No author left behind:  Getting authors published who cannot afford article processing charges

Efforts to promote open access publishing ignore the many scholars who cannot afford the article processing charges of quality open access journals. Their situation may be about to get worse.

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Efforts to promote open access publishing ignore the many scholars who cannot afford the article processing charges of quality open access journals. Their situation may be about to get worse.

open accessOpen access has turned out to be a misnomer. Of course, free access to research findings is good for science and society. However, open access is clearly not freely open to the scholars who are required to pay exorbitant fees to publish their results, often out of their own pockets.

Andrew V. Suarez and Terry McGlynn 

  • Current proposals for accelerating a transition to full open access for all scholarly articles focus primarily on readers who cannot obtain paywalled articles that require a subscription or privileges at a library with subscriptions.
  • Much less attention to the many prospective authors who cannot pay article processing charges (APCs), but who fall outside a narrow range of eligibility for APC waivers and discounts.
  • This bias perpetuates global and local social inequalities in who gets to publish in quality open access journals and who does not.
  • Many open access journals provide explicit guidelines for authors from particular countries obtaining waivers and discounts, but are deliberately vague about policies and procedures for other classes of authors.
  • Many prospective authors lack resources for publishing an open access journal without having to pay out of their own pockets. They also lack awareness of how to obtain waivers. If they apply at all, they may be disappointed.
  • As an immediate solution, I encourage authors to query journals about waiver policies and share their experience in whether and how they obtain waivers with others in their social networks.
  • For a short while, it is also possible to provide feedback concerning implementation of an ambitious Plan S to encourage and require publication in open access journals. Read on and provide feedback while you can, but hurry.
  • In the absence of corrective action, a group of funding agencies is about to strengthen a model of open access publishing in which the costs of publishing are shifted to authors, most of whom are not receiving or applying for grants. Yet, they will effectively be excluded from publishing in quality of open access journals unless some compensatory mechanism is introduced.

Open access improves health care, especially in less resourced environments.

Open Access involves providing unrestricted free online access to scholarly publications. Among many benefits, open access facilitates clinicians, policymakers, and patients and their caretakers being able to obtain information for decision-making, when they lack subscription to paywalled journals or privileges at a library that subscribes.

The transition from the originally paywalled electronic bibliographic resource Medline to the open access PubMed and Google Scholar meant that without open access, such stakeholders could obtain titles and abstracts through, but making decisions only on this information can prove risky.

PLoS Medicine article noted:

Arthur Amman, President of Global Strategies for HIV Prevention, tells this story: “I recently met a physician from southern Africa, engaged in perinatal HIV prevention, whose primary access to information was abstracts posted on the Internet. Based on a single abstract, they had altered their perinatal HIV prevention program from an effective therapy to one with lesser efficacy. Had they read the full text article they would have undoubtedly realized that the study results were based on short-term follow-up, a small pivotal group, incomplete data, and unlikely to be applicable to their country situation. Their decision to alter treatment based solely on the abstract’s conclusions may have resulted in increased perinatal HIV transmission.”

Advancing open access for readers, but not for authors

wellcome trustCurrently initiatives underway to accelerate the transition to full and immediate open access to scientific and biomedical  publications:

“After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”

Among the proposed guiding principles are:

“Where applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by the Funders or universities, not by individual researchers; it is acknowledged that all scientists should be able to publish their work Open Access even if their institutions have limited means.”


“The journal/platform must provide automatic APC waivers for authors from low-income countries and discounts for authors in middle-income countries.”

Stop and think: what about authors who do not and cannot compete for external funding? The first 15 funders [there are currently 16]  to back Plan S accounted for only 3.5% of the global research articles in 2017, but their initiative is about to be implemented, more broadly mandating open access publishing.

