Recent developments around open access (OA) publishing — the RCUK mandates, the OSTP memorandum — have had an interesting theme to them, which is revealed again in an article by Richard Van Noorden published in Nature News. This theme might be described as a sobering dose of reality.
Van Noorden’s long article does an admirable job of breaking down the costs of publishing a scientific or scholarly article, but even the trenchant Van Noorden finds himself thwarted by complex and sedimentary accounting practices, where newer costs like IT and corporate-wide costs like legal and HR and PPE are not placed against specific product lines. This means the profits quoted are more akin to a compromise between gross and net profits — they are not the final net profits fully loaded with expenses. In addition, separating journals budgets from books budgets and database budgets, separating subscriptions from advertising and licensing, and separating scientific from scholarly from professional — all are fraught and difficult because every business has evolved significantly. Where do all the new platform and IT costs go? What about the staff that works some on e-books, some on XML, some on UI, and some as DBAs? How are these allocated? Are they even allocated? Or do you just put them in a corporate function and manage it that way?
But the major thread of “this is getting real” is clear in Van Noorden’s article — no longer can OA rally the revolutionaries with visions of milk and honey and hope for the best. Now, its advocates need to start addressing hard questions based on what their approach might portend for scientific publishing. Major questions are becoming clearer to the general population:
- Will this actually save money?
- Could this actually be more expensive?
- Will authors become the drivers of businesses instead of readers?
- Will I still be able to find quickly and easily good material that interests me?
- Can I still trust what I read?
There is a wrinkle Van Noorden acknowledges but which remains stubbornly difficult to address — namely, the complexity of the labels we throw around. Is calling the Journal of Biological Chemistry and PLoS ONE both “journals” that enforce “peer review” and publish “finished articles” to a well-defined “audience” really fair to either entity? These are different animals, each with their own purported strengths and potential weaknesses. There is a spectrum at play for each quote-marked term above. Why can’t we be more specific about where on these spectra each lies?
Lacking such a device, Van Noorden’s article breaks down costs into three bins — print and online, online-only subscription, and online-only OA. This is a container-based filter — PLoS, for example, has online-only OA journals with very different editorial structures and quality thresholds. We continue to have a fascination with the containers, and this can create a false sense of equivalence, especially around editorial processes and outputs.
The configuration of editorial offices and editorial duties is a potentially major difference between approaches to publishing articles, and one we have actually learned to disrespect to some degree — anecdotes of failures are used to undermine processes that work well the vast majority of the time, for instance. It’s the same tough sell preventative medicine has — one failure, and the peace and quiet of effective prevention can’t drown out the howls emanating from that single problem.
One significant editorial difference is whether the publication has an editor-in-chief or not. New publishing initiatives seem to handle this issue blithely. In emails between PeerJ and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) retrieved via my ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, PeerJ confidently notes its similarity to other journals that have no editorial leader at their helms — PLoS ONE, Scientific Communications, and F1000 Research, just to name a few.
On January 17, 2013, Peter Binfield emailed Chris Kelly (with a cc: to David Lipman) about their editorial process:
There are substantial questions about how these practices work out in the real world. Mega-journals can publish many articles, but journals need to do more than that — they need to cultivate an audience that goes beyond a line of authors rotating through turnstiles. A distinctive voice and audience niche can help this happen. An editor-in-chief can make this happen. Perhaps a key distinction is actually being outlined in Binfield’s email — whether a journal has an editor-in-chief is an important defining characteristic.
Having participated in a few transitions of editors-in-chief in my day, I can tell you that a different person at the helm can make a world of difference in the performance, attitude, and emphasis of associated editors and reviewers. A forceful editor can put the snap back into the shorts of a lackadaisical editorial team. The lack of an editor-in-chief strikes me as a difference we should not easily accept as equivalent. Who is responsible for the editorial content? Individual “academic editors”? The authors? The publisher? Who stands behind the brand? The “process”?
To me, this is a very important omission from the quality equation, and betrays a belief that all peer-review does is validate something about an article — call it “scientific soundness” or “methodological soundness” or what you will. We forget that peer-review is also about filtering by importance and relevance. These newer journals may be cheaper, but those savings might be achieved by leaving out a key editorial member — namely, the editor-in-chief.
Van Noorden’s article is useful and interesting, and continues the growing movement for accountability and transparency from OA publishers. However, we need to become more serious about distinguishing the various approaches to scientific publishing, and editorial goals and processes are perhaps more important than publishing modalities.
The containers have been fascinating. But what really matters in the long run is what we put into them and that the right people use their contents.