Editor’s Note: This post is co-authored by the editors of the Learned Publishing journal, published by the Association of Learned and Professional Scholarly Publishers and the Society for Scholarly Publishing — Lettie Conrad, North American Editor, and Pippa Smart, Editor-in-Chief.

When an editorial board resigns it can disrupt the journals ecosystem, and the recent announcement from the editorial board for the Journal of Informetrics (JOI)  has led to yet more discussion about open access (the ostensible reason for the resignation). But was it just about open access, or are there bigger issues at play here? Journal editors often sit at the intersection of research and publishing, and have to navigate differing perceptions of ownership in the journals that they manage.

The public story is that the journal’s board and Elsevier disagreed on whether article citations should be behind a paywall along with the full text, rather than joining the movement to make scholarly references publicly available. Their resignation was widely supported by open science advocates of all stripes, including Robert-Jan Smits of the European Research Council. After the editors’ announcement, Elsevier responded with quick reassurance that JOI (which they own) would carry on and a new editorial board would be formed.

As JOI exists in the same publishing-about-publishing orbit as Learned Publishing, we took particular notice, and felt that this raised a hugely important question of ownership. Beyond the legal copyright and intellectual property issues, this news raises moral questions, challenging the notion what rights should be held by the authors and editors of academic journals, as well as by academia at large. Who owns your journal and its content (including citations) — the scholarly community, or the publishers who disseminate its research outputs? What can this power move tell us about editorial ownership in the age of open science?

black and white knight chess pieces

The resigning editors, with the backing of the International Society of Scientometrics and Informetrics (ISSI), have started afresh with a new open access journal, Quantitative Science Studies (QSS), which competes with Elsevier’s JOI. QSS will be published in a collaborative model with the MIT Press plus financial support from the Technische Informationsbibliothek (TIB) Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology and the Communication, Information, Media Centre of the University of Konstanz (KIM). This was designed in order to achieve the ISSI’s stated goals, to ensure both editorial and economic control and, in particular, to enable low-cost open access.

The editors defecting from JOI stated that the reason for this was a desire for openness — especially to the references. However, to Elsevier, citations and citation lists are hugely valuable because they are an integral part of the Scopus engine (with 1.4 billion cited references). Therefore, making them freely available has the potential to undermine one of their other businesses and thus wouldn’t make good commercial sense.

This is not the first time an editorial board has declared independence, and these past examples demonstrate the impacts of such acts of “editorial mutiny.” While such mutinies create a new competing outlet for the research, they often have little long-term effect on the original journal. However, the reasons for such mutinies are worth analyzing, as they raise practical as well as philosophical questions for scholarly communication which can provide insights into the underlying rationale for developments such as Plan S and why open access initiatives are so strongly backed — in theory — by researchers, even if not backed by actions.

Despite what’s stated on the copyright, “owning” a journal is not exclusively a matter of possession in a financial or legal sense. When a society is involved with a journal they are not only endorsing its aims and linking them with those of the society, but are also identifying with it, and likely to consider it part of the society and therefore in some ways “owned” by the society.


Legally, the ownership of an article is relatively straightforward. Once the copyright assignment is signed, there should be clarity about who owns the work and what rights all parties have. However, that’s not always the case.

Many authors consider themselves to retain “ownership” in their article even after signing the copyright transfer agreement — as it is their own creation, their own intellectual work, and part of their ongoing research. The concept of retaining few or no rights is often incomprehensible to them. Figures get reused with little thought of the fact that all reproduction rights have been signed away; reference lists get regurgitated in the next article.

Things become even more muddled when we consider earlier versions of the article: who “owns” the submitted version, which may barely differ from the accepted or published version? If a preprint is posted under a Creative Commons license, then how does this work when the author signs an exclusive right to publish agreement, or copyright assignment, with a view to publishing the final article under an “All rights reserved” license? The article on which they assigned copyright may be very close to the article in which they appear to retain copyright ownership and which they have published under an open license. Having different versions of the same article with different copyright owners and published under different licenses is a recipe for confusion!

An experience from Learned Publishing illustrates the point: In short, we published an article that had emerged out of a PhD thesis. It contained tables and graphs. A year later the authors sliced-and-diced their thesis to create another article, published in another journal (with slightly different authorship), containing some of the same tables. The second article made no mention of the one in Learned Publishing, and no permission was requested to reproduce the tables. To the authors, the tables belonged to them and therefore there was no need to ask permission, or to cite them (perhaps the thought of self-plagiarism didn’t occur to them?). To their minds, they had given us the rights to the article in its entirety, but not to the component parts. The fact that the second article had a different author group also complicates the “who owns what” question.

When it comes to journal editors, there are also potential tensions between what they understand to be their rights and ownership within the journal, and what the publisher and/or the society believes. This was demonstrated in the recent departure of editors from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, published by Taylor & Francis. The publisher appointed a new Editor-in-Chief, but the editorial board objected to the appointment and felt they should have been consulted.

