The Cost of Publishing Academic Research

How one goes about funding the publication of academic research is still a mostly mysterious process to me, even though I’m in the rough of it. I feel like I handle every situation about money in my professional life very awkwardly. As an example, see: this series of emails in which I tried to figure out where I was going to get the money to submit my undergraduate thesis for publication and peer review.

TO: Collaborator/Mentor

And I’ve been thinking about where I’ll submit the paper. I don’t have any money and I don’t even really know how the submission/money thing works. So it’d be good to discuss that too.


Eleven days pass without any reply. I easily chalk a week of no reply up to “busy.” Once it hit day eight—especially since this is the first time I brought up money—I started to get nervous. I thought that maybe it wasn’t my place to bring up money or imply that the collaborator/mentor pay for anything.


TO: Collaborator/Mentor

We do need to decide which journal to submit to so I can start typesetting the proper format. From what I’ve gathered, the Monthly Notices doesn’t charge for publication. That may be where I should submit to then?


The next day.


TO: Me
FROM: Collaborator/Mentor

Regarding where to submit, I don’t have a strong preference, but I can pay 50% or more of the page charges. Find out if your current employer is willing to pay any.

What I’ve learned so far is this: In academia, most journals are pay-to-publish, but it’s still a rigorous process. The process is that you and some others work on a project and get some results. You then write a paper on it. Once you think the paper is good enough, you send it into a journal. It then gets peer-reviewed which means the journal sends it out to people who are familiar with the field that the specific paper is in. The reviewers are Ph.D.s somewhere out in the world who aren’t doing this for pay—it’s a totally voluntary system. The peer reviewer is meant to catch if anything in the paper or the project is bullshit. That’s why they need to be familiar with the field—they need to know what makes sense and what doesn’t.

If the reviewer gives the paper a thumbs up, then it get’s published. If the reviewer doesn’t like something in the paper, you have to fix it and resubmit—this step can go on for months. Also, I should note that the reviewers are anonymous, and unless the reviewer chooses to disclose his or her identity, you’ll never find out who they are.

As for the money aspect of it, there’s a general (but mysterious to me) etiquette on who pays. The variables are how much you contributed to the project and to the paper, and how much money you have. I did all of the work for the project and the paper that I mentioned in the emails, but I’m a student and I have no money of my own, which meant my co-authors (the people who oversaw my project—this is my undergraduate thesis) have to pay. But they’re from two different institutions with no other connection other than me. It would make sense for the two advisors to split it, but if the resources that either of them have might not be even, what then?

And if all the co-authors don’t contribute an equal amount, how should the publishing fee breakdown? It’s like the worst-case version of splitting the bill at a restaurant. And no one will talk about it with me.


Alexa V. is an astronomer wondering if anyone else knows how to do this stuff better than she does.


18 Comments / Post A Comment

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

I can’t help you with the university funding question because I haven’t stepped on a campus since graduating those many years ago. However, I’ll provide some suggestions about writing e-mails, which may help to get a faster reaction next time.

When you write an e-mail, consider the specific actions that you want out of it from the recipient. In the first e-mail, you said that you were thinking about how to pay for the paper and that you’d like to talk about it in future. I suspect that your mentor simply nodded and assumed that you’d make an appointment. Next time, you can close with “I’ll make an appointment to see you on Tuesday” or whenever his or her office hours are.

Your financial constraints are a problem (and I had similar financial issues when I was in university). However, simply asking for your mentor to solve your problem is unlikely to get a fast response. If it’s possible, think of 2-3 different solutions and ask which is best. By talking about the logistics, instead of just making it your mentor’s problem to solve, then you’re much more likely to get a faster response.

I suspect that your mentor probably has a few students to help. As such, you’re competing a bit for your mentor’s time. The more solutions and ideas that you bring to the discussion, the easier it will be for your mentor to guide you.

Finally, be specific about what you’d like the mentor to do. When I read these e-mails, I didn’t know how I’d reply if I was in your mentor’s place. I don’t know what action you’d like to mentor to take.

