pay authors to publish, an inversion of the current situation in which some today trust subscription journals more than Gold OA journals. To many, money is a barometer of ethical purity.

There is also the issue of US government researchers, who certainly could not accept payments. This likely goes for other governments’ employees.

Which publishers would be better-positioned to bid for papers? Large, multi-national publishers — they have scale, work in multiple currencies, and have deeper pockets to withstand an extended bidding war. Which publishers would have an easier time dealing with the administrative overheads of such a system? Large, multi-national publishers. There are already many forces working toward large-scale consolidation of journals and books under the auspices of large, multi-national publishers. Paying authors could add another.

Even if all these issues could be addressed, how much could we pay authors before other complications and costs emerged? Remember that in the US, any individual receiving more than $600 from an organization in any year is required to submit a tax form prior to payment and file a 1099-MISC to the IRS at tax time. Publishers would have to collect tax documents beforehand, and issue 1099-MISC forms for their authors to pass along to the IRS. This amount of paperwork and overhead, with dozens to thousands of authors per paper, would be difficult and costly to maintain. Errors would occur, forms would be lost, etc. And gathering tax forms from all the authors prior to publication, while certainly possible, seems unlikely to speed research along the path to publication.

In fact, it may be that after exploring the potential to get paid, some researchers would begin to prefer publishers who didn’t pay them. After all, they would be competing only on the quality of their research, not on distracting elements driven by the payment scheme. At the same time, publishers and editors would start to prefer authors who waived their payments. The mutual benefits would be real — nobody would have tax headaches, papers would be published sooner, and the science rather than the complexity of paying authors (available budget, processing) would be the focus again. Overall, not being paid may be preferred by both parties. Because the strong incentives around publication would remain, there would still be good reasons to get works published soon and in strong journals.

We already have seen a hint of this scenario — when Company of Biologists paid peer reviewers $25, the program was discontinued when reviewers themselves asked to stop being paid. It turns out it was more trouble to arrange to receive the payment in terms of time and effort than the $25 was worth to them. It’s easy to imagine researchers feeling similarly, especially after taking the time away from their labs or wards to publish a paper.

Indirect incentives allow authors to shift risk to publishers for publishing their papers, and allow editors and researchers to focus on core scientific and intellectual issues. Paying authors would add a great deal of expense to academic publishing, while tempting authors to game the system, play the market, push the limits, and incite bidding wars.

Perhaps the current practice of “paying it forward” is better for everyone all around.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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37 Thoughts on "What If Academic and Scholarly Publishers Paid Research Authors?"

“The implicit complaint each time someone mentions paying research authors in passing is that not paying them is unfair.”
No. The implicit complaint is that the publisher makes insanely high profits over someone else’s work entirely.
The problem is not that the author is not paid. The problem is that an article costs 48$ when it should cost 1.99$.

In many purchasing scenarios (subscriptions, site licenses, aggregations), the per-article cost is below your $1.99 price. And prices have been falling when you adjust for volume and inflation (

The challenge with single-article pricing is that it’s much more efficient to sell a bundle (an issue, a 30-day access, a portfolio), because that’s what most purchasers in academic and scholarly publishing buy, and it allows the costs to be spread over a larger set of content. So publishers price the individual article at a very high level to discourage single-article sales. Approaches like ReadCube are trying to lower the per-article pricing, but others have tried and failed because single-article sales at any price are not a high-volume business. Notably, one of the pioneers in article rentals shifted its business model to selling bundles as an aggregator ( Scholarly articles don’t sell one-by-one in general. Even free per-article availability (via their own site or via PMC/Sci-Hub/etc.) is usually a low percentage of any publisher’s traffic.

The music industry moved to single-song sales, and their revenues plummeted. The music industry overall is worth less than ESPN alone. To prove the power of the bundle, artists now make more from royalties off vinyl sales (where songs are not unbundled or sold individually) than they do from streaming services (

As for high profits, imagine spending $1 and making $0.15 in profit. That’s about the profit margin across the industry. Is that excessive? Google’s is about 18-29%, Apple’s is about 40%. Universities tend to make high profits, as well (, with non-profits leading the pack in the US.

