The journal that I think of specifically is Physical Review Letters. I've heard that professors pay pretty high amounts to get published in this journal, which is considered a good, if not top-tier, journal.

When then would profs use their funding to pay for this? If the work is good enough for a good journal, why not just submit it elsewhere, where there are no fees?

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    PRL is definitely a top-tier journal. – fqq Oct 31 '19 at 13:33
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    The publication charge for a PRL is $800. The American Physical Society, that publishes all the Physical Review journals, is a non-profit organization. They have to cover the costs associated with their publications. Some is through subscriptions, some through publication charges. – Jon Custer Oct 31 '19 at 14:22
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    There is a implication in your question that funding (grants) should be used to pay for "scientific" purposes (experiments, equipment, personnel) but not "unscientific" purposes like publishing. How do you make such a distinction? What if $800 for promoting awareness of their research, e.g., through in a premier journal or putting up a clear and visually attractive website, might advance their research more than $800 of equipment or materials? – small_wayne Oct 31 '19 at 15:13

Note: as pointed out by Pieter Naaijkens, PRL indeed has a publication fee, making most of the original answer incorrect. I've rewritten the answer as a result.

When one pays a publication fee that isn't open access, one is effectively paying the publisher to distribute the paper. Most (subscription) publishers and journals are quite content to distribute the paper for free - a publication fee is bound to reduce submissions, which the journal needs to function. In this sense, Physical Review Letters is very unusual.

I have no knowledge of the internals of PRL, but I will guess that they have more expensive costs than normal because of the numerous full-time PhD scientists they have on their journal staff. They are presumably offsetting some of the costs by charging a publication fee. Cynically, they're able to get away with it because 1) APS is perceived positively by people (even though their open access APCs are on the high end of the market rate) and 2) they're such an important journal (note other APS journals don't have such a fee).

Why would professors pay the publication fee? I imagine the most important reason is because they really want the prestige that comes with publishing in PRL. Other lesser factors could be they like the review process, and because PRL as one of the premier journals in physics has a very wide distribution.

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The TL;DR is that a PIs job security, promotion prospects and grant funding is unfortunately based not on the quality of the research they produce, but on the prestige of the journal they publish it in. To pass probation on my position I needed a publication with Impact factor > 10 within three years of starting. To keep my job I need a so called 4* paper once every 5 years.

There are two separate costs to publishing in many journals

  1. Open access fees
  2. Page charges/article processing charges

Open access

In general there are two sorts of journals - journals that are funded by the authors paying (open access) and journals that are funded by subscribers paying (closed access). Things are muddied by the fact that most closed access journals will allow authors to pay for Open Access for their paper, while most papers are closed (so called Hybrid journals or Gold open access)

Many of us page open access fees as a moral/ethical decisions - we believe it is wrong for research, that the public has presumably paid for, either through taxes to government agencies, or through donations to charity, it in accessible to the same public, as well as inaccessible to colleagues at less well funded universities.

However, moral issues aside, almost all funders in some fields, like medical research and life sciences, now mandate open access publishing. In some cases the funder will provide a mechanism for funding open access publication.

In the UK, every 5 years there is the Research Excellence Framework assessment, where the government assess the research success of every university and gives funding on the basis of this. This can be quite a lot of money (its about 20% of my universities income i think). They make this judgement on the basis of open access papers only.

But this doesn't explain page charges.

Page charges/APC

These are a relic of the days when it cost journals for every page/colour figure you had in your paper. You'd generally get a certain number of pages or b&w figures for free and had to pay more if you wanted more or colour. This no longer applies, but journals still like to charge it as its a nice little earner. The last paper I published charged $2,500 in page charges on top of the $2,500 open access charge. Why would you publish in a journal that has such charges? All the top journals have them. For the reasons I stated at the top - as a scientists you are generally judged on where your papers are published because those judging either don't have the time, the skill or the motivation to judge you on the content of your papers - you need to publish in top journals.

Paying these fees can be a real problem - the total $5,000 for my last paper was 25% of the total none staff budget of my lab at the time. You are generally not allowed to pay this out of grant money (which begs the question, what money is there that isn't grant money?).

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  • Where are you not allowed to pay APCs out of grant money? That's very common in my fields. – Azor Ahai -- he him Oct 31 '19 at 14:30
  • Any UK grant funded by the UKRI (i.e. most government funding). – Ian Sudbery Oct 31 '19 at 16:08
  • Well that sucks – Azor Ahai -- he him Oct 31 '19 at 22:40

Can I phrase this another way? If your journal article could be listed on Bing for free, but Google for $1k, would you pay for Google? I think a lot of people would.

In general, whether reputation for the journal (Nature is such a great journal!) or the journal is well known (yes, of course I've heard of Science!), readership is important. People pay for perceived viewers, whether numbers only or quality of readers.

An author may prefer public fame of the general public (Science, Nature) over academic fame (e.g. JAMA), or they may prefer accolades amongst their highly educated peers instead of the public. Whatever the reason is that they need money to publish, most PIs have money to pay for this expense. I have to say -- I don't think I've ever heard of a PI "regretting" paying for a publishing fee. This tends to be one of those easy questions--they tend to know the value of the journal requesting the fee.

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  • interesting answer – Michelle Oct 31 '19 at 11:21

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