“Open Access” or “Pay to Play”

This is an e-mail from the lead author on a paper we have just had accepted in Ecology & Evolution—an Open Access Journal:

“Hi everyone, I still haven’t gotten a request for payment on our Arctic paper, but the charge should be $1950; so this is when I send around the collection hat! Right now the only funds I have are for a separate desert-focused project. Unless some of you have the money to cover it, it seems like my other option would be to scrounge around my University to find a way to pay it. Do any of you have experience with similar situations in the past—where the paper comes out after the project money is gone?1

Papers often are accepted after a grant has expired and so this situation is not uncommon: co-authors trying to figure out who can bootleg the funds to cover the publication cost.

Globally, the rate of scientific publication has been increasing at ca. 3% per year2, and given my experience as a journal editor, I suspect that means that the rate of submissions has been increasing even faster3. Hence the total cost of producing literature is increasing. The ultimate questions are: Who carries that cost? and How do we pay?

The “pass the hat” model illustrated above, I would argue, is probably the worst—what would we do if the hat came up empty? We need to balance our concern with “open access for readers” with “open access for authors.” They are equally important. In fact, the latter may be more important: if I can’t afford to publish a paper, then no one will ever be able to read it.

Several years ago, the Ecological Society of America partnered with Wiley to produce the Society journals—doing it ourselves was bankrupting the Society. By partnering with Wiley, we were able to hold the overall price of the journal steady, but Wiley’s size gave them an economy of scale that allowed them to produce the journals at lower cost. Every major professional society I know has partnered with a large publisher for the same reasons: we needed their services as major IT companies to be able to manage the submission, review, and production process at an affordable cost.

We may object to the profits that Elsevier brings in, but given the shift in ESA’s cost structure upon partnering with Wiley, I suspect that if we were to re-fragment academic publishing to avoid dealing with corporate publishers, the loss of efficiency might well outweigh their loss in profits; thus, the total cost of producing scientific literature could well increase.4

Remember that journals provide not one, but two, essential services:  publication and peer review. Readers rely on “brand names” to give them some confidence that what they are going to invest their time in reading has met some appropriate thresholds of quality5. As authors, we rely on peer review for our own quality control. I’m both a “highly cited researcher” and the author of the book Writing Science; I write good papers. Yet, I’ve never had a paper accepted as submitted; in fact, I’ve never heard of it happening. My papers have all been improved, and some transformed, by thoughtful and critical review. No matter how good we are, review makes our work better. Peer review is essential and someone has to maintain that process: publishing isn’t just about posting documents to the web; it’s about editing.

Authors also increasingly want more services associated with publishing (e.g. data archival) and they want it faster and better. Maintaining the tech systems for managing manuscripts and review is becoming more streamlined and efficient so the per-unit cost may drop, but the number of units keeps growing! Managing a large technology enterprise, which is necessary to handle the manuscript flow, is expensive. In the humanities, I understand there remain journals that are managed by a single university academic department, but such “let’s put on a play in our backyard” kind of production cannot fly in the natural sciences, where journals get thousands of submissions each year and authors expect decisions in weeks.

I don’t know what Elsevier’s cost structure looks like; I do know they are behaving like every other large tech company in growing and buying up useful subsidiaries. In that, they are no different than Google, Apple, or Microsoft.

Those profits offend many of my colleagues—but why? We don’t have a problem buying chemicals from Fisher, computers from Apple, or cloud data storage from Microsoft. All these corporations make large profits—Thermo Fisher made a profit of over $550 million in just one quarter this year!6 Why is publication different?

We see commercial publishers differently because we “give” the publishers our work (as authors and reviewers); they then own the copyright and charge us to access our work. That seems wrong when we can post documents to the web for free. But frankly, I don’t give a damn! The copyright has little value to me. I rely on journals for peer review and for giving my work visibility. Open access might increase the public’s ability to read my papers—but mostly I publish specialized soil ecology!7 The people who want to read my papers can—at the least, they’ll see the titles on Google Scholar and even without a subscription, they can email me for a pdf.  And you could pay me to review, but then you’d have to add that to the overall production cost8.

