On Publishing and Open Access

19 September 2020, 1807 EDT

Recently, I was asked by an interdisciplinary journal to edit a special section on climate governance, and I inquired whether it was an open access journal where authors have to pay to publish. It is, and I declined because asking others to contribute to a special issue that they then have to pay to publish in strikes me as unseemly. I’m pretty uncomfortable with this model of publishing, but I dislike the existing paywall mafia too.

Pay to Publish?
This is the third time I’ve had open access fees come up in the process of publishing in journals in the energy/science policy space. The other two were surprises where a journal changed to an open access pay model in the middle of publishing and the other was one where I joined an author team to a new journal that I didn’t look in to. In the other cases, the fee was waived or my co-authors had some way to have the fees paid. This model of pay to publish I think is more prevalent in the sciences.

I understand the desire to make work available to people without a paywall. I also respect the desire to defray the costs for authors in the global South with fee waivers, but it is not easy, even for someone like me at an R1, to come up with $1000 or more to publish a paper. For one, I’ve never done it, and I don’t have a reservoir of money to pay publication fees. If you publish several articles a year and they are open access, these costs would add up.

Where Do I Find $1000?

Maybe I could build that in to grants, but that isn’t the norm now, and any grants that I do have cover RA time and other costs. It might be idiosyncratic to me since any unencumbered money that I have at this point to pay for say APSA dues (or just about anything else) is the dregs of indirect cost returns from grants that I got a few years ago. If you have been at a place a while like I have, you have long since used up all your start-up fees, presuming you had some to start with.

So, the upshot of these observations is that paying $1,000 would be a substantial share of my research reserves at this point. Maybe as this practice becomes more normal, universities will set-up publication subvention fees for this purpose or people will build these fees into grant proposals (and I suspect that they do this in Europe), but it’s not the case now, particularly for social sciences in the United States.

A Paradigm Shift?

I know there is a new ISA open access journal Global Studies Quarterly that Jelena Subotic and Brent Steele are editing. I think very highly of them, and I hope the endeavor is a success.

I think we need to have clear expectations about how to ensure this model doesn’t end up being a pay-to-play model publishing substandard content. This is where me soliciting authors to contribute to a special section felt problematic. I suppose putting out a general call for papers and being clear about the nature of the journal would help this problem – all authors have to pay an access fee (or have one paid on the author’s behalf) but submission is no guarantee of publication and all articles still have to meet a threshold for quality.

That still begs the question of where authors come up with the money to publish articles. If it is hard for someone like me, I can only imagine the barriers to publication for graduate students, liberal arts colleges, and folks in other countries. Presumably, the fees paid by some support fee waivers for others, but the whole system almost depends on a paradigm shift in publishing, where a lot of us have access to thousands of dollars to publish articles.

A Way Forward?

I don’t have an answer other than turning journal publishing into non-profit enterprises that are maybe funded by library subscriptions. Without the profit motive driving publishing, it should be easier to have open access fees because publishers won’t be looking at journal publishing as a cash cow. That very well may be true in the case of Global Studies Quarterly, and I would be open to Jelena and Brent’s defense of the model here on the Duck.

Journal publishing might depend on someone with very deep pockets deciding that this is an area where a public good need to be provided, whether it be taxpayers and governments that have already paid for the research in the first place and are now having to pay again so people can read it.

In the meantime, we’re entering new territory in publishing, and we need to be figure out how to navigate accordingly.