Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Shaun Khoo. Shaun is a postdoctoral fellow at the Université de Montréal where he studies the neuroscience of addiction. He is the founder of Episteme Health Inc., non-profit association that aims to provide free open access neuroscience publishing.
A goal of open access is a reduction in barriers to knowledge for no additional cost. In fact, the Budapest Open Access Initiative envisioned an open access world could be achieved at lower cost than traditional publishing. More recently, the University of California’s Pay it Forward project relies on the idea that authors will exercise their market power to put downward pressure on article processing charges (APCs). But as a scientist, my evaluation criteria are predominately centered around ‘more papers in higher ranking journals’. I am doubtful that authors have ever had much market power and, to the extent that we do, I have no expectation we will be using it to push down fees.
Please take my copyright
Under traditional subscription publishing, authors would assign their copyrights to publishers for free or even pay for the privilege of doing so. Surveys of academics have found the majority of authors believe that copyright should be retained by authors. But when it comes time to sign a copyright transfer agreement, almost everyone signs even though around half are reluctant to do so. Only around 2% of authors try to modify the terms of copyright agreements. Given there is a significant risk that negotiating around copyright could delay or prevent publication, it’s not surprising that authors are not willing to play copyright hardball with their careers.
In the open access world, it is still the case that many authors are not getting what they want with copyright. Around a third of authors would prefer to restrict commercial use of their work. Yet, large open access publishers like BMC and Frontiers will only publish works under a Creative Commons Attribution license that permits commercial use. While this might please Plan S funders, it means that even when authors are paying customers, they do not have the leverage to change the terms of their publishing agreements.
Do authors have power over price?
There is no reason why authors who can pay an APC will choose cheaper journals. University of California librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason argues that in an APC-gold open access world, authors will be incentivized to consider the APC when considering journals for their papers. It is true that open access has added a lot of price variability into publishing, but it has also added complexity and increased risks for authors, enhancing the market power of publishers.
The current publishing landscape is a fragmented patchwork of institutional and funder open access mandates, with journals promoting green, gold and diamond/platinum open access. Authors now need to know the difference between a preprint, post-print, and a version of record, and have a working knowledge of publisher embargoes, copyright, and creative commons licensing. The information asymmetry between authors and publishers means that authors can’t realistically assess whether an APC is reasonable or not.
In some respects, a higher APC represents a form of insurance. The rise of predatory publishers charging low fees, has increased the risks for authors. If a librarian subscribes to a bad journal, they can just cancel it, but a manuscript represents months, or possibly years of effort. Paying a few thousand dollars from research funds to avoid having it held hostage is a bargain.
To the extent that authors have the power of choice in the scholarly publishing market, we are not using it to drive down APCs. In a recent study, I found no evidence that journals that increase or introduce an APC lose business in terms of article volume. In fact, tracking APCs at major commercial publishers from 2012-2018 showed that higher APCs tended to predict higher article volumes – consistent with how the majority of open access papers are published in a minority of fee-charging journals.
To the extent that authors have an incentive to try and save money on APCs, it is probably trivial when compared with the imperative to publish more papers in higher ranking journals. No librarian is ever going to care more about my career than I do, so while a librarian might balk at a $3,000 subscription to the Journal of Neuroscience, I would happily spend $6,000 in research funds to put an elite journal title on my CV. As publishers are happy to point out, publishing costs are around 1% of research expenditure, so it doesn’t make much difference to a project’s overall costs if we take the more expensive option.
Succeed alone where consortia have failed
If an $11 million customer like the University of California or consortia representing Germany and Sweden cannot get a satisfactory deal from Elsevier, it doesn’t seem likely that authors will be keeping APCs in check. APCs are already rising faster than inflation when fully open access journals make up around 15-20% of the market for journals or articles, so imagine what could happen if demand was increased further by Plan S-style mandates. Having authors pay APCs doesn’t change our evaluation criteria, the value of joining an exclusive club by publishing in a particular journal, or force publishers to compete on price. Instead, authors are competing to publish more papers in higher ranked and more expensive journals, just like we always have.