My concern remains the core bottom line for scholars: how do we most effectively ensure that we can get our research reviewed, validated, and published efficiently, quickly, affordably, and well.  Having to pass the hat to pay publication charges doesn’t achieve that. Paying $2,000 to publish a paper may not seem a big deal if you have a $1 million grant running, but when the grant runs out, $2,000 is a lot of money.

Unfortunately, as philosophically appealing as “Open Access for Readers” is, it can translate into “Pay to Play for Authors.” And that is a real problem.


I’ve slightly condensed this, and added a few words (e.g. Arctic, and the actual listed publication cost) to clarify. The core message is unaltered.

The STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing.  International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. https://www.stm-assoc.org/2015_02_20_STM_Report_2015.pdf

I am a Chief Editor at Soil Biology & Biochemistry (which is owned by Elsevier). Our submissions have been growing steadily, with much of that increase coming from China. Yet, for several reasons, the acceptance rate of papers from China remains below that of papers from the U.S. and Western Europe. Hence submissions have grown faster than published papers—and from the manuscript management and review side, it is submissions that take work and cost money. But there is no article submission fee. Hence the “hidden” costs have grown with the growth in Chinese science.

Or maybe not—according to Michael Hiltzik, author of “In UC’s battle with the world’s largest scientific publisher, the future of information is at stake” (LA Times, Dec. 9), “Elsevier makes profit of about 30% on all its business, and operating profit of 38.9% on its STM journals.”

Remember what happened to the music industry when streaming and Napster came along. While it created “open access” for anyone who could produce a track or a video, it was time consuming to sort out the good from the bad.

6 https://www.marketwatch.com/story/thermo-fisher-scientific-profit-up-lifts-guidance-2018-04-25

7 For fast-breaking publically-relevant science, immediate public access is important. But for that kind of work, we do submit to journals like Nature, Science, or PNAS that journalists look at. Most of what we ever publish, however, is targeted at our academic peers in specialist journals and will never get read by “the public.” If someone wants a copy of a paper, it’s both easy and legal to send them a pdf.

I’d guess that a “reasonable” honorarium for reviewing a paper would be $100. That might be nice, but it isn’t enough to change my life or even my decision as to whether to review a paper. But every paper needs at least two reviewers, and sometimes papers need several rounds of review and sometimes the original reviewers are unavailable. I’ve handled papers that ultimately were reviewed by 5 people. Thus real production costs would increase by at least $200 and possibly by as much as $500 or more (would you get $100 for each round of re-review?). On top of a base cost of $2000 that is a lot.  $100 may be “small beer” for a reviewer—but it translates into a big hit for the authors. How is that a “victory” for anyone?



find the cost of your paper

The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs

I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever read a Susan Wiggs novel before this one. I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, this novel had me at bookshop (as they all do!) and even though I’ve had an ARC of this book for months, I finally decided to finish it today, after stopping and starting a few times a few months ago. 

I’ll confess I was cruising along with my books, and suddenly this past week I hit a wall again. Just couldn’t get through anything. So I am glad I picked this back up again, because I hit that magical place in the book that had me focusing in and forgetting about anything for awhile. Even though I didn’t do anything for July 4th but stay home and cook out, I was still feeling a bit of a holiday hangover today. After watering my flowers outside and getting laundry started, I was happy to just stay inside and read. 

This novel really is a nod to booklovers everywhere. Natalie Harper grew up in a bookstore; her mother Blythe operates a family bookshop in a building that has been in the Harper family for 100 years-a coveted building in fashionable San Francisco. After a horrible tragedy, Natalie returns to San Francisco and the bookshop, to take stock of its future, and to take care of Grandy, her grandfather. He’d recently fallen and broken his hip and was now showing signs of early dementia. Natalie had been successful at a wine brokerage firm and while she didn’t love her job, she was good at it. But it wasn’t hard to leave and return, if only to help her Grandy take care of next steps. 

