To go open access or not to go?

Prepared by Jan Lepš

Jan “Šuspa” Lepš

This Commentary is a part of the series asking the question: should Applied Vegetation Science, the journal owned by IAVS and published by Wiley, become Gold Open Access? For the context and link to other Commentaries, please visit Editorial.

Willey suggested that the Applied Vegetation Science (AVS), the journal owned by the International Association for Vegetation Science (IAVS) and a sister to the Journal of Vegetation Science (JVS), should become a fully Open Access (OA) journal. Whereas it sounds nice to be open to all readers, it would very probably close the journal to many authors, because they will not be able (or willing) to pay the Article Processing Charge or Article Publication Charge (APC). Moreover, the charges suggested for AVS are rather high (GBP 1900). Now, the journal is hybrid, i.e., the authors can (after the paper is accepted) decide whether they want to have their article OA (and pay APC), or not. I have done a small search and have found some fact that might be interesting for the decision process. I present here all that I consider interesting, regardless whether it might be seen as supportive or opposing to transition to OA. In my comments, I do not consider OA from the point whether it is good or bad for the science progress (I see even here many pros and many cons, but I am not able to formulate them reasonably), but from the point of view of the journal AVS and potential authors, i.e. whether we can expect an increase or decrease of authors’ interest in AVS, particularly among IAVS members.  Moreover, from my position of IAVS council member and JVS editorial board member, I can influence the publishing policy of the IAVS journals, whereas I think that how will the “publishing landscape” look like is to a large extent in the hands of the funding bodies, i.e. granting agencies, particularly in the wealthy countries (I have no chance to affect the rules for NSF or NERC grants).

First, we should consider why are authors willing to pay APC to get their paper published as OA. I see three main reasons: (a) the author is genuinely interested in getting its message as widely distributed as possible, either because (s)he believes that it is so important, or, more pragmatically, because (s)he wants the paper to be more read and thus cited; (b) because the authors (probably correctly) expect that the editorial process will be less restrictive (for the journals with comparable impact) and considerably faster; or (c) because OA is requested by the funding body (usually a grant agency). Regarding the point (b), we should realize that due to the current funding policy and science evaluation, the speed of publications is crucial for many authors. Also, (particularly after the third beer in a pub with a colleague) you will realize that the authors are not so grateful for “thorough review of their articles” as it might seem from some acknowledgements.

Below, there are some thoughts that I see relevant for the discussion.

1. Taking into account the (a) reason, I do not think that OA would be such an advantage for the authors as it might seem (or as it is claimed), i.e. that the paper should reach many more readers than when published in the subscription journals. Wealthy institutions usually have subscriptions for the major publishers (incl. Willey), and researchers from poor countries have Sci-Hub (or better, their institutions/governments do not take measures to restrict access through it), or they can ask legally through Research Gate, which usually works. (I do not say that using Sci-Hub is fair, but I see the transition to OA more as an attempt of publishers to cope with Sci-Hub and RG rather than a measure which would be beneficial to researchers from poor countries).

2. There is an increasing pressure of funding bodies to publish OA. The APC for OA in hybrid journals (i.e. where the author has the possibility of choice) are usually higher than in fully OA journals – this might be a reason why the authors for which OA is obligatory might prefer the fully OA journals. If we expect that the funders requesting OA fund high profile research (I have no data on this, but expect that this is the case), this might increase the submission of excellent papers to fully OA journal.

3. Many authors have indeed enough money to pay some APC – the OA journal owned by Wiley, Ecology and Evolution, publishes ca 12 000 pages per year, which means ca 1000 papers per year (as compared to 61 for AVS). For each of them, the authors were able to pay! However, the composition of countries is quite different from those of IAVS journals. I have compared the 25 countries with most publications in JVS/AVS and Ecology and Evolution using the Web of Science, and there are some striking differences. First, the “dominance curves” are different – the one for Ecology and Evolution is much steeper than for AVS, meaning that countries are more evenly represented in JVS/AVS. And second, the countries that are missing in those 25 most publishing in Ecology and Evolution, but most publishing in JVS/AVS, are often the poorer ones (definitely not those really poor, so not eligible to any exemptions of APC, but also not wealthy enough to have enough to pay for APC; they include the former communist countries like Russia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia or South American Argentina. Of course, there are other differences and IAVS tradition in some countries, but these income differences seem to be obvious.

Countries of authors publishing in Ecology and Evolution (OA journal) and the Journal of Vegetation Science and Applied Vegetation Science. Only articles and reviews, published in 2018 and 2019, are included. Barplots prepared using data retrieved from Web of Science on October 24, 2020 (by David Zelený).

