Why we should stop publishing in open-access journals with article processing charges

In recent years, a new generation of academic journals has emerged and grown rapidly. It is a particular type of open-access journal with an article processing charge [hereafter: APC journal] . An APC journal is a scientific journal that requires authors to pay a fee to publish their article after it has been accepted. Such fees are usually quite high (ranging from around 1,000 Euros per article in most cases to over 3,000 Euros in some instances). The new generation of APC journals is not constituted by ‘traditional predatory journals’, that is to say a sort of fake-scientific-journals, characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from good editorial practices, and a lack of transparency and a serious peer-review process. This new generation consists of journals that appear to be more serious and on paper seem to respect the usual conventions of the field of academic publication, such as the existence of a peer-review process; therefore, in some cases they have also an impact factor. However, the quality and robustness of this peer-review process is highly questionable and the quality of the published papers is often quite low (obviously, there are exceptions).

The increased presence of these journals is linked, directly or indirectly, to several factors. Among these, there is the fact that many institutions (such as the European Union with the 2018 Plan S) support publication in open-access journals. But APC journals are mainly the byproduct of the current race to publish in the academic environment (i.e., the “Publish or Perish” dynamic). Academics are driven to publish quickly and in large quantities, but this clashes with the slowness and high selectivity of many traditional subscription journals. APC journals take advantage of this scarcity in traditional journals, providing an expensive loophole to the need to publish in international journals with an impact factor.

Two reasons are usually given to justify publication in APC journals. The first reason is the need to publish in open-access form. This answer, however, is unsatisfactory. In fact, the majority of subscription journals (that is journals which require readers to pay for the content that they read, but not authors for publishing) allow the open-access publication of post-prints (i.e., the final version of the articles accepted by the journal, prior to the layout work made by the journal staff). The Sherpa Romeo search engine enables you to find out publisher copyright and open access policies of academic journals across the world. Then, also true open-access journals (i.e., journals which do not ask authors for an article processing charge) exist. Hence, if the point is to publish research in an open-access manner, APC journals are not an obliged choice. The second reason for opting for an APC journal is the alleged need to publish quickly. It is true that many traditional subscription journals have very long publication times. But if the need is to make a piece of research publicly available, again, pre-prints can be published before the paper is accepted in any journal, also in forms that protect their content from plagiarism (such as SSRN’s eLibrary).

Within this framework, a question emerges: should we publish in these journals? My opinion is that we should not do it at all (for a similar viewpoint, see Eric Verdeil’s opinion). It is not only an issue of individual ethics, but of public ethics, which concerns the whole academic system. As a matter of fact, feeding the APC journal system has three serious negative consequences.

  1. It sets a barrier to access for those without research funds. This system creates a barrier for researchers who do not have access to substantial research funds (such as young or precarious researchers or scholars from not-so-affluent universities). This increases the hierarchical segmentation of the academic world even further.
  2. It risks not adequately guaranteeing the quality control of the scientific publications. “Predatory journals” have repeatedly been suspected of lowering the review process standards. Can the same suspect apply also to many non-predatory APC journals? My answer is affirmative. All APC journals make money and survive thanks to the articles sent to them. The very mechanism of requiring a fee from authors for publishing their article could push every APC journal to lower qualitative standards in order to publish as much as possible. The fact that, in many cases, the publication time of APC journals is very short (three or four weeks maximum, from sending the paper to its publication) seem to support these suspicions.
  3. It makes serious research work impossible. Many APC journals publish a significant number of articles. The case of Sustainability is blatant. During 2020, Sustainability published around 10,500 articles. For a researcher working on questions of sustainable cities, how is it possible to stay on top of everything that is published in this journal, so as to be aware of recent research developments in his/her field? Publishing a reasonable number of carefully selected articles is an essential task of scientific journals, which allows robust research work to be possible. In this regard, serious scientific journals are an essential component of the academic world: through their rigorous filter, they make the development of cumulative knowledge and robust research possible, as well as the flourishing of scientific debates. The publication of an exaggerated number of articles with almost no filter is, therefore, extremely detrimental to everybody’s research.

Let me be clear: APC journals in of themselves are not THE problem. They do, however, contribute to aggravating the shortcomings of the current academic publication system. The need to reform the current academic publication system has been argued by various scholars. An increasing number of researchers is questioning some of its pillars, from publication metrics to the very principle of peer review. And we all recognize the paradox that our research, which is made possible thanks to our salaries paid by public institutions, enriches large private publishers, who publish it in subscription journals. However, while waiting for the scientific community to engage in an in-depth debate, I believe that any serious scholar can at least agree that the APC journals system is extremely harmful. The current international publication system is sick. While waiting to find a therapy for its disease, we should avoid aggravating its health by relying on something like APC journals, which do not constitute a viable treatment, but the death of trustworthy scholarly publishing.

[Originally puslished in YA AESOP blog, on January 27, 2021]