Why we should stop publishing in open-access journals with article processing charges

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Guest author: Francesco Chiodelli (University of Turin)

In recent years, a new generation of academic journals has emerged and grown rapidly. It is a particular type of open-access journal with an article processing charge [hereafter: APC journal] . An APC journal is a scientific journal that requires authors to pay a fee to publish their article after it has been accepted. Such fees are usually quite high (ranging from around 1,000 Euros per article in most cases to over 3,000 Euros in some instances). The new generation of APC journals is not constituted by ‘traditional predatory journals’, that is to say a sort of fake-scientific-journals, characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from good editorial practices, and a lack of transparency and a serious peer-review process. This new generation consists of journals that appear to be more serious and on paper seem to respect the usual conventions of the field of academic publication, such as the existence of a peer-review process; therefore, in some cases they have also an impact factor. However, the quality and robustness of this peer-review process is highly questionable and the quality of the published papers is often quite low (obviously, there are exceptions).

The increased presence of these journals is linked, directly or indirectly, to several factors. Among these, there is the fact that many institutions (such as the European Union with the 2018 Plan S) support publication in open-access journals. But APC journals are mainly the byproduct of the current race to publish in the academic environment (i.e., the “Publish or Perish” dynamic). Academics are driven to publish quickly and in large quantities, but this clashes with the slowness and high selectivity of many traditional subscription journals. APC journals take advantage of this scarcity in traditional journals, providing an expensive loophole to the need to publish in international journals with an impact factor.

Two reasons are usually given to justify publication in APC journals. The first reason is the need to publish in open-access form. This answer, however, is unsatisfactory. In fact, the majority of subscription journals (that is journals which require readers to pay for the content that they read, but not authors for publishing) allow the open-access publication of post-prints (i.e., the final version of the articles accepted by the journal, prior to the layout work made by the journal staff). The Sherpa Romeo search engine enables you to find out publisher copyright and open access policies of academic journals across the world. Then, also true open-access journals (i.e., journals which do not ask authors for an article processing charge) exist. Hence, if the point is to publish research in an open-access manner, APC journals are not an obliged choice. The second reason for opting for an APC journal is the alleged need to publish quickly. It is true that many traditional subscription journals have very long publication times. But if the need is to make a piece of research publicly available, again, pre-prints can be published before the paper is accepted in any journal, also in forms that protect their content from plagiarism (such as SSRN’s eLibrary).

Within this framework, a question emerges: should we publish in these journals? My opinion is that we should not do it at all (for a similar viewpoint, see Eric Verdeil’s opinion). It is not only an issue of individual ethics, but of public ethics, which concerns the whole academic system. As a matter of fact, feeding the APC journal system has three serious negative consequences.

  1. It sets a barrier to access for those without research funds. This system creates a barrier for researchers who do not have access to substantial research funds (such as young or precarious researchers or scholars from not-so-affluent universities). This increases the hierarchical segmentation of the academic world even further.
  2. It risks not adequately guaranteeing the quality control of the scientific publications. “Predatory journals” have repeatedly been suspected of lowering the review process standards. Can the same suspect apply also to many non-predatory APC journals? My answer is affirmative. All APC journals make money and survive thanks to the articles sent to them. The very mechanism of requiring a fee from authors for publishing their article could push every APC journal to lower qualitative standards in order to publish as much as possible. The fact that, in many cases, the publication time of APC journals is very short (three or four weeks maximum, from sending the paper to its publication) seem to support these suspicions.
  3. It makes serious research work impossible. Many APC journals publish a significant number of articles. The case of Sustainability is blatant. During 2020, Sustainability published around 10,500 articles. For a researcher working on questions of sustainable cities, how is it possible to stay on top of everything that is published in this journal, so as to be aware of recent research developments in his/her field? Publishing a reasonable number of carefully selected articles is an essential task of scientific journals, which allows robust research work to be possible. In this regard, serious scientific journals are an essential component of the academic world: through their rigorous filter, they make the development of cumulative knowledge and robust research possible, as well as the flourishing of scientific debates. The publication of an exaggerated number of articles with almost no filter is, therefore, extremely detrimental to everybody’s research.
How sustainable are Article Processing Charges for the long-term development and quality of academia? APCs are a general trend that concern many journals and which all academics need to face in the race to publish. Picture credit: by the author.

