Film poster for Doppleganger - Copyright 1993,...
Film poster for Doppleganger – Copyright 1993, ITC Films (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Framing effects dictate logic by constraining it from the start. More graduate students will register by a set deadline if a late fee is imposed as a penalty than if it is positioned as a discount for early registration, even though the dollars are the same. Stating the dollar amount as a penalty (negative) increased compliance. It’s the same information, just cast in a slightly different way.

Over the past 10-15 years, our framework for debate in publishing has been about access — why someone should have access, who should provide it, how it gets funded, and so forth. Arguments to cast one as the positive state and the other as the negative state have raged for years. The debates have been polarizing and contentious and seemingly endless. But lately, it seems the framework has eroded, revealing another layer we need to examine.

Perhaps the access framework didn’t pose anything more than a business question. Perhaps a more fundamental framework has been emerging all along, one that poses both epistemological and existential questions.

David Worlock has been thinking along similar lines, I discovered after writing the bulk of this post. He thinks the debate has shifted:

Open Access, defined around the historic debate twixt Green and Gold , when Quixote Harnad tilted at publishers waving their arms like windmills, is most definitely over.

Worlock notes that speed is now a defining benefit of online publishing:

Dr Sam Gandy, an Alzheimer’s researcher, is quoted by F1000 as saying that his paper was published in 32 hours, and they point out that 35% of their articles take less than 4 days from submission to publication. As I prepare to stop writing this and press “publish ” to instantly release it, I cannot fail to note that immediacy may be just as important as anything else for some researchers – and their readers.

Instead of access issues, I think what we’ve begun arguing about has been about how best to publish, what to publish, and when to publish — thereby positioning convenience for the benefit of authors against selectivity for the benefit of a community.

Convenience is not the same as speed, however, as coverage of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) meeting in DC earlier this year shows, notably the section describing when eLife bragged it would publish articles in 60 days, only to be upbraided by JAMA‘s Editor-in-Chief stating that JAMA publishes most articles in under 50 days. The difference lost in the exchange is that these journals are fundamentally different not because one is quicker to publish, but because eLife was designed to have a much higher acceptance rate. JAMA and other major journals publish quickly for a minority of authors, but they are not convenient for most authors. They reject too many articles to be convenient.

Convenience-based publishers promise fast, low-friction, and respectable publication, but make no promises about reaching the right community. Author needs are their primary focus. The “convenience” argument asserts:

  • Most papers get published in any case, so why have an inefficient system of thousands of journals and multiple rejections prior to publication, rather than a single source and single process?
  • Peer review is slow and capricious when it can be quick and direct
  • Validation of results is all we need, and measures of novelty and importance are passé
  • Costs are too great because there are too many layers and inefficiencies in the current system
  • Publishers take advantage of inefficiencies to drive up prices and pad their publishing portfolios
  • We need massive processing and publication systems because science is burgeoning
  • Scientists should be able to publish when they want to publish

Community-based journals are more stringent, because they have in mind a specific audience and level of expertise within that audience. A significant amount of their value rests on their ability to fulfill audience expectations, which are much more important than author needs. The “community” argument asserts:

  • Readers don’t have much time, and want a filter that increases their chances of finding articles that are relevant to them in the short time they have
  • Peer review works best when the authors and editors understand who the research is intended for
  • Novelty and importance matter to readers in a particular field, and differentiate journals naturally
  • Getting the right content to the right readers increases publishing effectiveness
  • Costs are increasing because review, editing, and publishing are becoming more complex
  • There are more journals because there are more communities in science
  • Scientists don’t have time to wade through a pool of undifferentiated papers

Some OA publishers have community-based journals and some subscription-based publishers now have convenience-based journals using the authors-pay model, confirming that this framework is not an access framework, but something else.

The new convenience movement has created mega-journals, which generally have higher acceptance rates and fewer iterations of review. So far, PLoS ONE is winning this game, with 90% of the mega-journal market under its control. It is the best convenience brand.