4. The suggested fees for AVS (GBP 1900) are prohibitively high, and generally out of range of APC for potentially competing journals. Ecology and Evolution (IF 2.4, so comparable to AVS) has GBP 1600, but if a paper is referred from the cooperating journals, then it is only GBP 1280. Even Ecography (transited to fully OA this year), with its IF 6.45, has lower APC (GBP 1700)! Ecosphere (IF 2.9) has USD 1750 for non-members and USD 1500 for members– it is ca. GBP 1350 and 1150, respectively. The classical author’s strategy is to submit to one of the journals without APC, and only when the paper is rejected, and the transfer to OA journal is proposed (Ecology and Evolution has such arrangement for the British Ecological society, Nordic Society Oikos and IAVS journals, or Ecosphere for Ecological Society of America journals), then to think about paying APC in OA journals. I am afraid that there will not be any reason for an author to submit to AVS with such a high APC. There are enough competing journals without APC, and competing fully OA journals with lower APC, and AVS cannot expect an influx of papers rejected in other journals.

5. The OA journals try to attract the authors by providing some advantages – they are usually less selective. Ecology and Evolution has extremely author-friendly handling for the transferred articles, they are less selective for “novelty and innovativeness” (which might sometimes be a rather subjective criterion), but on the other hand, they have some highly cited papers: their seven most cited papers for 2019’s IF have got 15 -25 citations, for JVS it was 8 -17 citations. Even though it is clearly a mass effect, it shows that if a paper is good and interesting, it is not overlooked just because it was published in Ecology and Evolution. Benefits of publishing in MDPI journals (competing to AVS might be Forests, Plants and Diversity) is very fast editorial processing. For example, Plants has IF 2.7, APC is 1600 CHF, i.e. ca 1350 GBP, (will be increased to 1800 CHF/1530 GBP next year, but still be much less than suggested for AVS), and has extremely rapid publication: they claim first decision provided to authors approximately 12.3 days after submission; acceptance to publication is undertaken in 2.9 days. (I am far from saying that we should follow the customs of MDPI, but these values show that the MDPI journals will be very strong competitors and that authors would expect some similar benefits for their APC.)

6. AVS also publishes the type of research that one is able to do without any funding (one of my papers published in JVS was done completely without any funding during my holidays, and is cited more than 100 times), so it was probably worth of publishing. Similarly, I hope to continue my research after retirement. However, fully OA journals are simply closed for similar research without funding.

7. I can imagine that I (and similarly other researchers) will be reluctant to review for a journal, if I know that I cannot afford to publish there, of if I feel that I will do the review work for them for free, but then, I will need to pay a lot of money to get my paper published there. MDPI gives the reviewer seven days for review, but provides vouchers for discounted APC “for well prepared reviews”.  I am not sure that the terribly short time for the review together with the economic incentive will not impair the quality of the review, on the other hand, the fast journal response is highly appreciated by the authors. I have not found what will be the discount, nor whether you can use more vouchers if you review more papers, but the approach shows that there is a way to reward the reviewers, and at the same time attract authors (although scientists might believe they are immune against discounts and similar actions, having in hand a voucher for a discount publication might still be an impetus).

In conclusion, I think that transition to fully OA (not only of AVS, but in general) will attract some new authors (particularly those having the duty to publish OA), but will repulse others, and for some, publication in such journal will be out of reach. I am close to sure that with the suggested APC for the AVS, the first group (new authors attracted by fully OA) will be the smallest. Nevertheless, we can expect some pressure from funding bodies in rich countries, and AVS (and the IAVS journals in general) must reflect the situation. Usually, there is “the devil in detail”: the results will depend on the cost of APC, on the system of discounts enabling to publish researchers without funding and on similar details. We should be aware that once a journal becomes fully OA, it will always be inaccessible for some authors.

PS: I am grateful to David Zelený for preparation of the graphs, and for editorial help.

Jan Lepš (Šuspa) is a professor of Ecology at the Department of Botany, Faculty of Science, the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice, Czech Republic. He has been an IAVS member for a rather long time – not sure from when, but when he published his first paper in IAVS journal Vegetatio in 1982, he was not a member, because, at that time, it was not possible for Czechoslovak citizens to pay the membership fee in hard currency. Currently, he is a member of the IAVS Council. He served as Associate Editor in JVS and in the Journal of Applied Ecology and is currently a member of JVS editorial board. His interest includes various topics of functional and quantitative plant ecology, such as mechanisms of species coexistence and diversity maintenance, ecological stability, tropical ecology, and data analysis.