Gold Open Access Journals: From scientists’ “publish or perish” to publishers’ “publish to get rich”

I’ve been sensitized to how privileged I’ve been not ever to have to pay publication fees  because of either grant funding, the support of a well resourced university, or  a waiver. I have become worried about the contribution of open access publishing to gross inequalities in who gets to publish in quality open access journals,

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I’ve lost track of how many papers I have published open access, how many manuscripts I reviewed for open access journals, and how many times I have recommended the advantages of publishing open access to participants in my writing workshops. But of late, I’ve been sensitized to how privileged I’ve been not ever to have to pay publication fees  because of either grant funding, the support of a well resourced university, or  a waiver. I have become worried about the contribution of open access publishing to gross inequalities in who gets to publish in quality open access journals without having to pay out of their own pockets. We need to work for a different model.

Green Open Access publishing is not sustainable.

Green OA is a business model by which scholarly publications are available free to anyone with an Internet connection, with finances tied to Article Processing Charges (APCs) paid by or on behalf of authors, rather than journal subscriptions.

In the last edition of Mind the Brain, No Author Left Behind, I raised issues concerning the many authors who cannot not receive waivers or affordable discounts for their article processing charges (APCs). At least not for the of quality open access journals that would allow them to get the credit for the work that they deserve and reach the audiences that they should reach.

I ended up questioning whether Green Open Access is a suitable model for ensuring that authors, as well as readers, benefit from the accelerating pace with which open access publication is implemented and even mandated in some settings.

I follow up the last edition with a guest blog from Professor Ferran Martinez-Garcia, a senior Spanish cell biologist who has witnessed the rapid transition from conventional bound-volume, subscription journals to open access under a variety of business models.

Professor Martinez-Garcia too expresses concerns about the sustainability of green open access and poses an alternative solution, namely, scientific organizations or scholarly societies stepping in and financing free or low fee open access publishing. I think this is a part of sustainable open access publishing, if not the whole. He makes a lot of astute observations and a well-written, thoughtful article.

Guest Author: Ferran Martinez-Garcia is  Professor of Cell Biology and Histology and head of the Lab of Functional Neuroanatomy (NeuroFun) at Universitat Jaume I.

Special thanks to Mapping Ignorance,* for Permission to reprint this article. Mapping Ignorance is an initiative of the Chair of Scientific Culture of the University of the Basque Country under the Project Campus of International Excellence – Euskampus

current contentsI’m a man slowly sliding into the old age. Being a scientist (a simple science worker), this means that for decades I’ve become familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of struggling to adapt to a constant, quick change of everything. In the very beginning of my career, still an undergrad, I joined a lab where my first duty was to leaf reprint requestthrough the weekly issue of Current Contents® Science Edition where the Professor had marked some papers, according to his interests. I had to write postcards to the corresponding authors of these papers to request a reprint. Luckily, a couple of weeks afterwards we (the Professor and, in a way, myself) received a large brown envelope that contained an original reprint of the paper. Reprint is an old-fashioned term, a high-quality-printed paper, separated from the rest of the issue of the journal (in Spanish we used to call this a “separata”).

In those old times, the early 1980s, Spain was still a developing country and the libraries of our university were subscribed to very few journals of our interest. We visited regularly several libraries to get Xerox copies of the few papers available. But we had to request reprints of many papers directly to their authors. A lot. When I started my PhD I was already requesting reprints myself, and in about a decade, I’ve got a collection of nearly 5000 reprints. Now I don’t know what to do with all that stuff. Probably I’m destroying it to recycle many kilograms of paper. In case I need one of these old papers, I’m sure I’ll be able to find it in the journal webpage (some journals are scanning and uploading papers of the pre-pdf era, the inexistent God bless them!). Alternatively (I confess it) I will look for it in Sci-Hub (a Peace Nobel Prize is awaiting Alexandra Elbakyan; here it is my proposal).