Of course, publishers could take the approach of grocery stores, and simply not offer the opportunity to buy one egg, one slice of cheese, or one slice of bread. Then the high per-article price would no longer be a source of consternation. You never think to complain about that at the grocery store.

In any event, paying authors would only increase prices generally — both for subscriptions and for per-article sales.

I hope you are being deliberately provocative.
“Google’s is about 18-29%, Apple’s is about 40%.” Who cares. We’re not talking about science. It’s a complete different industry (or at least, it should be).
“My grocery store doesn’t let me buy 1 single egg.” Should we really bring up the old saying on the difference between “sharing an idea and sharing an apple (or an egg)”? [1]

The point is not the cost itself, but the profit obtained in front of scholars’ free work. Writing for free, reviewing for free, reading for a charge. This is what doesn’t make sense, not the price itself.
I know why single items cost so much, but I mention the “1.99 vs 48 $ paradox” just to point out that there is a huge amount of money that goes out to something completely external to the “science circle”. Research, production, publishing. What is the added value of the publisher here, and if it there is one, is it really worth all this money? When my library subscribes to something, where does my money literally go?

Forgive my naive simplification, but it seems that your whole piece starts from the wrong argument, that “scholars should be payed”. They are already being paid, by their institutions. They have salaries, or grants, or funds or whatever.

It’s not scholars who should be payed: it’s publishers who shouldn’t.

So, the root of your argument is that publishers, who provide a unique and valuable set of services for academia and science, shouldn’t be paid?

At no point in any model has that proven to create a market in which organizations want to provide a service.

Here is some reading about the “added value of the publisher” so you can understand:

Publishers are part of academic and scientific communication. This is the hugely misleading part of statements like “value-add.” There is no science without publication — for example, read “The Invention of Science,” where it becomes clear there actually was nothing like “science” until there was publication (“. . . there can be no science until there is a reliable way of publicizing knowledge.”). Treating publishers’ contributions as alien is a bewildering stance.

Most publishers are non-profit and tied to universities or scientific societies. And even with the large commercial publishers in the mix, their overall expense level within the overall the scientific endeavor is about 0.5%, which hardly seems worth all the hubbub.

I think the problem isn’t that the author isn’t paid OR that the article costs $48 v $1.99 but rather the persistent and troubling conflation of for profit publishers with all of scholarly publishing. Non profit publishers either turn no profit or in fact load other resources into the publication to cover the costs.

Non-profit publishers can be large and commercially successful (ACS, OUP, etc.). I think the challenge is more with the unique economics of our industry, rather than a divide between models around what to do with surplus revenues.

Kent, I think if you assess scholarly publishing by volume output, STEM (okay, probably just Bio-Med) dominates, and then the “unique economics” you’re talking about pertain to the majority of scholarly publishing. But if you look at scholarly publishing by discipline and then field, I think you’ll find that for many there is no surplus and there are often deficits associated with publishing. Thus, the entire question of whether to pay authors isn’t about where the surpluses are distributed but about how the deficits are made up. And thus my complaint about the premise of the comment above– as in so much in the discussion of the economics of scholarly publishing we assume that the largest publishers dominate every discipline and field when they don’t.

I agree. We do tend to let the largest gravitational bodies (commercial publishers, STEM publishers) distort our views. Point well-taken.

Spot on. A while ago I was paid (ca $100) to review a grant application for a national Academy of Sciences. The bureaucratic complications of currency and tax declarations for two countries (leaving me with net ca. $60) were really not worth the hassle for me, and must have cost the payers even more. And it was a job I would have done for free as part of my general obligation to the academic community.

