Why Author Pays Open Access is a Bad Idea

There’s a wonderful piece of software out there I hadn’t heard about, called Mathgen, which generates impressive looking mathematics research papers that are utter gobbledygook. A Mathgen paper on Independent, Negative, Canonically Turing Arrows of Equations and Problems in Applied Formal PDE was recently accepted (see the full story here) by the journal Advances in Pure Mathematics, one of many “open access” journals put out by Scientific Research Publishing. If you’re looking for theoretical physics papers instead of pure math, Scientific Research Publishing has the Journal of Modern Physics. Some work on Mathgen is probably required before it is ready to submit papers to this journal.

These journals charge authors $500 to publish their papers, something which is now being sold as a wonderful mechanism for providing “open access” to the scientific literature. At the same time they make very clear what one big problem with this is: the financial incentive for the journal becomes to publish as many papers as possible, since that’s the only way to increase revenue. Scientific Research Publishing does a good job of showing where this model for funding dissemination of academic research leads.

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50 Responses to Why Author Pays Open Access is a Bad Idea

  1. Matt Leifer says:

    The fact that there are some unscrupulous open access journals with an author-pays business model does not automatically mean that the author-pays model is bad. These are extremely low-prestige journals that everyone already ignores. The only people likely to get duped are faculty hiring committees who simply count the number of publications, but, even then, I think that the likelihood of them not noticing that the publications are in junk journals is pretty low.

    On the other hand, there are some extremely good open access journals with an author-pays model. The New Journal of Physics is one such. It is currently ranked higher than most Physical Review journals, apart from Physical Review Letters, in almost every relevant metric (e.g. impact factor, average citation rate, number of paper downloads, etc.). Apart from PRL, the only journals in physics that do better are those published by the Nature group and Science.

    I agree that there is currently a kind of scam going on where a lot of new small open access have opened up with the aim of making as much money on author fees as possible with no regard for quality. I get emails from such publishers all the time, as I am sure many other academics do. However, it is pretty obvious to everyone that these are scams and we know who are the reputable publishers in our own fields. For those who do not know, it is fairly easy to look up journal rankings to see which are the good journals. Therefore, I don’t see that there is a problem.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for the comments. I agree of course that not all author pays journals are currently problematic. But I do think there’s an inherent problem with that funding model. Under the old libraries pay, costs everybody more to print more papers model, there was a strong incentive to keep numbers of papers published small, and quality high. If quality went down, librarians would start canceling. Under this new model, the financial incentive is all towards accepting more papers. Those editing and running the journals may have other incentives that encourage them to keep standards high, but those may not win out in the long-term over the financial ones. I’d be curious to know if there are journals using the author pays model that recognize this as part of their charter and have put mechanisms in place to counteract it.

  3. Pretty much the only thing the author (or institution etc.) should pay for these days is the peer review, since most work is already done by the author himself… and maybe the peer reviewer should get a cut too!

    By the way… Peter, please consider joining Google+. This story has been circulating there for quite some time already! It’s also a nice way for you to connect better with your audience.

  4. Toma Susi says:

    Peter, even though I agree that there are definitely problems along the lines you say, from what I’ve gathered of the current bundled subscription model, libraries don’t really have any choice to cancel low quality journals, since partial subscriptions are priced outrageously high. The current system really doesn’t work. I agree with Matt’s comment, cases like these are easy to filter out and are not the real problem.

    I’ll also emphatically second Heikki’s request: Google+ really is worthwhile.

  5. john McAllison says:

    The obvious solution is for authors to pay for the journal’s referees to assess the paper for academic importance sufficient for publication.

  6. Bob Levine says:

    “The obvious solution is for authors to pay for the journal’s referees to assess the paper for academic importance sufficient for publication.”

    But at the moment, the cost of refereeing for academic journals, so far as the journals themselves are concerned, is nil. Refereeing is typically viewed as a professional responsibility by academic departments, and having a sheaf of refereeing assignments from blue-ribbon journals of record is regarded an important indicator of one’s status as an expert in the field, for P&T purposes, in pretty much every discipline I know about. As long as this continues to be common policy in academe, I don’t see why authors ought to pay for refereeing on the open access model any more than they do on the commercial/university press journal model. I do a lot of journal refereeing and I wouldn’t expect to be remunerated for my review work regardless of the journal format (though I’d be much happier doing work on behalf of an open-access venue than a subscription/paywall-protected venue…)

  7. Peter Woit says:


    I agree that the current system is broken. My point is just that I see a lot of promotion of wonderful new “open access” models which sound great until you think a bit about it and see the problems. Looking at this case I think helps to make a problem clear, exactly because it is so extreme. If this is happening, are you really so sure that the financial incentive to publish more papers is not affecting at all how other journals behave? One may argue that whoever is behind Scientific Research Publishing is some guy who is just out for a buck, but a lot of the new “open access” being promoted is for journals run by Elsevier and the like. Can one rely upon them to ignore financial incentives and keep up standards?

