Open Access brings along many exciting opportunities to share scholarly knowledge more widely – but it doesn’t come without a cost.
Open Access brings along many exciting opportunities to share and disseminate scholarly knowledge more widely in the publishing community – but it doesn’t come without a cost.
On Thursday, March 31, we launched our second webinar in our researcher-centric webinar series. The topic was ‘article processing charges’, more widely known as APCs – the most common upfront fee that’s typically charged to researchers to allow them to have their work made freely and instantly accessible on a publisher’s website. For researchers, it’s not always easy to make heads or tails of it, so we devoted this webinar to discussing in-depth what an APC is and everything it entails.
Publisher Relations & Business Development Manager, Romy Beard, and Customer Care Specialist & Researcher, Laura Davidson, hosted the session and guided us from start to finish. What are APCs, what do they mean in the context of the publishing process for a researcher, how much do APCs typically cost, how and when are they paid, and who will pay them? To properly review the context of APCs and provide us with a solid understanding of what they entail – being somewhat complex if you haven’t dealt with them before – our two hosts guided us smoothly through all of these questions and their answers.
Looking back at our first webinar, an introductory session to Open Access (OA), it was underlined that Open Access “lifts the barrier to accessing and reading research articles”.
“This is really for the benefit of the reader who then doesn’t pay to access articles”, Romy Beard said. “Unfortunately, that can sometimes be at the cost of the author”. The cost that’s now being addressed to the author who wishes to publish Open Access is the APC.
An APC can also be referred to as an ‘article processing fee’, ‘Open Access fee’, and ‘Open Access charge’, and, generally, it covers the cost of the article publication. This includes running peer-review systems, copyediting, typesetting, and hosting the article – put differently, all the tasks that would otherwise traditionally be covered by the subscription income.
An interesting aspect was brought to the table during the session, inspired by a frequently asked question received at the Customer Care Team at ChronosHub:
“Do publishers get money from both subscriptions and APCs from hybrid journals?”
Indeed, they do. For hybrid journals, publishers get money from subscriptions to libraries to access closed content and also have revenue from researchers that publish OA and pay APCs. In general terms, this is referred to as ‘double dipping’.
When Open Access started to increase and more APCs were being paid to hybrid journals, institutions began noticing the fact that they were internally paying for subscriptions and also paying for APCs, Romy Beard underlined. So, as a result, they started making agreements with publishers called ‘off-setting agreements’ in which the publisher would give vouchers or tokens to the institution that their researchers could use for OA publishing.
Today, these agreements have evolved into so-called OA agreements that also go by names such as Read & Publish, Publish & Read, transitional, and transformative agreements. In short, the aim of these agreements is, in fact, to control the subscription spend and the APC spend within that one agreement.
In terms of timing, a common notion is that the APC is to be paid after the acceptance of the article. Some publishers wait with the publication until the full APC is paid for, others publish anyway and trust that the APC will get paid. Some hybrid journals publish the article but keep it in closed access and then free it up once the fee is paid. Naturally, upon acceptance, the researcher receives final confirmation of the APC along with the invoice within a certain window of time, for instance, 4-8 weeks, until the article will be published, which should give them enough time to pay the APC.
Interestingly, some studies show that what is actually being charged might actually be less than what is out there in terms of list prices, Romy Beard pointed out. Usually, this is due to factors such as membership discounts, vouchers, and reductions in fees. Nonetheless, there are certain lists that show the distinction between APCs for fully OA journals, gold journals, and hybrid journals – and these typically allow the researcher to filter the journals and can be a good indication of general list prices.
The APC can be covered by, for instance, funding bodies such as research funders that provide research grants or institutions that have budgets to pay for it on behalf of their researchers. In other cases, the researcher might pay out of their own pocket or research fund. But more and more, the aforementioned OA agreements might cover the APC in which case the researcher doesn’t have to pay an APC at all.
An APC can also be paid immediately without the researcher’s interference – some funders do that. For instance, ChronosHub collaborates with the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) which means that if an author makes a submission as an SNSF-affiliated author through ChronosHub, we’ll know that the author is a grantee and will be covered if they meet certain conditions – and the invoice will be paid for directly.
Apart from that, as said, a lot of publishers also provide so-called waivers and discounts. Indeed, it can also be worth checking the institution to which the researcher is affiliated to see if something could potentially trigger an agreement which usually happens already upon submission.
As such, the researcher has different options available in terms of paying for APCs. In cases where the researcher doesn’t have the funds or means to cover the APC, archiving can be an alternative option, as also explained in the first session. Archiving allows the researcher to archive the article in an institutional repository at no cost – in most cases, it isn’t the final version that’s available but the Author Accepted Manuscript (AAM) version. Also, there might be an embargo period to keep in mind and perhaps no license applied.
Some publishers now also offer a new route called ‘guided Open Access’. In this case, the researcher submits the article to be considered by a number of different OA journals – one of those might be fully OA, the others hybrid. The aim is to present a collective set of different publishing routes. In this scheme, the researcher pays an editorial charge upon submission, and then after the article is accepted in one of the journals from the offer, they are invoiced for a so-called top-up APC.
“If you are offered this, remember to check with your funder or whoever pays the APC if it is actually in line with their guidelines”, Laura Davidson underlined. “They might pay the top-up APC but not the editorial charge. That’s something to be aware of.”
With the rise of Open Access and the possibility of charging APCs, we’re also seeing an increase in what’s called predatory publishing. Predatory publishing can be considered fake publishing – usually, there are no quality checks, no proof-reading, no peer review, and, often, the editorial teams don’t actually exist, so the quality is nowhere near where it should be. Certainly, that can be damaging to the researcher’s reputation. However, certain lists provide overviews of predatory journals, but they can sometimes also be contradictory. One journal may be deemed legitimate by one list and illegitimate by another, making it somewhat difficult to be certain which journals are actually predatory.
“I think you need to use your own judgment as well when you submit and always do a quality check, for example, if you get asked to pay to get published quicker. In my head, that would ring alarm bells”, Romy Beard stated.
Surely, there’s a lot to take in when dealing with APCs in OA publishing. There can be multiple restrictions from the funder’s side in terms of the rules for paying an APC – some publishers might have a maximum cost they’ll cover, or they’ll only pay for certain journals. Sometimes, they’ll only cover certain article types, or they only fund articles with a specific license applied. For our third webinar on April 21, we looked into these funder requirements in detail and what they mean in the context of APCs. We also have our next webinar on May 12 where we’ll zoom in on OA agreements. This concludes our total of four webinars in our researcher-centric webinar series. You can always find recordings of our past webinars and sign up for upcoming ones on our "Events" page here.