Enforcing author‐pay models will strengthen the hand of those who have resources and weaken the hand of those who do not have, magnifying the north‐south academic divide, creating another structural bias, and further narrowing the knowledge‐production system (Medie & Kang 2018; Nagendra et al. 2018). People with limited access to resources will find it increasingly difficult to publish in the best journals. The European mandate will amplify the advantages of some scientists working in developed countries over their less affluent counterparts.

The author‐pays inequality may also affect equity of access within countries, including those considered developed, where there can be major differences between different research groups in their ability to pay (Openjuru et al. 2015). It is harder for disadvantaged groups from these jurisdictions to appeal for waivers (Lawson 2015), deepening the divide between those who can pay and those who cannot.

What exists now for authors who cannot afford article processing charges

What happens for authors who do not have such coverage of APCs– clinicians in community settings, public health professionals, independent scholars, patients and their advocates, or other persons without necessary affiliations or credentials who are nonetheless capable of making a contribution to bettering science and health care? That is a huge group. If they can’t pay, they won’t be able to play the publishing game or will do so in obscurity.

Too much confidence being placed in solutions that are too narrow in focus or simply do not work for this large and diverse group.

doaj logo_squareSolutions that are assumed to work, but that are inadequate

  1. Find a high quality open access journal using the DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals). Many of the journals that are indexed in this directory have free or low APCs.

The Directory of Open Access Journals is a service that indexes high quality, peer reviewed Open Access research journals, periodicals and their articles’ metadata. The Directory aims to be comprehensive and cover all open access academic journals that use an appropriate quality control system (see below for definitions) and is not limited to particular languages, geographical region, or subject areas. The Directory aims to increase the visibility and ease of use of open access academic journals—regardless of size and country of origin—thereby promoting their visibility, usage and impact.

DOAJ currently lists over 12,000 journals from 129 countries. It is growing rapidly, with 2018 being the best year to date. Over 1,700 journals were added. Reflecting the level of quality control, DOAJ in the same period rejected without review over 2000 poorly completed applications for journals to be included, removing them from the system so that they would not end up with the editorial teams.

Impressive? Sadly, a considerable proportion of DOAJ listed journals are obscure, narrow in specialization, and often not even listed in PubMed or Web of Knowledge/Web of Science. This is particularly true of the DOAJ journals without fees. did an analysis of over 400 open access journals without APCs and found only the top 31 had a JIF greater than 1.00. Only the top 104 had an impact factor above 0.500. The bottom quarter of journals had JIFs of less than 0.16.

A low impact journal can still be valuable in some contexts, especially if it is in a highly specialized field or contains information relevant to stakeholders not read English. However, even in modestly resourced settings that do not cover authors’ APCs, there are commonly pressures to publish in journals with JIFs more than 1.0 and stigma and even penalties for publishing in lower impact journals.

  1. Apply for waivers or reduction in APCs through a Global Initiative Program. Current proposals are for all journals to establish such programs. Most current programs are for countries on the United Nations Least Developed Country List or countries with the lowest Healthy Life Expectancy (HALE). The PLOS website description of this program for PLOS is particularly clear.


The PLOS Global Participation Initiative (GPI) aims to lower barriers to publication based on cost for researchers around the world who may be unable, or have limited ability, to publish in Open Access journals.

Authors’ research funded primarily (50% or more of the work contained within the article) by an institution or organization from eligible low- and middle-income countries is automatically eligible for assistance. If the author’s research funder is based in a Group 1 country, PLOS will cover the entire publication fee and there will be no charge. For authors whose research funder is part of Group 2, PLOS will cover all but part of the publication fee — the remaining publication fee will be $500 USD.

Stop and think: For scholars in Group 2 countries [Click and see which countries these are and which countries are excluded from any such relief. You may be surprised.], how many can come up with $500 per paper? To get concrete, consider a recent PhD in a Group 2 country who is forced to work in the service sector for lack of academic opportunities who needs two quality publications to improve her chances of receiving a postdoctoral opportunity in a better-resourced setting.