    About Google+,

    I haven’t gotten involved in that partly because I spend too much of my life on the internet, so avoiding all social media seems like a good idea to the extent possible. Maybe I’ll find out there’s some efficient way to get information from Google+ without wasting a lot of time and change my mind. But, another thing I think we all need less of in our lives is Google, I’ve seen enough of it recently to find it a very scary organization.

  8. Mark Hillery says:

    First, let me say that I am an associate editor of Physical Review A, so anyone reading my comments might want to keep that in mind.

    I do not like the author-pays model. Presumably the money to pay the publication charges is supposed to some from a grant. Theoretical physics and mathematics are not particularly well-funded, so, in my experience, sometimes people have grants, and sometimes they don’t. However, in these fields it is quite possible to do research without a grant, so if you have something you want to publish, and you don’t have a grant, you will not find the author-pays model particularly agreeable. Personally, when I do have grant money, I would much rather spend it on a graduate student than on publication charges.

    In regard to refereeing, yes the referees provide their services for free, but someone has to manage the process, and for that you need permanent people whom you have to pay. You can’t run a journal with a real peer-review process for nothing.

    Finally, I just do not understand the attraction of publishing a physics paper in a journal, such as the New Journal of Physics, that has a publication fee. If you want your paper to be freely available, you can publish it in the Physical Review for no fee, and put the paper on the archive. By the way, it is probably not that well-known, but if you publish your paper in the Physical Review and you want to make it freely available (that is available to people without a subscription), you can pay a fee and do so.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Mark,

    I should also mention some history which most readers are probably too young to know about. Until the late 60s-early 70s, the APS had the dominant (at least in the US) HEP journal Phys. Rev. D, which had a form of “author pays”, called “page charges” (these charges didn’t make the journal free, but subsidized it and kept subscription prices low). The European Elsevier journal Nuclear Physics B had no such page charges and from the early 70s on, this was one of the main reasons it became the journal of choice for authors to publish in, and Phys Rev D fell by the wayside in terms of quality. This is why the bulk of the best work in the field for several decades now belongs to Elsevier to exploit as it sees fit, rather than to the physicist-controlled APS.

  10. Sterling Clover says:

    Elsevier and other publishers of traditional journals have hardly done any better: This and this for example. (And there’s plenty more where those came from).

    Publishing nonsense has a strong economic incentive even without author-pays as long as you can push it into “bundled” journals that libraries are forced to buy.

  11. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Gotta go with Sterling. Perverse incentives abound (I mean, cripes, just look at all the retractions in bio lately), and I don’t see any way to avoid them completely. I’d never argue that the author-pays model is perfect, but somebody has to pay something somewhere, and this model guarantees that even the poorest researcher can gain ready access to peer-reviewed literature. No pay-walls. No needless overhead. No bundling. It would be wonderful if the arXiv solved all problems, but reportedly it doesn’t. What better solutions are there? If somebody comes up with a true panacea, count me in as a fervent supporter, but I’m not smart enough to dream one up on my own.

    FWIW, in my field PLoS seems to be doing a pretty good job. They aren’t publishing any more garbage than anyone else, at least, as far as I can tell.

  12. Matt Leifer says:


    I think it is wrong to conflate open access charges with page charges from subscription journals. In the latter case, there is double dipping going on because the library is still paying for a subscription in addition to the author paying a fee.


    For the same reason, I don’t think the hybrid model adopted by Physical Review is a great idea. Sure, authors can pay to make their work open-access, but so long as most authors do not the library still has to pay for a subscription and, as far as I can see, they are not getting a discount based on the proportion of articles that are open access. This is one reason why authors may prefer New Journal of Physics because in that case it is unambiguous that no library or indeed anyone else is ever going to have to pay for your work.

    Personally, I have no problem with the green open access model of posting to the arXiv and then publishing anywhere you like, providing the journal I publish in is not involved in price gouging. We have to recognise though that this is part of a larger battle that includes other scientific fields, such as medicine, which do not have a preprint culture for a variety reasons. If we want them to adopt open-access then we should lead by example.

