Fee complexity – an example

It is often assumed that article processing charges (APCs) are a single fee, and a straightforward approach to providing revenue to publishers to offset the costs of publication. However APCs can be a very complex affair. Take the Frontiers fee grid as an example. They publish peer-reviewed Gold OA journals in medicine, neuroscience, health, and related fields. A researcher wishing to submit a manuscript needs to navigate the fee grid to figure out what the APCs would be.  There are two tiers of articles (specialty-level and field-level). Within Tier 1, there are four types of articles, ranging in cost from free (e.g. book reviews, commentaries); to mini-review articles ( 575 euros); to original research articles as a research topic submission (960 euros, unless the corresponding author is a Frontiers Media associate or chief editor- 770 euros); a regular submission (1,600 euros unless the corresponding author is a Frontiers Media associate or chief editor – 1,280 euros); and lastly, clinical trial articles (2000 euros). In Tier 2, ie focused reviews or commentary, there are no fees. There are additional page charges in some categories.

This complexity speaks to the challenges of developing business models in an OA knowledge economy. As OA publishers experiment with new business models, it is interesting to observe the numerous levels, options, and discounts for scientific publishing fees  that are  emerging, such as in this example. We are living in a period of healthy and robust experimentation in publishing, and we can expect to see much more variety and nuance in fee models in the journal industry in the coming years. Researchers will need to carefully compare APC options and publishing venues- and what they are getting for their money.            

About Frontiers – As described on their website:

“Frontiers was launched as a grassroots initiative in 2007 by scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, out of the collective desire to improve the publishing options and provide better tools and services to researchers in the Internet age. Since then, Frontiers has become one of the largest and fastest-growing open-access scholarly publishers: over 20,000 high-quality, peer-reviewed articles have been published in 45 community-driven journals across more than 300 specialty niches in science, medicine and technology, and more than 40,000 high-impact researchers serve on the editorial boards and over 6 million monthly page views”

Articles are published with a fast turnaround time- three months after submission, on average.

Sustaining the Knowledge Commons (SKC) – Selected Bibliography on Open Access

Sustaining the Knowledge Commons (SKC) bibliography is a growing list of scholarly articles, books, book chapters, reports as well as primary publications. What began as a bibliographic list designated to the Open Access Article Processing Charges (APC), a project worked on by Heather Morrison, Tony Horava and Stephen Pinfield, has become a more general folder. It comprises the suite of projects under SKC, a concept aiming to remove barriers between all people, whether poor or rich, and the world’s scholarly knowledge. This  Zotero SKC folder will enable the users not only to access the metadata and abstracts of the sources, but also, when possible, provide links to sources that are freely available on the internet. Users will view, print, search by titles, authors, etc., export or generate a reference list to enable collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

This is a folder in progress and more reference recommendations are always welcomed. Please note that you are free to send us suggestions to improve the folder or to add to it.

OA APC variation: english language editing

MDPI provides a good example and explanation of a variation on article processing charges that reflect the work involved, that is, english language editing services. From the MDPI APC website (August 5, 2014):

For journals with an APC of 500 CHF or lower, a charge of 250 CHF will be applied to articles requiring extensive English language editing or formatting. To avoid surcharges, authors are recommended to carefully follow the instructions for authors and use the MS Word or LaTeX template files available on the instructions for authors page of the journal website. We encourage non-native English speaking authors to send their manuscripts to a professional English editing service prior to submission. If you use a service that provides a confirmation certificate, please send a copy to the Editorial Office. Authors from developing countries should consider registration with AuthorAid, a global research community that provides networking, mentoring, resources and training for researchers in developing countries.

This illustrates an important point about scholarly publishing when viewed as a service rather than as a good for sale: there is an inverse relationship between quality and the amount of work involved, i.e. the higher the quality, the less the work that is needed. This is because publishers do not pay for the largest portion of the work, conducting the research and writing the article. A well-researched and well-written article is less work for a journal at every step, as high quality articles make for easier editorial and peer review decisions as well as less work at the copyediting stage.

This approach provides an incentive for authors to submit articles in much better shape along with clear instructions about what that means, and also points to assistance for authors from developing countries.

One suggestion that fits with this approach is that it may be more effective to shift much of the support work of formatting and copyediting from publishers to the author’s institution. This way, institutions could hire local assistants and pay at rates appropriate for their own country and in their own currency, as well as creating local jobs, perhaps jobs for their own graduates in the case of universities.

For authors and copyeditors, there are advantages to working together over multiple projects. The copyeditor then has an opportunity to learn the terminology and approach preferred by the author, lessening the workload for both parties, as well as an opportunity to observe the growth of the author and research project over time. Perhaps a staff person in this position can help researchers with similar administrative tasks such as filing paperwork for grant proposals. This would free up the time of researchers to focus more on research. Where would the money come from? My suggestion is that in the process of transition to OA, we should not be looking to or funding publishers for services such as copyediting and formatting.

Of the 124 journals listed on the MDPI website, 124 or 85% offer english language editing services, generally at 250 CHF.

As a methodological note: while MDPI listed 124 journals, as of May 15, 2014 DOAJ listed 48 titles for MDPI. Correction August 5, 2014: note that DOAJ lists 104 journals for MDPI; the 48 titles are ones for which there are APCs. Many MDPI journals do not charge APCs, so the discrepancy is much less than I had thought.

I am finding that these large variations in title lists between websites of publishers relying on OA APCs and DOAJ are quite common. Simply collating these lists is proving to be a fair bit more challenging than anticipated.


Open access article processing fees: variation by type of article

One of the results emerging from the OA APC study is that behind the “APC” there is actually a variety of sub-models. An element of APC charges that makes sense when you think about is that sometimes the fee varies depending on the work involved.