I hope that these ideas don’t come across as criticism — it’s not my intention. In the commercial world at least, it’s normal to receive quite a few e-mails a day. When you make it clear what you want the recipient to do and are seen as contributing to the discussion, I think (or hope anyway) that you’ll receive faster responses.

gyip (#4,192)

@WayDownSouth This is really helpful. I’m in communication with a professor and I want to make my emails easier for them. Thanks!

sea ermine (#122)

In don’t work in academia but I think the e-mail advice you just gave is super helpful for a lot of disciplines! Especially the part about suggesting an appointment time at the end!

EM (#1,012)

I work in academic research, although not with the participation of any undergraduate students, so my advice might not be totally appropriate.

– Whoever is employing you, assuming this research is about their work, should have a budget for publishing.
– If you are publishing grant-funded research, the grant should have a budget item for publishing costs like these.
– Whoever the Principal Investigator on the project should be paying (in the sense that it should come out of their research funds)
– Your academic advisor or academic program coordinator should be helping you with this.
– Don’t pay for it out of your own pocket!!! No matter what, you should not have to do that. Your publications will benefit the department and university you are affiliated with; they should be responsible.

EM (#1,012)

@EM Also just read the end of your question. Are both the mentors from different academic institutions, or is just one at a university? Are they professors? (If so, they should have budgets for this). Who is going to be the first-listed author? Ask them first about paying.

aeli (#5,288)

I agree with EM. I am in the life sciences and most journals are free to publish. I would look into fee waivers if your collaborators have no grant money left to cover submission. However, as EM said, this should be covered in their budget, particularly if your field is typically pay to publish. On the issue of asking for money, I would look at journal requirements, find out how much it will cost, and lay it out flat to your collaborators. The more straightforward you are with what is required, the better! They want to publish just as much as you, but they probably do not want to do the legwork. Figuring out the annoying stuff is part of the duty that comes with being first author. Just tell them what you need! I don’t think you can break up the publishing cost based on any system, because it is hard to determine who’s work was more influential. Instead, put the price out there and let them say how much they will donate. If there is a void, I would email the journal AFTER acceptance and explain this to them. If they really want your paper, they may let the money slide.

moosekitt (#4,934)

Some things to add to all of the good advice above.
– Seriously, don’t pay with your own money!
– Pick the journal based on appropriateness and impact factor. You want your work to be published in the best journal you can get it in (which will not necessarily be the best journal out there). You may end up submitting to multiple journals.
– Principal Investigator = mentor. If neither mentor was established as your main advisor, who funded your research and who was your main resource?
– Don’t worry about the etiquette of asking for money. Ask nicely, yes, but no one should be getting mad at you for asking. It’s not a surprise to your advisors that you want to publish your research and that there are costs associated with publishing.
– **Look into in-house funding at your university! There are usually multiple resources for research funding. This counts and you don’t need a lot of money. Applications are usually quick and easy. Ask your undergraduate advisor if you’re having trouble coming up with anything. Better yet, ask the head of the department for help. Even if you’ve graduated you can use university funds for work you did while in school.

EM (#1,012)

@moosekitt Yes! Into everyone’s advice. It might help to abate the awkwardness of asking once you realise you’re not asking either mentor/collaborator to pay out of their own pocket. If they’re authors on the paper, they’re benefiting from it as much as you are, and if they’re academic, they have money earmarked for this type of expense.

sunnyciegos (#1,918)

Whoa! Do not submit to a pay-for-play journal. You are getting bad advice from your school. Do some research on which journals publish stuff that is like yours. Submit. If they ask for money, RUUUUN. That’s not a legit journal.


Oatmeal (#5,295)

@sunnyciegos A lot of legit open source journals (at least in the biomedical field – BioMed, Plos, Evolution…) have page charges. Those shouldn’t be lumped together with the “pay to play” pseudo-science journals and conferences that NYT article is about.

