When Heraclitus said that you can’t step into the same river twice, I’m pretty sure he was thinking about the journals business. Although the temptation to find fixed points and stark contrasts is great (subscriptions vs. OA publishing, for-profits vs. not-for-profits), the fact is that the environment is pluralistic and fluid–and always has been.
Like a poor imitator of Eadweard Muybridge and his horses, I have been trying to take snapshots of this moving target for the Kitchen. There is the question of how a professional society navigates the landscape, a topic I would like to update with a case study if I can persuade a client to waive a confidentiality requirement. Reactions to the subscription model are worth noting, in particular the bold action of the Journal of Cultural Anthropology, which is walking away from an important arrangement with John Wiley to go it alone. Noteworthy as well is the creeping cooptation of OA publishing by the major commercial organizations. (That’s “creeping,” not “creepy.”) Not yet documented on the Kitchen is the development of the Open Library of the Humanities, which proposes to create for the humanities the equivalent of PLoS ONE–no small ambition considering the differences in the funding for STM and HSS publications. All these things point to change and more change. Some of these things will evolve and grow, others will disappear, making way for many more new services.
Not long ago I stumbled on a new element, the “ghost” journal. A librarian informed me that at his institution, a clutch of journals had been established a while ago, but they were now moribund and he finds himself discouraging authors from submitting articles to them. Now, before anyone jumps up and accuses the Kitchen of once again deriding an instance of OA publishing, I want to point out that journals fail everywhere and in every way possible. That’s a good thing: it means somebody is taking a risk. A publishing program that only has successes (I can’t think of any) isn’t trying very hard, and a management team that has only a string of successes should be shown to the door. The more telling thing about these ghost journals is not that they failed but that apparently none of them succeeded. That speaks to a fundamental conceptual error in the planning of the program (Automated question: Did the program even have a plan?) and makes me wonder what we can learn from this.
It will be a hard to be schooled in this, however, because the data has not been put together and analyzed. That’s my primary concern right now: how to get our hands on the data. There is a research project in this, which would explore some of the items listed below.
First, let’s define the object of the study as journals published in some form of collaboration with an academic library. There are several reasons for this stipulation, but the principal one is quality control. While we do indeed have to worry about so-called predatory publishers, the case for predatory libraries has not and will not be made. Even if a library does not have a formal review process for the publications it takes on, the informal process is meaningful (“We know this guy; he’s on the faculty”; “She got her Ph.D here”; etc.).
Next we have to be clear to distinguish between a library’s institutional repository and the publishing services it performs. This distinction is not going to satisfy everybody. For my part, I think of an IR not as a publishing platform but as an open and online storage medium. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s different from published material, whether open or sold on a subscription basis, with a formal editorial review process.
Which brings us to peer review and other forms of editorial selection. It would be interesting to know what the policies and practices are for library-supported publications and to find out to what extent the library itself is involved with the editorial process.
A directory would emerge from this study. It would list all libraries that have (non-IR) publishing programs and all the journals so supported. The directory would also include fields for the business model, the number of submissions, the number of accepted papers, the division between HSS and STM publications, etc.
I don’t think we can step over the business model too quickly. A study of this genre of publishing should also touch on how each publication is funded. JCA (see the link above) has a combination of free hosting services from the Duke library, membership dues, and submission fees, and all this is of course supplemented by a huge amount of volunteer labor. How do other libraries and publishers handle this? Do these programs in fact have financial models replete with income statements?
I have some hypotheses about what such a study would turn up. I suspect that all or almost all of the journals will be open access, that they will mostly be in the humanities, that they do not in fact have carefully developed financial statements, and that the functionality of their software platforms is limited. This last point is typically overlooked: just as the technical requirements of scholarly communications are growing (I note that Wiley recently announced that they were using responsive design for all their materials), a great number of bare-bones programs are being established. Will the simpler platforms thrive or perish? Are the platforms of the largest publishers over-engineered?
The point of a hypothesis, of course, is not whether it is right or wrong but whether we can prove if it is right or wrong. So let’s find out: let’s continue to document what is going on in our little world of scholarly communications even as it changes before us.