    Peter again,

    It is easy to discuss anecdotal evidence of extreme cases and scam artists. The argument you are making is analagous to arguing that, because there are a lot of scam conferences out there, the overall quality of scientific conferences must be decreasing. Now, we have all been getting those scam conference emails for far longer than we have been getting scam open access journal emails, and I don’t think you would argue that conferences are a lot worse nowadays than they used to be. The fact is, people have enough intelligence to know the difference.

    What we really need to do is to look at hard data to see whether open access has an effect on quality. Peter Suber quotes a lot of positive studies in his book, which I recommend by the way. Obviously he is an open access advocate so you may argue that he has an agenda, but I didn’t get the impression that he was cherry picking. Regardless, the point is that this is a question to be answered scientifically rather than anecdotaly.

    It is also worth pointing out that open access and author pays are not identical. For example, New Journal of Physics will waive publication fees for authors that do not have access to grants and funding. Most reputable open access journals do this, and there are even a few that charge no fees at all (I don’t know of any in physics though).

  13. David Nataf says:

    When I read papers on the arXiv, I ignore whether the paper is submitted or accepted for publication. I trust the real peer review system: that of the community of peers, but if I find a mistake I take note and remember the authors’ names. In general published papers are just as likely to have mistakes anyway, what quality comes down to is the author’s regards for maintaining his or her own reputation.

    Ultimately that may be the only solution moving forward.

    The other issue with the peer review system is that it’s rooted in 17th century science, when there was a smaller number of fields and it was easier to find a “qualified expert”. Science also didn’t progress as rapidly, there was not as much cost to waiting 6-12 months for the referee process to complete itself.

  14. Toma Susi says:


    An example of a totally free physics journal (well, materials science anyway) is the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology. It’s supported by the Max Planck Society. We recently published an article there (as have several of our colleagues) and had a good experience.

  15. A. says:

    @David Nataf:

    Completely agree. Go to arXiv. Read paper. Confer with collaborators. Decide if paper is decent or not. Cite or not as appropriate.

    @Matt: one reasons that I, personally, wouldn’t send a paper to the New Journal of Physics is that I’ve never yet cited a paper published there. This, for me at least, is much more telling, and more important, than it’s impact factor.

    Alright, the next bit is very subjective but nontheless is going to play a roll in attracting authors to journals: the typesetting of NJP articles is atrocious. While APS Becaon (who typeset phys rev articles) drive me insane with the mistakes they introduce into my papers when preparing proofs, the final result does at least look like a research article. Whereas NJP articles look like they’re been put together by someone with a 1995 edision of word and a couple of crayons. The journal _looks_ crackpot. IMHO. Why would I submit there, when I can do a better job of it with latex, on my mac, and then post to the arXiv? Job done.

    On the other hand, I admit that if an arXiv paper is written in Word/has been sitting around for five years without being published/has been updated more than three times/ I’m automatically on my guard. Meh, there is no easy solution to this.

  16. Matt Leifer says:


    The conventions of where people send articles obviously vary from subfield to subfield, so there will be some people who don’t have a reason to cite articles in NJP, but that does not tell you about the overall quality of the journal. I can tell you that in quantum information, NJP is fast becoming more popular than PRA, which used to be the first-choice journal for physics-based papers in the field after Nature/Science/PRL. Again, it is a case where we should look at the data rather than anecdotal evidence and the data says that NJP is doing well, i.e. better than any non-PRL Physical Review journal in impact factor. I am not a shill for NJP, I send papers both there and to Physical Review journals. It is just an example of an open access journal in physics that does not seem to have a quality problem.

    Regarding typesetting, it really is not much different from any other IOP journal, so are you saying that all IOP journals look crackpot to you? What is wrong with the typesetting of this (http://iopscience.iop.org/1367-2630/12/3/033024/pdf/1367-2630_12_3_033024.pdf) for example?

  17. Jan Velterop says:

    Peter, you say “the financial incentive for the journal becomes to publish as many papers as possible, since that’s the only way to increase revenue.” That’s true, but it was always thus, also for subscription journals. Acquisition editors’ task at most publishers was to increase the number of volumes to be published every year. More volumes means more papers, and given a number of subscriptions, more revenue. Journals are rarely cancelled because they grow. An example of the growth of a subscription journal: Discrete Mathematics — 1971 (its first year): 1 vol — 1981: 5 vols — 1991: 8 vols — 2001: 20 vols. These volumes all had 4 issues, of ca 10 papers each. Later the journal went to one vol/yr but with many more issues/vol.

