Why Aren’t APC Payers Disclosed?

Between giving credit and adhering to transparency, it seems a good approach

Why Aren’t APC Payers Disclosed?

Payments supporting researchers are typically disclosed in published papers. The kinds of support disclosed has expanded over time, as various societal, regulatory, and ethical expectations have emerged, some in the wake of scandals.

Disclosures have allowed journalists and analysts to uncover efforts by commercial interests to shape portions of the literature. In addition, rules requiring disclosure have surely prevented attempts to peddle influence.

Fully realized, disclosure puts it all out there for others to judge.

But not in the case of APCs, which are paid without the payer’s identity being disclosed to the reader.

It’s not because editors think APCs represent inconsequential support. The ICMJE calls them out specifically as a form of support to be disclosed:

There is a timing issue with the ICMJE approach, as APC support for a particular manuscript may not be known prior to the article being submitted. But that’s perhaps a reason for disclosure both upon submission and with the payment of the APC. When the APC is approved may also matter — that is, if APC support is contingent on acceptance into a particular journal or type of journal (e.g., high IF, specialty, local), that may be worth knowing, as well, and journals may be in the best position to detect — and disclose — this type of author incentive.

Currently, article-level disclosure information for a “closed” journal like NEJM is far more complete than it is for another ICMJE journal, PLOS Medicine, which charges APCs, utilizes open peer-review, but does not post disclosure forms from authors. In fact, PLOS Medicine does not use the ICMJE form, and, according to an email response to my inquiry, they “require authors at submission to disclose all information related to competing interests, financial disclosures, patents, etc., and these details are published directly above the article.” PLOS does gather information about who is paying the APC, but only if the APC support comes from a grant or source outside their institution. Otherwise, they expect “the author will be personally responsible for publication costs.”

That seems worth disclosing.

The exchange with PLOS illustrated how diverse APC funding sources can be. For instance, a waiver may be granted due to arrangements with Research4Life or because of PLOS’ Publication Fee Assistance program. Or an institution participating in the PLOS Institutional Accounts scheme may have covered the fee through this arrangement. In these cases, wouldn’t disclosure be more akin to thanking the entity funding the APC?

Given claims of the benefits of free access, and the preferential treatment entities like Google Scholar give to OA publications, knowing who specifically — and generally — is paying APCs could be useful and relevant. If corporations are paying APCs, and doing so in a systematic manner, that’s potentially worth tracking and inquiring about. Publication planning based on APC spending has been a well-known practice for years, and disclosures would bring it further into the light. If research is funded by government agencies but the APC paid by a private company, that’s worth revealing for similar reasons. If the authors themselves have paid a share of the APC out of personal funds, that’s worth knowing. If a waiver was granted, that’s worth knowing, too.

I can’t think of why we wouldn’t require this kind of disclosure.

Yet, even in the realm of those espousing “transparency,” I could find no OA journal that discloses the source of APC funding for papers. Even after Twitter being challenged to identify a single example, none surfaced.

Maybe there’s one out there, but the major OA publishers don’t seem to have set this as a norm or standard for public disclosure.

Even Platinum OA journals have funding offsets, which may be presumed at the title or publisher level, but which — in the world of atomized information — would be best explicated at the article level.

Why are APC payers not disclosed? Why do we give the funding of APCs a pass currently?

There may be a few reasons:

  1. Historically, publishers haven’t disclosed who paid page charges, figure charges, color charges, or similar author-sided processing fees, and may have lumped the APC into the same bucket of customary treatment.
  2. APCs are viewed by some as purely good things, enabling free access, and for these people — mainly OA advocates, I’ll assert — don’t fall into the sphere of potential influence or “putting a thumb on the scale.”
  3. Showing that someone paid an article’s publication charges might look bad, discouraging utilization of OA by funders or authors who don’t want to have to explain who paid — or how they paid — their APC.
  4. Disclosing APCs may make OA articles look more like vanity publications.
  5. Discomfort with putting another step “at checkout” for authors, one that might make them turn away, disincentivizes OA publishers from disclosure.
  6. We simply haven’t thought hard about it.

Now, why would anyone want to rethink this?

Integrity of OA journals. Disclosure of APCs might be another way to separate legitimate OA journals from predatory OA journals. That is, if there is an APC disclosure of this kind required of authors, they may feel more assured they’re in better hands than if the publisher doesn’t abide by this type of transparency.

Credit Where Credit Is Due. Disclosure is becoming more important as APCs rise, and as OA becomes a more central mode of publishing research content. The entity who pays to make it freely available may want credit — entities such as Research4Life, institutional payers, or granting entities.

Transparency for Readers and Users. Simply put, the reader may want to know who paid not only for the research, but for their access.

Ensuring Ethical Integrity and Allowing for Ethics Interrogation. The ethical aspects of making something freely available may matter in particular cases and more generally. If we see that a certain corporation or set of individuals is providing APC payments — not research funding, but the funds to make content available without a paywall — our perceptions of their motivations may shift, our interest may be piqued, and inquiries might become appropriate. Without disclosure, we’re in the dark. We don’t know if ACME International is providing APC funding for a set of authors with government research grants across a swath of OA journals.

Because We Might Learn Something. Who is funding APCs is potentially useful information for analyses, such as which entity is the largest payer of APCs, and how APC expenditures may compare with research expenditures, mission and purpose, and so forth. Wouldn’t it be fascinating today to look back at nearly 20 years of PLOS or BioMedCentral APC disclosures, and compare their geographic, financial, and trend data?

OA APCs haven’t been a novel or fringe source of funding for decades now, and are a central method for funding free access. Who is paying them, both specifically and generally, should be disclosed for a variety of reasons — both to give credit and to disclose potential specific and general biases.

Perhaps it’s time to bring another level of transparency to OA publishing.