WE - Editorial: Pay to criticise? Rebuttal articles in open-access journals should be published for free

peter.suber's bookmarks 2023-12-31


"A review of the publication policies of some major open-access publishers (e.g. Elsevier, https://www.elsevier.com/about/policies/pricing, last access: 14 August 2023; Wiley, https://authorservices.wiley.com/open-research/open-access/for-authors/publication-charges.html, last access: 14 August 2023; Springer Nature https://support.springer.com/en/support/solutions/articles/6000211135-article-processing-charges-apc-, last access: 14 August 2023) shows no explicit waivers for any type of comments, replies, or rebuttals, and fee waiving is discretionary, except for some scientists based on a specific list of less affluent countries. Some other publishers have lower fees for all types of comments. For instance, “Frontiers” journals charge USD 490 (less than half of the regular APC) to publish General Commentary articles that “provide critical comments on a previous publication at Frontiers” (https://www.frontiersin.org/about/fee-policy, last access: 14 August 2023). Overall, we could not find any mention of automatic waivers for contributions that identify fundamental flaws in published research (i.e. rebuttals) or for any other type of critical comment.

One remarkable case drawing our attention to this issue was a recent publication in Ecosphere, an open-access journal published by Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), reporting an alleged predation event by a spider on a bat (Dunbar et al., 2022). This would have been the first case of a member of the Steatoda genus of spiders preying on bats, globally, and would have also had potential implications for public health. In fact, the article attracted some media attention shortly after publication. However, other scientists were surprised by the claims and, after careful review, some considered the article to be a gross misinterpretation of animal behaviour based on a single observation. Some of these scientists – Serena E. Dool and Gabriele Uhl – invested substantial time in writing a rebuttal to Dunbar et al. (2022), pointing out several more plausible alternative explanations. Their rebuttal article was peer-reviewed in Ecosphere, where it was accepted for publication (Daniel Montesinos has seen copies of the submitted rebuttal and of its acceptance letter). However, the authors of this reply were requested to pay an APC of USD 2100/GBP 1300/EUR 1700 for a rebuttal article that largely disproved the original publication. The authors of the reply, who had altruistically devoted significant time to writing their rebuttal, refused to pay. They felt that they were doing the journal – and science – a service and that it was unreasonable to charge them for it.

Dool and Uhl went through months of delays and ambiguous responses in which Wiley and ESA claimed to be studying the case – Daniel Montesinos has seen copies of more than 20 emails between the rebuttal authors and Ecosphere's editors, ESA, and Wiley over the course of 7 months. Finally, the authors' APC waiver request was declined (according to an email by Wiley to the authors seen by Daniel Montesinos), informing them that their rebuttal article would not be published in Ecosphere unless APCs were paid. Consequently, the original, flawed, article remained broadly available to everyone without comment, while a meaningful rebuttal article was left unpublished. Subsequently, the authors of the rebuttal withdrew their submission and approached Web Ecology to publish their reply. Web Ecology does not usually publish replies or comments to publications from other journals. However, given the extraordinary circumstances of this case, we decided that it would be in the interest of science to make an exception. Two external reviewers agreed with the observations made in the rebuttal article, and the rebuttal was published in Web Ecology shortly after (Dool and Uhl, 2022).

Clearly, charging authors for brief, well-founded criticism of published articles creates a highly problematic disincentive to fruitful scientific discussion. This uncontroversial stance should enjoy universal support, but it currently does not. This might be excused as a simple oversight. Historically, this had never been an issue because most journals did not charge any publication fees. However, today more than 40 % of all Web of Science publications are open access (Basson et al., 2022). It is time to consider the damaging effects of charging authors for critical comments in open-access journals. It is beyond the scope of this editorial to gather and



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Date tagged:

12/31/2023, 13:58

Date published:

12/31/2023, 08:58