Editorial board mutinies: are they what’s needed or are they part of the problem?

Toby Green
Jan 28, 2019 · 7 min read

As another editorial board jumps ship in favour of launching a new journal, Toby Green wonders if this is good, bad or indifferent for the future of scholarly communications.

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Are mutineers part of the problem or part of the future?

The excitement of “mutinous” editorial boards resigning to launch rival journals is back.

Last time, in 2015, it was board launching . This time it’s the crew setting sail in

Both editorial boards were part of Elsevier’s fleet and resigned in protest at its business model which they cited (I summarise) as being too expensive, too closed, and too commercial.

Now, I am not going to get involved in the pros and cons of whether the mutineers are right or wrong to take issue with the business course charted by the captain of their previous ships. What interests me is what happened after launched and set a course to rival Did the mutineers survive in the good ship ? Did , lacking hands, join Davy Jones in his locker? Are there any lessons for possible future mutineers, publishers and others involved in scholarly communications ?

Johan Rooryck, an active mutineer in both cases and president of the Fair Open Access Alliance (FOAA), is reported to have said that is doing well and winning more submissions than the ‘zombie’ (or should it be ’?) .

We’ll have to take his word on submissions (since , unlike Elsevier’s , does not publish such data on its website) but what is true is that is outpublishing by volume (see chart).

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However, what I find striking is that the combined number of articles published by and has doubled since 2014, far outpacing the annual 4% growth in scholarly articles.

Does this mean linguistics is a burgeoning field? Or that these journals have won share from others? Or are we, perhaps, observing induced demand in action?

(Induced demand is a phenomenon where adding supply capacity prompts increased demand. A common example is new roads increasing traffic levels.)

So, could it be that new journal launches, mutinous or not, (their number is growing 5% annually) are inducing demand for more articles and thus a factor driving the 6.1% average annual increase in article submissions? If this is true, could it also be that the burgeoning number of ‘rXivs’ are similarly inducing demand to post preprints, a figure that is growing 30% a year (see chart)?

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Preprints posted per month. Source: www.prepubmed.org

In the few cases where journals have been abandoned, most have continued to thrive in the medium term: indeed, what little data there is seems to show that they sail on with equivalent impact factors.

So, if abandoned titles survive to steer a steady course, the argument made by some, including FOAA, that flipping journals away from traditional models and taking them under the control of the academy is a fairer, more financially sustainable way of publishing research doesn’t seem to hold because now there are two journals to support financially and otherwise, where previously there was one.

Equally, it’s all very well for academics to take advantage of the speed and simplicity offered by posting pre-prints on ‘rXivs’ but are they then ‘double-dipping’ when they submit the final paper to be published in a journal in order to benefit from the kudos of acceptance by a brand? After all, when a pre-print is subsequently published by a journal, scholcom has just paid twice to publish what is effectively the same content.

So, are mutineers and preprint-publishing authors unwittingly adding cost — and therefore pressure — to the scholarly communication system? This leads to another question, why is scholcom so expensive?

It’s all digital now, so why aren’t costs coming down?

Twenty year ago, the authors of the Budapest Open Access Declaration thought that new, digital, forms of publishing would cost less than the traditional analogue methods. Unfortunately, as the financial travails at PLoS illustrate, we now know that digital publishing is far from low-cost. Worse, despite two decades of investment costs are increasing.

This latter point was brought home to me when I saw a tweet about arXiv’s costs. In 2010, arXiv had 4 staff and total expenses of $420,000. For 2019, arXiv has budgeted 10 staff and $2,070,000 in expenses. So, expenses have grown five-fold over the past decade, a period which saw postings double. To put it another way, the cost per posting has risen to $14.40 from $5.80 over the past decade, a 247% increase.

One reason costs continue to climb is because digital makes possible desirable things that were impossible before. For example, digital makes it possible to publish associated datasets and to disambiguate authors, funders, and institutions and digital has led to new, complex, standards for things like content capture and metadata to improve discoverability and machine readability.