  1. Apply for a waiver based on demonstration of individual need and inability to pay. Some journals only provide waivers and discounts to authors in Group 1 or Group 2 countries. Other journals are more flexible. Authors have to ask, and sometimes this must occur before they begin uploading their manuscript. Here too, PLOS is more explicit than most websites and seemingly more generous in granting waivers or discounts.


The PLOS Publication Fee Assistance (PFA) program was created for authors unable to pay all or part of their publication fees and who can demonstrate financial need.

An author can apply for PFA when submitting an article for publication. A decision is usually sent to the author within 10 business days. PLOS considers applications on a case-by-case basis.

PLOS publication decisions are based solely on editorial criteria. Information about applications for fee assistance are not disclosed to journal editors or reviewers.

  • Authors should exhaust all alternative funding sources before applying for PFA. The application form includes questions on the availability of alternative funding sources such as the authors’ or co-authors’ institution, institutional library, government agencies and research funders. Funding disclosure information provided by authors will be used as part of the PFA application review.

  • Assistance must be formally applied for at submission. Requests made during the review process or after acceptance will not be considered. Authors cannot apply for the fee assistance by email or through direct request to journal editors.

The PLOS website states:

In 2017 PLOS provided $2.1 million in individual fee support to its authors, through the PLOS Global Participation Initiative (GPI) and Publication Fee Assistance Program.

That sounds like a generous sum of money. It does not distinguish between payments made through the PLOS Global Participation Initiative (GPI) and the fee assistance program requiring individual application. Consider some math.

APCs for PLOS One are currently $1,595 USD; for PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine, $3,000 USD.

In 2017, PLOS published ~23,000 articles, maybe 80% in PLOS One.

So, a lower estimate would be that PLOS took in $35,000,000 in APCs in 2017.

The Scholarly Kitchen reports that 2017 was not a good financial year for the Public Library of Science (PLOS). Largely as a result of a continued decline in submissions to PLOS One, which peaked at over 32,000 in 2013, revenue was down by $2 million. The Scholarly Kitchen quotes the PLOS’ 2017 Financial Overview:

“All our decisions in 2017 (and 2018) have been driven by the need to be fiscally responsible and remain a sustainable non-profit organization.”

In response, PLOS is increasing APCs by US$100 for 2019.

PLOS is a non-profit, not a charitable organization. It should be no surprise that PLOS did not respond to my request that they publicize more widely details of their program to waive or discount APCs for authors outside of what is done for the Global Participation Initiative. Presumably, at least some authors who cannot pay full APCs find ways of getting reimbursed. A procedure for too easily getting waivers and discounts from PLOS would encourage gaming and authors not utilizing resources in their own settings that are involve more effort, take more time or are more uncertain in whether they will provide reimbursements.

PLOS provides insufficient details of the criteria for receiving a waiver. There is no readily available information about what proportion of requested waivers are granted or the average size of discounts.

My modest efforts to promote publishing in quality open access journals by authors who are less likely to do so

 I work with a range of authors who sometimes need assistance getting published in the open access journals that will most reach the readership that they want to influence. For instance, much probing of published papers for errors and some bad science is done by people on the fringe of academia who currently do not have affiliations. We downloaded and reanalyzed data from a PNAS article, and the authors responded by altering the data without acknowledging they had done so, reanalyzing the data and ridiculing us in a PLOS One article. We had to request a waiver of APCs formally before it was granted. I had to provide evidence of my retirement. Open access journals, like those of PLOS or Nature Springer do not grant waivers automatically for substantive criticism of published articles, even when serious problems are being identified.

As another example, patient citizen scientists have had a crucial role in reanalizing data from the PACE trial of cognitive behavior therapy and graded exercise therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome. These activists have faced strong resistance from the PACE investigators and their supporters when they attempt to publish. It is nonetheless important for these activists reach clinicians and policymakers outside of their own community. Journal of Health Psychology organized a special issue around an article by patient scientist activist Keith Geraghty, ‘PACE-Gate’: When clinical trial evidence meets open data access. A last minute decision by the editorial board (which included me) was crucial in the issue’s rapid distribution within the patient community, but also among policy makers.

