The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) continues to grow, and along with it, the exuberance of those who wish to see a complete transformation of the journal marketplace. For these imaginary poetic economists, the economic indicator that measures this change is simply the number of OA journals charted over time. And when you look at the trend, the future looks pretty rosy.
But does this type of growth really indicate economic success in open access publishing? Or does growth simply point to a system gone awry, like the growth in unemployment or the proliferation of spam?
Without more information, it’s hard to tell.
Writing in the December issue of First Monday (“The size distribution of open access publishers: A problem for open access?”), Jan Erik Frantsvåg at the University Library of Tromsø, Norway, analyzes the distribution of journals by publisher in the DOAJ. He finds that the distribution is strongly skewed, with nearly 90% of publishers represented by only one journal title and larger publishers representing only a quarter of the titles in the directory.
Arguing from basic economic theory, Frantsvåg concludes that the high proportion of single-journal OA publishers is a sign of an inefficient OA marketplace that is unable to take advantage of economies of scale in production and distribution. He writes:
All these elements suggest that small-scale operation of OA publishing is economically inefficient, and that OA publishing best be organized in larger publishing institutions.
The problem with Frantsvåg’s analysis, however, is that authors don’t publish journals — they publish articles. If you dig deeply into the contents of the journals indexed in the DOAJ, you’ll discover that most journals publish very few articles.
“Characteristics of Open Access Journals in Six Subject Areas,” (C&RL, 2011 in press) by Bill Walters and Anne Linvill is the latest analysis of the OA journals that comprise the DOAJ that goes beyond tracking the sheer number of indexed titles.
Based on an article-level analysis, Walters and Linvill report that the OA marketplace is dominated by just three large players: PLoS, BMC, and Oxford University Press, which together account for nearly a quarter (24%) of the OA articles in their study. Half of the remaining publishers churn out 25 or fewer articles per year. More interestingly, open access publishers appear to have adopted different business strategies. They write:
The largest nonprofit OA publisher and the largest commercial OA publisher have adopted very different approaches, one focusing on a few large journals of broad scope (PLoS ONE, PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, and PLoS Computational Biology), the other publishing many smaller, specialized journals such as BMC Bioinformatics and BMC Palliative Care.
Walters and Linville also add qualification to the well-documented fact that the majority of open access journals do not charge article processing charges (APCs). While they report that just 29% of the DOAJ journals in their study levy APCs, these titles represent 50% of published OA articles, 69% of OA articles in biology and 76% of OA articles published in commercial journals. In other words, the majority of authors publishing in open access journals are paying for publication.
The lesson of the Walters and Linvill article is that counting the number of open access journals is a poor metric of success because the economics that governs the size and dynamics of other industries does not transfer well to online publishing. If brand matters to authors (and readers, funding agencies, department heads, promotion and tenure committees), then journals must not be multiplied beyond necessity.
Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem —William of Occam