Let me be clear: APC journals in of themselves are not THE problem. They do, however, contribute to aggravating the shortcomings of the current academic publication system. The need to reform the current academic publication system has been argued by various scholars. An increasing number of researchers is questioning some of its pillars, from publication metrics to the very principle of peer review. And we all recognize the paradox that our research, which is made possible thanks to our salaries paid by public institutions, enriches large private publishers, who publish it in subscription journals. However, while waiting for the scientific community to engage in an in-depth debate, I believe that any serious scholar can at least agree that the APC journals system is extremely harmful. The current international publication system is sick. While waiting to find a therapy for its disease, we should avoid aggravating its health by relying on something like APC journals, which do not constitute a viable treatment, but the death of trustworthy scholarly publishing.

Biography

Francesco Chiodelli is associate professor of urban and legal geography at the University of Turin. He is the director of OMERO – Interdepartmental Research Centre for Urban Studies at the University of Turin. He works on questions of urban illegality and informality, housing, diversity and urban conflicts. You can contact him at francesco.chiodelli@unito.it.

9 Comments

  1. Along with the sheer volume of articles published by a journal like Sustainability, there is also the editorial board, which consists of hundreds (or even thousands) of people. In general, I try to avoid, esp. the MDPI ones.

  2. “The second reason for opting for an APC journal is the alleged need to publish quickly.” Probably it is the main reason. Many researchers need to raise their H-index, so it not possible to wait up to 2 years for a publication. After this time, also the revisions are hard to do (In some cases we forget some things….). Anyway, it is important to maintain the right balance between open access and no open access publications.

    1. You’re right. That’s definitely a point. But you have to be careful: publishing in an APC journal is not always good for your career. Many APC journals have a bad reputation in several universities. If I have to choose a candidate for a postdoc, between a person who has published 10 articles in Sustainability and one who has published only one article in Planning Theory, I choose the latter without a second thought.

      1. Yes, for sure. But the APC journals (like no-APC ) give the same opportunity to overcome the medians of ASN…Anyway, I agree with you.

  3. 1) No discussion about the (copy)rights of your article? Usually, you sell it if not APC. That’s a major disadvantage with traditional journals/publishers!
    2) You pay one way or the other and journals get money one way or the other. Except: They are not-for-profit (also found among APC publishers!). By the way, Immediate (!) Green Open Access is hard to find among some disciplines.
    3) APC is usually not faster than “traditional”journals.
    4) I found the review process to be very sloppy also for traditional journals. APC is not necessarily worse. The publish or perish and the need for speed is also a problem of classical journals, who need to publish articles to not lose their relevance!
    5) minor: Many traditional journals charge fees as well, be it per page, per additional page for long articles and/or color figures.

    Conclusion: APC is not the enemy, it is the publishing system. APC in combination with transparent review process can be one solution.

    1. Dear Tobias,
      It’s true you pay one way or the other. Burt there is a huge difference: APC journals sets a barrier to access for those without research funds a thing which does not happen with traditional subscription journals.
      About “APC is usually not faster than “traditional”journals”. I am sorry, but this is false. The average time from submission to the first revision is 15 days in Sustainability (according to their own website), while it is some months (2 or 3 at least) in traditional (serious) journals.
      “APC is not necessarily worse.” That’s true, but the very mechanism of requiring a fee from authors for publishing their article could push every APC journal to lower qualitative standards in order to publish as much as possible. It’s a structural problem, that many traditional journals do not have. On the contrary, their relevance is related to their high selectivity
      “Many traditional journals charge fees as well”: this is not the case for almost all subscription journals (you can pay a fee to make the article open-access, but this is not necessary).
      In conclusion: “APC is not the enemy”? They are not THE enemy, but they are one of the worst aberrations of the (already-sick) academic publication system

      1. 1) Does it really matter if the barrier is at one side or the other? Plus you should consider fee waiving for poor income countries is real.
        2) I am sorry, but you are false (this way we are getting nowhere). You are considereing an MDPI journal, which has a completely different review style than all other open access journals. Also, you should compare averages, not one journal!
        3) “… could”. True. but when OA journals lose their reputation, this is quite bad, so it is also in their interest to keep things up.
        4) “almost all” is not true. In microbiology, where I publish, about half have a page and/or color figure fee.
        5) I strongly disagree and suggest that we should concentrate on good science and not on bashing open access journals, which is one way to get transparent and available for all scientific outcome – especially the copyright theme is a very important one!

  4. Reblogged this on i am become computational and commented:
    Interesting argument that many researchers are essentially ‘forced’ to publish in non OA journals (so, at the very least not appropriate as a yardstick to gauge commitment to open science). In my field, I’m aware of Biomathematics as gold-standard OA (no APC and open access society journal), but haven’t heard of any others.

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