In defence of author-pays business models
There has been an awful lot recently written and said about author-pays business models for scholarly publishing and a lot of it has focussed on PLoS ONE. Most recently Kent Anderson has written a piece on Scholarly Kitchen that contains a number of fairly serious misconceptions about the processes of PLoS ONE. This is a shame because I feel this has muddled the much more interesting question that was intended to be the focus of his piece. Nonetheless here I want to give a robust defence of author pays models and of PLoS ONE in particular. Hopefully I can deal with the more interesting question, how radical should or could PLoS be, in a later post.
A common charge leveled at author-payment funded journals is that they are pushed in the direction of being non-selective. The figure that PLoS ONE publishes around 70% of the papers it receives is often given as a demonstration of this. There are a range of reasons why this is nonsense. The first and simplest is that the evidence we have suggests that of papers rejected from journals between 50% and 95% of them are ultimately published elsewhere [1, 2 (pdf), 3, 4]. The cost of this trickle down, a result of the use of subjective selection criteria of “importance”, is enormous in authors’ and referees’ time and represents a significant potential opportunity cost in terms of lost time. PLoS ONE seeks to remove this cost by simply asking “should this be published?” In the light of the figures above it seems that 70% is a reasonable proportion of papers that are probably “basically ok but might need some work”.
The second presumption is that the peer review process is somehow “light touch”. This is perhaps the result of some mis-messaging that went on early in the history of PLoS ONE but it is absolute nonsense. As both an academic editor and an author I would argue that the peer review process is as rigorous as I have experienced at any other journal (and I do mean any other journal).
As an author I have two papers published in PLoS ONE, both went through at least one round of revision, and one was initially rejected. As an editor I have seen two papers withdrawn after the initial round of peer review, presumably not because the authors felt that the required changes represented a “light touch”. I have rejected one and have never accepted a paper without revision. Every paper I have edited has had at least one external peer reviewer and I try to get at least two. Several papers have gone through more than one cycle of revision with one going through four. Figures provided by Pete Binfield (comment from Pete about 20 comments in) suggest that this kind of proportion is about average for PLoS ONE Academic Editors. The difference between PLoS ONE and other journals is that I look for what is publishable in a submission and work with the authors to bring that out rather than taking delight in rejecting some arbitrary proportion of submissions and imagining that this equates to a quality filter. I see my role as providing a service.
The more insidious claim made is that there is a link between this supposed light touch review and the author pays models; that there is pressure on those who make the publication decision to publish as much as possible. Let me put this as simply as possible. The decision whether to publish is mine as an Academic Editor and mine alone. I have never so much as discussed my decision on a paper with the professional staff at PLoS and I have never received any payment whatsoever from PLoS (with the possible exception of two lunches and one night’s accommodation for a PLoS meeting I attended – and I missed the drinks reception…). If I ever perceived pressure to accept or was offered inducements to accept papers I would resign immediately and publicly as an AE.
That an author pays model has the potential to create a conflict of interest is clear. That is why, within reputable publishers, structures are put in place to reduce that risk as far as is possible, divorcing the financial side from editorial decision making, creating Chinese walls between editorial and financial staff within the publisher. The suggestion that my editorial decisions are influenced by the fact the authors will pay is, to be frank, offensive, calling into serious question my professional integrity and that of the other AEs. It is also a slightly strange suggestion. I have no financial stake in PLoS. If it were to go under tomorrow it would make no difference to my take home pay and no difference to my finances. I would be disappointed, but not poorer.
Another point that is rarely raised is that the author pays model is much more widely used than people generally admit. Page charges and colour charges for many disciplines are of the same order as Open Access publication charges. The Journal of Biological Chemistry has been charging page rates for years while increasing publication volume. Author fees of one sort or another are very common right across the biological and medical sciences literature. And it is not new. Bill Hooker’s analysis (here and here) of these hidden charges bears reading.
But the core of the argument for author payments is that the market for scholarly publishing is badly broken. Until the pain of the costs of publication is directly felt by those making the choice of where to (try to) publish we will never change the system. The market is also the right place to have this out. It is value for money that we should be optimising. Let me illustrate with an example. I have heard figures of around £25,000 given as the level of author charge that would be required to sustain Cell, Nature, or Science as Open Access APC supported journals. This is usually followed by a statement to the effect “so they can’t possibly go OA because authors would never pay that much”.
Let’s unpack that statement.
If authors were forced to make a choice between the cost of publishing in these top journals versus putting that money back into their research they would choose the latter. If the customer actually had to make the choice to pay the true costs of publishing in these journals, they wouldn’t…if journals believed that authors would see the real cost as good value for money, many of them would have made that switch years ago. Subscription charges as a business model have allowed an appallingly wasteful situation to continue unchecked because authors can pretend that there is no difference in cost to where they publish, they accept that premium offerings are value for money because they don’t have to pay for them. Make them make the choice between publishing in a “top” journal vs a “quality” journal and getting another few months of postdoc time and the equation changes radically. Maybe £25k is good value for money. But it would be interesting to find out how many people think that.
We need a market where the true costs are a factor in the choices of where, or indeed whether, to formally publish scholarly work. Today, we do not have that market and there is little to no pressure to bring down publisher costs. That is why we need to move towards an author pays system.