I’m not prone to longing for the past. Old times were definitely not good times. During the early 1990s the Web grew up, and the first scientific journals started composing pdf files of their papers and launched electronic subscriptions. I immediately understood this was the beginning of a new, fantastic era. The libraries of several public universities of Spain (including mine) made a consortium and negotiated an agreement with Elsevier, Springer, Nature… And, suddenly, we got free online access to thousands and thousands of interesting papers. In the beginning, I printed out the papers I was interested in and added them to my old-fashioned reprint collection. But soon I realised how stupid I was being.

I first heard the term “open access” by the end of the 1990s. The idea looked quite utopic and even revolutionary: scientific papers available through the web to everyone, for free. This allowed free access to scientific information even to labs in developing countries with low funding (I was very sensitive to that, you may understand why). The counterpart was that someone had to pay for the system to be sustainable. And we, the scientists, were the chosen ones, thus leading to another new concept: publication fee. Once your paper is accepted, after a hard peer-review process, you receive an invoice that you have to pay if you want your paper to be published open access. By this time I became a senior PI and I understood what all this meant: I had to get money not only for salaries, equipment, reagents, glassware, registration and attendance to meetings… but also for publication fees. In the ensuing years, new Open Access journals1 appeared and they were very successful. Their Impact Factors rose and they became Q1 in JCR (the journals were it is worth publishing) to the detriment of the old, traditional journals that mostly became Q2 (where you prefer not to publish if you want to get projects and to promote). Frontiers, BMC, PLOS and so on became the target journals for many scientists.

I played the game as soon as I had money. In 2011, I started in a big way: I edited a special topic issue for Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, in which one of the papers was by our group. At that time, the publication fee for Frontiers journals was 900 euros, but I received a discount for being associated editor and my invoice was finally 750 euros. I found it quite expensive, but it was worth. I kept publishing in OA journals while still trying to publish in high-IF traditional paper journals (I couldn’t afford to publish only OA; I can’t indeed). And I received dozens of paper to review from many different journals, most of them also OA. I kept playing the game and did my job once and again.

Last year (2017) I received an invoice from Frontiers, for the publication fee of another paper by our group. The index of retail prices was very high, the invoice amounted 2116.50 USD. I suspect that this had to do with a press release appeared in February 2013: “Nature Publishing Group and Frontiers form alliance to further open science2. And I realised that Open Access publishing had become a big, a huge business. A business with high benefits made on scientists’ work, our work. We look for funds (mainly from public funding agencies), we do the research, we write the papers, we work for free in the peer-review process and finally, we pay ultra-expensive publication fees. Just for the high profit of private publishing companies.

That Open Access journals are a big business is quite evident, in spite of some very respectable journals claiming the contrary3. An interesting paper on the history and nature of OA published some time ago in one of the leading OA journals (PLOS One)4 closes its Introduction with a straightforward sentence:Open Access is a new technology-enabled business model, which is gaining increasing acceptance”. Crystal clear.

An OA Journal usually has an attractive, indexed webpage with all the information on the journal, where the published papers are directly available to everyone. There are an editor-in-chief and a small crew that run the journal. Plus many associate editors. The journal needs a good submission platform. When an OA journal is working stably, once a manuscript is submitted, the editor or associate editors assign reviewers and a bot starts sending message and reminders to the associate editors, reviewers and authors in order to pressure them to do their job in time: referees should send their reviews, authors should respond to their queries. The editors or associate editors observe this process, which repeats once and again until the editors take a final decision and the paper is either accepted (commonly) or rejected. Therefore, associate editors, scientists that usually work for free, referees, scientists that work hard but are not paid at all, and the authors, scientists that work very hard and pay a lot of money, do most of the job using the submission platform, with the annoying help of the insisting bot.

