Paying to read or paying for publication: what do you get?


Currencies to pay for Journal articles

Currencies to pay for Journal articles

Why not simply post your manu­script on your own or your Institute’s web­server, at min­imal cost, fast and avail­able to all? Following Annals of Botany’s decision to reduce our open access charges to be below those of the major on-line sub­ject OA Journals, I have obvi­ously been look­ing at the dif­fer­ent ways Journals are fun­ded and use their rev­en­ues. Whatever the pub­lic­a­tion model, the costs of manu­script hand­ling, review, ‘type­set­ting’ or redact­ory ser­vices, and distribution/printing are the same whether the model is author-pays, sub­scrip­tion, hybrid (both author charges and sub­scrip­tion), or mixed (some papers author-pays, some subscription-only). Over the last few years, all Journals have been look­ing to imple­ment changes to reduce costs and speed up the pub­lish­ing pro­cess, while increas­ing their standards.


At the start of pub­lic­a­tion, mov­ing to on-line sub­mis­sions (mostly based in the US) for peer-review and edit­ing has helped both with costs and speed. Whether a paper is accep­ted or rejec­ted, the cost of review is sim­ilar, although few Journals now charge sub­mis­sion fees; how­ever, a num­ber, not in plant sci­ences, are offer­ing to accel­er­ate the review pro­cess by char­ging authors an extra fee. Alex Holcombe sug­gests on his blog that this will mean research­ers with poor fund­ing will fall fur­ther behind their rich coun­ter­parts, and sev­eral people are ques­tion­ing the eth­ics of this fast-tracking, although one of the Editors of  a Journal with the option also responds to the blog. I can’t see any­thing like this being adop­ted by Annals of Botany. We will con­tinue to aim to pub­lish the best plant sci­ence, and to obtain high-quality reviews as quickly as pos­sible; how­ever, we recog­nize that ref­er­ees both have many demands on their time, and also for some manu­scripts, it takes care­ful thought and some con­tem­pla­tion to give a con­sidered review. From my own review­ing exper­i­ences, I know that chas­ing is needed in some cases, but too intense pres­sure will lead to a super­fi­cial review.

Some journ­als are on-line only, sav­ing dis­tri­bu­tion costs and print­ing and paper for the pub­lisher. My col­leagues mostly admit to print­ing out papers as PDFs before read­ing, although per­haps this hid­den cost was there when the norm was to pho­to­copy the Journal in the lib­rary. At Annals of Botany, we hope more sub­scrip­tions will become on-line only (not least for envir­on­mental reas­ons), but at the same time our pub­lish­ers have been redu­cing our print costs. Printing (often in Asia) with bet­ter presses (for the small runs of a thou­sand cop­ies or so for most Journals, and now with much in col­our), and bet­ter paper (for Annals, Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, cer­ti­fied, more opaque, whiter and thin­ner than 5 years ago) has squeezed costs, although our wide dis­tri­bu­tion in Europe, Asia, Australasia and the Americas mean little more can be done obvi­ously to reduce dis­tri­bu­tion costs and envir­on­mental impact.

So that leaves the middle part of the pro­cess: the redac­tion includ­ing copy-editing and lay­out (now invari­ably HTML/XML-markup and PDF) — some­times seen as the ‘cost to first copy’, and the most expens­ive part of the review to pub­lic­a­tion path­way. The ques­tion I ask is, with world-wide access to your writ­ings only a blog away, why does any­body pay for these ser­vices? As I asked in the first sen­tence of this blog, “Why not simply post your manu­script on your own or your Institute’s web­server, at min­imal cost, fast and avail­able to all?”

I’d be most inter­ested to hear why people think that this model is not fol­lowed much, much more widely. I recog­nize that I have not put as much effort into my own web­site, www​.mol​cyt​.com, as I would have liked to, but many of the key tech­niques we use in the lab., par­tic­u­larly for in situ hybrid­iz­a­tion, are there (www​.meth​ods​.mol​cyt​.com), and I wish that more labs would pub­lish their meth­ods in usable detail in such a format. But I would not use the web­site for primary data pub­lic­a­tion, or even for big ideas. A prop­erly edited, well organ­ized, laid out and fully-checked pub­lished paper (whether HTML or PDF), pos­ted with a per­man­ent DOI to an archived web­site, is very dif­fer­ent from post­ing to your own server. I think most sci­ent­ists have voted by their actions to pay for the ser­vice by Journals and pub­lish­ers, in some cases as authors, in almost all cases as read­ers — and this is the source that is most trus­ted and used.


Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison. ORCID 0000-0002-3105-2167

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.