Article Processing Charges at the Royal Astronomical Society

As it was foretold, the Royal Astronomical Society has now officially announced that all its journals will be moving to Gold Open Access. The only thing that surprised me about this is the speed that it will be done – from January 1st 2024. The announcement confirms that the “rumour” I reported in 2020 was true (as I knew it was, given the reliability of the source). I did, however, think the timescale would be “within a few years” and it turns out to be much shorter than that.

For the journal of most relevance to myself, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) this decision means that authors will have to pay an Article Processing Charge (APC) at the (suitably astronomical) level of £2310 for each paper (although there will be exemptions in certain situations). Does anyone genuinely believe that it costs that much to publish an article online? Really?

I did actually laugh out loud when I saw the spin the RAS are trying to put on this decision:

The RAS is excited to be a key contributor to the open science movement, helping to drive discoverability and change.

Au contraire. Gold Open Access a serious hindrance to the open science movement, as it involves hugely inflated costs to the authors in attempt to protect revenue in the face of declining subscription income. Switching from a ‘fleece-the-libraries’ model to a ‘fleece-the-authors’ alternative can in no way be regarded as a progressive move.

Other notable astronomy-related journals, such as the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) and Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A), have levied “page charges” (effectively APCs by another name) for as long as I can remember, though in the latter case there is a waiver for researchers in “member” countries. ApJ and other journals also have a waiver scheme for those who cannot afford to pay. For those who have to pay, the fee is usually about $100 per page. For a long time MNRAS was the exception and indeed the only feasible choice for people who don’t have access to funding to cover page charges, including many in the developing world. More recently, however, MNRAS introduced a charge for longer papers: £50 per page over 20 pages, so a paper of 21 pages costs £50 and one of 30 pages costs £500, etc. Now there will be a flat fee of £2310 per paper.

It is true that some institutions will pay the APC on behalf of their authors, but that is hardly the point. If institutions have cash to pay for astronomy publications to be open access then they would do far more good to the research community by giving it to the arXiv rather than to the publishing industry. When authors themselves see how much they have to pay to publish their work, many will realize that it is simply not worth the money. (I refuse to pay any APC on principle.)

The Twitter feed for the Open Journal of Astrophysics (OJAp) was buzzing all day yesterday with negative reactions to the RAS announcement. Obviously I am biased in this matter, but I do encourage those thinking of switching to give it a try. The RAS has played into the hands of OJAp, which publishes papers (online only) in all the areas of Astrophysics covered by MNRAS, and more, but is entirely free both for authors and readers. The annual running costs of OJAp are substantially less than one APC at the level proposed by MNRAS.

The comments I have seen brought this image to my mind:

(The allusion to sharks is not accidental.)

The question for the Royal Astronomical Society, and indeed the other learned societies that fund their activities in a similar way, is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that takes proper account of the digital publishing revolution. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive? I’d like to think that future operating models for such organizations would involve serving their respective communities, rather than fleecing them.

18 Responses to “Article Processing Charges at the Royal Astronomical Society”

  1. Francis Says:

    £2310 PER PAPER!!!! I find this amazing – and not in a good way. Presumably institutions will also continue to need to pay for the journal subscription? “

    Yes, institutions will have budgets from UKRI to fund papers based on UKRI-funded research – but that money would be far better used to actually support research.

    By the way if the journal is getting £2310 per paper, and given that refereeing a paper is a major undertaking, perhaps referees should start charging for their time – £1000 per paper seems reasonable to start.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The golden fleece.

  3. Chris Gordon Says:

    The Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia is also another option that is similar to MNRAS but does not have page charges.

  4. Shantanu Says:

    Peter: does this apply to papers after submitted Jan 2024, or is it that papers submitted before Jan 2024, but published after Jan 2024 will also have to pay page charges?

    • telescoper Says:

      “From the 01 October 2023 any authors submitting their paper to MNRAS, MNRASL, and GJI will be required to sign an OA licence for their paper if accepted for publication. This will ensure that the journals are fully OA from the first volume of 2024.”

  5. Shantanu Says:

    I meant “submitted after”

    • From MNRAS FAQs:

      If I have submitted my paper before 1 October 2023, but it will go into the 2024 volume, will I need to pay for OA?

