Acknowledging a downside to APC: opening up scholars and scholarship to exploitation

Brainard (2019) in an April 3, 2019 article in Science, reports that a U.S. judge has ruled that a “deceptive” publisher [OMICS] should pay $50 million in damages. This is a timely opportunity to acknowledge a downside of the APC business model, that is, opening up scholarship to further commercial exploitation, including exploitation by publishers that do not or may not meet reasonable standards for academic quality and ethics in publishing, and to make recommendations to limit this potential for exploitation.


The SKC team often focuses on the article processing charges (APC) business model for OA journal publishing, in order to observe and analyze trends. However, this focus is not an endorsement of either OA publishing (as opposed to OA archiving), or the APC business model that is used by a minority of fully OA journals. This post acknowledges a major downside to the APC model. APC “opens up” scholars and scholarly works for further commercial exploitation by traditional and new publishers that offers a wide range of quality in academic terms, ranging from excellent to mediocre and including a few with unethical practices that are not compatible with advancing our collective knowledge.This judge’s ruling provides an opportune moment to acknowledge this flaw in the APC business model, and to discuss potential remedies. I argue that it is essential for scholarly publishing to be scholar-led so that advancing scholarship is the primary priority. One model that I recommend as one to build on and expand is the SSHRC Aid to Scholarly Journals program. This program provides modest funding to scholarly journals that are under the direction of qualified Canadian academics. This funding is awarded through a competitive process that in effect serves as a journal-level academic peer review process. OA initiatives where key decisions are made by the research community (directly or through librarian representatives) are more likely to ensure high quality and ethical services than policies favouring and/or providing support for OA publishing with no clear vetting process of publication venues.


There are downsides to any model for support of scholarly publishing. One important downside to the APC model is that it further “opens” scholars and scholarly works to exploitation for commercial purposes, including exploitation by publishers that do not meet academic standards for a variety of reasons ranging from lack to experience to deliberate deception. I do not personally evaluate or judge the quality of academic publishing. However, as Brainard (2019) reports, a U.S. judge has literally made a judgement in the case of OMICS.


To understand how scholarly publishing has become vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, it is helpful to unravel the conflation of OA and OA publishing, and of OA publishing and the APC business model.

Open access (OA) is about access to the world’s scholarly knowledge. OA is not the same as OA publishing. There are 2 major approaches to OA; one is OA archiving, which is compatible with diverse publishing models. To get a sense of what has already been achieved through OA archiving, I recommend playing around with 2 major services. One is the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE). BASE cross-searches over 6,000 archives around the world that collectively contain more than 140 million documents, 60% of which are OA. The other is the Internet Archive, which provides access to billions of webpages, videos, audio recordings, and over 20 million texts. If a classic text is out of copyright, it is probably available through the Internet Archive.

The majority of fully OA journals (73% of journals in DOAJ as of today) do not charge article processing charges (APCs). How do they manage? Small journals can often get by with in-kind support such as journal hosting, modest university, funder, and/or scholarly society subsidies, and/or collaborative library-based support (e.g. Knowledge Unlatched, Open Humanities Press).

As of today, OMICs is still active. There is reason to think that there are substantial numbers of APC based OA journals by publishers of unknown and potentially problematic academic quality. As I reported based on the 2018 survey of OA journals at ELPUB 2018, ” 5 of the largest publishers are no longer listed in DOAJ (Canadian Center of Science and Education, Internet Scientific Publications, LLC, Macrothink Institute, SCIENCEDOMAINInternational, and Scientific Research Publishing; Bentham Open is listed in DOAJ in 2017, but not 2018). (Morrison, 2018). There are a variety of reasons why publishers might not be included in DOAJ. Publishers may not have completed the re-application process. This would be understandable as (in my opinion) the questionnaire is onerous and specific questions do not entirely make sense. However, not meeting the DOAJ criteria does raise questions about the quality of the publisher, particularly if DOAJ itself is used as a means of assessing quality. Journals and publishers disappearing from DOAJ raise the question of the advisability of relying on DOAJ inclusion as a criteria for quality. In an author selects a journal in DOAJ today, assuming this assures quality publication, the journal might disappear from DOAJ later, possibly when the author is up for tenure and promotion and reviewers are taking quality of publication venues into account in making recommendations.

Scams and poor quality publishing is not strictly an OA problem. There are scam conferences that are not at all OA, and traditional publishers of journals and monographs have a wide range of quality. However, it is a downside of a particular model for OA, and I recommend that the OA movement acknowledge this and help find remedies. As noted above, my remedy is scholarly leadership of OA initiatives, that is key decisions made by scholars whose primary work is in the university or research sectors, as the best way to make sure that quality of academic work is the top priority.


Brainard, J. (2019). U.S. judge rules deceptive publisher should pay $50 million in damages. Science April 3, 2019. Retrieved April 4, 2019 from

Morrison, H. (2018). Global OA APCs 2010 – 2017: major trends. Elpub 2018. Retrieved April 4, 2019 from

Cite as: Morrison, H. (2019). Acknowledging a downside to APC: Opening up scholars and scholarship to exploitation. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from