    The author-side payment is not an incentive in itself to grow a journal, and it certainly isn’t very different from the incentives in the subscription system.

    The flaw in both systems is that all the revenue is derived from published papers, instead of from papers ‘processed’ (i.e. submitted and for which peer-review has been arranged). A way out of that conundrum is to levy submission charges only, and pay the entire operation out of those. The risk for any publisher to start doing this is just too great, as paying and then still being rejected won’t be popular (though it is very normal for, e.g. a driver’s test).

  18. JGB says:

    How about doing a complete 180 and reject the ability of the free market to manage this proces at all? Both ends clearly lead to different ways of gaming the system. The government provides far and away the largest percentage of money whether in grants or library subscriptions. Collect the best journals that wish to and set both an expectation for articles reviewed and a max limit on articles per year. Undoubtedly there’d be some complaints, but you’d be forcing people to increase the quality of their submissions for peer review. help manage the workload of everyone. And cut way down on the silly transfers of money between government institutions that claim to maximize efficiency but clearly do not. Private journals wouldn’t be illegal, but would only truly make it if they could actually offer something not provided for above. My guess is that very few would, and you’d see a much more productive splitting of peer reviewed highly vetted research, and other largely free distribution of working data (like Arvix)

  19. A. says:

    On the “who should pay” issue, publicly funded research should be publicly available. In fact is has to be, since otherwise other researchers can’t get to your results, for example. Hence, awarding bodies should fund publication. The problem with this of course is that funding bodies will say “ok, but that means you’re only getting enough money to fund a postdoc for 1.5 years instead of 2”, which wasn’t the plan at all.

    What about paying the referees for their reports? A little naíve I feel. Physicists aren’t noble go-gooders who bravely go out and fight the good fight FOR SCIENCE! and the advancement of humanity. They’re just people, and as such have their own interests at heart. The “experts” in my field to whom my papers are sent for review are often my competitors. Why would they carefully read and evaluate my paper when they can instead find some shoddy excuse to delay it or reject it and get paid into the bargain? More to the point, why would I pay for that? We could all promise to be honest and fair, I suppose, but, ha, sorry, fell off chair laughing.

    If only we had some huge repository where physicists decided, in a nice socialist fashion, to share all their new results for the rest of the community to look over and ponder. Oh wait we do. The facetiousness is warranted; the impression I get from talking to other physicists is that the older generation regards the arXiv as some sort of necessary but rather unsavoury “halfway house” on the road to the sobriety of publication. Whereas, the younger generation think of it as what it is: a great big, free, online journal.

    In a few years time, once the younger generation start to get into tenured positions (if there are any left), I think we’ll start to see much less importance placed on journals and publication, and more on how well cited a paper is on the arXiv.

    (Obviously, this doesn’t apply to other subjects: medicine is a totally different kettle of fish.)

    @Matt: sorry, not rising to the bait re: typesetting. Even though I set the hook.

    /end nautical analogies.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Jan Velterop,

    Yes, there has always been an incentive to grow journals, if you did this you could use it as one excuse to justify higher subscription costs in the future. But, in the traditional model, each year you had a fixed amount of subscription revenue, independent of how many papers you published, and each additional paper cost money to process, print and distribute. The immediate financial incentive was to keep the number of papers down.


    I don’t think looking at past data is relevant, since my concern isn’t so much with the history or current situation (which is very much in flux, with print about dead and library budgets unclear), but with the future that people are setting in place now. My point is just that “open access” evangelists need to acknowledge that some of these models provide strong financial incentives towards publication of ever larger amounts of lower and lower quality papers. In the long run, the built-in financial incentives matter, a lot.

    The argument that people should do this to provide an example for those in medicine to follow doesn’t seem like a good one to me. I’m not convinced even that math and physics should follow the same model, much less medical research, which is a completely different kettle of fish (luckily people don’t die because of wrong math papers, nor are important ones worth billions of dollars to someone).

  21. Matt Leifer says:


    I guess we are not going to reach agreement, but open access journals are not, at this point, a new idea and there are already quite a lot of them, so if there is a trend towards reduced quality then we should be able to see the beginnings of it now. As we have seen in the deabate on this thread, it is certainly not obvious to everyone that the financial incentives work out in the way that you suggest, with some even suggesting that traditional journals are just as bad. Therefore, I still maintain that this question needs to be settled by data rather than opinion and anecdote. If historical data does not convince you then we need to make sure that we are collecting and monitoring data on publishing practices as this change takes place so that we can take action early if a trend is identified. However, based on what we know so far, I would say that goal of increasing access to scientific research outweighs any doubts I might have at the moment.

