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Academic journals: Are open access article publishing charges enabling a dark side?

Roger Atkinson

For some years the major commercial publishers of academic journals have offered authors the option to purchase open access status for their academic research articles [1]. This is now an established and respected option, but in recent times a "dark side" has emerged. The term "dark side" was used by Declan Butler [2], in a Nature article with the subheading, "The explosion in open-access publishing has fuelled the rise of questionable operators", and comments on the concept of "predatory publishers":

... the goal of predatory open-access publishers is to exploit this model by charging the fee without providing all the expected publishing services. [2]
The term "predatory publishers" was drawn from Jeffrey Beall, who in another Nature article drew a contrast between the early pioneers in open access publishing, who established many benefits, and the more recent appearance of "predatory publishers" [3]:
Then came predatory publishers, which publish counterfeit journals to exploit the open-access model in which the author pays. These predatory publishers are dishonest and lack transparency. They aim to dupe researchers, especially those inexperienced in scholarly communication. They set up websites that closely resemble those of legitimate online publishers, and publish journals of questionable and downright low quality. [3]
Predatory? Aim to dupe? Other recent commentary about potentially shady practices has also used somewhat emotive phrases, such as "an emerging Wild West in academic publishing" (Bohannon, 2013) [4]; "It seems like the Wild West now" (James White, quoted by Kolata, 2013) [5]; and "Sham journals scam authors" (Butler, 2013) [6]. That's enough to prompt me to pursue the topic as an IT in higher education matter! Research (and the publication thereof, in a highly reputable and prestigious journal) is one of the great pinnacles for practitioners in higher education. And of course there is the risk that open access publishing, and the Internet technologies that have enabled it, could be "blamed" for the emergence of this "dark side", or at least be "somewhat tarnished" by it. Another prompting has been the recent arrival of a number of unsolicited bulk emails from publishers unknown to me, inviting me to submit papers, become a reviewer, or join an editorial board [7].

Perhaps the most remarkable commentary is due to Science correspondent John Bohannon [8], who during 2013 conducted a large scale "sting" operation in which he submitted fake scientific papers to 304 journals each published by a different fee-charging, open access publisher. Published in Science in 2013 [4], and also receiving its own Wikipedia article [9], John Bohannon's investigation showed that "60% of them are not doing peer review" [8], because each "paper was designed with such grave and obvious scientific flaws that it should have been rapidly rejected by editors and peer reviewers, but 60% of the journals accepted it" [9].

Bohannon's article [4] ignited a brief but passionate debate during October 2013, illustrated (for example) by Peter Suber's "New 'sting' of weak open-access journals" [10] and Ernesto Priego's "Predatory journals and defective peer review are general academic problems..." [11]. According to my reading, the debate centred mainly upon whether Bohannon's article was unfairly tarnishing open access journals that did maintain high standards, and upon perceptions of methodological deficiencies and ethical flaws in the research. Few correspondents gave any prominence to the circumstances of the authors who had their articles accepted by the journals in Bohannen's investigation, though he stated that it was prompted by an email detailing "the publication woes of Aline Noutcha, a biologist at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria" [4]. What prompts or misleads authors into submitting their research articles to a journal that may be characterised by Butler's [2] definition of predatory open-access publishers? Is it desperation about obtaining an acceptance from a better-established journal; or pressures to score a publication in an English language, international journal; or if seeking open access, a lack of funds to purchase OA from a better-established journal; or sophisticated deception by a predatory publisher?

There is quite a number of lines of investigation that could be very relevant. For example, in relation to the "desperate to publish in English" line of investigation, one matter that I have investigated is the under-representation of Asian authors in educational research journals [12]. Concerning "sophisticated deception by a predatory publisher", for example "They set up websites that closely resemble those of legitimate online publishers... " [3], there could be scope for systematic research that has an educative impact upon publisher behaviours, to move these away from outright deception and towards modern best practice. However, resisting a temptation to explore every line of investigation, this column will concentrate upon open access article publishing charges (omitting, of course, the large population of open access journals with no publishing charges).

Table 1 presents a small but illustrative listing of open access article publishing charges. The main point to illustrate is that the world's long established major commercial publishers of academic journals (first 6 rows; note that CSIRO, though very minor, is included simply to give an Australian example) have charges that are about an order of magnitude larger than charges made by some "newcomers" (last 6 rows; all of these except ARPN appear in Beall's List [13]). The "newcomers" rows are not a systematic sample, but are intended to illustrate one important distinction: mostly they make a special appeal to authors from developing countries. However, there are features in common: all 12 are commercial businesses, undoubtedly very successful and mostly very high income earners in the case of the first 6, and also undoubtedly, mostly unsuccessful and with very low incomes in the case of the second 6.

Table 1: Some examples of open access article publishing charges

PublisherOA fee per
article US$
References and notes
Elsevier$500 to $5000 e.g. Computers & Education and The Internet and Higher Education both $1800
SAGE$1500 or $3000 "For the majority of journals ... $3,000 in Science, Technology and Medical fields, and $1,500 Humanities and Social Sciences"
Taylor & Francis$2950
Open Science$60 to $190 "... we use a country-based pricing model, which is based on the GNI per capita of the country" (fees range from $60 for "low-income countries" to $190 for "high-income countries"). For Beall's assessment, see
Science Publishing Group$70 to $220 "The normal APCs ... are $500. For manuscripts submitted before May 31, 2014, Science Publishing Group offers various discounts on APCs ... authors from high-income countries ... $220 ... low-income countries ... $70". For Beall's assessment, see
Scientific & Academic Publishing$300 "Authors are generally required to pay a $300 publication charge. Authors from developing countries will be offered discounts on the publication fee." For Beall's assessment, see
Science Journal Publication$500 "We offer a Partial Fee waiver for authors in developing countries who do not have funds to cover publication fees." For Beall's assessment, see
Wyno Academic Journals$400 to $550 "Authors are required to make payment ONLY after their manuscripts have been accepted for publication." Location: Nigeria and India. For Beall's assessment, and interesting responses to it, see
ARPN$78 to $110 (Asian Research Publishing Network) Location: Islamabad 45500, Pakistan.