Through multiple scenarios, I think you just demonstrated that paying authors leads to bizarre and unintended consequences for all players involved. It would radically change the nature of the scientific enterprise and the relationship of the author to their institutions, colleagues, funders, and readers. While not perfect, the indirect model of remuneration through the reputation economy seems to better align incentives. The problem is how to pay for the system in an information environment that is very leaky and getting more porous each day.

If we return to the basic functions of publishing: 1) registration, 2) certification, 3) dissemination, and 4) archiving, the remaining value proposition on which publishers still have a strong grasp is #2. Perhaps we should envision an economy that is based entirely on certification, understanding that the other major functions of publishing have been coopted and are likely never to return.

Phil, where is the pre-publication production in your scenario? In fields where there is little editing perhaps this works, but for narrative argument fields (pretty much all of HSS) it doesn’t.

I’m the last one to be dogmatic about a market solution that fits everyone, but if publishers find themselves unable to make money in a distribution model, if they want to survive, they will have find a way to pay for the services their authors and readers want.

I agree in general with this, but it’s a matter of degree, in a sense. Publishers still have a lot of upside with distribution, archiving, and registration. There have been some inroads, but they tend to be minor and erode the growth, not the core. Certification and registration are hard to separate in my mind, so I’d touch on that. I agree that certification is a major and undervalued aspect (

I worked for IPC Science and Technology Press 1978-87. We paid honoraria to all authors, referees and book reviewers on all our journals (now part of Elsevier). The Editorial Boards put a stop to this as they did not think such tawdry journalistic practices were appropriate for scientific and scholarly communication.

Pay the authors every time their work is cited ? Game on or is that game could be on

So then we drive a more aggressive market in citations, which is already aggressive enough to incite gaming (to your point). Authors in some countries are paid by their host institutions or employers based on the impact factor of the journal(s) they publish in, so the indirect incentives are enough already, and drive some degree of cheating already. If publishing in a high-impact journal might lead to more citations, why wouldn’t publishers of those journals charge more to publish in them? And who would pay the authors per citation? And who would monitor citations to make sure they weren’t there just to earn the authors kickbacks?

I was publisher of a set of journals of which if memory serves at least 3 out of 10 were first in IF. I had some calls over the years in which an author said publishing that article in X got me promoted. However, never did I have one author call and say how about sending me a check!

Lets admit it, the days of a professor standing on the corner and holding a tin cup with a sign alms for the poor ended with Dickens.

If on the one hand one published a journal with a low IF and offered a scientist $1,000 to publish an article while on the other the leading journal in the field offered nothing the scientist would forgo the $1,000.

In short, this isn’t about money!

This whole discussion so far ignores the common practice of paying authors of journal articles for their post-publication reproduction in anthologies, coursepacks, etc. I don’t know how STEM journals handle these payments, or whether they make them at all, but if they do (as publishers in the HSS fields have done for a long while), then some of the problems Kent notes remain–such as divvying up the revenues among a large number of authors, cutting multiple checks, dealing with currency problems, etc. These take the form of one-time payments, of course, not ongoing royalties, and the publisher typically takes a 50% cut of the proceeds. But sometimes these [payments can be quite significant in toto; I recall a number of articles in our humanities journals at Penn State generating revenues exceeding $10,000. Those who advocate for OA, and those who applaud decisions as in the GSU case, tend to forget that they are asking these authors to forego their monetary benefits. I wonder if they have ever bothered to ask these authors what they feel about foregoing such income streams, which they have clearly deserved. Talk about fairness!

And then we have the long-standing practice in monograph publishing of paying royalties to most, if not all, authors (as well as the reviewers we engage to review the manuscripts). These payments all need to be managed, flat fees in the case of reviewers, typically royalties paid out to authors (although at Penn State we eventually decided it would be cheaper administratively to pay a flat fee to a monograph author on publication instead of a constant trickle of royalties over many years). So it’s not as though there is no precedent at all in scholarly publishing for paying authors in various ways. It probably almost never happens in book publishing, though, that there are 1,000 co-authors!