One model that likely reflects the volume of work: some open access publishers charging varying fees depending on the type of article. Following are the fees charged by Bentham Open for their Group One journals (from the publisher’s website as of May 2014):

  • Letters: The publication fee for each published Letter article submitted is US $600.
  • Research Articles: The publication fee for each published Research article is US $800.
  • Mini-Review Articles: The publication fee for each published Mini Review article is US $600.
  • Review Articles: The publication fee for each published Review article is US $900.

For Group Two journals, there is a flat fee of $250 per article regardless of type.

BioMedCentral has a similar model, except that instead of differential fees, there is a standard 20% discount for certain types of articles (published protocols and case studies).

I argue that although these variations add complexity to calculating costs, these experiments are healthy and a better reflection of publication charges based on the service of publication than would be the case with a flat fee. Encouraging this approach may be wise to facilitate transparency and to work towards affordable pricing for full open access. Consider, for example, if we push publishers like BMC and Bentham Open to charge a flat fee per article, regardless of type, to simplify accounting. In this scenario, I would predict an APC at or near the highest current per-article price. What do you think?

Other examples of variations in pricing models that reflect the amount of work involved (blogposts to come):

  • page charges
  • flat fee up to a certain number of pages, page charges for overage
  • language editing services

Genome Biology: not listed in DOAJ

Genome Biology, a well-established open access journal published by BioMedCentral with an impressive impact factor, is not listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).  Presumably this is because one of DOAJ’s criteria for inclusion is “All content freely available”. In Genome Biology, the research articles are open access, but subscriptions are required for other content. Genome Medicine uses the same approach and is similarly not listed in DOAJ.

This is just one illustration of a methodological conundrum for the open access article processing fee research project. We are using DOAJ as the main source list for open access journals, however the DOAJ title lists for open access publishers using OA APCs do not quite match the publishers’ own lists, at least not the Hindawi and BioMedCentral title lists. In some cases this is likely due to recent changes at the publisher (new journals, older journals that have ceased to exist, changed titles or merged). However, the omission of a journal like Genome Biology is significant for this type of research because it is well-established, with an impact factor and a relatively expensive APC.

Traditional journals that use a hybrid approach (some articles open access while the journal as a whole continues as a subscription journal) are appropriately described as “double-dipping” by the open access movement. Are we giving publishers like Springer (the owner of BioMedCentral) an unwarranted free ride for doing exactly the same thing? Considering the high cost of publishing in Genome Biology or Genome Medicine ($2,835 US), this may be a question worth asking.

Introducing the Open access article processing charges dataverse

The Open Access article processing charges dataverse is now open with two initial files that describe the sample of journals from DOAJ used for the May 2014 OA article processing fee census.

Files currently available

DOAJ publishers has charges 2014 05: this is a list of journals in DOAJ as of mid-May 2014 that “has charges” (sic – term used in DOAJ). This is the result of a screen scrape from a DOAJ Advanced Search screen as this field was not available in the DOAJ metadata on the census date.

DOAJ journals by APC pub size is a list of publishers in DOAJ that “has charges” in descending order by the number of journals using the article processing fee method. This analysis made it possible to identify the skewed distribution of this set of journals, with publishers tending to be large (50% APC journals) or small (1-9 journals, with 1 being the most common number by far).

DOAJ metadata files – the files downloaded from the DOAJ website for use in this study are posted. There are 3 csv files, from Nov. 2013 (used for the Nov. – Dec. 2013 pilot project); April 2014 (not used to date but retained as this dataset was downloaded before DOAJ removed APC information from the downloadable file) and May 14, 2014 (the dataset the 2014 census will focus on). If you are citing these files please note that you should cite DOAJ as well as this dataverse, and point readers to the current DOAJ metadata file for download.

Additional files will be released as time permits and as the work of collating results from various sources progresses. The files are in CSV format to permit for easy manipulation.

Thanks to the University of Ottawa Library and the Ontario Council of University Libraries’ Scholars Portal for the dataverse!

Publishers using open access article processing charges are either big or small (skewed distribution)

Of the minority of journals in DOAJ that have article processing charges (26 – 30%) , most (80%) are published either by publishers that have 50 or more journals that use APCs, or 1 – 9 journals that use APCs, with not much in the middle.


Of the publishers with 1 – 9 journals using APCs, by far the largest category of this group (83%) are one-off journals, i.e. the publisher has only one journal using APCs. This is a skewed distribution.


This finding supports the distribution found by Frantsvåg (2010), although unlike Frantsvåg I do not see the large number of small publishers as a problem, but rather, as suggested by Edgar and Willinsky (2010), a possible indication of a renaissance of scholar-led publishing.  This distribution also fits the pattern for scholarly journal publishers overall described by Crow (2006).

This is very similar to the findings of Thompson (2005, p. 63),who found through a major study of scholarly monograph publishers in several English-speaking countries, a tendency towards concentration and larger publishers combined with a healthy system of very small publishers, but not much in the middle.

We hear a lot about the big publishers using APCs, like BioMedCentral and Hindawi, but not as much about the many small publishers. For this reason, it is the smaller  journals and publishers that I most want to highlight.


Crow, R. (2006). Publishing cooperatives: An alternative for not-for-profit publishers. First Monday, 11(9) Retrieved 2011 from

Edgar, B. D., & Willinsky, J. (2010). A survey of the scholarly journals using open journal systems. Scholarly and Research Communication 1:2 Retrieved July 21, 2014 from http://www.src-online.ca/index.php/src/article/viewFile/24/40

Frantsvåg, J. E. (2010). The size distribution of open access publishers: A problem for open access? First Monday 15:2. Retrieved November 28, 2010 from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3208/2726

Thompson, J. B. (2005). Books in the digital age : The transformation of academic and higher education publishing in Britain and the United States. Cambridge: Polity.