To illustrate the matter of low incomes, Science Publishing Group (row 8) conducts 6 journals in the field of education, all inaugurated in 2012, which together have published a total of 63 articles up until mid-November 2013. Based on a limited count, I estimated that SPG's average fee per article is US$150, so its gross income to date from its educational journals is about $10,000. Although SPG lists about 117 journals in disciplines other than education, and many of these may have higher earnings than its education journals, as a business venture it is exceedingly unlikely to challenge those in the top 6 rows of Table 1. So, although Jeffrey Beall's initial assessment identified SPG as possibly a predatory publisher [14], it is very probably only a rather lowly predator. SPG was not listed as a publisher in Bohannen's investigation [4].

Although gross income may be low, profitability may be "reasonable" (from the perspectives of the owners of the publishers, if not from author and reader perspectives!) if costs are contained at very low levels. The business model for "predatory open-access publishers" could be as described by Butler, namely "charging the fee without providing all the expected publishing services" [2]. Concerning fees, perhaps one could add the qualifying phrase, "very modest" or "readily affordable even for developing country authors", and concerning services, "almost no services other than receiving articles and hosting them on a website", and "no meaningful peer review or feedback, and no copy editing". Of course this business model is made possible only by a number of underlying factors, such as spectacular advances in ICTs, especially in enabling any journal to become "international" at no extra cost, and in relation to automated processes for supporting journal publication; established and major publishers not keeping up with the demand from potential authors, notwithstanding their "growth spurts" in recent years [15]; emergence of English as the dominant language for publication of academic research; large increases in the numbers of universities worldwide, and hence in the numbers of academics seeking outlets for their research; the widespread replacement of "print on paper" reading by "screen only" reading; etc.

Also, any business model requires continuous refinement, and that certainly seems to be the case with the business model for "predatory open-access publishers". For example, concealing ownership and location is probably counter-productive. Recognising that the great majority of one's authors and reviewers are from developing and intermediate economies, be honest about one's location! Fake addresses in New York repel potential supporters [13]. Another deficiency is the lack of identification with professional societies or university research centres, other than through editorial board memberships.

However, does the identification of "predatory open-access publishers" and their business model give us a sufficiently deep probing into the "dark side"? To borrow and adapt some standard research questions from the educational research literature, we must ask questions of the form: Are the authors satisfied with the publication process? Did authors achieve their goals and did they get their "money's worth"? There are "dark side" corollary questions, such as: How many rejections did you receive from established, prestigious journals prior to acceptance of your article by ("journal of [allegedly] questionable and downright low quality")? Of course, surveying authors' views would not be enough, it would be equally important to research questions of the form: Are the authors' peers satisfied with the validity of the research? With the significance of the research? Here I prefer to avoid the word "quality", as in my experience a good proportion of edtech research article submissions from authors in intermediate and developing countries scored well on "validity" (attuned to the contemporary literature, methodologically sound, well-executed, evidence-based conclusions, etc.), but poorly on "significance" (contribution of new knowledge, originality, etc.).

If we are to probe more deeply into the "dark side" of open access publishing, as I believe we should, we need to go much further than simple tests for distinguishing between "predatory" and "non-predatory". In particular, we should probe whether there is a "dark side" to the operations of our highly reputable and prestigious journals. Should our prosperous, Western-based journals, well-attuned to native speakers of English, be more accommodating towards the flow of articles from non-Western, NESB authors? [12] Otherwise, in some kind of desperation, they may buy their articles a space in a "predatory publisher's" journal.


  1. AJET Editorial 24(2) written in February 2008 lists some examples of open access purchase in commercial journals.
  2. Butler, D. (2013). Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing. Nature, 495(28 March), 433-435.
  3. Beall, J. (2012). Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature, 489(13 September), 179. (for Jeffrey Beall's list of "Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals", see
  4. Bohannon, J. (2013). Who's afraid of peer review? Science, Vol. 342 no. 6154 (4 October), 60-65.
  5. Kolata, G. (2013). Scientific articles accepted (personal checks, too). New York Times, 7 April.
  6. Butler, D. (2013). Sham journals scam authors. Nature, 495(28 March), 421-422.
  7. The publishers' names that I recorded were Science Publishing Group, OpenScience, ARPN Journals and "SJP" (Science Journal Publication). Others I discarded without taking notes!
  9. Wikipedia (2013). Who's afraid of peer review? [viewed 24 Nov 2013]
  10. Suber, P. (2013). New "sting" of weak open-access journals. Google + posting, 4 October.
  11. Priego, E. (2013). Predatory journals and defective peer review are general academic problems, not just open access problems. LSEImpactBlog posting, 7 October.
  12. Atkinson, R. (2013): Journals with borders, journals without borders: Under-representation of Asian countries in educational research journals. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(3), 507-510.
  13. Beall, J. (2013). Beall's List: Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers. [viewed 25 Nov 2013]
  14. Beall, J. (2012). Three new questionable open-access publishers. Blog posting 5 December.
  15. AJET Editorial 27(1): Revisiting the 'growth spurt' in educational technology journals.

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. In mid-2012 he retired from a 17 year association with the publishing of AJET. Website (including this article in html format):

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2013). Academic journals: Are open access article publishing charges enabling a dark side? HERDSA News, 35(3).

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