October 16th, 2009
Pride does not wish to owe and vanity does not wish to pay.
—Francois De La Rochefoucauld
Open-access journal publishing has been criticized on a whole range of grounds as being unsustainable, unfair, or ineffective. Perhaps the starkest criticism is that open-access journals amount to a vanity publishing industry, and will exhibit a “race to the bottom” in which journals compete to lower editorial standards to capture the revenue for publishing articles. Is open-access journal publishing prone to the problems of a vanity press?
There are both theoretical and empirical arguments that the concern is unfounded. From a theoretical point of view, the prerequisites for vanity press are not found in scholarly publishing. From an empirical point of view, current open-access journals display a pricing structure that does not indicate a vanity press industry, as we demonstrate below in a new analysis of OA publication fee data.
What is a vanity press?
In traditional publishing, such as trade book publishing, authors want to be able to sell their writings to the public as an income source. Publishers provide services to authors to make this possible. Publishers have editorial and production expertise and marketing ability, and most importantly can provide authors entry to distribution mechanisms that make trade publishing scalable, and that are otherwise difficult or impossible to access. There is thus a natural trade that can go on, authors contracting publishers to provide these services.
How much should the publisher be paid for this transaction? Since high-quality books sell better than low-quality books, publishers have an incentive to use their efforts on the best books they can acquire. The better the book, the less the author will have to pay the publisher to take on the project. Indeed, if the book is good enough, the author may arrange to pay the publisher negative fees. These are called royalties.
In such a system, where publishers are attempting to maximize revenues, you would expect that different publishers might establish different quality standards, some pursuing high-quality books likely to sell well but requiring high royalties to acquire rights, others providing lax standards in return for high author fees. This is in fact what occurs. The latter type are just the vanity publishers.
In summary, the higher the publisher’s quality standards, the lower the fee the author must pay for services. Conversely, if an author is willing to pay enough, some publisher will be willing to take on the publication. This is the genesis of vanity publishing, and its hallmark is the inverse correlation between publishers’ quality standards and the fees they charge.
Since subscription journals are paid for by or on behalf of their readers, not their authors, there is no useful notion of correlation between a journal’s quality standards and publication fees, as publication fees are constant (and zero).
Open-access journal publishing, however, is likely to have to rely on article-processing fees for the bulk of its revenue. (In fact, article-processing fees have a lot going for them as a funding model. In particular, they scale extremely well with the cost basis of open-access publishing, since the vast bulk of non-fixed OA publishing costs are first-copy costs.) This raises the issue of whether open-access publishing might have the negative properties of a vanity press.
Why vanity journals might be a problem
The existence of vanity open-access journals would not in and of itself be a problematic state of affairs, just as the existence of vanity book publishers does not infect the entire trade book industry with suspicion. The trade book industry offers a wide range of publishers along a spectrum from highly selective publishers who limit their catalog to books meeting only the highest standards to vanity presses that will publish anything for a fee. In fact, it is well known that closed-access journals already exhibit a huge variation in quality standards, with some accepting most all submissions and others a tiny fraction; it is conventional wisdom that any article can be published some place. (Some journals, such as Elsevier’s Applied Mathematics and Computation, have even been willing to accept computer-generated nonsense articles.)
Rather, the worry is not about vanity journal existence but vanity journal domination: A profit-maximizing open-access journal can only increase revenues by increasing the number of articles published or raising the fee per article, both of which will require lowering its quality standards. Other journals, seeing lower-standard competitors steal articles from them, will have to lower their standards in response to maintain their article flow. A spiral of lowering standards will result. This race to the bottom could lead to a situation in which there is no longer a wide range of quality standards among journals, but only the low-standard vanity journals will be left standing.
You see this worry expressed in various forms. Here is a typical example (via Open-Access Journals Flourish):
But if the researchers pay, doesn’t it turn journals into servants to authors, like the vanity-press publishers who publish anything for the right price? “In our capitalist society, one of our basic tenets is who pays the fiddler calls the tune,” said Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor in chief of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, at the national meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on April 1.
It’s possible, Drazen said, that an open-access journal would find itself in deep financial trouble and loosen its standards about the papers it accepts.
The argument implictly relies on the inverse correlation noted above. With a positive correlation, a journal would need to raise its quality standards to raise its fee per article.
