The unsustainability of the “pay-as-you-go” publishing model


Recently, Zhejiang Gonggong University announced that articles published with MDPIFrontiers Media & Hindawi, the three largest open access publishers, would not be included in research performance statistics.

Universities have discouraged or banned staff from publishing in individual journals in the past, but this is the first report of whole publisher catalogues being excluded. I’ve seen discussions about whether these journals are worth publishing or whether they should be considered predatory. I’m concerned that the boundary between a predatory approach and the approach of pay-as-you-go journals is blurring.

Possibly encouraged by Plan S, a number of publishers have moved the burden for the publication costs from the readers (subscription model) to the authors (Article Processing Charges). While there are several other models (diamond, platinum, green or bronze), the debate has remained heated and controversial for those models that involve money and sometimes earn very high revenues. Large commercial publishers may give you the choice: you can publish for free and your paper will be available to libraries that subscribe to the journal but everyone else will have to pay (subscription model) or you can pay an “open-access fee” and get it all over the internet free of charge. Pay-as-you-go publishers do not give you the option. If your paper is accepted, you pay. However, these Article Processing Charges are significantly lower than the “release fee” requested by a publisher to make a commercial journal article fully open access.

A wicked game or profitable science

This seems like good news so far. You do not need to sell your car to pay Article Processing Charges (e.g. sometimes as high as €9500 for Nature open-access release fees). Even better news is that journals using this model can provide fee waivers. For instance, Cogitatio Press does not charge Article Processing Charges to authors from institutions that pay their annual membership fee. Some journals offer fee waivers for authors from low-income countries.

The not-so-good news is that this model features an inherent conflict of interest: the more the publishers publish, the more profit they make. Pay-as-you-go offers a model that favours increased article turnover time at the risk of being trapped in a market logic (the more they publish, the more they earn) that may encourage some journals to reduce their quality control.

Some journals may therefore be invested in publishing “more” and possibly faster. An approach that makes everyone happy are special issues: researchers can claim extra credits for being guest editors and write an editorial often valued as a research article by many evaluation systems. Authors get an extra push because editors will not want to jeopardise the special issue by rejecting too much or getting them too harsh reviews and everyone is served.

Many editors may stand firm to maintain quality measures up to their standards. However, this may lead to awkward situations. They can reduce the burden on the editorial processes by increasing desk rejections. But their time is limited, their positions often unpaid, and some articles genuinely look good at first glance. Besides, with every article the journal rejects, or with every article that is not resubmitted after reviewers’ reports, the publisher loses money through the time the staff have spent on the article and fixed costs. There is no real loss from rejecting one single article. In the long-run, however, there may be a tendency for some journals to be more interested in publishing than rejecting.

Alternatively, the journal may become too large a concern for core editorial team to track as more work is undertaken by staff without a research background. There have certainly been instances where pressure is put on the editor to accept more papers, sometimes leading to the resignation of the editor or the whole board.

In other words, the publisher, and their investors, have a vested interest in increasing profits by publishing more. They can subtly (and not so subtly) encourage journal editors to go “easier” on peer review to attract more authors, publish a higher number of papers and, therefore, earn more.

The growth of the pay-as-you-go model

The pay-as-you-go model has been gaining popularity; there seems to be no shortage of authors submitting and some journals quickly made it into the first or second quartile (Q1 or Q2) of journals in their field. MDPI 2021 IF report shows that Antioxidants rose from 6.313 to 7.675 in one year. Nutrients, founded in 2009, was already at 6.706.

The general perception is that open access articles are easier to read and cite. However, it is also true that if you have money to pay, such a model offers the best possible combination: more speed than other journals, keen for a quick review process to publish more, being indexed in major databases so that they count towards your annual evaluation. It appears to be a win-win situation for journals and authors, but there are several drawbacks to this model.

In a culture where publishing more is seen as an indicator of better performance, where more citations are seen as the ultimate goal of publishing, this leads research a bit far from its initial goal.

Research contributes to societal and technological progress. This is difficult to measure but in general when results are seen as valid (either because they help improve people’s life or help to explain the world more clearly), they are adopted by other researchers and therefore cited. Contemporary assessments of research seem to bypass all these intermediate drivers to concentrate, instead, on the relationship between published paper and its citations.

As more and more universities and researchers, against all odds, adopt the “more publications is better” model, the culture of recycling ideas generates an unprecedented amount of junk research. A colleague once told me: if you have data on A, B and C, you can publish a comparative papers A-B, B-C, A-C and A-B-C. Inventive, sure, but is it of any use to research, apart from enhancing your metrics?

Even worse, this puts pressure on “slower” researchers, who might prioritise quality over quantity, to join the rat race. We should publish less, not more, for the good of research.

The subtle red line

The pay-as-you-go model looks like the evolutionary rung between predatory and non-predatory journals.

Predatory journals, scientists agree “prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate” (from ‘Predatory journals: no definition, no defence’).

Apart from prioritising self-interest (isn’t this the attitude of each and every journal, especially if commercial?) pay-as-you-go journals do not strictly fall under this definition. Their invitations are clear, prices are transparent, communication is often decent and unaggressive.

If Beall’s list of predatory journals was attacked because it was difficult to demonstrate the bad faith of predatory journals, spotting bad apples in the pay-as-you-go model is virtually impossible. It can only come in the form of a subjective and allegedly arbitrary decisions, as has happened at Zhejiang Gonggong University.

Formally, pay-as-you-go journals tick all the right boxes, but they are the result of decades of scientific involution, putting their emphasis on quantity and metrics instead of quality and real benefit to society. They emerge from a logic that privileges results achieved quickly and for a clear task with an impact to be immediately measurable.

A “cultural exception” for science?

If we keep on producing junk research that nobody will read just to keep our national evaluation systems happy, then we are just supporting the illusion that research can be managed as a market commodity.

However, just like many other things, research simply cannot be treated as a market commodity. Services supporting a society have, as their ultimate goal, the bettering of the human condition. Expenditure should be transparent and effective. The main advantage of a good public school, sporting facility, or library is not that it brings in money but that people in our society will have a better chance to be healthy, cultivated and educated individuals with an understanding of their role in our communities.

There are ways to protect what we care about, as a society, even in the face of market pressures. The French cultural exception, for instance, places culture before profit. Countries can make decisions in the cultural sphere to protect, as an alternative to the market, products that educate citizens and enhance culture even if the benefits are not always tangible or measurable.

There is a wide array of evidence that science and profit is an awkward cohabitation, from tobacco to junk food industries and beyond. There is no such a thing as a free dinner. If a private company is offering to fund your research, the risk of conflict of interest is high.

Pay-as-you-go journals give researchers what they believe they need. They are under pressure to publish quickly in reputable journals. We can follow this market-logic and sink research or we could invoke a cultural exception and admit that culture, research, and knowledge should be free and independent of profit logics.

Author Bio: Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser.