First posted: May 2019
Open-access (OA) publishing is a virtuous aim, but the means to achieve it, and achieve it well, are not at all clear. In particular, we believe that a proper publishing system
- should not discriminate against authors of lesser means; and
- should not set up incentives aligned with quantity (as against quality).
To our mind, models based on author charges (APCs, standing for the euphemism “article-processing charge” or “article-publishing charge”) fail on both these counts, and we are opposed to their propagation.
We think that barriers to authoring are worse than barriers to reading. For reading, even with subscription paywalls, there’s arXiv, there’s emailing the author for a copy, there’s all sorts of more or less legal ways of obtaining the content. However, for authoring, APCs would shut the gate tight, especially if one is caught in the middle, not poor enough to qualify for a waiver, not funded enough to afford the fee. Aside from singular scientific peaks, this sets an unacceptable ceiling on most authors’ opportunities, especially if they’re not lucky to be born in an affluent country or one that would fund their research.
Relatedly, we do not think the current trend for combined agreements between rich institutions/consortia and big publishers, covering both reading access and open-access publishing, is a good recipe for global change, as it won’t realistically be extendable to the large numbers of smaller, independent publishers (thus leading to either smothering or consolidation), and more important, still excludes authors of lesser means.
Therefore, we think Diamond OA (= free to read, free to publish for all) would be ideal, but unfortunately it’s not clear how to fund it, and how to fund it sustainably over the long term.
A plausible model might be consortium funding, where a set of high-means institutions become members of a “club” supporting a whole journal (or rather, a whole portfolio of journals), in contrast to funding individual articles, and remaining blind to the affiliation of the authors. The hard question, of course, is how to convince institutions to join (and, most important for long-term stability, to stay) when budgets shrink and the temptation to free-ride is natural. Nonetheless, MSP is exploring such a model for its portfolio.
Update, April 2020: The Subscribe to Open model, recently proposed and piloted at Annual Reviews, seems to solve most of the collective-action problems we saw when considering consortial funding of Diamond OA journals. At present, S2O appears as the most plausible and sustainable open-access option for MSP, and we will soon begin exploring it in earnest.
Short of this, we think that (at least in mathematics) fair-priced scholar-led subscription journals remain the best stewards of quality and fairness. While subscription journals do set barriers to direct access, nonetheless they spread costs across a large community, their incentives are aligned with quality not quantity, and they do not disfavor authors of lesser means.
Finally, MSP is singular among publishers of mathematics journals for the care we give to the typesetting and copyediting of articles we publish. Our authors appreciate it, as the quotes on this page show. Such care, however, does not come cheap — no matter that we don’t need to support a scholarly society (we publish only for the sake of publishing) and no matter how efficient we are (indeed, especially proportional to our production quality, we are remarkably low cost). However, we cannot be as cheap as the quasi-automated or routine processing of manuscripts that some find satisfactory and propose as sufficient for OA publications. In particular, any level of author-charge that would keep our production value would also pose quite a barrier to most less financially fortunate authors.
We aim to maintain policies that are as open-friendly as we can sustain; please read them here.