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Who gets their APC fees waived?

21 May 2020

Who gets a fee waiver for publishing Open Access? 

The cost of publishing Open Access (Article Processing Charge or APC) is excessive, far outweighs the actual costs of type-setting, promotion and distribution, and is increasingly excluding scientists from publishing. If you don't believe me, consider the graph below from (Grey 2020). Grey clearly demonstrates a relationship between impact factor and the OA publication fee (APC).

Now ask yourself whether the cost can really increase with the Impact Factor (IF), or (as even publishers admit) the fee to publish is based on what academics can afford to pay. That is, publishers allow the cost to be set by the market. Because if you have your paper accepted in a journal where the IF is 13, you are likely to find the money to pay for it - even if this is 5 times the cost of the journal with an IF of 2.5. Yes, they may be in exactly the same publishing house. They may be distributed on the same platform. But when the IF went up, the value to your career and reputation also went up. Those publishers know it and they are going to exploit you willingness to pay for it. 

Getting a waiver for the >$1000 cost of publishing OA is therefore very important, if like me you can't afford to pay. So how do you think the waiver system is administered? 

Read the journal websites and you'd be forgiven for thinking that journal waivers are provided for the poorest academics who can't otherwise afford to publish. That's what publishers want you to believe. But actually, like elsewhere in life these freebies are actually given out to authors in order to get them to come back. Yes, just like getting that free can of coke at the supermarket, publishers are using the same tactics to get us to change to publishing OA in their journals. Why? Because they make so much more money, that they are laughing all they way to the bank.

The case of PLoS

Some time ago (31 July 2018), I wrote to PLoS to find out about their fee waiver system. At the time, I saw that waivers for publishing (largely in PLoS-ONE) were being handed out to people all over the world, irrespective of their financial status. This appeared to jarr with their stated policy, so I wrote asking for data on this and asked them to explain their process (my email slightly edited):

Together with some colleagues from middle-income countries, we are trying to get a handle on how the world of scientific publishing has become very fee based. My interest in receiving data from PLoS is simply that as the world's largest journal, you are likely to represent the others. As a not-for-profit, I'd presume that you are at the better end of the exploitation scale.

For example, from what I can tell, in 2016 PLoS published 26,397 papers. Of these only 897 were from countries in your Group 1 (full waiver). However, of this total only around one third conform to your stated 50% rule (50% or more of authors are from the Group 1 country). This means that around 1.1% of papers of all papers in 2016 were published for free from Group 1 countries. Most of these are from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya. 

Thus, the waiver PLoS waiver policy looks laudable until one realises that it amounts to around 1% of all papers. 

Your financial declaration (link for 2016) suggests that your waivers amount to nearly 5.5% of publication fee income. Thus we might presume that your Group 2 countries account for a much larger proportion of your waiver (which seems unlikely simply eyeballing members of this group) or that a lot of the fee waivers are generated for other reasons (e.g. editors don't pay fees, authors who appeal, etc.). It would be really nice to get some clarity on this. What is the policy for the 4.4%? From what I can tell, it is unstated but I know from colleagues that editors are regularly exempted from fees.

Given the large disparity between the 1.1% (my calculation for Group 1 waivers) and 5.5% (your declared waiver assistance), my opinion is that PLOS should rethink their fee waiver country groupings, specifically to expand to more countries. In addition, my opinion is that PLOS could easily afford to provide up to 10% of revenue in fee waivers. Once developed countries are excluded, such a policy would open up the potential for those without publication funds to receive more waivers. PLOS leads the way. If your non-profit fee waiving status is only 5.5%, we might expect that other publishing houses are giving even less (many have Group 1 country waivers which appears to be equivalent to only 1% of income). It would be fantastic if PLOS could take the lead in this and set a precedent for other for-profit journals. Similarly, if the majority of your fee waivers are actually discretionary, your stated policy is hardly honest. Policies are all about honesty, and as a not-for-profit organisation I'm sure that you'd prefer the honest option.

My own situation is similar to that of many of my colleagues from middle ranking countries. We receive little or no support and simply find it immoral to dip into research funds to pay for publication fees. The fees charged appear to be far in excess of what could reasonably be assumed to cost a publisher (I speak here as someone who has been involved with publishing at many levels). Yet, the options on publishing without fees are diminishing. This trend has come about as a result of the success of PLOS-ONE. Decisions by many first world countries to pay for all open access publications has firmly tilted the balance away from those of us in countries where such luxuries are not available. My university library continues to pay the fees to access many journals, whether or not articles are OA. Our research funds come from the taxpayer for research, but we are increasingly having to choose whether they be allocated to research or disseminating that research. 

Back to my original request, if you are able to provide me with details of PLOS publications that received partial or full fee waivers, I would be very grateful. If not, I will calculate the data and continue with my analyses unaided. Of course, it'd be nice to write that PLOS was totally open to providing the data requested, and not that I calculated it all myself because my requests were turned down.

I did get a response from Susan Au at PLOS:

“PLOS is unable to provide further information than what is already disclosed in our audited financial statements, which we make publicly available.  As disclosed in our financial statement footnotes, the fee assistance totals are aggregate activities from our Global Participation Initiative and Publication Fee Assistance program.  Please refer to provided links for program details.  Publication decisions are based solely on editorial criteria.  Output on resulting fee assistance activities recorded reflect published manuscript population, not submission population.”

I pushed further and was told that PLOS simply doesn’t retain data on who gets waivers. If my figures (above) are typical, this means that PLOS is not being entirely honest about their stated waiver policy (in their financial declaration) and where waivers are actually given. They make it sound good, but actually they are using it as a hook to pull customers in.

More recently, I questioned the policy of another journal in this regard,Neobiota. In that blog entry, I showed that Neobiota have a policy very similar to PLOS, providing waivers for (potentially) one single author (seeblog post here).

The bottom line here is that fee waivers are being given out that PLOS declares in their financial statements as being to the benefit of authors that can’t afford to pay fees. However, the majority of waivers are actually being handed out to unknown authors, but likely not those from poorer countries. If PLOS keeps no records, does any APC charging journal? 

Should we make a fuss about getting fees waived? Or simply get fees waived when we can and keep quiet?

My view is that an open and transparent system should be compulsory. There would be no shame in the acknowledgements stating that APCs were waived. Indeed, I suggested this some years back (see blog entry here), but apparently to no avail. 

And if the system isn’t transparent?

It would be fair to assume that some people are profiting at the expense of others. This is the time-honoured tradition in the publishing business, and relates back to the power of privilege. 

Indeed, I'd suggest that now these people have started sucking the financial blood out of our academic sytem, the only real way to move fowards is to get rid of the publishers altogether

Grey RJ (2020) Sorry, we’re open: Golden open‑access and inequality in non‑human biological sciences Scientometrics (2020) 124:1663–1675

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