In a well-reasoned blog post, Tim Gowers rekindled the debate on author-pay (or as he prefers to call them: “article processing charge”) journals, while participating in founding a new such one. (These are academic journals in which the authors or their institutions need to pay the journal to publish their academic article.) While being explicit about preferring a more “modern” approach, such as a new overlay journal system in which he is also participating, he argues that the author pay model (ok, APC for “article processing charge”) is a useful step in the right direction. Gowers makes a good case showing how safe guards are in place to ensure that financial matters do not interfere with academic ones, arguing that the total financial cost or a paper to the mathematical community will be much smaller, and that access will be better.
As convincing as the arguments showing that this type of journal is “useful”, my own feeling remained at the level of “it is just plain wrong” and “morally repugnant” which Gowers pointed out cannot be an argument as of itself but may only be a conclusion from other arguments. I see two types of arguments behind this feeling. The first type is a “consider the equilibrium” argument which would argue that the natural tendency of APC models would be to evolve in ways that “follow the money” reaching “vanity press” levels. The second argument is my reaction to the following argument he makes:
As I think everybody agrees, now that we have the internet, the main function left for journals is providing a stamp of quality…. If you feel that APCs are wrong because if anything you as an author should be paid for the wonderful research you have done, I would counter that (i) it is not journals who should be paying you — they are helping you to promote yourself, and (ii) if your research is good, then you will be rewarded for it, by having a better career than you would have had without it.
Undoubtedly, true. We all know that. Many of us do publish in journals mostly to get the line in the CV, and then get positions or promotions or grants or such. This may be “the way of the world” and may even be unavoidable in some form. But, but, but, this is the “dark side” of academic life; this is the cost of the academic business; it is something that we should try to mitigate not to encourage; to be embarrassed of, not proud of. Author-pay models put this dark side on a pedestal and shout to the whole world that we publish in journals not as to let others benefit from our work but rather to advance ourselves. This may be useful, but repugnant.
This reminds me of a joke and a saying.
The joke goes like this: “Look at this guy, he’s peeing in the public swimming pool!” says a shocked observer to his friend. “But everyone does” replies the other. “Yes, but from the springboard?”.
The Talmud says that “Everyone knows why a bride enters the bridal chamber.” Still the Talmud — and most societies — dictates that we not make this too explicit.
I won’t opine here whether publishing for the line in your CV is like peeing in a swimming pool or like having marital sex. Nor do I have a strong opinion whether author-pay journals are more or less harmful than the current breed, but I do think that they are more repugnant.