Many of these new digital things have become standard fixtures in any quality scholcom solution, setting expectations for the future. cOAlition S’ Plan S doesn’t just seek to flip journals to open access, it sets mandatory standards on how they should be published, about which many researchers agree. It’s hardly a surprise that the original 60 things publishers did in 2012 had grown to 102 by 2018, many of the additions things digital.

Adding features to any workflow or service increases complexity and increasing complexity creates opportunity — Yvonne Campfens found more than 120 for-profit start-ups when surveying new entrants in research workflows and scholarly communication — but all this adds cost to the overall system at a time when both the willingness and ability to pay is under pressure.

What if the ‘fair value’ in providing an ever-expanding, increasingly complex publishing service is beyond the means of those who have to pay the bill?

On launching Plan S, Marc Schlitz, President of Science Europe said: That sounds reasonable, but what if the ‘fair value’ in providing an ever-expanding, increasingly complex publishing service is beyond the means of those who will have to pay the bill?

Three bodies representing researchers in Europe (EURODOC, the Marie Curie Alumni Association, and the Young Academy of Europe) have issued a joint statement agreeing that article processing charges should be paid or supported by cOAlition S provided that waivers/discounts are in place so that the ability to publish is not constrained by the ability to pay. (I trust they understand that this means those with the ability to pay will be subsidising those without.)

What’s certain is that whoever is going to undertake cOAlition S’ planned independent study on open access publishing costs and fees to determine Plan S’ range and cap for APCs is going to have their work cut out to establish “fair value” in the context of an ever more complex publishing environment.

I hope they also consider transition costs in their deliberations because an independent report commissioned by PNAS, prior to the release of the Plan S proposal, estimated that their transitioning to full OA would require $450,000 in transition costs, $6.3 million in “bridge” funds, and $4 million in ongoing cash reserves, including an APC around $6,000 depending on article length and waivers.

Scholarly publishing is plainly a complex, detailed and ultimately expensive undertaking — which really should be no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to what is a $26 billion business that employs over 110,000 people globally.

It is a business that was very quick to embrace the internet — most journals flipped to digital from analogue before the Millenium Bug was a thing — yet it is now a business that is beset by pirates, mutineers and no-deal librarians because it is judged to be too expensive, too closed, and too commercial.

I think part of the problem was the speed with which scholcom went online. In its haste, it simply digitised scholcom as it was at the end of the 20th century, preserving the processes and practices that had built up in the four hundred years since de Sallo and Oldenburg started the whole affair in 1665 before bolting on new things digital as they came along.

But digitisation of a process that evolved in the print era doesn’t take full advantage of the new ways of working made possible in this new internet era. What’s needed isn’t digitisation of scholcom but a digital transformation of scholcom.

Digital transformation is not just about using digital technology in place of analogue, its about building a new way of working using internet-era principles. These changes are not complicated they can be uncomfortable because it means really thinking through ‘back office’ processes and ruthlessly dumping elements that are no longer to the benefit of the user. Getting it right can deliver improved services and savings — and the latter, in particular, is key to solving the challenges set by pirates, mutineers and no-deal librarians.

As I argue in a new article in Learned Publishing, sustained, long-term, affordable, reform won’t come about by mutineers launching new titles, funders laying down instructions on how researchers should publish or Read-and-Publish deals.

What’s needed is a digital transformation of the way research is published and its surrounding ecosystem. This includes changes in the reputation economy (the way researchers further their careers and win grants) and the way results are published (do all articles really need formal publication?).

Swashbuckling mutineers make for great, colourful, stories but I don’t believe they will set a bold, new, financially sustainable course for scholcom. That will only be built unromantically, step-by-step, through digital transformation.

Critically, it will only be when digital transformation has brought costs down will open access become affordable.

Further reading:

Green, T. (2019) Is Open Access Affordable? Why current models do not work and why we need internet‐era transformation of scholarly communications. 2019, 32:1, pp13–25. https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1219

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