European academies hit out at high author charges for open access publishing

05 Jan 2023 | News

Open access means more and more scientific research is free to read. But now there are complaints about ‘massive’ fees that must be paid upfront by authors and claims commercial publishers are making excessive profits

Critics have hit out at the way in which the open access switch - from paying for journal subscriptions to paying for research to be published - has been managed and are calling for an end to what they describe as “massive” upfront fees that academic institutes or authors pay to ensure their research is freely available.

ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, claims commercial publishers are making the large profits from open access publishing under what is known as the gold model, which allows journal papers to be free to read as soon as they are published.

Instead of journal subscriptions, publishers are paid article processing charges (APCs). These fees can sometimes be thousands of euros.

The financial burden is shifting away from the readers of papers and onto the authors. This is putting a strain on academics around the world, particularly those in less well-off countries, ALLEA says in a report published last month. These fees are often rolled into partner agreements with big publishers, but researchers not covered by these agreements must usually pay APCs.

ALLEA claims that publishers make around $2 billion per year from APCs.

Geoffrey Boulton, chair of the International Science Council’s project on the future of scientific publishing, said that while the rising number of open access publications is to be welcomed, in some cases it has created new barriers for authors. It is “increasing the amounts spent on scholarly publishing and putting publication out of reach for many researchers.” Boulton said. “The most profound consequence of this system is a fracturing of the global science community.”

Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology and former European Commission director general for research, who is a leading advocate for open access, told Science|Business that a cap should be placed on APCs to “avoid an explosion of costs,” saying, “There is enough money in the system, it is just in the wrong place.”

Bernt Hugenholtz, an expert in copyright law who contributed to the ALLEA report, said “mind boggling” profits are being made by commercial publishers. “The underlying discontent among authors and institutes is that we’re paying massive amounts of money to get articles out there into the public that we created ourselves,” he told Science|Business.

“It’s like buying bread that you bake yourself at a premium price. It doesn’t make sense from a rational perspective. If you were to create this system from scratch, that is not how you would do it.”

The world of academic publishing is dominated by five major players: Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature and SAGE. Hugenholtz said that publishers like this draw on the reputation of their major scientific journals to demand high fees.

Aspects of the value which publishers claim to add do not justify large APCs, according to Hugenholtz. Peer review is usually done by other academics for free or a small sum, while editing and copy editing that used to be done inhouse are being outsourced to workers in low-paying countries, he said.

“This is not comparable to Netflix producing its own content. Netflix invests hundreds of millions into a new Netflix series that it then disseminates to the world,” said Hugenholtz. “These publishers basically disseminate content that is either completely ready for publication or near-ready for publication.”

Quality control

Not all publishers charge APCs and many that do allow paying partner institutions to publish articles free of charge. Many also offer a waiver system. 

“Springer Nature is committed to supporting the transition to open access,” said Susie Winter, the publisher’s vice president of external communications. “A central part of this is to ensure that authors from less well-funded countries who wish to publish open access are able to do so, and we are doing this in a number of ways.”

These include an APC waiver and discount policy on around 600 journals which enables authors from low income countries to receive a full waiver and authors from some lower middle income countries to receive a discount.  Any author in financial need, regardless of their country of residence, can request an APC discount. “We are proud that in 2021, we waived fees of over €18.4 million,” Winter told Science|Business.

Springer Nature reviews its APCs annually to ensure pricing remains consistent and fair, Winter noted. “They are reflective of the costs involved in publishing journals, promoting the final research and ensuring it can be discovered, accessed, understood, used, reused and shared on state of the art platforms.”

Publishers also have a key gatekeeper role, having oversight of a large volume of research and rejecting papers that are not up to scratch.

A survey carried out by Eurodoc and the Open Research Europe project in 2020 found that just under one third of the polled researchers in Europe said their main concern about open access publishing was the “emergence of low-quality and false science”, pointing to the part publishers play in ensuring only quality work goes out.

Despite publishers’ claims that APCs are fair, the ALLEA report captures a growing sense of urgency in the scientific community of the need to tackle high publishing charges made under the gold model.

COAlition S, a group of national research funding organisations set up in 2018 to drive forwards the push for open access, is planning to focus more on the problem in 2023, according to its executive director Johan Rooryck.

“The question is no longer whether open access will come about, it’s inevitable. But the question is how,” he told Science|Business. “If every author in the world has to pay a fixed APC of €3,000, that's not a world we want to live in.”

By way of solution, Rooryck argues for a globally agreed pricing agreement under which APCs would be calculated using purchasing power parity, a measurement that analyses the price of goods in one country compared to another. COAlition S is planning to study this idea in 2023, Rooryck said.

A more immediate change would be a demand for commercial publishers to be upfront about their publishing costs. "We are accepting things from publishers we would never accept from, for example, a mechanic. It’s like going to the garage and getting a bill of €2,000 but the mechanic doesn’t tell you what they have done, if they have changed the oil or the windscreen wipers. They just want €2,000. That is not how it should work."

A more radical approach is a move towards diamond open access, in which universities or learned societies cut out the middlemen and publish their research in their own journals.

This is easier said than done, Hugenholtz warned, because most scientists want their work to appear in the highly reputable journals owned by the big publishers. But he said, as there are more and more examples of diamond open access, over time these journals could build their own reputations.

However, Hugenholtz would prefer to see changes to open access. “We all cherish this open access model, but the result is that the universities are paying massive amounts of money to get the commercial publishers to do this,” he said.

“We are moving in the right direction with open access but we have to solve this remuneration problem or, more radically, abandon cooperation with publishers if they are going to keep asking such outrageous publication fees.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up