Those next steps aren’t as easy as Natalie expects, when she finds out her Grandy owns the building and the bookstore, and will not sell, even after Natalie realizes they are deep in debt and behind on taxes. What’s a bookstore manager to do, but try and build up the business with a huge author event that could help pay bills and give the store much needed advertising?

Natalie also meets Peach Gallagher, a local “hammer guy” who specializes in fixing old buildings. Her mother had arranged for Peach to fix a few things in the building, and Peach is one good looking man. He’s also a really decent man, with an adorable daughter who frequents the bookstore. His friendly and calm attitude helps Natalie as she struggles between grief, understanding her grandfather’s failing health, and the tough decisions she has to make. 

So we’ve got a few things running through this story: the struggle to save the bookstore, an ailing grandfather, a potential romance, and a story that’s been handed down over the generations about a treasure that’s hidden somewhere in the building, left by Grandy’s grandmother, who died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Is it just a fanciful story, or is there treasure lurking somewhere-treasure that could save the business?

I read this novel pretty quickly, and enjoyed it very much. No surprises, just a gentle unfolding of the story. I loved all the book references, and the peeks into what it takes to run a bookstore. Definitely a good vacation book!

This book is out in the U.S. on July 7th in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Rating: 4/6 for an enjoyable novel about life when it makes a few sharp turns, the importance of family, and of course, the life changing magic of books. Some parts made me a little teary-eyed, so you may need a tissue! 

Snowpiercer – Film Review

South Korean science fiction film. Probably not a common export from the small country living in somewhat fear from their communist other half, but yet here it is.

Don’t let its origin scare you though, because although it is technically a foreign language film, roughly 80% of the dialogue is English, while the remainder is cleverly placed language barriers.

Staying clear of spoilers, Snowpiercer is essentially a post-apocalyptic story set in the future where a failed experiment to stop global warming has resulted in an ice age which nearly eradicates all life on the planet.

Our story centers on the last remnants of humanity, currently existing only within a train, which happens to be the namesake of the film. This train is fitted with a perpetual motion engine and has been running for seventeen years.

If this is new to you, it’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s quite interesting and you can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual-motion

(And if you’re Simpsons fans you may already be familiar with this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwXuVvqUz4g)

Now, this plot itself is already crazy interesting, however, what makes it such a fantastic watch is how the last of mankind developed this really dystopian living within this train. Several castes has sprung up, where the elites live at the front of the train, while the quality of living goes further and further down all the way to the tail of the train.

And our protagonists happen to be living at the back of this train, that is, until a revolt. A revolt where they fight their suppressors and make their way to the front of the train. As they have never left the tail of the train, watching them make their way through each section is almost like going through several Terry Gilliam movies. It’s really cool and bizarre to watch.

It features an excellent ensemble cast of very different actors, all bringing their A game. Chris Evans (Sunshine, Captain America) plays the lead and gives what is without a doubt his best performance. He is joined by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Tintin), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk about Kevin, Narnia), Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting) as well as the amazing Ed Harris (The Truman Show, The Abyss) and John Hurt (The Elephant Man, 1984) who has been proclaimed, and rightly so, as one of the best actors of all time.

As I said, the film also features Korean dialogue, which comes in the form of another two actors who round out the cast. In fact, I realized after watching this that I had seen them both before, in the only previous film I had seen of the director. That was the 2006 monster movie The Host which became a big hit.

Within the train, tensions are through the roof, and outside the icy landscape create a beautiful image of wonderful desolation. While the climax is perhaps a bit lackluster, the ending can be conceived as quite brilliant as we realize that the human race might not be at the center of things.

Originally released in South Korea in late 2013, Snowpiercer was released in the US in summer 2014 to critical acclaim. If this sounds interesting at all, then it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s out on Blu-Ray and DVD, and will apparently be arriving on Netflix this November.

Keep in mind, Snowpiercer is rated R.