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AAS journals will shift to fully open access

17 September 2021

At the cost of higher publication fees, researchers will have free access to all the content in the society’s journals.

Event Horizon Telescope paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration described its historic image of a black hole in 2019 in a series of open-access papers in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Beginning in January, all content in Astrophysical Journal Letters and other AAS journals will be freely available for all to read. Credit: Andrew Grant; source: EHT collaboration et al., Astrophys. J. Lett. 875, L1 (2019)

The American Astronomical Society’s entire portfolio of journals will become fully open access (OA) on 1 January 2022, the society announced earlier this month. The Astronomical Journal, Astrophysical Journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters, and Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series will join the Planetary Science Journal, the OA journal that AAS launched last year, and the OA and non-peer-reviewed Research Notes of the AAS.

The move ensures free access for the astronomy community and the general public to all content past and present—known as gold OA—in the high-impact astronomy journals. It also brings the AAS journals in line with various international efforts to democratize research, including Plan S, the European initiative that requires recipients of research grants from a consortium of national funding agencies to have their published work immediately available for free. “The move to OA will ensure broader and more equitable access to the important research published in our journals,” AAS executive officer Kevin Marvel said in a press release. (AAS is a member society of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.) In addition to having their papers accessible to all, researchers will retain ownership of their work rather than transferring the copyright to AAS.

However, the shift to OA comes at the cost of higher fees to publish in those journals. In abandoning the traditional subscription model, AAS is passing on publication expenses now covered by institutional libraries to researchers, including many who work with limited funding. The society says it is striving to ensure equity in both publishing and reading by significantly bolstering its fee waiver program for authors.

All submissions after 31 December will be subject to the new author charges. The fees will be $2400 for most Astrophysical Journal Letters papers and $1149 or $2599 (depending on the number of words, figures, and other content) for most papers in the Astronomical Journal, Astrophysical Journal, and Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. The Planetary Science Journal will retain its current fee structure. Members of AAS receive a 15% discount for one paper per year.

Angela Cochran, vice president of publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology and past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, says those rates are reasonable for gold OA journals. “Below $3000 is pretty competitive right now,” she says.

Paying a fee to publish won’t be new for authors who have placed their work in the journals of the nonprofit society publisher. Today subscriptions account for only about a third of AAS’s journal revenue. The rest comes from author fees administered by the society’s four subscription journals. Known as article publication charges, they are essentially page charges for journals that don’t get printed on paper. For most articles the fees amount to $34 per 350 words of text and $36 per figure or table. (Authors have also had the option of paying more to make their articles fully OA upon publication.) Those charges have sometimes made it more expensive for authors to publish in AAS journals than in competing publications.

Comparison of author fees for this year and next.
A comparison of the author fees in 2021 and 2022 to publish in four AAS journals. The rates and tiers are based on the number of quanta, a measure of the words, figures, and other content in the paper. Credit: AAS

Other astronomy journals such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Nature Astronomy rely largely on subscription revenue, so most of their papers are held behind a paywall. Many authors in those journals publish under the traditional model, and it costs them little or nothing to do so—Monthly Notices and the Nature journals have no additional fees, whereas Astronomy & Astrophysics charges about $120 per page for authors who do not work in the countries, mostly in Europe, that sponsor the journal. Additional, heftier fees come into play if authors want their papers to be freely available. Those charges range from about $1800 in Astronomy & Astrophysics for authors who work in a sponsor country to $11 000 in Nature Astronomy. Some journal publishers have also negotiated read-and-publish agreements with individual research institutions and university systems.

To aid researchers who have trouble affording the author charges, AAS is increasing its fee waiver budget 10-fold, says chief publishing officer Julie Steffen. The editor-in-chief of AAS journals, Ethan Vishniac, will have the discretion to cover some or all of the author fee based on financial need, though there is no option for a complete fee waiver for the rapid-communication Astrophysical Journal Letters. Vishniac says that the society’s evaluation for financial support will be separate from the scientific review of a paper. He adds that AAS is amenable to researchers who apply for a partial waiver because they had budgeted for the previous rates.

Many astronomers, including Jason Wright of the Pennsylvania State University, say they are happy to see their work and others’ freely available. Wright notes that his university’s library system doesn’t have access to Nature Astronomy, so he appreciates the free-to-read philosophy of the AAS journals.

Other members of the astronomy community praise AAS’s embrace of OA but not its strategy of relying on the journals’ contributors to achieve it. With Plan S and other OA edicts hastening a paradigm shift in scientific publishing, AAS missed out on an opportunity to make the process even more equitable, says Uta Grothkopf, who heads the European Southern Observatory’s Library and Information Centre in Garching, Germany, and has advised and participated in an OA working group for Astronomy & Astrophysics. She says that although many astronomers in the US are accustomed to author charges and paying for them with grant money, that’s not the case for many of their peers in Europe and the rest of the world. “It might be easier for those users to adapt because they’re used to it,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s good.”

Grothkopf says AAS could have pursued models such as Subscribe to Open (S2O), in which libraries pledge to continue paying a subscription fee and, in return, publishers make content fully OA. Several journals from the nonprofit publisher Annual Reviews have adopted the S2O funding scheme in a pilot program. Vishniac says that because AAS aims to break even in publishing each year, adopting S2O likely would force the society to revert to paywalls in the event of “even a small number” of library defections. The society explored other OA models, Vishniac adds, but decided that the author-supported approach would best sustain the scale of its publishing operation. And he says that AAS isn’t pressured to raise author fees because the society doesn’t use its publishing revenue to fund its other activities.

Among the few people outside AAS who learned the news in advance of the 1 September announcement, according to Steffen, were officials at NASA and NSF, which fund a large percentage of the journals’ US-based authors. The agencies were “extremely supportive,” she says, and indicated that the journals’ author fees would be allowable expenses for most grants.

Considering AAS’s complete jump to OA and its efforts to capitalize on its close connections to major funding agencies, other society publishers will be monitoring AAS’s progress, Cochran says. “As a publisher of society journals, I encourage experimentation that the rest of us can learn from.”

Editor’s note, 17 September: The article was updated to include Uta Grothkopf’s connection to Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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