Sustainability of Article Publishing Charge to Further Open Access

By Prathima Appaji

the field of academic publishing, there are a variety of models. Many journals use ‘reader-pay’ model wherein readers pay a fixed price to access to read. Increasingly, open access journals and hybrid journals are using an ‘author-pay’ model where the author pays a fixed Article Publishing Charge (APC) and the article is made accessible to all readers for free.

The desire to make articles easily available to readers stems from the movement for open access to public knowledge. High subscription prices for premium journals restrict access to read articles and in-turn, limiting access to knowledge. For many in the open access movement who sought to bridge these gaps in accessibility of academic knowledge, APCs became the funding model of choice, though not all open access journals have APCs.

In some sense, charging authors for editing and distributing their work makes sense: they gain significant alternative benefits from getting published – their credibility and renown increases, they receive tenure track benefits, and more. At the same time, producing journals takes time, effort, and skill, and the scholars working at that level also deserve to receive benefit from their labor.

However, in many cases, APCs have grown from a small fee to a major one. While APCs at open access journals range from $8 to $3,900, a research study found that large open access publishers such PLoS and BioMed Central charged high APCs between $1,350 and $2,250. For a few of the more popular journals, APCs were reported to be as high as $2,900. What happens when APCs are high, and what does it mean for authorship, open access, and one’s ability to read articles?

Higher-ranking universities and institutions have access to more funding and can afford to pay APCs in order to publish their research in open access and adopt an open access policy. Papers published as open access reach a wider section of the population, and is cited more often than papers published in traditional journals. More quality research published in open access helps further build these tier-1 schools’ credibility, and reputation. Stronger reputation attracts new funding, thus feeding into this inequitable cycle.  

Similarly, prominent academic careers and tenure teaching decisions are significantly impacted by quality and quantity of publications. Requiring high APCs to publish a work disproportionately hinders the ability for academicians from developing and poor regions of the world to publish their articles and research in reputed journals. As a result, they are less likely to be promoted at or hired into high-level institutions – furthering equity gaps and entrenching colonialism in education.

Furthermore, higher APCs can also lead to less diversity in publishing. Requiring that authors pay for circulation of their work makes it more difficult for disadvantaged or oppressed populations to tell their narrative, and means that learners of similar background are less likely to see their perspectives represented in scholarship. It can also be argued the consequence of this in the long run can be a diminished wealth of knowledge that is not diverse and less critical of itself.

Having access to knowledge is very different from having the ability to publish. Restricting the ability to publish can centralize the production of knowledge in the hands of a few wealthy institutions, thus obstructing the opportunity for various perspectives and points of view to be heard and read. This is ‘the danger of a single story’ as popularly stated by Chimamanda Adichie.

The case for open access to research is not weakened by these arguments – rather, these are concerns over the way progress is being made toward the goal. We must be mindful that high APCs can exclude a substantial portion of the academic world – particularly from disadvantaged communities – from making their knowledge public, and we must be mindful that this funding model for open access has the potential to entrench the status quo and even create new institutional hierarchies and inequities.

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