Peter Suber has recapitulated a broad range of counterarguments against the worry that OA journals have intrinsic quality problems. I concentrate here on a particular set of questionable economic assumptions that underly the worry about vanity journal domination.
There are multiple assumptions at work in the argument that OA journals would lead to vanity journal domination.
First is the assumption that journal publishers are purely profit maximizing. This is true for large parts of the journal market published by commercial firms, but non-profit publishers, including scholarly societies and independent journals, are set up not to maximize profit but to serve their scholarly constituency.
Second, even if a publisher is profit-maximizing, processing fees need not be publication fees. Journals are free to charge for other aspects of their services. In particular, it has been shown that the use of submission fees can eliminate any incentive to lower standards to improve revenue, even for profit-maximizing publishers.
Third, and most important, is the assumption that authors are willing to pay more for journals with lower standards, as they are for trade book publishing. Whether you accept this assumption depends in large degree on what you think authors are “buying” when they pay a processing fee. To first approximation, scholarly journal publishers provide four kinds of services:
- management of article processing, including peer review
- production (copy-editing, typesetting, etc.)
- branding and imprimatur
An author’s willingness to pay should correlate with the quality of these services, and all of these services (with the exception of the last in the case of open-access journals) should correlate with the standards of the journal. Primary among the services is branding, which by definition correlates with standards. Journals have a good brand exactly because they are selective in publishing only the best articles.
If you think that authors choose journals to publish in based on the brand of the journal (as a signaling mechanism to demonstrate the quality of their research), then authors should be willing to pay more for higher standards, not less. In other words, journals should show a positive correlation between processing fee and standards, and the worry about vanity journal domination is ill-founded.
Now any academic will tell you that imprimatur is exactly the reason that authors select journals. Academics must publish or perish, but not all publishing is equal. Publications in high-quality selective journals weigh a lot more than publications in bottom-feeding journals. Any journal that lowered its standards to raise short-term revenue would soon find its pool of submissions getting thinner and of even lower quality. It seems obvious to many academics that journals ought to be able to charge more for higher standards, not less.
Still, it’s an empirical question. Which force is predominant in the journal publishing industry — the short-term profit-maximizing force that generates a negative correlation and vanity journal domination or a brand-payment force that generates a positive correlation and a range of journal qualities? We answer this question shortly, but first a digression.
The importance of editorial independence
You hear less of this kind of charge that publication fees lead to vanity press behavior now that major scholarly publishers all have instituted “hybrid open access” charges, where if an author pays a substantial fee (typically $3000 to $3500), the publisher makes the article freely available. Elsevier, Springer-Kluwer, Wiley-Blackwell, Sage, Taylor and Francis, and dozens of other publishers now offer this option.
One might worry that the availability of this option would lead to a journal willing to sell lower standards for authors willing to pay the hybrid fee. The worry is unfounded for exactly the same reasons that OA journal fees need not lead to a vanity press downward spiral: any lowering of standards would reduce the brand value of the journal that it depends on for its market position.
The ability to keep considerations of short-term financial gain from affecting quality standards depends on independence of the editorial process. Hybrid charges don’t lead to vanity press worries because the editorial decisions can be systemically separated from the financial decisions, with no knowledge of whether a person will be paying the fee leaking into the editorial process. Publishers take pains to point out this separation in their descriptions of their hybrid OA programs. (Says Springer, “There is no difference in the way that they are treated between Springer Open Choice articles and other articles among the well over 100,000 that Springer publishes annually.”) Similarly, it is crucial that editorial decisions not be affected by page charges, color figure charges, and any other author-side charges that a publisher might institute. Nor should editorial decisions be affected by advertiser interests. To the extent that subscription-based journals can maintain editorial and financial independence, open-access processing-fee journals should be able to do so as well, and are motivated to do so for the same reasons. The founding of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association is a sign that OA publishers appreciate the importance of sound practices to their authors and their readers.
Temptations to short-circuit editorial independence for financial reasons exist for subscription-based journals just as for open-access journals. Elsevier was discovered to have published several faux journals on behalf of and paid for by pharmaceutical companies, and many journals generate substantial revenue from advertising that might skew editorial decisions if not for strong editorial independence.
Gavin Yamey, an editor at PLoS, is quoted in Wired on just this point: “As for the vanity-press charge, Yamey said his company makes exceptions for authors who can’t pay. Editors aren’t in the loop on those decisions, however, ‘so that cannot influence our decisions on which papers to publish.’”