This article misses the following: it is fundamentally unethical for a Publisher to extract content from a third party (author), and commercially benefit from the sale of this without returning any of the economic gains back to the provider of that content or his/her employer. Yes, the Publisher adds value and facilitates the dissemination, and assumes financial risk, and should be justly remunerated for this, but not at the excessive profit margins we see today, and not without transferring a fair portion to the content generator, or his/her employer (university, research institution). The ‘facilitation’ process has been, in an increasing number of cases, taken over by the University or research institution (University Presses, and even Professional Associations like the IoP), in order to moderate excessive profits and to return monetary gains to the University/Association.

Due to the advances in technology and its increased accessibility, this ‘facilitation’ process is becoming more accessible to individual academics, or ever smaller clusters of academics (academic associations) who are willing to perform these tasks and accept the risk (for example, the number of academics who have left traditional academic book publishers in order to self-publish is exploding. These are funds which would have otherwise lined the pockets of traditional academic book Publishers and have resulted in lower priced books for students). I anticipate that an increasing number of clustered academics (via their professional associations, etc.) will enter the world of article based publishing, as it becomes evident that the technologies are readily available (in conjunction with service providers who will will enable this), affordable and scaleable and that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. As regards the division of income, the appropriate economic models will emerge to accommodate the distribution of profits (either to the broader cluster, and/or to the individual participant), factoring in usage and quality considerations, while ensuring the integrity of the scientific process. Of course the proof will be in the pudding and this is one desert that I hope the coming decade will see being served to academics everywhere.

Do you consider Google (and all other search engines/discovery tools) to be similarly “unethical”? Google certainly extracts content from a third party (website creator), and commercially benefits from the use of this without returning any of the economic gains back to the provider of that content or his/her employer.

And doesn’t a research society journal return those economic gains back to the provider of that content, presuming they are members of the research community that society supports?

Google extracts content which has been made accessible by authors, and not content behind paywalls. This does not address the author’s ‘intentions’.

Having managed 6 research societies for 18 years, I can attest to the fact that many publishers (but not all) have not returned economic gains back to the provider of the content.

I think your argument is starting to veer off the road and go into the weeds here and losing some of its sense. Authors make their works accessible to Google because of the intangible benefits they gain from discovery. Authors make their works accessible to publishers because of the intangible benefits they gain from publication. The author’s intent is identical in both cases.

Having managed 6 research societies for 18 years, I can attest to the fact that many publishers (but not all) have not returned economic gains back to the provider of the content.

If you were managing a society and publishing a journal and not seeing any returns from it, then you were doing a poor job of management. The hundreds of societies I work with see the majority of their funding coming from their journals.

But we did see returns, from journals that were no longer ridiculously priced, and returned this back to the society.

I sometimes wonder what the Scholarly Kitchen’s real ‘raison d’etre’ is – to stimulate discussion outside the box, considering alternative alternatives to the doomed range of existing publishing models, or to defend it at all costs. Many academics and academic societies, in my opinion, have given up trying to change the academic behemoths, and are forging their own way ahead.

I’m not sure we have a raison d’etre. We are a collective of 19 different authors with 19 different viewpoints (plus the occasional guest author). Many of us are working directly for the societies and the academic institutions you mention and are forging new paths, just different ones than you are selling. I do agree that there is a great deal of upheaval happening, and it will be interesting to see which approaches prevail.

Let’s flip your ethical premise to see how it holds up: “[I]t is fundamentally unethical for a Publisher to receive content from a third party (author), and commercially benefit from the sale of this while returning economic gains back to the provider of that content or his/her employer.” I think that’s actually a little more problematic on the ethics front for scientific research publications.

