In last month’s Research, open access and academic blogging post I neglected to ask the obvious question: why are the article processing charges (APCs) levied by some open access journals so high? In that post I gave the example of BMC Health Services Research, which (unless a waiver is applied for and granted) demands the sum of £1,290 before each accepted paper progresses to online publication. What, exactly, is all that money for? It’s certainly not to pay peer reviewers for their time or expertise, because if it was I would have received some additional earnings from BMC by now. Does it really cost so much to iron out the typos, format to house style and upload an article to the journal’s servers?
I pointed out in my original piece that it is neither reasonable nor sustainable to systematically expect individual academics to pay APCs. This being the case, universities and grant awarding bodies are going to have to stump up. But via this post on the Sussex (and former Cardiff) physicist Peter Coles’s In the Dark blog I was alerted to this cautionary note from the Royal Historical Society on the unintended consequences of this arrangement. For the interested reader there’s also this RHS President’s letter on the same. The argument goes like this: if universities are going to be paying the APCs associated with individual open access articles then academic freedom will be eroded, as the final decisions on which publications are to be financially supported and which are not will be made by budget-holding managers.
The problem, then, is not with open access per se but with the extortionate costs currently associated with some versions of it. These need to come down, and quickly.