Presenting Two and a Half Low Cost Solutions to the Open Access Publishing Problem in Science.
Let me start by explaining the academic publishing system. If you’re not an academic, grab the popcorn, pull up a chair and consider how researchers found themselves freely giving away their labour and manuscripts only to then spend billions of dollars buying the latter back.
After the second World War, British entrepreneur Robert Maxwell purchased the publishing house ‘Butterworths’ for £13,000 (around £420,000 in today’s money or in other terms, the cost to make around 301 manuscripts freely available). He then quickly set about rebranding the company, calling his fledgling enterprise ‘Pergamon Press’. He and his business partner, Paul Rosbaud, set about monetising academic publishing, essentially developing the system we see today. Maxwell did this by capitalising on the expansion of scientific disciplines and convincing prominent academics within embryonic fields of the need for new journals. It was not a hard sell. Maxwell simply attended academic conferences, identified prominent individuals, and wined and dined them into agreement. He understood that high profile names would likely create a buzz and attract others to a journal, but Maxwell knew it didn’t really matter. He knew that as long as journals publish manuscripts, academics will want access to the latest literature. From there all he had to do was sell access to these new journals and the manuscripts within them back to university libraries.
Maxwell also understood that the more journals he created, the more subscriptions he could sell. By the 1970s this rapid expansion in the number of journals available led to another of the ills in today’s publishing climate — journal rankings. Rather than publishing in, perhaps, the most suitable outlets, scholars now sought to publish in prestigious journals to aid their career prospects. Journal editors went from curating knowledge to influencing the direction of future research; as academic curiosity became tempered by a need to meet the aims and scope of a desired journal.
You have to give Maxwell credit, the business model he developed continues to generate higher profit margins than Apple, Coca Cola, and pretty much any other business you can name. Great for the company, but terrible for everyone else. Why you ask? The obvious answer here is that monetising research limits who can access it. I don’t know about you, but I want health researchers to be able to freely access research that may help shape their future research decisions. I want MDs and patients to be able to access research that may help them understand medical conditions. I want research participants and taxpayers more broadly to be able to access the work they contributed to/paid for. Hell, I want anyone who is interested in the work to be able to read it. Publicly funded research should be available to all. Maybe this is all rainbows and unicorns, but I don’t think it has to be and I will show you two and a half solutions as to how I think existing technology may help solve this problem.
Yes, you heard right, WordPress. It’s been around for a number of years now and given the millions of organisations that use the platform worldwide, it isn’t about to be gobbled up by a major publishing house any time soon. Further, it’s really easy to use, hosting and domain names cost a pittance in comparison to publishing costs, and everything a journal needs exists in the form of plug-ins. I’m not the first to think of this idea and when I started my research into the use of WordPress as a journal platform, I came across the beautifully designed and intuitive Capacious.
Unless you’re interested in creative work around affect, look beyond the topics discussed at the user interface. For me, it’s lightyears ahead of many of the publishers in my field and offers both enhanced HTML and PDF outputs. What that means is the user experience can be intuitive, allowing tables and figures to be embedded in-line and accessed via links. This isn’t much to ask for in 2018, but the journal provides everything you need with a certain swagger often missing from mainstream outlets.
What is most impressive, however, is the journal was put together on a shoe string by one academic (take a bow Matthew Arthur!). Matthew has even been good enough to create a step-by-step guide for others. Let’s put this into focus, for a few hundred dollars one man has put this — a well designed, intuitive, free to share and free to access journal — together, when publishers are making over a billion dollars of profit and charging up to $5200 to make one, yes one, article openly accessible. If the big publishers had invested some of the billions they have made profit on infrastructure, perhaps we wouldn’t be having a conversation about a journal that is setup by one man on WordPress offering a comparable if not superior service. Capacious is a member of the Radical Open Access movement and you can read more about their mission here.
Github/Public Knowledge Project
Github also offers free hosting to websites and would be another option for more technically savvy potential editors. The layout of the platform lends itself to this kind of venture and there is already an option to link into the Open Science Framework (OSF). As such, I am sure there is potential for cross-over there, even if I am not entirely sure how to implement. For me, it is not so much the platform chosen, but the principle of building on existing and open infrastructure that is important as we move towards the future of Open Access publishing.
There is also the Public Knowledge Project, which I know even less about, but looks great and appears to be serving the Diamond Open Access (i.e., no APC, no cost to access, no cost to libraries) journal Meta Psychology well. Any journal that costs zero to publish in and makes research freely available to all is okay by me.
