A pandemic like COVID-19, with its associated disruption of the economy, creates distortions which can illuminate opportunities and which mandate a rethinking of business as usual. While some have predicted that the number of journal submissions will decline based on closure of wet labs due to social distancing, at least for now, the opposite seems to be true at numerous publishers. For example, a recent article in The New Yorker reported a 4-5-fold increase in submissions to The Lancet and a 95% rejection rate. And while many of the increased journal submissions are good, the number of poor-quality submissions is also rising. This includes a large number of specious COVID-19 papers.
Normally an increase in submissions would be cause for celebration — so long as the high-to-poor- quality submissions ratio remains relatively constant. To state the obvious, times are not normal, and the pressure on both library and research budgets to reduce spending on both subscriptions and APCs will be enormous. That pressure will lead to downstream pressure on publishers to save costs, especially as margins suffer. That 95% rejection rate at The Lancet might provide cocktail party bragging rights, but it is also quite expensive to maintain.
In times of crisis, the first line of defense is cost cutting, because that is the one thing a company can control. Of course you cannot grow a business through cost cutting, and you can only cut so much before the pain becomes intolerable. This is why businesses would ideally rather grow and diversify revenues than cut costs. There are, however, rare opportunities to adopt changes in business practice which both reduce costs and increase revenues. These are the holy grail.
The discipline of economics is sometimes defined as the study of how society allocates scarce resources. In the world of print subscription journals, scarcity was easy to identify. One could only fit so many articles into a fixed print page budget. In fully open access (OA), Article Processing Charge (APC)-based sound science journals, scarcity exists in the available time of the peer reviewers and editors, and in the willingness of the journal to apply its brand to the article. Even quick triage rejection, where the editor rejects a paper without wasting time on full peer review, uses valuable scarce resources.
In trying to find new ways of doing business, it is useful to look at how other industries solve similar problems. In the US and no doubt elsewhere, colleges and universities face a similar dual scarcity. They have a limited number of seats for students (similar to page budget scarcity and brand scarcity), and a scarcity of admissions department time for reviewing applications (similar to a scarcity of time for editors and peer reviewers). In the US, students can apply to essentially as many colleges as they want by checking a box on a Common Application. The Common Application does in fact increase both the application (submission) rates and the rejection rates, but colleges and universities have one line of defense against applications by millions of unqualified and uninterested students; they charge an application fee. Some universities no doubt charge the fee because they want the revenues. Others see it as a way of reducing the time admissions officers spend evaluating unqualified candidates. Regardless, this fee serves the dual purposes of generating revenues and reducing costs.
Submitting for publication in a journal is in many ways like applying for admission to a university in terms of allocation of scarce resources, and submission fees can serve the same ends as application fees. This seems so obvious to me that I have been mistakenly predicting the widespread adoption of submission fees for years, and I am not alone. In fact, nearly four years back into the before-times (i.e., the period ending March 1, 2020 or so), David Crotty stated the following: “what’s frustrating here is that there seems a potentially likely path to making selective OA journals work financially: submission fees. The effects of submission fees are two-fold — by charging a fee for every manuscript submitted, the number submissions to a journal drops precipitously.”
The advantages of submission charges in terms of increasing revenues while decreasing costs seem clear, and such charges have been adopted at a small minority of journals. As such, we need to assume there are reasons why they haven’t already been more broadly adopted. I can think of five good candidates blocking their adoption; culture, equity, lack of perceived value, competition, and workflow.
Culture: I suspect the most powerful impediment to submission charges is culture; namely as with college admissions, the percentage of articles rejected is a source of bragging rights, and powerful editors worry that they will lose prestige if the percentage of rejections decreases, regardless of the cause. In the battle between CFOs and editors, editors usually win. Still, colleges too use rejection rates for bragging rights, and seem to manage to charge fees as well. Perhaps financial pressures resulting from COVID-19 will change the editor/CFO balance of power on this point.
Moreover, while not many journals today charge submission fees, those that do make good company. Gastroenterology, for example, charges 75 dollars for submission and has a 2019-2020 Impact Factor (IF) of 15.130. The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine charges 50 dollars and has a 2018 IF of 16.49. In fact, a significant majority of (an admittedly small sample of) journals I reviewed with submission fees have an IF above 5.
Equity: One concern about submission fees is that less well -funded authors, and authors from lesser developed countries, would be less likely to submit. This is a concern for all APC-based publishing models but can be easily addressed through a liberal waiver system, just as colleges waive admissions fees for underprivileged students.
Lack of Perceived Value: Charging submission fees would be new for most publishers and authors, and there is no doubt that charging for something that was historically “free” might cause tension with researchers. That said, authors have learned to embrace APCs, and in an APC world, authors have become used to paying for services. As Tim Vines noted in The Scholarly Kitchen two years ago, “APCs have the unfortunate feature that the authors pay for the assessment of all the other submissions that ended up being rejected.” Authors are committed to the system, and submission fees should have the benefits of speeding peer review by reducing dross, mitigating peer reviewer fatigue (remember that 95% rejection rate?), and possibly increasing the quality of papers overall. By communicating these benefits, publishers should be able to inoculate themselves from backlash. Publishers can further mitigate negative risks by applying submission fees as a credit off APCs, member dues, reprints, or other value-added services.
Competition: It is certainly true that if you are competing for papers with another journal, authors might view submission fees as a factor, and they certainly will say so if asked. Competitive concerns were highlighted in both the Crotty and Vines posts cited above. However, authors are typically astute about where they want to publish, and it seems unlikely that a 50-100 dollar fee, especially if tied to a compelling story about value, will make a big difference. It does not seem to have harmed the prestigious journals that charge fees. Finally, the post-COVID 19 flood of papers changes the competitive dynamic in two ways. First, there is a surplus of great papers, so little harm will be suffered if a few are siphoned off by competitors. Second, for every good paper lost to a competitor due to submission fees, the competitor is burdened with costs from many more bad ones. Competition works in many ways.
Workflow: Adding micropayments to established workflows takes time and effort. Fortunately, whether building the functionality in house or relying on a vendor, the increased revenues for a mandatory submission fee, even with waivers, can be calculated by straight-forward math. Publishers also know the costs of peer review, so can approximate the savings from receiving fewer submissions. Thus, the cost/benefit calculation should be easy.
A well-implemented submission fee program could offer additional benefits. For example, society publishers could follow the approach of The American College of Sports Medicine for its journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (submission fee, 100 dollars) and waive the fee for society members, thereby providing a new society benefit. Waived or reduced fees could also be part of the negotiations for Read and Publish and other transformative agreements, proving another offering in the publisher’s sales box.
Interestingly, the discipline with the longest tradition of submission fees is economics, where the dismal science is both reported and applied. With all the pressures that our industry will face in the next two years, it is time for the rest of us to start experimenting.
Thank you for additional research provided by Michelle Brewer, Librarian/Market Intelligence Manager, Health Learning, Research & Practice, Wolters Kluwer.
This article originally appeared in The Scholarly Kitchen– republished with permission.