back to

The prohibitive costs of publishing an open-access paper


Apparently the fat cats of academia have found another way to skim resources from strapped professors: the double dipping “hybrid journal.” Jane C. Hu of The Atlantic reports that some academic journals, to include Cognition, have been charging writers an enormous “article-processing fee” or APC, if they want their (uncompensated) writing to remain open access. This is the latest development in academia’s battle to maintain its outmoded pay-per-read system in an era of freely accessible information.

Check out a couple of article highlights below, or the full story via the Atlantic.

Imagine you’ve spent the last few years writing a manuscript. You submit it to a publisher, and they make you an offer: They’ll print it, but once it’s published, they own your work. They’ll sell it to people who want to read it, but you won’t see any of the profits. Alternatively, if you pay the publisher to print your work, they’ll release it to the public for free.

These are the options for academics publishing their research in mainstream journals—but that’s begun to change over the past several years, as academics have started to push more strongly for better options. The latest effort is taking shape in the cognitive-science community, where a group of researchers are petitioning the publishing giant Elsevier to lower fees to publish open-access papers in Cognition, a well-regarded journal.

Cognition is one of Elsevier’s 1,800 hybrid open-access journals, meaning authors have the traditional option of publishing their paper behind a paywall, or paying a $2,150 article-processing charge (APC) to make their article freely available to the public. The petition, led by the Cognition editorial-board member David Barner, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the Harvard professor Jesse Snedeker, calls on Elsevier to figure out a way to “significantly lower fees.” (The petition did not specify an exact figure.) In less than a week, the petition racked up signatures from more than 1,200 people, including Noam Chomsky and at least 10 members of Cognition’s editorial board.

Scientists’ frustration is compounded by indications that academic publishers are turning a tidy profit from their labor and free contributions (peer reviews, like the articles themselves, are given to journals for free). Elsevier, Springer, and Taylor & Francis have all reported profit margins around 35 percent, more than Facebook (27 percent) or the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the largest bank in the world (29 percent).

Meanwhile, academic institutions pay millions for subscriptions to the publishers’ products—even Harvard, one of the world’s richest academic institutions, has decried the high costs of journal subscriptions. Journal editors are paid for their work, though Rooryck says it’s not much. “If I wanted to do it for the compensation, I would be better off using that time to flip burgers or go wash windows,” he says.