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Journal submission fees: why are they so rare?

Journals

This post from 2012 is in the process of being updated. In it I look at fees that are charged to the authors of all submissions, including those that are rejected. I list some journals that charged submission fees at that time and consider how reasonable this kind of fee is.

In a previous post I discussed fees that journals charge for colour printing, per page or for supplementary material. All those fees are charged only to authors whose papers are accepted. Here I’ll look at fees that are charged to the authors of all submissions, included those that are rejected.

In 2010 a report on submission fees by Mark Ware was published by the Knowledge Exchange, a collaboration of the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) with similar organisations in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. This followed a study investigating whether submission fees could play a role in a business model for open access journals. They concluded that for journals with a high rejection rate in particular, submission fees can help to make the open access publication fee more reasonable and could thus make the transition to open access easier.

Although the report focuses on submission fees in the transition to open access, they also noted:

In certain disciplines, notably economic and finance journals and in some areas of the experimental life sciences, submission fees are already common.

Which journals charge a submission fee?

The Knowledge Exchange report includes a table of journals that already charge a submission fee. For biology journals, these fees are listed as mostly being around US$50-75.

I’ve checked on the journal websites for a selection of those listed in this report, and some seem to no longer charge for submission – in particular, the US$400 submission fee that Ideas in Ecology & Evolution charged when it launched in 2008 seems to have now been dropped, and I can’t find any mention of submission fees on the websites of Journal of Biological Chemistry or FASEB Journal.

The journals that I could verify as charging submission fees are:

  • Journal of Neuroscience (Society for Neuroscience) has a submission fee of US$125 (as well as the page charges and colour printing charges mentioned in the previous post)
  • Hereditas (an open access Wiley-Blackwell journal) charges 100 euros (US$133)
  • Stem Cells (Wiley-Blackwell, with an open access option) charges $90
  • Journal of Clinical Investigation (American Society for Clinical Investigation) and Cancer Research (American Association for Cancer Research) charge US$75
  • several other journals mentioned in the Knowledge Exchange report charge around US$50.

Elsevier say in their FAQ that you need to look in each journal’s guide to authors to find out if they charge submission fees (as with other charges).

All the above except Hereditas are subscription journals.

Why submission fees, or why not?

The Knowledge Exchange report interviewed publishers about the pros and cons of submission fees. Unfortunately, they don’t give any details of who was interviewed, except that they were ‘stakeholders including publishers, libraries, research funders, research institutions and individual researchers’, or the text of the interviews, so it is difficult to interpret the results. However, from these interviews the report identified the following advantages:

  • The costs of publication are spread over more authors
  • The fee may put off authors from submitting ‘on spec’ to a journal where they know their paper has only a tiny chance of getting accepted, thus saving work for the journal.

The disadvantages mentioned included:

  • The fee might put off authors and thus make the journal less competitive
  • It was unclear whether funders would cover the charge (though interviews with funders for the study suggested that they would)
  • It would require administration.

Given the findings of this report, I’m surprised that more journals don’t charge a submission fee. I would be surprised if it put off speculative submissions (the time it takes for a paper to be reviewed is surely a bigger cost to the authors than a charge at the level of US$50-100). But for  open access journals with high rejection rates, as the report says, it seems particularly appropriate. Is the risk of seeming uncompetitive with other journals the only reason why these fees aren’t being widely tried?

This is interesting in the context of the statements by Nature Publishing Group that Nature couldn’t go open access because they would have to charge a very high publication fee. I’ve heard this most recently from Alison Mitchell at the debate ‘Evolution of Science’ in Oxford in February: she said that the publication fee would need to be about £10,000 (US$15,850) for Nature research journals and £30,000 (US$47,550) for Nature (see the video of the debate – this statement is at 17 minutes 30 seconds).

A conversation on Twitter with Heather Piwowar (@researchremix, a postdoc with Dryad studying data use among researchers) and Ethan Perlstein (@eperlste, an evolutionary pharmacologist at Princeton University) about this NPG statement led me to Jan Velterop (@Villavelius, a director of Aqcknowledge.com and a former colleague of mine at BioMed Central), who has written on submission fees several times on his blog. He kindly emailed me with further thoughts.