A large group of authors who are disadvantaged by current open access publishing policies are early career academics in Eastern Europe and Latin American countries, whom I reach in face-to-face and web-based writing workshops. Their universities do not typically fall into group 1 or group 2 countries, although they share some of the same disadvantages in terms of resources. These ECAs often lack mentorship because the older generation academics and administrators did not have to publish anything of quality, if they often had to publish at all. This older cohort nonetheless hold the ECAs responsible for improving their institutions reputation and visibility with expectations that would be much more appropriate to properly mentored ECAs in well-sourced settings. I have heard these unrealistic expectations referred to as the “field of dreams” administrative philosophy.

It is important for these ECAs to publish in open access journals in their own language, which uniformly low JIFs and often not listed international electronic bibliographic sources. Yet, they also must publish in English-language journals of at least minimal JIF. When I discussed these ECAs with colleagues in more sourced settings, I was criticized falling into the common logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent” by assuming JIF is 1) a true measure of “goodness” and 2) that publishing in smaller, non-English journals is a penalty. My reply is ‘please don’t shoot the messenger’ or blame the victims of irrational and unrealistic expectations.

In brief trainings, I can provide an overview of the process of getting published in the quality journal in a rapidly changing time of digitalization and quick obsolescence of the old ways of doing things. Often these ECAs are struggling without a map. I can show them how to use resources like JANE (Journal/Author Name estimator) to select a range of possible journals; how to avoid the trap of predatory journals, which are increasingly sophisticated and appealing to naïve authors; creative ways of utilizing Google Scholar to be strategic about titles and abstracts; and the more general use of publisher and journal websites to access the resources that are increasingly real there. But ultimately, it is important for ECAs to gain and curate their own experiences and share them as a substitute for the mentorship and accumulated knowledge about publishing in the most appropriate journals that they do not have.

In many of these settings, there is an ongoing crucial transition with retirements opening new opportunities. Just as these ECAs struggle to gain the achievements and credentials that success in their careers require, it could be coming more difficult for them to publish in the most appropriate open access journals. Implementation of Plan S as it is currently envisioned may mean that some major funding agencies and well resourced institutions will assume more of a burden for absorbing the costs of publishing open access.

Scholars with access to international funding and coverage of the APCs required by the dominant model of open access publishing have a huge advantage over many scholars without such resources: scholars outing and correcting bad science; patient citizen scientists; and the large group of scholars disadvantaged by being in the Global South simply being many other settings incapable of providing relief from APCs. It may not be possible to fill gaps in the opportunity to publish in quality open access journals if the dominant business model continues to be author focused APCs or subsidies by publishers and journals. The gap may widen with implementation of Plan S.

global south
Global South

A closing window in which to attempt to influence implementation of Plan S…

If you are concerned about inequalities in the opportunities to publish in quality open access journals, there is a small window in which you can express your concerns and potentially influence the implementation of a broad plan to transform publishing in open access journals, Plan S of cOALition S.


cOALition S is a group of national research funding organizations, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC), launching an initiative to make full and immediate Open Access to research publications a reality. It is built around Plan S, which consists of one target and 10 principles. Other researchers from across the world are signing on, including China in December 2018. Nonetheless, Plan S is decidedly focused on issues arising in Western Europe where there well-resourced universities have access to supportive funding organizations.

The 10 principles are no longer up for debate, but there is an opportunity to influence how they will be implemented. Until February 1, 2019, feedback can be left concerning two key questions

  1. Is there anything unclear or are there any issues that have not been addressed by the guidance document?
  2. Are there other mechanisms or requirements funders should consider to foster full and immediate Open Access of research outputs?

Please click and provide feedback now, before it is too late.

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