The United States Office for Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) is rumoured to be gearing up to release an Open Access (OA) policy, and like cOAlition S before it, both the funders involved and the researchers affected will need to consider different approaches to covering the costs of Article Processing Charges (APCs) that the majority of journals will charge to make an article OA.
Very selective journals need to charge a lot of money for APCs, mainly because the rare article that is accepted for publication has to cover the costs of assessing and rejecting 10, 20, or even 50 other manuscripts. Funders and institutions balk at these charges – often north of $4,000 – because they seem so disconnected from the apparent costs of publishing an article. Moreover, why should funders or institutions pay for peer review services delivered to other researchers?
As has been noted before, charging a submission fee and a publication fee is a fairer system, largely because authors cover the costs of reviewing and publishing their own articles. Authors are not responsible for costs incurred by anyone else’s submission, and the fees for each article are correspondingly much lower. For example, as I laid out in a previous post, one can approximate the APC at a wide range of journals through the formula (1/acceptance rate)*350 + 850. Authors of accepted articles only pay a $350 submission fee and $850 publication fee, for a total of $1200, even at selective journals with very low acceptance rates. For a 25% acceptance rate, the equivalent APC without a submission fee would be around $2250, for a 10% acceptance rate the APC would be $4350.
However, there is widespread apprehension that introducing submission fees will deter authors from submitting to fee-charging journals in favor of those that don’t have such charges. Editorial rejections are a big driver of this concern: it is frustrating to spend several hundred dollars to submit your article only to have it back in your inbox within ninety minutes. This situation can be alleviated by further separating the fees into a small submission fee, a fee for peer review, and a fee to cover the costs of publishing the accepted article (see an upcoming Scholarly Kitchen post for a proposal about this). Nonetheless, there is a world of difference between free and every other amount, and even a very small mandatory submission fee may deter authors.
An alternative is to give authors a choice of how they pay for their article:
- Pay a submission fee to cover peer review, with an additional publication fee if their article is accepted, or
- Submit for free, but pay a (much higher) APC if their article is accepted
Offering this choice could be a simple way to bring journals into compliance with funder APC caps: affected researchers can choose the submission & publication fee (hereafter “sub/pub”) option, which should always be lower than the straight APC.
How does offering this choice affect journal revenue? At first blush, it doesn’t have much effect. As long as (1/acceptance rate * submission fee) + publication fee = APC, total revenue remains about the same no matter how many authors choose the sub/pub option.
As an example, imagine a journal with a 25% acceptance rate and a $2250 APC. For 1000 submissions and 250 published articles per year, total annual revenue would be $562,500. The option of $350 submission fee and a $850 publication fee maintains this revenue, even when everyone opts to pay the submission fee (see Figure below).
One way to understand this flat line is to picture (1/0.25) = 4 manuscripts being submitted under the APC option, and 4 coming in under the sub/pub option. In the APC case none of the articles pays a submission fee, and the one that is accepted pays the APC of $2250. In the sub/pub case, all four articles pay the submission fee (4 x $350 = $1400) and the one that gets accepted pays an additional publication fee of $850, for a total revenue of $2250.
The above assumes that authors are equally likely to choose either option. In reality, authors who are more confident that their article will get accepted should choose the sub/pub fee, as their total fee will be much less than the APC. Moreover, the higher quality of their work means their articles are less likely to receive a frustrating editorial rejection.
Authors who are less confident about their chances should choose the APC route, as their chances of having to eventually pay the APC are relatively low. People also tend to discount future fees compared to fees they have to pay right now. Opting for the APC also makes sense if your article has a higher chance of an editorial rejection.
A crude way to approximate the effect of these choices on revenue is to divide authors into two groups. One group is ‘confident’ and submits work that is likely to be accepted (acceptance rate = 45%), and another group is ‘less confident’ and submits research that only rarely gets accepted (acceptance rate = 5%). If the journal receives 500 articles from each group, the overall acceptance rate is still 0.25. Again, the APC is $2250, the submission fee is $350, and the publication fee $850.
The figure below shows how total revenue changes as the confident and less confident groups increasingly choose to pay the sub/pub fees. The diagonal black line matches the line in the first figure above, where both groups choose the sub/pub fee at the same rate.
Below the diagonal line (red area) the journal receives less revenue, as here the confident authors are increasingly opting to pay the sub/pub fee. As their acceptance rate is close to 50% the journal only gets roughly $350 + $350 + $850 = $1550 per pair of these authors that choose the sub/pub route, rather than $2250 per pair from the APC.
Above the diagonal line (blue area), revenue increases as less confident authors increasingly choose the sub/pub fees – only 1 in 20 of these articles get accepted and therefore only 1 in 20 pays the APC. If instead these 20 articles choose the sub/pub fees, the total revenue is much higher (20 x $350 + $850 = $7850).
Given that confident authors are more motivated to choose the sub/pub fee, one would expect that introducing a choice of fee types would almost always decrease journal revenue (i.e. move it into the red area). This tendency can be ameliorated in the obvious way: increase the fees. The figure below shows total revenue when the submission fee is increased to $400 and the publication fee to $1050. Again, the red area indicates decreased revenue.
However, raising the sub/pub fees could deter confident authors from submitting their higher quality work to the journal, which is an undesirable outcome. Having a higher APC also boosts revenue: for an APC of $3000, even a 50% uptake of sub/pub fees by confident authors and 0% by less confident authors is still revenue neutral (see figure below, note the expanded revenue scale).
These analyses are admittedly simplistic – authors do not fall into two neat groups with very different acceptance rates, and many other factors feed into the calculation of APCs. The editorial office would need to be blinded from the author’s fee choice, allowing acceptance/rejection decisions to remain free from financial incentives. However, giving authors a choice between APCs and paying submission and publication fees does seem to have several strengths:
- Authors can publish in very selective OA journals without paying an exorbitant APC, increasing their accessibility
- Highly-selective, high-quality journals can maintain their standards of rigor without having to charge exorbitant APCs and excluding authors that can’t afford them
- This choice may provide a simple route for journals to comply with mandates that limit how much researchers can pay for publication.
- Since authors can still choose to submit for free, a journal can experiment with submission fees without losing authors to competing journals.
- Publishers can blunt criticism over the high costs of publication by allowing researchers to publish work in a wide range of journals for ~ $1200, which is less than the current APC at the biggest megajournals (currently $1790 at Scientific Reports, $1595 at PLOS ONE)
Who will take the plunge and try it out?