      Articles which have originally been submitted (and then subsequently accepted) prior to 01 October 2023, but which will publish after 31 December 2023 will be required to publish under an OA licence. The APC will be waived for these articles.

  6. What does an annual MNRAS subscription cost for a typical university library? How many papers would that pay for? Isn’t the problem here that universities are shifting their operating cost to the grant line?

  7. The main argument behind OA always was that research results paid by public funds should be freely available to the public. But astronomy is exceptional because it has the arXiv, so research is public anyway. In medicine, law, engineering, and many other fields there is a real benefit in making the literature more open. But in all subjects, introducing OA introduces a market on APCs – how much is a journal worth? But this market does not work in the UK, which I think is short-sighted: the UK policy of centrally funding APCs was designed to encourage journals to switch to OA, but in the long run it needs to be reshaped so that authors do worry more about how big the APCs are. Scientists currently do not benefit much from using cheaper journals. Nor are the subscription savings shifted from the library budget to the publishing budget, so there is little attempt to use funding efficiently in the switch to OA. In fact, in the long run it seems silly to me for journals to charge high APCs to maintain bells and whistles like tracing references to their articles (among other self-publicising features), when that is already being done by Google for free. The real function of a journal should be to ensure that the research is legitimate, and secondarily maybe to judge its importance. I think APCs to cover the cost of managing refereeing are worth paying, and we have to realise that a published article has to pay for managing the refereeing of the ones rejected too, since the system does not charge article submission fees. But since we in astronomy have the arXiv, there is no need for a journal even to publish on its own website. It can just provide a referee stamp of approval to an arXiv article, linking to the arXiv from its own website. So APCs in astronomy could probably be pushed down way below $1000. Of course, most professional societies, like APS or IoP or RAS, use their journals as a source of income. That might not be sustainable in the long run if market forces begin to operate on APCs, as I believe they should.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I would be happy if page charges got so high that people just uploaded their research to the arXiv and forgot about the journals, apart from laudable efforts such as Peter’s Open Journal of Astrophysics.

      You say that “it seems silly to me for journals to charge high APCs to maintain bells and whistles like tracing references to their articles”. The real reason they charge APCs is to maintain the jobs of a lot of people in academic publishing. With the coming of the internet, academics need only organise projects such as the arXiv for those jobs to become superfluous. This is called progress. It is why we use tractors nowadays, rather than have half the population toiling in the fields growing food. It is why newspapers are no longer typeset using moveable metal type. (That was a fairly sharp battle, for those with long memories.) There is no longer any good reason why we should do our own typesetting, give up our copyright, do refereeing for nothing and then pay huge sums to read our own research. The worst part of the present situation is that learned societies are, with their publishing arms, working against the interests of their own members. So let’s see a farewell to those arms. It is time for some creative destruction in academic publishing. “Thank you and goodbye” is a phrase that springs to mind.

    • The way to go is to establish an alternative refereeing system on arXiv. It would go by “endorsement”. If enough researchers use it, it will be regarded as refereed, although only with arXiv. Please see section 3.2 in the arXiv version of my paper Soker N., 2005, AIPC, 804, 89:…89S/abstract

  8. […] yesterday’s post I asked the question whether anyone actually believes that it costs it costs £2310 to publish a […]

  9. Shantanu Says:

    Peter: What is the status of OJA getting an impact factor and also becoming a scopus index journal? (In India people usually are evaluated on basis of scopus indexed journals and presumably that is true in many other countries also)

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s up to Clarivate and Elsevier whether they bother to respond to our respective applications. Being, as they are, run by the academic publishing industry they are in no hurry to to respond.

  10. Chris C Says:

    I assume we all believe that the RAS should survive, so there is a legitimate discussion to be had on how it raises its income – currently split between membership fees, journal charges and assorted grants. The position of commercial publishers is completely different, of course – and there will be shared overheads between their journals and books (including conference proceedings), so the situation is not completely simple.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think the best option is that learned societies such as the RAS should be funded through institutional/departmental subscriptions. That would at least be transparent.

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