23 Paying the Article Processing Charge

If you have opted to use a journal that has an Article Processing Charge (most commonly referred to as an APC), you will now be required to pay. Your institution will have their own way of dealing with these charges, although the bill might well come back to you. Practically, you should ask for advice from your librarian. Here I concentrate on explaining what this APC pays for.

23.1 What does the Article Processing Charge pay for?

The Article Processing Charge is the way in which publishers extract money for their services. Typically, you will be asked to pay an APC when you want your article to be Open Access (OA), or you have submitted to a Gold OA journal where all content is OA. You may have submitted to a Hybrid OA journal and are deciding whether or not to pay the charge that will allow your content to be Open Access. We know that different journals charge different APCs, so how are these costs calculated and what do they pay for?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no simple answer to how the costs of APCs are calculated. Like other commercial products, costs are lower when there many items are produced and higher when a production run is smaller. Hence, we can expect to pay more for journals or publishers that process fewer articles per year, and less for each APC at a big publisher or a big journal (big starts at around 10,000 articles per annum). However, this is not my experience. Costs are often much higher at big publishers and smaller for smaller journals. This seems to be because publishers inflate the costs of their APCs as the Impact Factor for the journal grows (Gray, 2020; Mekonnen et al., 2021). There may also be a premium pricing strategy (aka prestige pricing or luxury pricing) undertaken by some publishers who appear to give the impression that they are providing some kind of premium service to authors.

Grossmann and Brembs (2021) conducted a study where they tried to pin down the exact costs of a typical journal article. As explained above, this is slightly complicated by the number of articles that are produced per annum by that journal. Prestigious journals, think Nature, Science and Cell which have rejection rates over 90%, are put into another category as these journals employ their own editorial staff who handle the rejection of the majority of manuscripts (while hopefully still looking for those diamonds in the rough!). The difference between the costs to publishers by large scale commercial publishers for a standard APC is under USD 200, while those for prestigious journals is USD 1,000. This suggests that if you pay more than USD 200 for an APC to a big publisher, then you are paying too much!

In Table 23.1 I have tried to simplify the typical (minimum) costs for the production of a paper using the figures given by Grossmann and Brembs (2021), which you can find in full here. I think that these relative costs and their respective categories are useful as they provide some indication of the complexities of publishing articles and where some of the costs lie.

In this table, the costs are broken down into three areas:

