What do you think of author fees?
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
September 6, 2001
by Peter Suber
I'll be frank:  I have mixed feelings about author fees.  On the one hand, author fees give readers free online access to the literature and they give journals the revenue they need to make it happen.  On the other hand, many authors won't be able to afford them.  While I admit that journals providing free online access need some revenue, it remains the case (1) that journals needn't get their revenue from authors and (2) that we can achieve free online scholarship without getting it from journals.  Let me elaborate these two points.

First, journals needn't get their revenue from authors.  The costs of online journals could be borne by universities, learned societies, foundations, governments, or endowments.  In my own scale of values, we should rely on reader payments last, author payments second to last, and advertising third to last.  When readers have to pay, then readership is limited to those who can afford to pay.  This hinders both research and education.  When authors have to pay, then publication is limited to those who can afford to pay.  This also hinders both research and education.  When advertisers have to pay, then either objectivity or the appearance of objectivity is compromised.  Even if advertising does not distort editorial policy, readers shouldn't have to wonder about whether it does.  That leaves universities, learned societies, foundations, governments, endowments, and creative new ideas for generating revenue.  Let's try these diligently before we conclude that they cannot work and that we must retreat to advertisers or authors.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that we're not very close to institutionalizing the practice of supporting electronic publication through fees or contributions by  universities, learned societies, foundations, governments, or endowments.  For example, universities give disk space on their servers freely to faculty, but they are not as free with funds for copy editors or peer review facilitators.  Most foundations will not even consider giving a grant to build an endowment for an electronic journal or other scholarly resource.  Are author fees acceptable as an interim solution while we work on making them unnecessary?  If they make literature free for readers, are they at least better than systems that charge readers?

In the natural sciences more than the social sciences or humanities, research is funded, and it's very reasonable to ask funding agencies to subsidize publication.  But how soon can we make it commonplace for foundations to provide for publication costs when making research grants?  (How soon can we make it commonplace to require free online publication as a condition of research grants?)  Even if the model doesn't transfer well to other fields, it might be made workable in the most funded disciplines or for the funded research within any discipline.

Second, we can have free online scholarship without getting it from online journals.  The best way to do so is through what Stevan Harnad calls self-archiving.  It works like this.  Authors put unrefereed preprints online in institutional archives.  Then they submit their articles to refereed journals.  If the articles are accepted, and if the publisher allows, then authors put the refereed postprints in the same institutional archives.  If a publisher does not consent to this, then the author puts the "corrigenda" (the differences between the final version and the preprint version) in the archive.  Harnad and others have written free software for creating interoperable archives for just this purpose.  Institutions can host these archives at no cost to them beyond the disk space they occupy.

Having said that, I'd like to see self-archiving practiced alongside a thriving system of free online journals.  If this is to happen, then we still need a way to subsidize the costs of the online journals.  What do you think about author fees as a solution to this problem?  Please share your thoughts on our discussion forum.

BioMed Central debate on author fees

FOS discussion forum
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