Editors want to be associated with a reputable and well-known journal, just as authors publish in journal they think will provide the maximum credibility and reward. JOI was well-established and reputable, and the departing editors are relying on a sufficiently large part of their  community to shift their loyalty to QSS. As portrayed in the opening of this cheeky video from Eugene Garfield, journals were born to disseminate scientific findings and analysis among an interested cohort of readers. This concept of journal-as-club remains a prevailing priority and critical organizing principle for many scholars who may feel an allegiance to a journal due to its reputation and “fit” within their community. An allegiance can also include a sense of ownership, which may lie dormant until conflicting priorities emerge — as they have for the JOI board when it comes to open access.

Why does this matter?

The issue of ownership is one that is rarely discussed, and yet it underpins a great deal of conflict within our arena. Legal (copyright) ownership is only one facet and there are potential conflicts over who-can-do-what with content. Complete openness and public ownership is supported by some, whereas others want controlled, private ownership. Editors often sit at the crux of this, navigating a route that fits the publisher, society and author communities, while fitting in with the identity of their discipline community. Where there are shared objectives and vision, the subject of ownership becomes less important, but where there are conflicts it becomes a prime motivator for drastic action.

The priorities of scholarly societies and publishers, of course, are not always at odds, in fact there are many shared goals and alliances to be found — for example, in the partnership of Wiley and ALPSP that makes Learned Publishing possible. As we work with colleagues as authors, peer reviewers, and editorial board members, we feel a degree of intellectual and emotional ownership of the content we publish, a feeling we are confident is shared by others involved in our journal.

However, this ownership is not singular, it is shared — with our authors, reviewers, and board members; shared with our readers and all members of both societies; shared with our publisher (Wiley) and their production, editorial, and marketing staff; shared across the publishing / information industry at large. We also have responsibilities to the all stakeholders, from editors to authors, the publisher and the societies, and beyond. Sometimes tough decisions and compromises are needed to make to find the best route for accrediting, disseminating, and promoting research in our field.

There are potentially many issues at play here, especially around the open citation movement — the declared primary reason for the JOI editors to move to QSS — but we can only cover so much in one post. Seeing JOI as a peer in the same publishing / information-science orbit as Learned Publishing, these tensions between the editors, their societies and commercial publishers really hit home for us — what matters here for you? What are your reactions to the decision of the JOI editors? What do you feel about ownership of what we publish, and how do you think it will impact the future of scholarly publishing and open science?

Lettie Y. Conrad

Lettie Y. Conrad

Lettie Y. Conrad, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and consultant, leveraging a variety of R&D methods to drive human-centric product strategy and evidence-based decisions. Lettie's specialties sit at the intersection of information experience and digital product design. She currently serves as Product Experience Architect for LibLynx, Senior Product Advisor for DeepDyve, and a part-time lecturer for San Jose State's School of Information. Lettie is also an active volunteer with the Society for Scholarly Publishing and the Association for Information Science and Technology, among others.


21 Thoughts on "Editorial Independence and Journal Ownership in the Age of Open Science"

A lot to unpack in this situation. First, it re-emphasizes the importance of the research community owning and controlling its communication outlets. I’ve worked with several societies in a similar position — they’re “associated” with a journal that’s owned by a commercial publisher. The society is stymied and unable to implement the policies and change they want to see, but at the same time, they’re entirely dependent on the revenue they earn from the publisher for being associated with the journal. To move away from the arrangement means a big drop in funding for the society, as starting a new journal will take ages to reach the previous levels of earnings (if it ever does).

Here, such change was feasible as there was no society associated with the journal and dependent upon it. Even better, a new benefactor was found to take on the costs and financial risk of starting up the new journal. That financial risk should not be underestimated. Much of what a publisher does is take on financial risk (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/09/17/how-traditional-publishing-works/). Elsevier made a significant investment in starting the journal, presumably took on losses for many years, and built the journal to a point where it was likely earning back that investment and going into profit. It’s kind of unreasonable to ask a for-profit corporation to simply give away ownership after such an investment (and I’d be curious to know if a financial buyout offer was made).

Another key point here is the conflict of interests that are arising from market consolidation. As the big publishers move into all aspects of the researcher workflow, they are acquiring products and services directly relevant to the editorial activities of the journal. In this case, Elsevier’s ownership of Scopus was in conflict with the community’s desire for open citations. Similarly, we see journals limited by the ownership stakes of their publishers — if you’re with Elsevier, can you use products from Clarivate (Publons?) or Digital Science (Altmetrics?)? If you’re with Springer Nature, can you use Editorial Manager now that it’s owned by Elsevier or Atypon now that it’s owned by Wiley? There is likely some advantage for societies to instead work with neutral publishing partners that don’t have their fingers in other aspects of the researcher workflow. This allows the journal to choose best-in-class products and services to integrate, rather than having to settle for those that don’t conflict with their publisher’s other business interests.

Its ridiculous for publishers to complain that “reference lists get regurgitated in the next article”. This is how scholarship happens. You become an expert in a body of literature and you build continuously on that literature. Publishers are not making any intellectual contribution to this process. Scholars have every right and every responsibility to cite the work that led to the new knowledge being advanced in their publications. It would be immoral for these scholars to leave out references that influenced their findings.