An empirical study
I conducted a study to answer the empirical question that I raised before — whether open-access journals present the positive correlation between standards and publication fees indicative of a quality press or the negative correlation indicative of a vanity press. As a proxy for quality, I used the Eigenfactor-based Article Influence metric, as the Eigenfactor methodology is likely to lead to metrics that are more comparable across fields. Of the Eigenfactor-based metrics, Article Influence is appropriate to use as it, like publication fee against which it will be correlated, is a per-article metric.
Eigenfactors are calculated using citation data from Thomson ISI. We therefore extracted from the Directory of Open Access Journals all journals that had a Thomson ISI Impact Factor, and extracted Article Influence scores for each one.
We also tracked down the fee structure for these journals by examining the journals’ web sites or contacting the journals by email or phone if necessary. We were able to acquire data for most, but not all, of the journals. (I am indebted to Tim Credo, Elmer Soriano, and Thomas Dodson for aid in acquiring this data.)
This data was used to calculate the correlation between publication fees and Article Influence. For simplicity, we excluded in the analysis those journals that charge a submission fee, as that would require modeling the effect of submission fee as well. As many have noted, submission fees in theory mitigate the vanity-press motive in any case, so the exclusion of these cases is a conservative step in the analysis.
A scatter plot of the data is shown in the following figure. In the figure I also show best fit lines for all of the journals (the green dotted line) and for those charging a non-zero publication fee (the blue dotted line). (The point in the upper right-hand corner is PLoS Biology.)
The correlation coefficient between standards and publication fees for those journals that charge them as calculated in the study was .70, a quite high positive correlation. Even if we include the journals that don’t charge publication fees, the correlation is .47, which is typically thought of as a medium to large positive correlation. The study clearly demonstrates that OA journals show a positive correlation between fees and standards indicative of a quality press industry, not the negative correlation characteristic of vanity publishing.
For those interested in the details, I provide (as previously) the data that we compiled, as well as the computer program that calculated the correlations and generated the plot. All journal, pricing, and currency exchange data were acquired in January 2009.
Vanity journal existence is not a problem in the OA world
The positive correlation that the study demonstrates implies that a publisher of an OA journal will be disinclined to reduce standards merely to acquire more fees, since a journal with lower standards will only command lower fees. As it turns out, there is a way for an OA publisher to solve this quandary. Rather than lowering standards for a high-tier journal, it can set up a new journal with lower standards and lower fees to publish the type of articles that the higher-tier journal will not, thereby obtaining the revenues without diluting the brand of the higher-tier journal. In fact, this is the approach that subscription journals have taken for years: increase revenues by founding more journals. The availability of this approach is again consistent with having a healthy range of selectivity in OA journals; it provides a further argument against a race to the bottom.
Based on this study, then, one should expect that open-access journals will have a broad range of quality standards, from the most selective and expensive to bottom-feeding journals that will publish anything for a low fee. And this is exactly what we find. The premier PLoS journals are as high quality as journals come. On the other hand, Bentham Science Publishers journals are apparently willing to publish most anything, including the occasional computer-generated article. Scientific Journals International, at a $99.95 processing fee per author per article, shows signs of similar questionable standards.
Does the existence of bottom-feeding journals pose a problem? Ironically, such journals are far more problematic when they are subscription-based than when they are open-access. Though different journals have different average qualities, even journals that tend to publish lower quality articles trip over a decent one every once in a while. And when they do, if they use a subscription-fee business model you’ll need to be a subscriber to read it. At least if they use an OA business model, you can read it without having had to subscribe all along “just in case”. The existence of bottom-feeding open-access journals costs no one except for the authors gullible enough to submit their articles to them. Not so for the low-standards closed-access journals that bulk up bundles and place the very occasional read-worthy article behind a paywall.
Vanity journal domination is not occurring, nor is it likely to occur, among OA journals. Vanity journal existence will and does happen among both OA and subscription-fee journals, but at least for OA journals is a benign phenomenon. As subscription-fee journals more and more charge author-side fees, including hybrid open-access fees, one can only hope that the baseless vanity press recrimination against open-access journals will fade away.
This is strictly speaking not true. Most subscription-based journals also charge various sorts of author fees. And those fees can be quite substantial, commensurate with open-access journals’ article processing fees. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend they don’t.