In August, the US government announced that it would pass a policy requiring all research it funds to be freely accessible. A key element of this plan is that once the policy goes into effect, any research that results from that research must be freely accessible on the day it is published. That means anyone can see the research—no journal subscription or one-off payment required.
Of course, this could pose problems for the scientific publishing business, which in its current structure is heavily dependent on subscriptions. To adapt to the inevitable future, many publishers have instituted “article handling fees” (APCs), or fees paid by the people publishing the newspaper for the privilege of doing so. All of this raises an awkward question: who will pay the APCs?
On Tuesday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a survey of researchers that suggests some are already struggling to find the money for APCs, and in some cases are taking it out of budgets that otherwise pay for scientific research would work.
pay the price
Research journals have a long history of charging for publication, dating back to the days of so-called “page fees” in the days of print (fees for printing color images were also common). These, combined with revenue from subscriptions and sometimes advertising, offset the cost of printing and the editors who prompted peer review, typically leaving publishers with a healthy profit. For many journals, these fees have disappeared with the increase in online access to journals, but there has been a history of publication fees influencing the development of APCs
When open access journals were founded, they faced an obvious challenge: Why would anyone pay for a subscription when the articles could be freely downloaded? As far as I know, everyone turned to APCs as a solution. These had to perform the same function as subscriptions—cover expenses and leave a profit—and therefore be significantly higher than the fees authors were previously charged. Many journals, which remain subscription-based, have also introduced an option where researchers can make their articles available via Open Access in exchange for an APC.
The challenge is how these APCs are paid. A number of foundations that support biomedical research have policies that allow them to pay the APCs on behalf of the researchers they fund. But many more researchers receive funding from government organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. To find out how they deal with it, the AAAS conducted a survey of US-based researchers and received over 400 responses.
These answers revealed a variety of problems.
where does the money come from
Even before the federal government’s Open Access mandate came into force, most of the researchers surveyed (over 60 percent) had paid for APCs, more than a third of them several times. But when it came to planning for APC fees, the numbers were roughly the opposite, with 63 percent of researchers saying they hadn’t budgeted for the fees. Given that, it’s not surprising that only about 10 percent found the payment process easy.
The vast majority (70 percent) took at least some of the money from grants. About a third managed to get at least some support from their department, and about half of that number managed to get funding from elsewhere in the university. Notably, 15 percent said they paid for some of the APCs with their own money. (The numbers add up to more than 100 percent because researchers either paid a single fee from multiple sources, or used different sources when paying more than one APC.)
The problem is that grants don’t have a separate funding category for APCs. As such, publishing will compete with another possible use of the grant money: research. Nearly 80 percent of the researchers who responded said the money for the APC would otherwise have been used to purchase equipment or materials. About a third said the APC was taking money that would otherwise have paid students or technicians. Another big sacrifice? Costs associated with attending conferences, cited by 60 percent of researchers.
The total number of people who responded is fairly small, and not everyone answered every question, so it’s difficult to say how widespread these issues are. But the problems themselves are entirely predictable, given that most labs are run entirely by a single pile of money sponsoring research and publications. And these problems, while anecdotal, occur before Open Access becomes mandatory.
The obvious solution is for agencies to allocate additional money to the researchers they fund to cover the cost of publication. But that would just shift the problem up, as agencies would have to find that money elsewhere in the budget — which likely means funding less research unless they can get a budget increase on that topic.
In any case, the authors of the AAAS report make the problem very clear: “We face a growing risk that the ability to pay for APCs – and not the merits of the research – will determine what and who gets published.”
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