Pre-print repositories like arXiv are convenience-based experiences catering to active researchers. They don’t threaten the journals system, it appears, a fact driven home by the manner in which publishers are launching pre-print services themselves. Naturally, convenience-based publishers like PeerJ have pre-print options for their authors.

Author convenience has driven changes to journals over the past decade, with most publishing online ahead of print; establishing fast-track programs; performing more editorial rejection to send authors with incompatible papers onward earlier; and working to make time-to-publication shrink across the board.

But perhaps in catering to authors, we have lost track of the power and importance of community-based elements, and don’t tout these to authors routinely.

Returning to JAMA, it’s interesting to note that its appeal to authors consists of two parts convenience and one part community, promising first “Prompt Decisions, Rapid Publication Timelines,” then “Impact and Reach,” and finally “Author Focus.” Nowhere does it speak to the quality of the audience, only the size. But compared to one of their main competitors, the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA does an admirable job. NEJM doesn’t mention its audience or make an appeal for papers, merely presenting an interface to submit papers to prospective authors. Other major community-based journals I looked are just as scant when it comes to communicating the value of the community of readers they have managed to generate over the years. Their author messaging is mostly about the mechanics of submission, review, and publication. Perhaps the one that takes the cake for minimalism is PNAS’.

A journal’s connection to its audience is one of its most valuable assets, yet this connection is not being used to draw forth the best papers.

Perhaps our brands are powerful proxies for community-based assumptions, but we shouldn’t take this for granted. After all, the industry-wide focus on convenience might be influencing your brand, making it more of a commodity of convenience. It might be good to revisit your instructions for authors to see if you’re touting how highly engaged you are with their community.

Why is this debate important? How we think about journals influences your policy approaches. Funders of all stripes (private foundations and governments) prefer convenience-based publishing, so much so that three of them started their own journal, eLife. They want rapid dissemination of their funded research, and convenience-based journals match their incentives on the supply side of science.

PubMed Central wants us to think about journals as undifferentiated inputs into a governmental repository, and seeks to obscure the branding and community-based differences inside an approach that makes publishing look more like a convenience-based approach. Simple. Vanilla. Just papers in a database. This can make it appear that mandates can be constructed easily and deployed uniformly. But domain and community differences are muted if not entirely erased in convenience-based approaches. A hard look across publisher sites would generate a different signal for policymakers, notably how varied the scientific disciplines and subdisciplines (and sub-subdisciplines) are, how editorial approaches vary between community-based journals, and how differently services are arrayed to meet audience needs.

How you think about these issues also colors how you think about usage data. I personally look askance at usage data coming from convenience-based journals because these journals have no way of validating their users as being qualified users in the journal’s target market. It’s unclear that any publishing goal is being met.

Does a difference in approach really amount to much of an editorial difference? You only need to look at a recent issue of a mega-journal to see the answer. In PeerJ recently, the content was a smorgasbord of unrelated topics — botany, biology, and one particularly amusing study of apostrophe use in eponymous diseases. It’s difficult to know who this journal is for. But it goes deeper. How can a journal with a range of papers like this ensure that the disparate manuscripts they are receiving get adequate peer review? Can one journal rigorously review a paper about microRNA and a paper about water capacity in soil in Korea and a paper about genomic sequences of sediments from the Red Sea and a paper about transcranial Doppler ultrasound and a paper about apostrophes in eponymous diseases, all equally well? And if these journals are conveniences for authors, what are the incentives for rigorous review and possible rejection?

Publishing is a service industry, but a key question for any service industry is, Who do we serve? Access models don’t answer this question. PNAS tends to serve authors, yet it is a subscription journal. PLoS Medicine serves a community, yet it is an OA journal.

No matter the access model, at their heart journals balance service to both authors and readers. Convenience-based journals primarily serve authors, and have acknowledged they do a poor job of attracting the right readers. Community-based journals primarily serve readers, but make life difficult for a majority of authors through rejection and revisions. There is likely no such thing as editorial equipoise in our realm.

