Monday, January 28, 2013

Who Pays in Author Pay?

I have read several comments recently indignantly protesting that "author-pay-journals" are not after all actually "author-pay". The fees the journal charges for publication of an article are supposed to be called "article processing charges", and there are supposed to be safeguards in place to guarantee that articles are published whether or not the fees are collected. These are safeguards offered with the best of intentions. They are hopelessly naïve and perhaps even slightly dishonest.

The new open access mathematics journals offered by Cambridge University Press are a good example. Proponents claim that once a paper is accepted for publication, an author has merely to arrange for his/her institution to send a letter stating that it is unwilling to pay the article charges – with no need for justification whatsoever. And I am quite certain that in the heady early days of gold open access, some institutions and funding agencies will indeed pay the charges. But some will not, especially without required justification. Over time, will the former continue to subsidize the latter? Surely not, and surely a business model built on volunteer payments alone cannot sustain itself in the long-run.

Several years ago, earnest scholars who had begun free online journals ran out of volunteer time and the modest amount of money needed to keep their journals running. These were high-quality journals with admirable goals, and the scholars proposed a simple scheme to keep them going: They asked libraries to pay a very small subscription fee, hoping that many small fees add up to the modest support they needed. That small fee would be a contribution to the battle against high subscription fees for commercial journals, they argued. Surely libraries would want to contribute. Invariably, they did not. If universities could access journals for free, why should they use scarce dollars to pay for access?

Now we are expected to believe that universities will make a much more substantial voluntary contribution to publish the papers of their own faculty. Maybe, for a while, they will. But over time, as dollars become scarce and there is pressure to spend them on other important things, even wealthy universities will decline to subsidize less-wealthy universities.

The long-term consequences of these policies are determined partly by simple business principles, but even more so by basic human psychology. Alas, the naïve scholars who assure us that gold open access can be accomplished without authors ever actually paying the charges are not especially attuned to human psychology (or business principles). The publishers who are their partners in the new journals are not naïve, however, and the initial low article charges and assurances that no one will actually have to pay are slightly dishonest. They know better. This is simply bait-and-switch, albeit in a scholarly and refined setting.

The author-pay model is exactly that—the author pays. We should not try to obscure reality with fanciful promises. Right now, the fee may come from the university or some funding agency, but inevitably the author "authorizes" the charge. For many new and proliferating journals, authors themselves are indeed paying, and journals cannot prevent them from doing so. Over the long-run all journals will require payment somehow—they must. If one insists on gold open access, this is the price one pays. It may be worth the cost, but pretending there is no cost is foolish.
John Ewing