Jan’s most recent blog post summarises his reasons for liking submission fees:

The basic reason I am in favour of submission fees is that it makes scientific publishing really the service industry that it is, its main task nowadays having nothing to do with publishing per se, but mainly with arranging peer review and quality assurance of one sort or another.

Of course, this might not be what publishers want their main task to be…

Another argument for them that he lists is:

It removes the suspicion that OA journals might be tempted to accept more than they should just because of the money that accepted articles bring

And what about the disadvantages? Jan tells me that journal publishers are wary of introducing new fees that other journals don’t charge (see the ‘competitiveness’ point above). They are particularly wary because of a bit of history I didn’t know about:

One of the reasons why commercial journals dominate STM these days is the fact that society journals, still mostly independent in the 1960’s, charged page charges. Commercial journals made much of the fact that (then) they didn’t, and so attracted a growing percentage of authors, who could publish with them for free…

Among the reasons publishers are not too keen are:

1) The risk that authors ‘defect’ to journals without charges. After all, that happened before.

I can see that given this history, journals might be more cautious than otherwise.

Jan goes on to mention a reason I hadn’t heard before:

2) The risk that authors might expect transparency with regard to the speed, peer-review, and acceptance/rejection procedure. If you only have to pay when accepted (as is the case for the current author-side payment OA journals), you may not care too much about the speed, quality of the peer review, and acceptance processes, but if you have to pay even if you are rejected, then that becomes a very different story. Publishers know that they cannot guarantee any quality in that regard – with a few exceptions, perhaps – and fear the pressure of quality requirements on them if they were to move in that direction.

This is a very good point. It is certainly difficult to give guarantees about the speed or quality of peer review, which relies on voluntary work by researchers. It is related to a disadvantage listed in Jan’s recent blog post:

The need to be able to justify rejections properly, particularly if challenged (after all, submitters have paid for an assessment)

Jan also gives a third reason that intrigues me: that the level of submission fees might reveal information about a journal’s rejection rate that they would rather be kept quiet:

if they reject only about a tenth of the submissions, then obviously the submission charge cannot be very much lower than 9/10th of the publication charge for the same revenue to be achieved

So a journal might want to be seen as very selective, rejecting a high proportion of submitted articles, but they might actually have a lot lower rejection rate than this. For example say a journal with a rejection rate of 90% was considering a submission fee of $50 and a publication fee of $1000 (and all authors pay the submission fee, whether accepted or not). Then for every 9 articles accepted, the journal would receive $9000 in publication fees, plus $4500 for the 90 articles submitted, making $13500. But if the same fees were applied to a journal that rejects only about 10%, then for every 9 articles accepted, they would get only $9000 plus $500 for the 10 submitted articles ($9500). The number of articles accepted is public, whereas the number rejected isn’t. To get the level of fees they would receive if they had a 90% rejection rate they would need to charge a submission fee of ($13500 – $9000)/10 = $450. This level of submission fee is unlikely to be acceptable to authors.

(My calculation comes out with a submission fee half what Jan estimates, which I think is because I am assuming both a submission fee and a publication fee are charged, whereas he is assuming only a submission fee.)

In conclusion, the main advantage of submission fees is also their main advantage in other circumstances: that they would reduce the number of submissions. So if a journal has a high rejection rate, it makes sense to charge a submission fee, but otherwise it doesn’t. This actually applies to subscription and open access journals equally – in both cases a submission fee provides extra revenue, which could be used to reduce other charges, included subscriptions, page charges or publication fees (or to increase profits of course). The main reason why high-rejection-rate journals aren’t currently charging submission fees seems to be because it would make them less competitive, but given that these journals are by definition the place that people want to be published, this doesn’t seem a very strong argument. I wouldn’t be surprised if one journal tries submission fees and other then followed suit in the next few years.

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Cofactor’s founder, Anna Sharman, has been a biologist, journal editor and publishing consultant.

She saw that what publishers wanted was different from what researchers submitted, and wanted to help researchers navigate the publication process.

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