Perhaps recognizing this subterranean debate will help us address the question we’ve been unable to address robustly in the Internet age — Who do we serve? More importantly, it may help us identify how best to serve them. “More articles” and “more access” are not adequate answers to this question.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


17 Thoughts on "Convenience versus Community — Is a Deeper Question Hiding Behind the Façade of the Access Debates?"

The principle that those being served pay for the service suggests that convenience journals should be author pays while community journals should be subscription based. The question is whether this distinction is robust enough to actually segment the industry? Convenience seems a rather new service and other market forces are also at work.

One pays to play in Las Vegas and one pays to see at the arena. In the first instance anyone can participate in the later only those with an interest participate. As to your point of making known the role and scope of the journal, which in the past was known, as you suggest should be made known once again. Lastly, and in light of the above, I think you are asking what is the purpose of a journal?

The assertion that “access” is the true purpose of the divertingly-named “open access” movement is a canard. Rather, the movement is about who determines the value and bears the cost of the publishing effort. In a market economy, the consumer defines value by her willingness to pay. So the value being delivered by community (subscription) journals is the quality, relevance, novelty, etc, and the value being delivered by convenience (author pays) journals is low-cost access to the means of (article) production (maybe that’s the “access” they mean…?).

The key scarcity, of course, is time. Each consumer (reader or author) is buying time savings in with these products. The preponderance of my book purchases come from “community” publishers like FSG or Knopf rather than vanity presses. They (mostly) choose the best authors, and moreover have the infrastructures to get reviews placed in other community vehicles (eg NY Review of Books), and offer extremely smooth and seamless discovery and delivery. I am rewarded by avoiding an endless individual discovery and evaluation process that I would need to conduct in a filterless and massively fecund landscape of self-publishing.

Is OA (or as you out it, the “convenience” publishing movement) simply one gigantic vanity press operation? Unhappy with the rigorous hurdles (and attendant costs) created to serve the needs of readers, this movement has created a parallel industry that demotes those needs to the needs of the second-tier author community. Ultimately while OA will indeed put pressure on the second-tier subscription journals, I suspect we will find the reader value delivered by the top-tier brands will be mostly impregnable to this assault.

I tend to agree. If being published has value then people will pay to be published. The interesting question is whether the systems that value being published, such as promotion and tenure, will notice? Time will tell as always but people are not stupid.

In the sciences, for the most part, books just do not count for tenure or if they do they are just noted. Do we have any information as to how tenure committees are viewing articles published in OA journals.

Rather, the movement is about who determines the value and bears the cost of the publishing effort.

Unfortunately, the value of an article may have a critical effect on a given researcher’s ability to produce useful results. This is, after all, why citations hold such a high place in scientific esteem. The publishers and librarians who provide dissemination — and who must deal with costs — are so far removed from the point of the process that they take little real notice of the communication process. Most, in fact, have never encountered studies by Robert K. Merton, William D. Garvey, Donald W. King, etc. If they did, they might conclude that the dissemination of libraries and publishers is undervalued by most research university budgeteers.

Unfortunately, the debate has been rooted in money and library budgets rather than the effectiveness of research communications. Any reader’s capacity to acquire useful knowledge is limited while R&D production continues to double every 15 years or so. Thus a journal useful to a given reader provides a well-edited, narrowly-focused selection. The focus can be a single subject, or it can seek the most innovative papers across the board. If that standard is diminished, individual readers will turn to indexes and citations rather than subscribe. Once upon a time, for example, many individuals subscribed to Physical Review. No more. While still favored by authors, it has grown beyond any individual’s capacity or interest thanks to policies that favored low rejection and high institutional pricing while many papers can be found free online.

Speaking from my own experience outside the context of STM publishing per se, my aims in publishing papers about publishing in journals like Learned Publishing, Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and Against the Grain combine convenience and community. I like the ability these journals offer for quick publication but also the communities they target. E.g., when i want to reach librarians as well as vendors and publishers, I choose AGT. When I want to reach an international audience, I usually choose LP. When I have a longer essay, I generally send it to JSP. In short, there is no necessary tension between convenience and community. On some cases, at least, both are achievable.

