Anita Jain: Predatory publishing and open access fees

At the meeting of the Indian Association of Medical Journal Editors [IAMJE] in Delhi recently, a session on predatory or non-legitimate journals stimulated considerable discussion.

A sting operation where 157 open access journals accepted a spoof research paper with obvious flaws for publication has brought the problem to the fore again. Some allege that the “author pays to publish” model of open access journals is to blame, as they profiteer from vanity publishing. Predatory journals have existed since much longer however. Online systems have just made it easier to set these up, fuelled further by an ever increasing aspiration to build one’s publication profile. The open access initiative was spurred with the philosophy of removing price barriers to scholarly literature. Nevertheless, converting the ideology into a viable business model for publishers has posed challenges.

As long as crooks exist, one can’t stress enough the need for greater awareness among authors, reviewers, and potential editors, of the problem of predatory publishing and the means to identify and avoid these journals. Widely discussed in the open access publishing community is a list of questionable publishers and journals developed by Jeffrey Beall. And frankly, this list may not be definitive. Rather than penalize journals, the ambition is to work with them towards greater transparency as per the principles laid out by the World Association of Medical Editors to help establish their authenticity. As Rajeev Kumar, editor of the Indian Journal of Urology, highlights, often the problem is not corruption, rather poor training in expected standards of peer review and journal management that allow poor science to get through. Indeed, as editors at the meeting shared, many journals are driven by sheer passion. They sustain on shoe-string budgets with editors working in an honorary capacity, and charge nominal subscriber fees and often, no author fees.

Speaking of author fees, a candid question steered the discussion further: Why do journals charge so much to publish a single research paper? As some seasoned editors explained, in determining the cost of publication, one needs to consider not just the article that is published, but also processing articles that get rejected. Supporting the editorial and publication processes of a journal enterprise requires real money. A case in point, Sandhya Srinivasan from the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics laid bare their dilemma in sustaining the journal as they deliberate discontinuing the print edition, opening up to selective ads when historically they have published none, or securing grants and support from their long time readers. Evidently, these will not be easy decisions.

In developing countries, the publication fees converted into the local currency, and without institutional or funder support, can make publishing out-of-bounds. And the model runs the danger of making them “passive recipients of science, rather than contributors to prestigious science.” In my interactions with researchers in India, I am often asked about publishing charges in BMJ journals. If it is of any reassurance, I would like to emphasize the decision to publish a paper is completely independent of authors’ ability to pay. We do appreciate the varied circumstances in which research may be done, and consider a partial or a full waiver of these fees on request. A 50% discount is offered in BMJ Open for publishing the study protocol, and subsequently the research as well. Reviewers receive a 25% discount for publishing in BMJ Open. Of modest benefit also may be that authors receive a 10% royalty for reprints.

In closing, Peush Sahni, editor of the National Medical Journal of India, summed it up that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and someone will have to pay for scholarly publishing. As a budding editor, the discussion left a fine impression on me to be conscientious in my job. I realized how every penny that goes to support my job and related activities is the money of science—someone’s access to scholarly material or another’s ability to publish.

[Note: This is an attempt to summarize key points from a panel discussion at IAMJE. I may have missed attributing specific comments to the people who brought these up.]

Anita Jain is the India editor, BMJ.