It pays to pay!

Levitating frog in a strong magnetic field

Why researchers that pay to get published are NOT mad.

Researchers are an odd race. Like journalists, they write articles. Their articles might have less sexy topics than those of journalists (see framed text for a great example), but nonetheless they are well-written pieces of text, backed up by excellent graphs of their painstakingly collected data. But unlike journalists, researchers don’t get paid for writing them. They usually write their articles for free. Moreover, in recent times, some researchers actually started paying their publishers to get their articles published! And they’ve got good reasons to do so. It really pays to pay!

Flying frogs

Few would consider frogs to be a sexy subject to write about. What about flying frogs? Still not sexy. Nonetheless, researchers Michael Berry and André Geim published a paper about what happens when you put a frog in a supermagnet. As you might have suspected from the frame’s title, it flies. The paper won an Ig Nobel prize, a prize given out to researchers that “first make people laugh, then think.” But André Geim did not stop at levitating frogs. He later invented the first way to isolate graphene, a carbon molecule that holds great promise for various applications. It can be used in touch screens, solar panels, batteries, as a component in lightweight/strong composite materials, you name it. And it earned André Geim a true Nobel prize.


Let’s start at the very beginning. Most scientific research articles are published in peer-reviewed[1] journals. Some of those journals have acquired such prestige that they are known by the general public (e.g. Science, Nature, the Lancet). 

In traditional academic publishing, authors do not pay for publishing their work in such journals. It’s the readers that get charged for the costs of peer review, editing and publishing. But since the 90’s a new business model appeared: Open Access publishing.

In Open Access publishing, it’s the author that pays the costs for reviewing, editing and publishing. The reader gets the article for free. And that has its’ advantages:

· The visibility of research output of individual researchers and institutions increases; research impact increases.

· Funding agencies get a better return of investment due to increased impact of funded research.

· Researchers waste less time seeking articles they cannot access.

· Duplication of research can be more effectively avoided.

· Scientific libraries within research institutions have to spend less money on traditional journal subscriptions. Instead, they can use their available money for setting up online repositories for Open Access publications, which gives them a much wider audience.

· Publishers that adopt OA obtain more exposure for their publications.

· Companies (especially SMEs) can innovate faster by gaining immediate access to free research results.

So, the author benefits, their funders benefit and society benefits. No wonder the largest EU research fund, Horizon 2020, has made writing articles under an Open Access regime mandatory.

The story does not end here, however. While Open Access is gaining more and more ground, researchers and funding agencies around the world are already pounding at the gates of a new realm of scientific openness: the realm of Open Data!


[1] During peer review an author submits his text to experts in the same field (=the author’s peers). Most often, this peer review is completely blind, meaning that the author does not know which experts review his text, and the experts don’t know who the author of the text is. This practice guarantees impartiality of the review, and is accomplished through an intermediary person, the editor of the journal in which the author wishes to publish.