Both are achievable, and both exist in both approaches. I think community-based journals are better at convenience for authors than convenience-based journals are when it comes to matching what they publish to relevant communities. This may change over time, but the incentives don’t suggest it will change quickly or dramatically. The incentives are to be convenient for authors. If authors start demanding accountability for convenience-based journals to show they are reaching a relevant audience, the incentives would change. The OA model, however, cuts off a lot of tools for building or addressing communities.

Yes, author gratification is a resurgent theme. The “answer” du jour is said to be instant publication on submission followed by crowd-sourced open reviews. The crowd will ensure the quality of the reviews by rating the reviewers. No gatekeeping required. No editors or editorial staff are needed to organize, motivate or evaluate reviewers. Publishers just don’t “get it” because they are too “product-centered” rather than being “flow-centered”.

But it’s the other way round. Scholarly publishers have always been “flow-centered”. Any individual manuscript can be confirmed or challenged by subsequent manuscript publication. But the act of publishing definitive milestones (i.e. published articles) serves the broader needs of authors and funders by providing citability, linkability, accountability, credentialing, and archiving.

Ironically, it’s the continuous publication model that is “product-centered” because it seeks to endlessly perfect the same product (i.e. the singular manuscript) with never-ending comments and revisions. While this is highly appropriate for textbook-type publications (see UpToDate), it does not work will with the “flow-process” of research publishing.

Publishers help manage the flow of scholarly research through a milestone process that delivers: citability, linkability, accountability, credentialing and archiving. In a sense, outputting manuscripts is just a by-product of those (arguably) more important services.

Having said that, we need to keep working on innovations that improve the publication experience for authors. Fortunately there are many ongoing innovations in this area that don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Personally, as an author I would like to have access to content be easy as possible (i.e. open access) but am happy to support communities. Currently, I’m a member of several societies and also do quite a bit of peer review. I wonder if there’s a model that’s neither “pay to publish” nor “pay for consumption” but “pay for community”? Thoughts?

Some decades ago, the academic research community had libraries that supported dissemination not only via journals but via monographs. Somehow the development of digital formats and the Internet, like the introduction of crack in some neighborhoods, excused irrational approaches to resources and we face a mess.

I believe as a faculty member access without paying. You can log onto the university library site and access the journals that are on line through your faculty account. Further, you can submit articles to a journal and if accepted not pay to publish.

Reblogged this on Nickoal L. Eichmann and commented:
An excellent discussion of how OA serves authors more than their communities (their readers), which can negatively affect the incentives for a fair vetting process.

OA where the government pays for the research and then for the publishing of the research. Instead of the greedy TPs making the money it is the new OAs making the money. Only the OAs provide little vetting and instead an unaware reader can be duped! A great system.

The fundamental dichotomy being discussed here is, in my opinion, not convenience versus community but simply authors versus readers.

One of the early studies of academic attitudes that I was involved in had as its fundamental result “authors want to publish more; readers want to read less” and resolving this conundrum was what digital publishing was going to have to do.Changes since then have amplified elements of this: authors want to publish more but want as much reward for it as possible while readers want to read less but the best and most relevant papers. Similarly, authors tend to be journal focussed and readers article focussed. This dichotomy has been solved by the digital platforms allowing journals (brands) to coexist with article databases.

One effect of open access publishing predicted by Hal Varian was that he who pays the piper calls the tune: if authors pay their wants will dominate, if readers theirs. Mega journals publishing more with less selectivity under a God OA model looks like the author-side phenomenon while much more selective subscription-based ones emphasises the reader-side (customers) desire for more selectivity and lower article volume. And this does not even take into account pressures on the publisher to make whatever model they have adopted work: high volume and lower price versus low volume and higher price.

One is not necessarily better than the other but reflects the age-old conundrum that while authors and readers are often the same people they behave as if they were separate species in their scholarly communication behaviour. If this is the case then a mixed market may turn out to be the end point rather than a stop along the way.

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