    Finally, I want to point out that open access is only a waypoint in a more general disruption of academic publishing that is enabled by the internet. It is something that campaigners focus on because it is well-defined enough for stakeholders (academics, funding agencies, governments, publishers, etc.) to actually do something about it right now. However, there are other proposals on the table to deal with quality assessment in a more efficient manner than traditional peer review (see Tim Gowers writings on this issue for example) so I am not too worried about the long-term future. Given the ease of distributing information, it does not really make sense to do quality filtering prior to the distribution of articles. If there is a lot of junk out there then I don’t really care. I can just ignore it. It is not as if someone is going to deliver a telephone directory sized book of new academic papers to my door every day. Instead, we need a way of filtering post-publication so that high quality articles rise to the top. Tim’s proposal of having a peer review layer on top of the arXiv makes a lot of sense in this regard.

  22. Peter Woit says:


    From what I’ve observed, especially in theoretical physics, we’re already effectively in the post-journal phase, with the arXiv the main source everyone is using to get access to papers, and peer-review a broken system for quite a while (see Bogdanov (2002)). For the life of me, I can’t figure out why anyone is paying for now or making plans (SCOAP3) to fund in the future Elsevier to produce Nuclear Physics B.

    A future journal system or its replacement that provided peer-review vouching for accuracy of mathematical proofs and similar difficult to evaluate arguments, as well as identifying the highest quality work for non-experts (experts don’t need this) would be valuable, but not if it’s largely set up along a vanity publishing model, with incentives to concentrate on extracting money from authors for not necessarily reliable evaluation of work.

  23. somedude says:

    To David, you claim: “The other issue with the peer review system is that it’s rooted in 17th century science, when there was a smaller number of fields and it was easier to find a “qualified expert”.”
    Peer review is very much a 20th century phenomenon. When Albert Einstein was peer reviewed and his results on the non-existence of gravity waves were found to be wrong, he did not like it. Before that if the chief editor liked you, you got in. Even before that, the few scientists just sent eachother mail. The old fashioned paper variety. 🙂
    The Bernoulli’s are known to not have even sent their results, just the claim that they could prove something and taunting the other if he could prove it as well.

  24. Mateus Araújo says:

    Although A.’s point about NJP’s typesetting was not very good, I think it is interesting to think about why he felt so disguted by it, which might help us overcome resistence to NJP in particular and open access in general.

    A simple explanation is that the APS is more famous than the IOP, and as a young grad student he grew up reading APS’s papers, and internalized REVTeX as “the” scientific format. Well, that’s at least what happened to me.

    But apart from that, I think that there are some objective problems with NJP’s typesetting:

    1 – The first page that identifies the downloader. I know that it’s standard for IOP (and still ugly), but particularly insane for an open-acces journal.
    2 – Colourful logo and colourful typesetting. Come on.
    3 – iopart.cls does not play well with amsmath. And if I recall correctly, it had some technical issues with more modern LaTeX packages.

    But back to the relevant point: I dare to hope that an author-pays model actually increases quality, by disincentivizing the author to publish as many papers as he can about a subject. It might be completely subjective, but the quantum info papers I read at the NJP tend to be like more complete treatises about a new idea than the piecemeal reporting that I often find at PRA(L).

  25. Bob Levine says:

    The pointedly-ignored elephant in the living room of this discussion is the fact that post-circulation/publication refereeing will never be a practical possibility as long as academic culture continues to be what it’s been for a long time now. Tenured members of academic units do not want to determine the tenure cases of their probationary colleagues based on their own assessments of those colleagues’ research. In most cases, they do not feel competent to do so, and for good reason—there may at most one or two others in a given department qualified to carry out that assessment. And no one feels that the reports from the externals should be allowed to completely determine their colleague’s fate (especially as its not unusual for the externals to disagree rather spectacularly, reflecting their own scientific agendas). What everyone wants—faculty P&T committees, academic administrators, university legal departments—is an ‘industry standard’ criterion that they can point to to defend their up-or-out tenure decisions, and the prime standard is the hierarchical ranking of publication venue, based to a large extent on the severity of the latter’s refereeing criteria. That’s the dynamic that Elsevier and its ilk prey on, and the reason that you’re just not going to see ‘after the fact’ refereeing adopted as common practice. Open access is the wave of the future, no question; but P&T considerations are going to ensure that serious refereeing, and ranking of OA venues, is going to be an integral component of that wave.