Adouble (#4,640)

@sunnyciegos It would be very hard to publish in my subfield without paying. You’d have to hold out for publications in Nature (which can have a fee or not), which can be like once a career. Even prestigious journals like Proceedings of the National Academy of Science have publication fees. The upside to this structure is that these journal articles are free to read, so they are much more likely to be seen and used by people outside my immediate sub-sub-sub-field.

Liz (#504)

Is it really common in some disciplines to pay for publications in journals? I have never heard of this practice in the humanities–it’s true that you (or hopefully the university you work for or the university attended, if you went to Yale or something) end up paying up-front for some of the costs of book publishing. But journals? I’m really curious to know what kind of science the author is involved in.

Oatmeal (#5,295)

@Liz As I commented above, it’s common to have page charges for journals in the biomedical field. Here’s a Nature article discussing the cost of publishing, open access, etc:

Ralph Haygood (#5,297)

Since nobody’s mentioned it yet, I’ll mention that some excellent journals are owned by professional societies, and if you’re a member of the society, you get a certain number of pages per year in the journal either free or substantially discounted. In my own field, for example, this is true of Evolution, which belongs to the Society for the Study of Evolution and is in my judgment the best journal in the world for certain kinds of research. True, you have to pay for membership in the society, but they tend to be cheap for students, plus you get discounts on the society’s conferences and sometimes other benefits.

I’ll add that if your mentor is being coy about paying, it speaks poorly for him or her. A good mentor encourages students to publish wherever their work is likely to attract the most attention, regardless of page charges, which of course the mentor pays from a grant. (Unfortunately, this attitude helps keep scientific publishing a lucrative racket, but that’s a different discussion.) And by the standards of biomedical research, page charges are chump change anyway. You could publish a lot of papers for the price of one PacBio sequencing run, for example.

Oh, and if you and your mentor really, truly can’t afford to pay, a good journal will waive its charges for a manuscript with strong reviews. Bring it up with the editor who handles your manuscript after you get the reviews.

AlexaV (#5,284)

Hey Everybody! Sorry about being late to the comments on my own post. I think there’s a lot of excellent advice here and I’m glad others found this as interesting as I did. I just wanted to address some points that were brought up:

Yes, many respectable journals have page charges just like @Ralph Haygood and @Oatmeal say. Whether this is a just thing to do is still being debated but in the mean time that’s just the way it is.

And, to clarify, my mentor was not being coy about money or trying to be stingy with me which I hope the last email illustrates. I felt awkward about bringing up money and didn’t think it was my place and that leads to a natural inclination towards being meek when bringing it up. To which – of course my advisor should should pay and of course there a resources to cover it – but that didn’t stop me from being uncomfortable about it in the moment. Part of that is that stems from there not being a clear cut etiquette or solid rules in this regard. That’s what I was trying to highlight.

This email exchange happened months ago and since I have become a member of a professional society that runs the journal that I’d like to publish in. I didn’t think about looking into what publishing benefits I get from my membership (I joined specifically for the conference benefits) but I definitely will.

zb (#5,300)

@AlexaV Yes, I remember being a first-year grad student, and not realizing that talking about $$$ in academia is nothing like talking about money in normal life – at least in my physical sciences subfield, the normal thing to do is to just say “I want to do ABC, do you have a budge for it/can we put it on XYZ grant/etc?”, but I’d be all “so I think there might be a cost for this maybe perhaps I dunno can we talk about something else now” and wonder why I wasn’t getting anywhere :)

(Also, it seems a lot of the time, grant holders are desperately trying to spend money before the grant expires, so you’re doing them a favour by suggesting something they can use it for!)

KatieMae (#5,312)

Ex-radio-astronomer here! If you used data from the VLA (pictured behind Saint Jodie up there) or any other National Radio Astronomy Observatory telescope, they will pay for all of your publication charges! This fact is awesome, and saved my bacon all through grad school.

AlexaV (#5,284)

@KatieMae That’s amazing! I’m not a radio astronomer but I’ll keep in mind that that is A Thing in the future.

Comments are closed!