To document the changes, I took away your inflammatory term “extract” because publishers don’t “extract” content from authors, they “attract” content submission in our industry, and then changed the economic relationship to what you imply. Apparently, you think it’s more ethical for the publisher to be beholden financially to the author and her/his employer, and for both of those to benefit from all the current incentives while adding direct remuneration to the mix? I’d suggest rereading the post with that in mind, as those relationships would change what authors submit and how employers behave, while compromising a lot of editorial decisions.

Yes, researchers and authors can assume more risk themselves these days, but many are finding it harder than they imagined as they flirt with this.

The perception that we will see a boom in professional associations entering academic and scientific publishing misses the point that most of the publishers now are academic and professional societies. One could argue they return less to society as they tend to hold their retained earnings in investment funds that in some cases exceed $100 million (some are as large at $700 million), instead of returning them to shareholders like a publicly-traded for-profit. As for universities, their endowments are huge, and in some cases they pay more to their investment bankers each year than they do to students to cover tuition increases.

I personally think there are big problems in how academia spends its money, how non-profit governance works, and in how governments fund science. If we were to spend half as much energy shining a light on those things to make them better, we’d get a lot farther a lot faster.

As noted above, publishers do more than “add value” — their existence is what makes science work. Without orderly publication of results, it would be just businesses and governments competing for supremacy with trade secrets and proprietary technology.

Your history is askew: professional societies and university presses were publishing STEM journals a long time before any large commercial publishers entered the business. The latter was mostly a post-WW II phenomenon. Societies have existed since the 1600s and university presses like Oxford date back to the late 16th century.

You are spot on…and since the advent of post WW2 commercial publishers that things have gone awry.

You state: “Yes, researchers and authors can assume more risk themselves these days, but many are finding it harder than they imagined as they flirt with this”. I would assert that they are finding it easier than they imagined, as they familiarise (and not ‘flirt’ – a somewhat inflammatory description of the their efforts to embrace the publishing facilitation processes) themselves with the tools that are available or the alternative publishing support services that will provide these services on their behalf. I know academics who have fully engaged the independent publishing world, and are reaping the rewards of their efforts. This is perhaps a relatively small number at present, but I expect the dam to burst in the coming years.

For the sake of completeness, let’s add to this discussion the disclosure that you run Glass Tree Academic Publishing, a new startup with the tagline, “Self-Publishing Dedicated to the Academic Community.” In your organization’s model, you keep 30% of the book royalties for self-published academic books.

I applaud your initiative, but I think a disclosure of your commercial interests in the self-publishing model would have been appropriate.

I make no secret of my affiliations and in my previous blogpost, I have made reference to this (see May 23 at 5:02 pm). Yes, we provide academic authors with 70% of the profits, where previously they would have received, on average, 9%.

Perhaps you can describe Redlinks commercial interests?

Well, what you’re calling “no secret” refers to a comment on a separate blog post written two days before mine by a separate author, and in that comment you never mention that you are the proprietor of Glass Tree, so there was no disclosure even at that. I don’t think that qualifies for the readers of this comment thread, or actually for readers of the other one.

I am not the proprietor of Glass Tree, but an employee. You have not responded to my question requesting that you describe your Redlink commercial interests?

It is the smallest of things but it might be of interest that the Chronicle by editorial policy uses Ms/Mr for faculty and does not use Dr. I don’t agree with this policy but, given you called it out as error, I thought you might be interested.

Thank you for pointing that out. It seems a little bizarre, as titles gained during higher education might make sense to reflect in stories about higher education in a publication devoted to higher education. Maybe too many tussles between PhD doctors and MD doctors?

In any event, thank you for pointing this out. I’ve modified the post to reflect this.

This is an extremely interesting article. Time and again questions have always been raised about why either readers (in subscription-based model) or authors (in OA model) have to pay to get access to research. If the current publication model is reversed, it would become very difficult for publishers to survive, considering the mass authorship and the amount of papers published every year. Another important angle is what happens to ‘predatory’ publishers in the reversed publishing model? Would they find it easy to thrive in a model where paying authors is a norm?

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