Fast-tracking fees vs. open-access fees

Several academic journals offer fast-tracking for a fee, and I’ve been complaining about it, mainly because it’s hard to see how this policy could be implemented without sometimes giving monied authors an advantage not only in time until publication, but also in likelihood of acceptance. Traditionally, acceptance into a journal was not affected by how much the authors pay, and many of us would like to see things stay that way.

Somebody asked me whether this fast-tracking fee thing is really all that different from that of author-pays journals like those in the PLoS family, which charge a fee for all manuscripts. Should we be protesting these as well? I don’t think so.

PLoS ONE (a journal that I edit for and advise) and all the rest in the PLoS family waive the fee for those who cannot pay:

We offer a complete or partial fee waiver for authors who do not have funds to cover publication fees. Editors and reviewers have no access to payment information, and hence inability to pay will not influence the decision to publish a paper.

A key aspect of the policy is that reviewers and editors are blind to whether the authors are paying, as this removes the possibility of bias. Unfortunately in the case of the fast-tracking for a fee journals, I don’t think they have enough staff to do this, whereas PLoS is big enough to have professional staff in the business office to handle the fee side of things separately from the science.

In an ideal world, journals would not charge any sort of fee, but in fact somebody has got to bear their cost. Indeed, currently journals are central to scientific communication. We should make them less important by consistently posting preprints to the web, as is done in physics. Publishers would then be less able to charge exorbitant fees for journal subscriptions, as the highly profitable Elsevier does for Experimental Brain Research and other journals.

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