  26. A. says:

    @Bob: indeed, agree that the higher-ups need a number to point at in order to justify their lunch-meeting cheese and wine decisions. However, that number can be taken from the arXiv. Total citations, h-index, it’s all there.

    I’d also suggest that we already have “post-circulation/publication refereeing”, it’s a part of the arXiv: has the paper been withdrawn, are there comments, what does it’s citation count look like, etc.

    In case it wasn’t totally obvious, “go arXiv! Boo to Elsevier!”, etc

    @Peter, Bob,

    One of the benefits of having some sort of formal refereeing layer on the top of the arXiv might would be that it might help convince the higher-ups that the arXiv is a bona-fides system/journal. Getting the balance right will be tricky since, I imagine, it would be very easy to start down the slippery slope of turning the arXiv into a traditional journal with, for example and god forbid, access restrictions. (Although, I don’t really believe that pleasing the higher-ups is a good motivation for doing anything at all.)

  27. fuzzy says:

    i think that open access system needs to give more importance to referees. in this system, the editors are in a position of conflicting interest, being payed by those who publish. it is like a tribunal where the judge will be payed in one of this two manners; cash by the accused defendant–called “submitter”–or after very long time by its abstract (and almost absent) opponent–called “science”. a recent experience of mine: i was requested a report and i have sent a detailed one, that meant “reject” or at least “major revision”. the editor has cutted it dramatically, giving no explanation, and then has asked the author: if you want please take into account these minor remarks. maybe this is the right way to advance the physics of high energies, but i do not think so

  28. M says:

    Under SCOAP3, some journals will get about 1000$ per accepted paper.
    Most of the work is done by referees, who get nothing.
    Why should a referee do unpaid work to make publishing companies rich?

  29. Oceanographer says:

    Here you can see a good example of author pays journal that is becoming more and more successful
    even if the average price per publication is much more than 500$ and they charge in advance even if the paper is rejected (in such case it is still available in the ocean science discussions together with the reviews and discussion)
    You can look at some papers there- it is an interesting model. Also there are other journals of the European Geosciences Union following the same model- the open peer review process is a key factor here for the absence of junk papers.
    So the author pays model is also viable in my opinion.

  30. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, October 21, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  31. Allan Rosenberg says:

    Il est tout à fait certaine que Prof. Rathque avez obtenu des résultats nouveaux et utiles….

  32. Ptrslv72 says:

    BTW, there is a blog fully devoted to tracking “predatory publishers” that abuse the OA system:


    Perhaps it has already been mentioned in the thread, apologies if I missed it.

  33. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks. However looking at that web-site makes clear that the problem I’m worried about is already with us. They try and distinguish between “predatory publishers” and legitimate ones, but the distinction to me seems to be becoming increasingly unclear.

    Look at:


    to see that a “predatory” publisher started an author-pays open access journal called “Journal of Cloud Computing” in 2011. Soon thereafter, Springer started an author-pays open access journal with the same name. It appears to be much more respectable, with a legitimate editorial board. But it’s one of many new “SpringerOpen” journals, and starting lots of new journals all of a sudden with this “author pays” model makes one wonder how high their standards will be. Did all of a sudden a lot more high-quality papers get written? Or will these journals just publish lots of things that would have had trouble getting published in the past, now sped along into publication by funds put up by the author. How different is this from vanity publishing?

    For a list of the SpringerOpen journals and what they are charging, see


    The “predatory journals” at least are cheaper….

  34. Mathematician says:

    I think author-pays will be a disaster in a theoretical subject like mathematics.
    It might work in other subjects where there is a _real_ need for editing on the
    part of the journal and large grants riding on publishing, or perhaps where
    publishing in widely-read journals enhances the possibility of industrial
    application. But in mathematics the situation is clearly different; for one
    thing, a lot of mathematics is simply about aesthetics, and so the money stakes
    are generally low… (at least, I’m not in on it). I can’t help but compare the situation to, say, a newspaper or a magazine that demands payment for publishing contributed articles: What would one think of such a thing? My guess is that most people will have little respect for it, even if the author payment is supposed to make it free. Also, I don’t think that it’s a good idea to re-enforce the image that mathematicians live in intellectual ivory towers by turning their publication process ever so close to vanity publishing.

