Paying to publish: what's in it for me?

‘I have no strong opinions on the matter’ is perhaps not the most compelling opening to a blog, but it describes my prevailing attitude to one of the perpetual talking points among publishing scientists: Open Access or not? In fact, I might more appropriately describe my position as ‘agnostic’, given the often evangelical tone adopted by some advocates of Open Acces publication. This agnosticism is most apparent when I have my ‘reader’ hat on. Of course I like to be able to access all of the papers I want to read without leaving my office chair. And I pretty much can. Clearly, it helps to be part of a large and well-resourced University; but on the rare occasions that the library can’t help, and a few minutes online don’t find a solution, it’s pretty easy simply to email authors and ask for a pdf. I find this updated version of the old reprint request postcards to be very effective. So, open access or not, I can generally read what I need to do my job, and seldom notice whether or not a particular paper is OA.

As an author, the situation is slightly more complicated – or, at least, it the division between the two publishing models is more obvious, because I have to pay to publish in an OA journal (typically on the order of $1000+ per paper). The principal benefit is the ability to reach more readers but, as described above, many (even most) of the people who are going to want to read my work, will probably be able to get hold of it anyway (definitely, in fact, if they think to email me). I may gain in casual readers, which is lovely – for instance, it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling to see on PLoS ONE’s website that the paper I blogged about last week has been viewed >2000 times! – but let’s be brutally pragmatic here: the bottom line is citations, and citations will generally come from those people who can access the paper regardless.

Staunch OA adherents may argue too that it is simply an ethical decision to publish the results of publically funded research somewhere that anyone can read them. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this view (and I certainly think more data should be freely available), but I don’t think it’s a particularly strong argument. The lay audience for most scientific papers is tiny (hell, the academic audience for most is small enough!), not all subscription-based publishers are evil (including many learned societies), and, as I said above, with a little persistance it is almost always possible to get hold of a copy of most published work.

I suppose what I am arguing is that, as an author, my choice of publication is not primarily motivated by its chosen publication model (i.e., OA or subscription). So if I’m going to pay to publish, I’m going to start to expect personal benefits in terms of the aspects of publishing that matter most to me, such as speed (of decisions, and decision-to-publication), and general ease of submission / production.

There is an analogy here with higher education in the UK. When I was an undergraduate, I received a government grant to go to university. It was paltry, of course; but my education was at least free, so we accepted what we got from academics and very, very rarely complained about anything. Since students started to pay fees, it has been noticable that they have become much more demanding, and they expect a certain minimum level of service from academics. (Quite rightly; although some demands are also quite rightly dismissed: ‘can you rearrange the tutorial please Dr Webb, I can’t make Mondays’, etc.)

If authors are routinely paying to publish, I suspect they will increasingly begin to question where exactly their $1000+ are going each time. Little demands from journals will become more of an annoyance. Things like formatting references precisely in accordance with a journal’s style (see comments in Martin Fenner’s blog on Endnote) or fiddling with the format of figures (I spend a lot of time creating appropriate statistical graphics for my work. I have less interest in converting PDFs to 600dpi TIFFs or 9cm wide JPEGs or whatever). Tardy reviews and editorial decisions will no longer be tolerated. The very best standards of typesetting will be expected.

My suspician is that subscription-based publications will coexist with OA journals for years to come. My (altruistic) hope is that the success of the OA movement has made the entire scientific community more aware of the obigation to communicate research findings as freely as possible to the appropriate audience – regardless of where we happen to publish a particular piece of work. My (selfish) hope is that paying to publish in some journals will make the publication process everywhere more and more of an easy ride for us poor authors!