2. Overlay Journals
Again, not a new idea, but one that I am perhaps newer to than most. Overlay journals essentially piggyback on preprint repositories such as ArXiv, BioRxiv, and OSF Preprints. What this means is that the articles themselves are hosted on the respective repository with the journal overlaying the peer review component. There is usually no print edition and as the bulk of the cost is footed by someone else (i.e., the preprint repository), this type of journal can also be operated for a pittance. How this works is simple. The author submits their research to a preprint repository, then submits to the journal for review. Once accepted, the author is required to update the preprint to the final version. The journal then links to the manuscript on their website. As the repository hosts the manuscript and uses indexing tools such as CrossRef, Google Scholar, the costs are minimal (estimated to be somewhere between $3–10 per submission).
If operated like mathematics journal, Discrete Analysis (above), the journal can then focus on its contribution to the submission. Namely, providing open peer review (i.e., open as in publicly available and not necessarily identifying the reviewer). As the founder of Discrete Analysis claimed in a recent Nature Toolbox article:
“The only objection to just putting things on arXiv is that it’s not peer reviewed, so why not have a community-based effort that provides a peer-review service for the arXiv?”
They have now received some funding from the University of Cambridge to cover the $10 it costs per submission to operate the journal via peer review workflow platform Scholastica. Just today I was given a virtual tour of the Scholastica system and while I was impressed, I can’t help wondering how long it will be before Elsevier purchases them. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so cynical as even if they do, all data stored on the site can be transferred without cost. Regardless, the important aspect is the $10 cost per submission is small fry compared to current Article Processing Charges. Given the expansion of ArXivesq repositories, there would seem little reason not to build on the plethora of subject specific repositories available and follow Discrete Analysis’s lead. The OSF, for example, has subject repositories focusing on everything from sport (i.e., the repository I founded, SportRχiv) to dinosaurs (i.e., PaleoRχiv). Further, it may not be long before such repositories can offer a peer review service directly.
Although the options presented here tackle some of the problems associated with academic publishing, there is still some way to go. I see two main issues. First, although I believe you could start a journal for under $1000 (or in other words, less than the Article Processing Charge for publishing one manuscript in any of the major publishing house owned journals), it would be tough going and require a fair amount of technical knowledge. There is no doubt in my mind that the skills and resources to achieve what I have outlined here sit within our institutions, but the expertise is not always obvious nor the support forthcoming. For me, universities should be doing more to capitalise on the current wave of positivity around Open Access publishing. Linnaeus University have supported Diamond Open Access journal Meta-Psychology, Discrete Analysis receive funding from the University of Cambridge, but more needs to be done and fast to support this revolution.
Second, there is the expense in paying Editors, Associate Editors and potentially Reviewers for their time. We could look to universities to pay this too, but I believe a simpler solution would be to collectively acknowledge peer review and editing as a professional service and for universities to agree to factor time spent on such tasks into their respective workload models. Editors, Associate Editors and Reviewers can then be drawn primarily from a pool of individuals that receive a benefit for their service. I say primarily, as I would not wish to exclude those who wish to contribute, but equally, I am against utilising free labour as standard.
If nothing else, I hope this post illustrates some of the options out there. It is by no means exhaustive and represents a fraction of the alternative publishing models I have come across. Instead, these are the two options I personally see as viable. In an ideal world (mine at least), I would like to see academics take back control of publishing and would strongly encourage incorporating preprints into this process. The benefits are many and their existence is advantageous to both the models presented here. Some may argue that we don’t need journals at all. Regardless of your position, preprints are a solution that is available today and I encourage you to utilise the repositories open to you.
Lastly, if you work in sport and exercise and are interested in setting up a journal or currently work for a journal and would like to discuss utilising SportRχiv, please get in touch. Believe it or not, I don’t really want to start a Diamond Open Access journal in my field and would much rather provide others with the tools to empower themselves. I will, however, if no one picks up the baton as I believe such a journal is desperately needed. If you care about research and the impact you can create, I implore you to get involved in the Open Access movement and to consider creating your own Diamond Open Access journal. The technology is there, so let’s free our work from behind the paywall for all those colleagues who don’t have institutional access to journals or have fallen out of the system, practitioners who want to base their work on evidence, and taxpayers who want to learn more.
If you agree, disagree, have questions or other suggestions, please feel free to comment either here or contact me via @jpmillsphd on Twitter. Claps are nice to receive too!
Thanks for reading.