  35. srp says:

    This is isomorphic to the problem that a university faces in maintaining its reputation. Yes, Harvard could sell out its undergraduate spots to the highest bidder, but in short order their reputation and ability to charge for those spots would decay. The same holds for any journal that uses an author-pays system. Sure, they could fill up the journal with crap, but if it becomes known as a repository of crap no one will be willing to pay much for a slot in it. It’s inherently self-policing.

  36. Peter Woit says:


    Harvard isn’t run as a profit-making organization making decisions solely based on whether they maximize revenue. If it was, they’d be doing some very different things (e.g. eliminating financial aid and raising tuition). Some of these might cause their reputation to take a hit, but they’d end up in a sustainable business model that would bring in much more revenue.

    If journals were all run by non-profit organizations, with missions and incentives other than maximizing profit, I’d be much less worried about the author-pays model of financing them.

  37. OMF says:

    Why are universities not obliged to publish and host journals themselves, in house, or as part of a collective? Why must publicly funded research be published in privately owned journals (B cuz der fee-mrkt lulz).

    This whole situation is increasingly absurd. Personally, I feel that if research academics feel they need to keep publishing in private journals, then the public should no longer feel obliged to pay their salaries. I think that’s what it’s going to take to change people’s minds.

  38. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Obviously there also needs to be reforms in the system of peer review, but I have a hard time getting my head around the notion that people can get jobs based on something like their arXiv submission record alone. I guess in theory and maths, where the standards for validation can be quite different than for experimental fields, a referee-free body of literature is a workable solution. But even among theorists, cannot the number of people who are highly qualified to assess the minutiae of an argument often be rather small? For those making hiring decisions, without some sort of “gold standard” like publication in high-impact journals, the whole process could change considerably. Of course I’m in no position to speak with any authority on how hiring is done in the fields of mathematics and theoretical physics. But if there are any similarities to the fields with which I am familiar, when you change the world of publishing as we know it, you change many other things.

    Not that that would be bad. At all. But what the best replacement should be seems like a very complicated problem that, again, I’m not sure a preprint server like the arXive can fully address, at least not without some other profound systematic advancements. I used to think that the arXiv was the perfect model for other disciplines, but I’m no longer so sanguine after seeing many comments online about its purported shortcomings.

  39. Orr Shalit says:

    I agree with Peter that “author pays” is a bad direction to be heading in. Following what OMF wrote above, I think that the direction to be going in is towards not-for-profit journals which are funded directly by universities and public bodies (such as Documenta Mathematica, and there are others). The only role journals play right now is in coordinating the peer review process (plus the quick rejections that editors make). Paying for your paper to be published is nothing more and nothing less than buying a bit of the journal’s reputation (whatever it is worth).

    Above Matt wrote: “These are extremely low-prestige journals that everyone already ignores”. Until recently I thought that author-pay was an indicator for extremely low prestige and a solid reason to ignore a journal.

  40. Bob Levine says:

    “Until recently I thought that author-pay was an indicator for extremely low prestige and a solid reason to ignore a journal.”

    Ah, but it sounds as if you’ve seen the error of your ways, eh? 😉

    Seriously, some extremely prestigious OA journals charge high, even absurd fees (though they probably don’t see it that way). Take a look at the following survey of prices:


    The cost-to-author numbers top out at around $5K; PLoS, which has a tremendous reputation especially in biosciences, as I understand it, will take you up to almost 3K. The assumption is that you’re going to be shelling out from your grant $$, which is a bit rough on people whose research is not of the kind for which huge grants are appropriate to begin with….

  41. Neil says:

    To play devil’s advocate, in *principle* it should work. No author should want to pay to publish in a shoddy journal, and no university should put much weight on publications in shoddy journals. The only way a pay-to-play journal should make a big profit is for it to have a reputation for high quality, in which case authors should be willing to shell out the big bucks, and institutions should weight the publications highly. Only if the profession can’t tell shoddy articles from good should there be a problem.

    All the “shoulds” are intended.

  42. Orr Shalit says:

    Well, it appears that some author pay journals have good reputations, so I guess I was mistaken about that. Also, ignoring this phenomenon doesn’t seem like a good idea any more.

    @ Neil:
    Suppose all journals were author pay, and journals prices corresponded to reputation. Even if there was no problem of journals having a high incentive for publishing “gobbledygook”, and even if they never do, I still do not see how someone can feel comfortable paying 5K out of their publicly funded grant (instead of, say, 1.5K) just to be in a more prestigious journal.

