Deciding who should pay to publish peer-reviewed scientific research

There is an important discussion to be had about the future of scientific publications.

As a practicing and publishing scientist, I am judged by the quality and quantity of my contributions to the scientific community. Traditionally, this comes down to counting how many papers I publish and weighting them by the quality (impact) of the journals where the papers appear. A fancy word for this is “Impact Factor,” which is a measure of the frequency papers in a particular journal are cited compared to the number of pages a manuscript is.

The highest impact journals are often the hardest to get published in, sometimes having acceptance rates as low as 10%. Typical impact factors depend a lot on your field of study. In journals like Nature and Science, the impact factors are very high. In specialized journals and in specialized fields, the impact factors are much smaller.

In my native field of heat transfer, impact factors as high as 2.5 are rare. In climate science, flagship journals like the Journal of Geophysical Research and Geophysical Research Letters have impact factors in the 3–5 range – this means that the technical field of geophysics has a higher citation rate then say, heat and mass transfer. Journals such as Nature and Science, broad-category journals with huge readership, have citations rates of 42 and 31, respectively.

In this traditional model, universities pay each year (often thousands of dollars) to carry the journals. The universities then typically received both hard copy and e-copies of papers which faculty can then obtain. More recently, many library consortia have gone to an electronic-only system. It is probably obvious that with strengths of this system come weaknesses.

A glaring problem is that the subscription fees are quite large and very few practitioners in a field purchase the journals. Instead, they can purchase specific papers that they are interested in, often for $20–40 per article. It is commonly said that the papers are “behind a pay wall.” But, this pay wall is important.

A publisher cannot simply give papers away for free – they would rapidly go out of business. On the other hand, an author can opt to make their papers available without a pay wall, but the author has to pay for this option. My colleagues and I recently wrote a major ocean heating paper and paid multiple thousands of dollars to make it freely available. This money came from our research budgets – budgets that are already tight.

So into this mix enter open-access publishers. Instead of selling papers, they make the articles freely available to the public. On the one hand, this system dramatically alters who can gain access to articles. The papers can be freely downloaded anywhere in the world (hugely important if you are a researcher in the developing world). In addition, open-access journals typically do not print papers in hard copy form, thus saving money on printing and shipping. But how can these journals survive? They do that by charging the author. Fees range anywhere from $100–$1000 or so.

So, whenever a scientist opts to make their papers open-access, they (or their institution) are paying for this service. It is important for the public to recognize this. Publishing behind a “pay wall” does not mean a scientist is hiding anything – it is a necessary part of the business model of traditional journals. And, when journals have a pay wall, they are not gouging the public. These payments cover the costs of editing, printing, formatting, etc.

Many journals, whether open access or not, are for profit enterprises, but they are enterprises that provide a valuable service to society. (Other journals are published by universities and consequently do not fit into this mold).

A problem can arise, however, when open-access journals solicit papers and publish them with sub-quality review as a means to increase profit. These types of journals are often termed “predatory” in that they prey on professors (although faculty shouldn’t be so naïve).

All of this presents researchers with a tough choice. Publish in a top-tier journal and likely get a higher profile amongst your peers but a significantly reduced readership outside of academia. Or, publish in open-access venues and increase your public readership but incur publishing costs and lower citation rates among your peers.

I would say that most academics have chosen the first approach – shunning the new open-access route and staying with the tried and true journals. I am more mixed. I think there are real benefits to making my research available to a larger audience. On the other hand, I want to ensure that my work is well received by colleagues and has an archived life so that years from now, researchers can read my contributions.

In the end, most of my work is published in the very top thermal-sciences journals such as the International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, and Numerical Heat Transfer, with impact factors 2.5 and 1.8, respectively. Recently, I have written in open-access journals, particularly when the subject is not specialized, or when I think it will be of interest to a broad audience. When I write in open-access venues, I hope that my publication payments will guarantee a permanent archive, a broad readership, and top-quality editing.

With many new journal ventures beginning each year, it is hard to anticipate which will be around in the years and decades to come. Some ventures are clearly going to be successful, such as Hindawi, Copernicus, SciELO, and Scientific Research. Others may not be successful, particularly if they cannot ensure high quality articles within their pages.

An expert on this topic, Dr. Lars Bjørnshauge has taken an active role to categorize these open journals. He founded the Directory of Open Access Journals in 2003 which applies quality metrics to the venues. He summarized his view when he told me,

Open access publishing (with or without) Article Processing Charges is here to stay, not only because of the well documented benefits for the researcher, but as well because more and more research funders, universities and governments has realized that open access to public funded research benefits research, industry, innovation, health etc. and therefore has issued open access mandates and policies requesting that the results of the research should be freely available and reusable. People can learn more about open-access mandates at

The DOAJ provides a global service listing and disseminating information about fully open access journals providing extensive information about charges, licensing, archiving arrangements etc. The new criteria will enable researchers, universities, research funders and other stakeholders to find good publication channels.

So perhaps it is best to share my own guidelines – questions I ask when I decide to go the open access route.

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Posted by John Abraham on Thursday, 18 September, 2014

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