I’ve made my calculations. An OA Journal publishing 100 paper per year (about 2 papers per week) has annual direct incomes of about 175.000-200.000€ (in some cases even 300.000€). Most OA journals belong to groups that publish several journals focused on different aspects of a given branch of science. This way, the group and its team may run 10-20 or more journals, thus reducing costs and increasing benefits a lot5. Since OA ensures generalised access to all the published papers, the impact factor of OA Journals increases and this boosts the interest of scientists, always looking for Q1 journals to publish their work in, to publish their work in these OA journals. In addition, once the journal is running at a regular pace, the production costs of such journals relatively stable, so that they get more benefits if they publish more papers. The strategy to achieve this is to publish special issues on very specific subjects, provided there is a scientist wanting to do it and acting as a guest or associate editor (indeed doing the job of the editor-in-chief for this special issue). That’s why we receive everyday SPAM from different publishing companies offering their journals to publish special issues, scientific meeting proceedings, and so on. The more papers an OA journal publishes, the higher the benefits. From scientists’ “publish or perish” to publishers’ “publish to get rich”.

This situation is clearly not sustainable. Scientists, workers of science, receive pressure from multiple agents. On the one hand, we need to publish (publish or perish is still a valid leitmotif for us). But now we need to publish Q1 journals if we want to promote and get funds to keep doing research. And we should do this not just for ourselves (I’m at the end of my career, I can’t promote further than being a full professor with six sexenios6), but especially for keeping our labs alive for the future of our people, PhD students and junior associate professors. And now, we are also pressed to publish open access. This is indeed promoted and required by the national 2011 “Ley de la Ciencia, la Tecnología y la Innovación” (Science, Technology and Innovation Act) if your research has been produced with public funding. And Spain is not an isolated case. This is happening everywhere. Open access philosophy apparently promotes a democratic, solidary and transparent science system, so that governments and public funding agencies are demanding the researchers to acquire the compromise of publishing OA as a sine qua non requisite just to apply for funds. We keep this compromise thanks to Green Open Access, publishing our pre-prints in public, free-access repositories of our institutions. I wonder why we don’t skip the journal and just publish our manuscripts in the repository without the need for journal submission and peer review. I sincerely think that the quality of my papers would be more or less the same (I’m very perfectionist and know how to do my job after 30 years of experience), and the publication time would be substantially reduced7.

Meanwhile, a few private publishing companies are rubbing their hands in glee at such a succulent perspective of future benefits. And we, the scientists, are seeing how an important part of our budget goes to those companies, instead of nourishing our labs. In addition, we are working hard for the benefit of these companies by doing research, writing papers for their journals and reviewing manuscripts for them.

Some governments and funding agencies have negotiated direct payment to the OA journals of the publication fees corresponding to the papers authored by the researchers they fund, a measure taken to guarantee open access science (this is no the case of Spain’s public funding agencies yet). If you are funded by those agencies, once you have a paper accepted in an OA journal, you might indicate which is your funding agency and you save the publication costs (maybe a part), the agency pays them for you (I suppose these agencies are applied advantageous fees). This might give you the false impression that you are saving money, you don’t have to dedicate part of your budget to publication fees in OA journals. But obviously, the agencies have to include these expenses in their budgets, thus necessarily reducing direct funding to researchers. There is no trick.

In this context, I’m not surprised by the recent news8 on a disagreement between the Bibsam Consortium (a Swedish governmental agency) and one of the main (oligopolistic) multinational publishing company, Elsevier Inc. In words of Astrid Söderbergh Widding, President of Stockholm University, Chairman of the Bibsam consortium steering committee and Head of the negotiation team:

Increasing costs of scientific information are straining university budgets on a global scale while publishers operate on high-profit margins. An alternative to the current publishing and pricing model is ‘open access,’ where institutions pay to publish their articles and the articles become open for everyone to read, immediately upon publication. We need to monitor the total cost of publication as we see a tendency towards a rapid increase of costs for both reading and publishing. The current system for scholarly communication must change and our only option is to cancel deals when they don’t meet our demands for a sustainable transition to open access.

As a consequence of this, the Bibsam Consortium has, after 20 years, decided not to renew the agreement with the scientific publisher Elsevier, as the publisher was not able to present a model that met the demands of the Consortium.