  43. Journals were invented for disseminating knowledge. This is now an obsolete method. It means that the system, as it is now, will (slowly) die. Fact!

    This “authors pays open access” is just a perverse effect. Pay for what, exactly? If it is for having refereed papers, pray tell me how much a referee is payed?

  44. srp says:

    Peter says:


    Harvard isn’t run as a profit-making organization making decisions solely based on whether they maximize revenue. If it was, they’d be doing some very different things (e.g. eliminating financial aid and raising tuition). Some of these might cause their reputation to take a hit, but they’d end up in a sustainable business model that would bring in much more revenue.

    If journals were all run by non-profit organizations, with missions and incentives other than maximizing profit, I’d be much less worried about the author-pays model of financing them.”

    You’re almost certainly wrong about Harvard’s profit-maximizing strategy. High tuition and financial aid (which are complements, not substitutes) enable the university to price discriminate successfully, charging lower prices to more price-sensitive customers and higher prices to less-sensitive ones. In addition, the high demand for Harvard’s slots is largely a function of its perceived exclusivity and student quality. The main thing that a profit-maximizing Harvard would do would probably be to expand the class size, which they could probably do by 50% without lowering average student quality or exclusivity by a measurable amount.

    But regardless, I don’t see what the problem is with a multi-tier journal system in which the most prestigious ones charge more (with financial aid for those who can prove hardship–i.e. price discrimination) and the less-prestigious ones command a smaller price from authors. Readers will know which ones are the good ones, the not-so-good-ones, and so on down the line. Why would this scenario have any negative effect on the progress of science?

    It seems you are assuming that readers will not fairly quickly pick up on which journals are worth reading and which ones aren’t, and that lousy journals will somehow confuse or pollute the knowledge stream. But that argument proves too much–Frank Wilczek has pointed out that almost all published physics articles now are “attractively published junk” (in his Longing for the Harmonies, where he attributes this wisdom to David Gross, then his advisor). Sturgeon’s Law is perhaps even more inexorable than Parkinson’s or Murphy’s. Author-pays-and-readers-have-open-access seems to me no worse on quality and certainly better on dissemination than author-gets-a free-ride and reader must pay.

  45. Costas says:

    Peter: your blog followers might be interested in viewing the interesting lecture by Alain Connes on music of shapes and spectral geometry, now uploaded to youtube

  46. Shantanu says:

    Peter forget all this. You haven’t written anything about experimental search for quantum gravity conference at Perimeter(happening this week)?

  47. Peter Woit says:

    Unless someone has actually found quantum gravity experimentally, I think I’ll leave that topic to Sabine to blog about….

  48. Testing the Finch Hypothesis on Green OA Mandate Ineffectiveness

    We have now tested the Finch Committee‘s Hypothesis that Green Open Access Mandates are ineffective in generating deposits in institutional repositories. With data from ROARMAP on institutional Green OA mandates and data from ROAR on institutional repositories, we show that deposit number and rate is significantly correlated with mandate strength (classified as 1-12): The stronger the mandate, the more the deposits. The strongest mandates generate deposit rates of 70%+ within 2 years of adoption, compared to the un-mandated deposit rate of 20%. The effect is already detectable at the national level, where the UK, which has the largest proportion of Green OA mandates, has a national OA rate of 35%, compared to the global baseline of 25%. The conclusion is that, contrary to the Finch Hypothesis, Green Open Access Mandates do have a major effect, and the stronger the mandate, the stronger the effect (the Liege ID/OA mandate, linked to research performance evaluation, being the strongest mandate model). RCUK (as well as all universities, research institutions and research funders worldwide) would be well advised to adopt the strongest Green OA mandates and to integrate institutional and funder mandates.

    Gargouri Y, Lariviere V, Gingras Y, Brody T, Carr L & Harnad S (2012) Testing the Finch Hypothesis on Green OA Mandate Ineffectiveness Open Access Week 2012

  49. LOL says:

    This “Advances in Pure Mathematics” journal sent me an e-mail today in which they invited me to submit an article. I responded to the e-mail and jokingly told them that I wanted to submit a Mathgen article. I just got back the following from the journal:

    Dear author,
    Glad to hear from you.
    Kindly be informed that you can send your new paper which has not been published to us.
    We look forward to your paper.

    Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

    Best Wishes

  50. S Halayka says:

    That cloud computing example is perfect: Springer already has a distributed computing journal, so all they’re really doing is double-dipping — oh, but at least it’s being done in a classy, high-brow way!

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