Fees, subscriptions and the messy business of payments

Martin Fenner has posted on Gobbledygook about submission fees and open access, drawing attention to the release of a report on submission fees that was commissioned by Knowledge Exchange, a partnership of JISC (United Kingdom), SURF (Netherlands), DEFF (Denmark) and DFG (Germany). The report is called Submission Fees – A tool in the transition to open access? Martin says that he likes the idea of submission fees “because they help to cover the actual costs involved, instead of the costs of handling manuscripts that are ultimately rejected being paid either by journal subscribers or the authors of accepted manuscripts”. Like him I have felt that submission fees could be part of the solution to how journals are paid for, particularly journals with a high rejection rate. Publishers of journals with very high rejectiopn rates (say 95% or higher) say that in order to cover their costs they would need to charge a publishing fee of about $30,000 per article. Submission fees have always seemed an obvious avenue to explore and this report does a good job of setting out the pros and cons.
I confess that I was not aware that submission fees were already used by some journals, mostly learned society journals in science and economics, according to the report. Of course, the devil will be in the details and there may be risks to changing fee structures when we are still getting used to the idea of open access fees. I was pleased to see that the report does acknowledge that introducing new fees may bring administrative costs. It is too easy to bring in new policies (think Research Council OA mandates) or services (think UK PubMedCentral) without considering the effect on institutions that have to implement the policy or use the service.

Payments from the academic community to the publishing world have changed shape over the past 15 years. Before electronic journals there was usually just one annual fee paid from an institution, via its library, to a publisher for a subscrioption to a particular journal. Libraries used subscription agents to simplify this process, and elaborate arrangements were put in place to make it all run smoothly between libraries, agents and publishers. As we moved to the age of electronic journals things became more complex – publishers bundled up journals into big deals, and libraries aggregated together into consortia. Consortia (such as Nesli2 in the UK) and publishers became the main players sorting out payments.

In the age of open access, fees are levied on a per article basis and the person immediately liable is the author of the article. Usually their institution will cover the cost but this can involve a good deal of paperwork. Open Access publishers may have some kind of prepayment mechanism, or institutional membership. These can help if paid for from top-sliced funds at a high level, but can become difficult to manage if the costs have to be charged back to separate departments or institutions. We have been trying for years to get an agreement with one OA publisher but continually fail to find a workable arrangement. See this earlier post for more about OA fees and subscriptions.

Moving to submission fees would mean an even higher number of snaller value payments. Maybe institutional payment mechanisms will improve but I won’t hold my breath. There will be pressure to implement pre-payment arrangements with publishers, or commitments in advance (perhaps we could them ‘subscriptions’) that would allow researchers from an institution that had committed funds in this way to submit their articles for no extra charge – kind of “It’s free if you pay”. I think that the advent of submission fees will bring louder calls for this kind of arrangement.
All we need is to add back the subscription agents and there we are – back at 1995 and a simpler set of payment mechanisms, albeit with open access to all research. One problem with this is that it once again removes the pain of payment from the decision to consume. It makes it easy for the researcher just to generate knowledge and disseminate that knowledge, but it reduces their interest in the economic effectiveness of the dissemination system. Maybe FEC would help with that, divvying up the centrally paid fees out to individual research groups.

About Frank

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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9 Responses to Fees, subscriptions and the messy business of payments

  1. Bob O'H says:

    I can’t see submission fees working: I suspect most scientists would baulk at paying at submission if they don’t think they’ll get their paper published. Even worse if the journal has a high rejection rate.

  2. Frank says:

    Bob – i agree it would come as a nasty shock to have to pay submission fees. But they do exist in some journals already. And I seem to remember that the same thing was said 10 years ago about the idea of paying open access fees, and look at BMC/PLoS etc now!

  3. The researcher reaction to submission fees is the big if. A number of very successful biomedical journals use submission fees.

  4. Mike says:

    Frank, I’d be very interested to hear where the $30,000 figure comes from. Presumably, that’s based on current practices, right? Or are they extrapolating to alternative payment scenarios?

    The sort of submission fees you’re talking about could radically change much of the publishing-verse. Authors with limited funds (limited for a variety of reasons) just won’t submit to high-rejection (elite/elitist) publications, even if it is work of the highest quality (the potential to suffer from the lottery effect of reviewers could be too great). This might lead to an unwanted class system amongst disciplines and geographic regions, but could also eventually feedback to (the dreaded) Impact Factors, potentially evening them out. Nature and Science may no longer have a monopoly on first dibs of the highest calibre research, making them less attractive journals to submit to.

    • Frank says:

      Mike – David Hoole at NPG used to say it would need to be $30k IIRC. I don’t have a citation to back it up. Yes, I think that was based on current systems.

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  7. Journals do use submission fees, but for the ones in the biosciences I have come across the fees (badged as “manuscript handling fees”) were pretty low. I can’t see big submission fees really being feasible for any bioscience journal with much of a rejection rate, which of course is arguably one of the markers of quality.

    I could imagine a combination of a “reasonable” low submission fee (c 100 Euros or similar?) and a publication per-page charge – which, again, some journals (notably US ones) already have. I think authors would be readier to be charged for being published than for their content merely being considered.

    Of course, one could make a reasonable argument that a submission fee will discriminate significantly against researchers in less wealthy countries, as Mike already noted.

    Incidentally, in many ways aren’t the financials of the super-high rejection rate journals a red herring? They are highly unusual in maintaining a large permanent staff of scientifically-trained (to postdoc level) editors/manuscript handlers – in the biosciences I am thinking of Nature, Science and Cell. It is this staff cost that generates the large “Ms cost”, I guess. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, or other journals that operate with skeleton permanent staffs, academics with fairly minimal remuneration as an Editorial Board, and wholly unpaid referees. The only scientist on any kind of serious remuneration in such models tends to be the Editor-in-Chief, and even then it is never a full-time role, more likely based on a “1.5 days a week equivalent”, or something.

  8. Frank says:

    Austin – yes, you are right in what you say. I don’t think anyone is proposing submission fees as an alternative to publishing charges, rather as a way to overcome the problems that high-rejection rate titles claim tobhave in moving to a paid-OA model. They are, as you say, unrepresentative but still an important part of the literature, certainly for biomolecular sciences.