An article processing charge (APC) is the charge that’s paid to the publisher so the article can be made freely accessible upon publication. This means that the cost has moved from ‘pay-to-read’ to ‘pay-to-publish’.
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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.
That cost is often an article processing charge, more widely known as APC – the most common upfront fee typically charged to researchers.
For researchers and the administrative teams, it’s not always easy to make heads or tails of it, so we devoted this chapter to discussing in-depth what an APC is and everything it entails.
Looking back at our first chapter about Open Access, it was underlined that Open Access “lifts the barrier to accessing and reading research articles.”
It’s really for benefit of the reader, who then doesn’t pay to access articles. Unfortunately, that can sometimes be at the cost of the author. The APC is the cost that’s now addressed to the author who wishes to publish open access.
An APC might 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 or put differently, all the tasks that would otherwise traditionally be covered by the subscription income.
Our Customer Care Team at ChronosHub is often asked if publishers get money from both subscriptions and APCs from hybrid journals. And yes, they do.
For hybrid journals, publishers get money from subscriptions to libraries to access closed content and revenue from researchers who publish open access 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 while also paying for APCs. 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 open access publishing.
Today, these agreements have evolved into so-called open access 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 one agreement.
When is the APC paid?
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. 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 is published, which should give them enough time to pay the APC.
Interestingly, some studies show that what is actually being charged might be less than what is out there in terms of list prices. 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 open access 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 open access 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, many 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, publishing the article in closed access and archiving it can be an alternative option. Archiving allows the researcher to deposit the article in an institutional repository at no cost – in most cases, it isn’t the final version that’s made openly available, but the author accepted manuscript version. Also, there might be an embargo period to keep in mind, and perhaps no license applied.
Guided Open Access
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 journals – one of those might be fully open access, 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. They might pay the top-up APC but not the editorial charge. Be aware of this.
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, hence the quality is nowhere near where it should be.
Indeed, that can be damaging to the researcher’s reputation. However, certain lists provide overviews of predatory journals, but they can sometimes be contradictory.
One journal may be deemed legitimate by one list and illegitimate by another, making it somewhat difficult to determine which journals are truly predatory.
We recommend that you use your 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 our experience, that should ring alarm bells.
Surely, there’s a lot to take in when dealing with APCs in open access 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.
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