  • Content acquisition from authors and the peer review process
  • Content preparation (often referred to as production)
  • Content dissemination and the archiving of content
Table 23.1: What does your APC pay for and what does it cost the publisher? In this table, I contrast the items covered in your APC payment to the publisher according to data provided by Grossmann and Brembs (2021). Costs to the publisher are given in USD per article, and are based on data from 2019. I contrast these publisher costs to those which might be paid by a typical Overlay Journal - OJ. Additionally, I add some notes of my own about why the two figures are likely to differ.
Typical cost to publisher Costs for Overlay Journal Notes on costs
Content acquisition
Online submission system 8.00 0.00 No submission system is needed for OJ as articles are submitted to preprint server which captures metadata
Searching and assigning reviewers 0.00 0.00 Although this is scored here are free, these services are covered by the institutions that pay the salaries of academics who perform these tasks.
Communication with reviewers 0.00 0.00 These services are covered by the institutions that pay the salaries of academics who perform these tasks.
Communication with authors 0.00 0.00 These services are covered by the institutions that pay the salaries of academics who perform these tasks.
Handling of re-submission process 0.00 0.00 These services are covered by the institutions that pay the salaries of academics who perform these tasks.
Plagiarism check 10.17 0.00 Editors of OJs can decide on plagiarism policy that determines whether authors are required to produce their own plagiarism check.
Similarity Check (CrossRef) 0.75 0.00 Editors of OJs can decide on similarity policy that determines whether authors are required to produce their own similarity check.
DOI for article (CrossRef) 1.00 0.00 OJs have DOIs provided by the preprint server. This might conceal some costs if the preprint server is hosted by the institution.
DOI for 2 or more reviews (CrossRef) 0.25 0.00 OJs have DOIs provided by the preprint server. This might conceal some costs if the preprint server is hosted by the institution.
APC collection 26.00 0.00 With Diamond OA OJs have no APCs to collect.
Content preparation
Manuscript tracking system 6.00 0.00 OJs do not have to use a manuscript tracking system as they can use email to point to preprint content. Some free manuscript tracking systems do exist.
Production system check-in 7.92 0.00 Authors produce their own content for OJs.
Technical checking of manuscript 15.84 0.00 Matching citations and references is automated via software. Legitimacy of citations is ensured through Open production files.
Copyediting 48.00 0.00 When it occurs, copyediting is at best pathetic and at worst destructive. For OJs, authors will be required to be responsible for copyediting which may require paying for third party linguistic and stylistic work.
Typesetting 16.80 0.00 For OJs, authors produce their own LaTex files. Authors who do not want or cannot produce LaTex files can pay a small local fee to their institution or local supplier.
Formatting figures/tables 30.00 0.00 For OJs, authors produce their own LaTex files. Authors who do not want or cannot produce LaTex files can pay a small local fee to their institution or local supplier.
Altmetric badge 14.00 0.00 Although I have scored this as free for OJs, there would be the same cost if editors wanted this service from Altmetric. Alternative Open Source altmetric software is available.
XML and metadata preparation 2.00 0.00 For OJs, preprint server captures XML and metadata.
Handling author corrections 15.84 0.00 For OJs, authors check their own LaTex output and are responsible for correcting with local supplier.
Content dissemination and archiving
Web OA platform and hosting 10.00 0.00 Free if the OJ is hosted by a university curated domain. Minimal costs if private domain name is purchased (e.g. $50 per annum).
Long-term digital preservation 0.25 0.00 OJs are archived by 3rd parties who preserve content and associated fee.
Distribution to indexing services (WoS, Scopus, etc.) 2.00 0.00 This cost would be the same as for traditional journals if OJ decides to be indexed. Note downsides of indexing described below.
—- ——
Grand Total —- 214.82 0.00

23.2 Shifting the real costs for Overlay Journal models

Note that in Table 23.1 I have used the lowest costs reported by Grossmann and Brembs (2021) and therefore typical for a large publisher, whereas for the Overlay Journal I have used typical costs for those that currently exist. Very few Overlay Journals currently exist, and typically they are very small. This means that costs for items like manuscript tracking, indexing and Altmetrics are missing. I acknowledge that if larger journals were transformed into Overlay Journals, editors would likely need support the ease of a manuscript tracking system, and administrators might like some kind of altmetric. Here Open Source software can really help, and examples of all of these systems exist. Similarly, for many other items like DOIs and formal archiving of content, I have suggested that this is taken on by the preprint server or host institution. I do not think that this is unreasonable given that the institutions of academics that are producing the content are already paying the largest bill in Table 23.1 - for the research costs and salaries of the content producers.

23.3 The research costs and salaries of the content producers

Table 23.1 misses out the highest costs - that of the cost of the research undertaken (usually supplied in a grant to the PI) and the salaries or bursaries of the content producers. I have left out these costs as (obviously) different researchers receive different salaries, and it is difficult to compare the costs of research projects that might result in a research article even in the same journal. There is also a huge variation in the cost of research depending on the discipline. These differences notwithstanding, I suspect that they surpass all other costs listed in Table 23.1.

23.4 What would a reasonable APC cost look like?

It would be ingenuine to think that the service that publishers render should not be rewarded. A reasonable return on a USD 200 cost would be at 20% (perhaps 25% if volumes are low). This means that a reasonable APC cost would be between USD 260 and 270 (if the actual cost is USD 215).