Back when academic journals only appeared in print, authors were sometimes charged by the page to have an article published (“page charges”), or charged extra for articles with color images published. With such fees, publishers aimed to limit editing, typesetting, and printing costs, thereby keeping the journal on sounder financial footing.
These charges aren’t actually something of the past though: even today, some journals charge fees for long articles and/or images. Some authors grumble about these, especially for online-only journals, but even without printing, there are still production costs for editing longer manuscripts and preparing images for publication.
These fees are different from article-processing charges (APCs), which are charged by some—though not all!—open-access journals in order to fund the costs of running the publishing operation, namely managing submissions and peer review, editing, typesetting, and hosting online.
A colleague at the UNT Libraries, Laurel Crawford, recently brought to the attention of me and some others a practice that I had not previously heard of: publishers asking authors to pay a publication fee to help keep library subscriptions affordable. This is separate from (and often lower than) a proper APC to make the article open access. Here’s an example.
I get that some authors have access to research funds that they can use to pay author fees, so if you’re a publisher, why not tap into those funds, even in cases where an author can’t afford your APC to make the article OA? The problem, though, is that you’re asking authors to trust you that the money they spend will, in fact, help keep the cost of library subscriptions lower. Unless the author is a member of a scholarly society that publishes the journal and that society is fully transparent about revenue sources and subscription rates, they are not going to be a position to verify how the money is spent.
I understand that higher education is full of cross-subsidies: for example, tuition for large lecture courses subsidizes small seminars, and profit from a coffee shop on campus helps pay core operations that aren’t fully funded from tuition or the endowment. Perhaps these optional page charges are essentially doing what journals with APCs have long done: offer waivers and discounts for authors who can’t afford them. If so, maybe this is essentially a waiver option for a page charge. Or, if the journal publisher is a US-based non-profit, you could also think of it as a non-tax-deductible donation. But in the end, it’s still a donation, without any expectation of receiving something in return.
I wonder how many authors feel altruistic …