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Scholarly Publishing Q&A for Researchers: APC

As a researcher and author, do you prefer “pay to read” or “pay to publish”? A related question is, who pays?

When you submit a paper to a journal publisher, at the point that your paper is accepted, you may be offered an option to pay a fee to make your work openly accessible (OA). This fee is usually called Article Processing Charge (APC).

Why do publishers charge APC?

The traditional business model for academic publishers is charging the readers through subscriptions, while authors do not need to pay. In the past two decades or so, with more research funders, national agencies and universities requiring their researchers to make their works OA, most publishers now offer the OA option so that researchers can comply with their funders’ requirement. With the assumption that publishers are losing the subscription income (since the OA papers are free to read), they charge the authors instead. This way of OA is called Gold OA for obvious reason.

How much is APC?

It varies from publisher to publisher, and journal to journal. There is a wide range, and overall they are not small sums. Some examples (as of April 2019):

  • Chemical Physics Letters X, Elsevier: USD3,050
  • European Journal of Remote Sensing, Taylor & Francis: USD700
  • Nature Communications, USD5,200
  • Journal of Optics, IOP, USD2,700

How these prices are set is not transparent. Publishers may offer discounts or waivers for researchers in certain countries. Note also that some journals are fully OA (all papers are OA, no subscription required) and some are hybrid (the journals still charge subscription, but some papers are OA if the authors pay APC). However, it does not imply that hybrid journals charge less than full OA journals nor the other way round.

Do I have to pay?

It depends. APC is optional with a hybrid journal. If you choose not to pay, your paper will still be published in that journal, but behind paywall, i.e. only subscribers can read.

Is a hybrid journal charging both the authors and readers then?

Yes, they are. Often this charging model is criticized as double-dipping. Although some publishers claim they offset the subscription costs with the amount of APC they receive, it is hardly clear how they do it. With the business model of academic publishing, transparency is always a big issue.

If I opt for gold OA, who pays for my APC?

In the US and Europe, some universities and funding agencies allow research grants to cover APC. In Hong Kong, RGC requires PC/PI to make the final publications openly accessible immediately or no later than 12 months after publication, but there is no guidelines on APC.

Is APC the only way to make my work OA?

There are different OA paths. Apart from making the published version OA at the journal website, many articles can be archived in subject or institutional repositories for open access. Some publishers have friendly terms to let you deposit your papers in OA repositories, some are more restrictive. Check the author rights policy when you sign the copyright form with the publisher.

For example, RGC’s requirement is that your publication should become OA within 12 months. Many journals set an embargo period of 6 months or 12 months, after which the authors are free to deposit the final version or manuscript version in a repository. Using a repository to make your work OA is sometimes called Green OA. But the different OA colors are not standardized; they may have slightly different meanings in different contexts.

The Library maintains the HKUST Institutional Repository. We can help you make your research OA without violating copyrights. To protect your author rights, be aware of the terms in the copyright transfer agreement that you sign with publishers.

Why bother with OA anyway?

Considering benefits to authors, many studies already showed that OA papers have higher impact. A recent example is a study published in 2019.

We should also look at the issue at a more macro level. The traditional subscribers-pay model may be most convenient for authors. However, the business model is neither sustainable nor fair. Not only has the academic publishing market been dominated by a few major, powerful publishers; the argument that the fruits of publicly-funded research should be openly accessible to all is gaining worldwide support. There has been global effort of different kinds with the goals to transform the academic publishing market. For example, the OA2020 initiative encourages institutions and libraries to reflect on and explore sustainable model to transform publishing towards OA. Their analysis, released as a white paper, shows that there is enough money within journal publishing to allow for a transition to cost-neutral OA.

What can I do to support OA?


  • when you select a journal to submit your paper, check the publisher OA policy and options
  • when you sign an copyright agreement with a publisher, check the terms and see if you can retain the rights to deposit certain version of your work at the Institutional Repository
  • If not, try to clarify and negotiate better terms with the publisher
  • If you find the APC fair, and take this Gold OA option, make sure you retain the rights to deposit a copy at the IR, which guarantees perpetual access with persistent identifiers

When you have questions on publishing or putting papers in our repository, talk with your subject librarians, or contact the Library’s Research Support Services team.

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published April 23, 2019
last modified March 11, 2022

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