Paying to read or paying for publication: what do you get?


Currencies to pay for Journal articles
Currencies to pay for Journal articles

Why not simply post your manuscript on your own or your Institute’s webserver, at minimal cost, fast and available to all? Following Annals of Botany’s decision to reduce our open access charges to be below those of the major on-line subject OA Journals, I have obviously been looking at the different ways Journals are funded and use their revenues. Whatever the publication model, the costs of manuscript handling, review, ‘typesetting’ or redactory services, and distribution/printing are the same whether the model is author-pays, subscription, hybrid (both author charges and subscription), or mixed (some papers author-pays, some subscription-only). Over the last few years, all Journals have been looking to implement changes to reduce costs and speed up the publishing process, while increasing their standards.


At the start of publication, moving to on-line submissions (mostly based in the US) for peer-review and editing has helped both with costs and speed. Whether a paper is accepted or rejected, the cost of review is similar, although few Journals now charge submission fees; however, a number, not in plant sciences, are offering to accelerate the review process by charging authors an extra fee. Alex Holcombe suggests on his blog that this will mean researchers with poor funding will fall further behind their rich counterparts, and several people are questioning the ethics of this fast-tracking, although one of the Editors of  a Journal with the option also responds to the blog. I can’t see anything like this being adopted by Annals of Botany. We will continue to aim to publish the best plant science, and to obtain high-quality reviews as quickly as possible; however, we recognize that referees both have many demands on their time, and also for some manuscripts, it takes careful thought and some contemplation to give a considered review. From my own reviewing experiences, I know that chasing is needed in some cases, but too intense pressure will lead to a superficial review.

Some journals are on-line only, saving distribution costs and printing and paper for the publisher. My colleagues mostly admit to printing out papers as PDFs before reading, although perhaps this hidden cost was there when the norm was to photocopy the Journal in the library. At Annals of Botany, we hope more subscriptions will become on-line only (not least for environmental reasons), but at the same time our publishers have been reducing our print costs. Printing (often in Asia) with better presses (for the small runs of a thousand copies or so for most Journals, and now with much in colour), and better paper (for Annals, Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, certified, more opaque, whiter and thinner than 5 years ago) has squeezed costs, although our wide distribution in Europe, Asia, Australasia and the Americas mean little more can be done obviously to reduce distribution costs and environmental impact.

So that leaves the middle part of the process: the redaction including copy-editing and layout (now invariably HTML/XML-markup and PDF) – sometimes seen as the ‘cost to first copy’, and the most expensive part of the review to publication pathway. The question I ask is, with world-wide access to your writings only a blog away, why does anybody pay for these services? As I asked in the first sentence of this blog, “Why not simply post your manuscript on your own or your Institute’s webserver, at minimal cost, fast and available to all?”

I’d be most interested to hear why people think that this model is not followed much, much more widely. I recognize that I have not put as much effort into my own website,, as I would have liked to, but many of the key techniques we use in the lab., particularly for in situ hybridization, are there (, and I wish that more labs would publish their methods in usable detail in such a format. But I would not use the website for primary data publication, or even for big ideas. A properly edited, well organized, laid out and fully-checked published paper (whether HTML or PDF), posted with a permanent DOI to an archived website, is very different from posting to your own server. I think most scientists have voted by their actions to pay for the service by Journals and publishers, in some cases as authors, in almost all cases as readers – and this is the source that is most trusted and used.