This is the problem. Is there a solution? I think the answer is YES. Scientists have, logically, a leading role in scientific publication and the solution to this unbearable situation is in our hands. We cannot be working for the benefit of private companies anymore. Moreover, measures of governments and funding agencies designed to promote open access policy (enforcing researchers to publish in OA journals; reaching millionaire agreements with publishing oligopolistic companies) have failed because they were inadequate. The solution is that, once again, science workers (scientists) start leading and commanding the publication of our results. Scientific societies, national and international, were promoters of classical journals. For instance, in my field, neuroscience, the International Brain Research Organisation published Neuroscience as its official journal. The journal is currently being published by Elsevier Inc. A couple of years ago, IBRO announced the launch of a new OA journal, IBRO Reports. Guess who’s running it: Elsevier. The Federation of European Neuroscience Societies, FENS, has also an official journal, European Journal of Neuroscience. It is published in association with another private publisher, Wiley-Blackwell. The official journal of the American Society for Neuroscience is the Journal of Neuroscience. And Behavioral Neuroscience is directly published by the American Psychology Association (APA). It seems that American scientific societies are doing their job, whereas European ones are neglectful and prefer to rely on private publishers. This is harmful to their researchers and for the branch of science they have to defend and promote. A change in their policy is urgently needed.

And here is a solution to the problems I have discussed above. Scientific societies, both European and American, must start running themselves open access journals. They might apply sensible publication fees to their authors, lower than 1000 euros/dollars. They might also give special discounts to researchers acting as reviewers for the journal. And they might, even so, get moderate benefits that would help the corresponding society to promote its scientific or academic speciality. On the other hand, funding agencies might help subsidizing those scientific societies applying these OA policies, to boost the growth of fair OA journals, instead of paying astronomic amounts to OA journals for the only benefit of private, oligopolistic publishing companies.

This is my proposal. We, science workers, should get rid of private publishers and go a step ahead to control our own publication systems.

The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009. Laakso M, Welling P, Bukvova H, Nyman L, Björk BC, Hedlund T. PLoS One. 2011;6(6):e20961. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020961.

5Frontiers in Neuroscience journal series, with 34 different journals, is a successful example of such a business. Frontiers has, in addition, series of journals in other science topics, “500 academic specialities” according to their marketing campaign.

 

6 In Spain, professors and researchers undergo an evaluation of their research quality every six years. A positive evaluation, a sexenio (literally six-year period), is awarded a salary supplement. In addition, sexenios are key for professional promotion.

 

7 Santiago Ramon y Cajal had so many results to publish that he decided to save time and effort by founding his own journal. It was there where most of his work was published. I’m not comparing my ridiculum vitae with Cajal’s magnificent work, but I often think on his solution to the shortage of time.

 

https://openaccess.blogg.kb.se/2018/05/16/sweden-stands-up-for-open-access-cancels-agreement-with-elsevier/

*Special Note of Thanks.

Reprinted with permission from Mapping Ignorance is an initiative of the Chair of Scientific Culture of the University of the Basque Country under the Project Campus of International Excellence – Euskampus.

Do check out the other posts at Mapping Ignorance.  The About page of the blog states

Every time we make a new scientific discovery we sense where the limit of knowledge is, we feel where ignorance begins. Science is, for certain, what we think we know, but more precisely, it is being aware of the boundaries of the unknown.

In this blog we try to translate cutting edge scientific research into an educated lay-person language; consequently, as we do this, we will be Mapping Ignorance. Our goal is very simple: to spread both the latest developments in science and technology and a scientific worldview facilitating the access to it. To achieve this Mapping Ignorance is written by specialists in each field of expertise coordinated by a dedicated editor; the aim of them all is to make sometimes abstruse but otherwise wonderful scientific and technical information enjoyable by the interested general reader.

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.”

And

“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. Eigenfactor.com 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.

PLOS GLOBAL PARTICIPATION INITIATIVE

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.

PLOS PUBLICATION FEE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

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.

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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.