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

Author: Ferran Martinez-Garcia is a professor of cell biology and histology and head of the Lab of Functional Neuroanatomy (NeuroFun) at Universitat Jaume I

I’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 through 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 envelop 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.

Notes and references:

1 Open Access Journals are those publishing only open access, e.g. all the papers published are freely available online (provided the author pays the publication fees). Traditional paper journals are also joining the OA philosophy: they offer the authors the possibility of letting their papers freely available online by paying the publication fee, but otherwise, papers are available only to subscribers (this is given the nice name of hybrid open access). The majority of scientific journals are hybrid open access.

4The 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.

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  • Ferran Martinez-Garcia Sir,
    For doctorate scholars in the budding stage of publishing research work , what’s your advice in publishing successful research papers with impact factors, how can we publish in elsevier journals/ PLOS /Frontier/ BMC. We need your insight.

    • Dear Vidhya
      It is difficult to give any advice. You should try to publish in Q1 or Q2 journals. Open access journals are expensive, you must pay a publication fee which can be quite a lot of money; the ones you mention, are all of them expensive (1000-2500 USD). So, provided your mentor has money to pay the, try with regular journals, not open access, in which usually you can publish for free.
      Visit Journal of Citation Reports, and select journals in Q1 or Q2 in your field.
      Good luck

  • I tend to agree with the author that it doesn’t make any sense that publishers are getting rich off of government funded research. The real bottleneck is hiring, tenure and grant review panels that insist that people publish in nature, science, cell, etc. ELife is an example of a not-for-profit open access with full transparency about their costs. In order to be sustainable they must charge 2500 euros per paper. And I think that fee might be going up. ELife is working hard to develop tools to make publishing cheaper and easier for everyone.

    • You must be aware that 2500 euros, which might seem reasonable, is the stipend of an associate professor in my country. I can’t understand such huge publication fees. Anual institutional subscription fee to a classical Q1 paper journal (I’ve just had a look to Hormones and Behavior, my field) is 3659.00€. Two papers published in eLife amounts more than an institutional subscription (!!!). With no printing and mail costs.
      I hope projects like eLife or others, are based on a non-profit or low-profit philosophy. Otherwise, this is the beginning of a crisis that will finish with the current model of scientific journal. Hopefully.

  • THANK YOU for stating clearly what needs to be said! The cost of publishing an OA paper is roughly the stipend for an undergraduate student doing term-time research in my laboratory…What is more important? Subsidizing a publisher or giving a student the opportunity to do hands on research? Many journals allow dissemination of copies of papers for private use, just as before…so instead of everything on paper, one can still use email to send a copy of a paper from a non-OA journal to a colleague. Plus, I have been finding that the quality of articles in OA journals is actually inferior…editors need to sustain the system and do not do due diligence in finding good reviewers–or stop using reviewers who routinely provide seriously critical reviews. OA is a travesty.

    • Dear Worried,
      I completely agree with you. In my country to cost of publishing an OA paper (e.g. Frontiers regular publication fee) is roughly to neat salary of an associate professor (!). COVID19 pandemic is showing how good science is being published quickly in repositories such as
      Maybe this is the solution. Reviewing process is slow, tiring and does not avoid publishing low-quality science and even fraudulent experiments. At the end, as a scientist, I have to judge myself the quality of every single published paper. Why not publishing everything quickly?
      Thanks a lot for your comments

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