Learned Publishing is classic Robert ‘Cheaply-Bought-And-Profitably-Sold’ Maxwell Wiley title. A quick “request permissions” exercise to “make photocopies” for a “public research institute” x 20 copies for https://doi-org.dcu.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/leap.1229 costs a cool 774.77 Euro.

Learned societies really ought to wake up and adjust their outdated business models, instead of obfuscating already complex conversations around Open Science (or Wissenschaft) generally, and disciplinary scholarly communication praxis in particular. Some food-for-thought can be found at https://eve.gd/2014/10/04/pondering-a-solution-to-the-problem-of-learned-societies-and-the-transition-to-open-access/. To say that ALPSP supports not-for-profits is not a valid argument either.

I was recently sent a copyright agreement from a publisher that generously granted me the right to reproduce 10% of my contribution in the classroom. I was not paid for my work, but I was offered a small discount if I wanted to buy any copies from them.

So yes, I celebrate the JOI resignation.

To be fair, there are plenty of publishers with liberal reuse policies. If that is important to you, then you should take great care in finding the right home for your publications, one that is better aligned with your values.

Yes, that’s something that I checked before submitting actually, but the copyright agreement that came through differed from the advice I had received. I did not sign it, but more than 95% of academics would have.

I do try to preference publishers that have good reuse policies – I like SAGE’s self-archiving policy for example. And Springer Nature builds permission to reuse your graphics/artwork into their license to publish which is great.

Between subject focus, journal reputation, and coauthor input, you can’t always choose the journal with fair copyright policies when you’re worried about tenure.

There is a very simple solution to all the problems articulated here, and it is fool-proof: Read the contract. This is not a matter of “ownership,” with quotation marks but of ownership, without the scare quotes. It is simply unacceptable for someone to sign something and then claim not to have read it. Don’t sign the contract if you are unhappy with the terms. There is no such thing as “owning” something in a psychological sense. Either you own it or you don’t.

With all respect (and I really mean no offence here), this is a very UK/USA perspective and one not shared by many cultures elsewhere in the world (my own experience from a lot of work in other regions).

As I said in the post, there is a difference in the mind of many researchers, (1) between the entire article and the component parts and (2) between the underlying research and the published output. It is not often quantified in terms of numbers such as 10% (mentioned elsewhere as an acceptable level of reproduction stipulated in some contracts). It is this that leads to conflict when a researcher is faced with barriers to reuse (and often they will not realise there are barriers even after reading the contract until someone complains).

It is also enshrined in some jurisdictions: in most European countries an author cannot waive their moral rights, so they perpetually have some ownership in their content regardless of any contract they’ve signed. You are conflating commercial rights with other (mostly moral I guess) rights – and what a publisher considers an infringement of their commercial rights may not be perceived as such by an author (e.g. making copies for students, using a figure in another publication by a non-profit publisher… etc.).

This also extends into the open environment when some researchers are unhappy that someone they don’t know, and who has never asked their (or their publisher’s) permission, has the rights to re-sell or otherwise re-use their article. (Not that they necessarily would refuse permission, they would just like to be asked/informed.)

So, yes, of course authors (and editors if they have one) should read a contract and not sign it if they disagree – but don’t assume that their understanding of the boundaries of a contract are the same as that of the publisher.

Sorry, Pippa, but this is dead wrong. What is the jurisdiction of the contract? Read the contract. In the U.S. the jurisdiction is on the state level. There is different contract law in different geographies. If the contract is in a territory with a moral rights provision, read the contract. This is not a matter of people’s feelings, which are irrelevant. Read the contract.

Reading the contract sounds fair and reasonable, but as someone who tries to read contracts before I sign them (and as I discussed above, sometimes I do not sign them) this is actually asking a whole lot more than you might think. If I am signing a contract with a US publisher, am I expected to be able to properly understand the language as it would construed in any one of the 50 states? Then next week, I need to understand UK copyright law and be able to appreciate the difference between fair use (US) and fair dealing (UK)? Things can get complicated quite quickly even though these contracts are a mere 1-2 pages.

This is not fun and games, folks. These actions have real-world consequences.

Sorry again, but I’m not wrong. The contract may be valid and enforceable in the region of its jurisdiction, but not necessarily elsewhere. A contract cannot overrule copyright law (maybe in the US? but not in most countries). There are an increasing number of countries (e.g. Netherlands, Brussels, Austria) where the national copyright law stipulates that the author has rights that a later contract signed with a publisher cannot overrule. A recent example: Article 25fa of the Dutch copyright law (also called the Taverne Amendment) is being interpreted as allowing authors to place the publisher’s version of their articles in repositories with a 6-month embargo (I am sure the version will be challenged). Other countries may have similar rulings. Ditto moral rights as I said previously.

Normally journal ownership is fairly clear with the publisher owning the journal and they often sell the journal or group of journals. There are business models used for evaluation. In the past some will remember that Cell was sold for a very high multiple. Sage has often bought bundles of titles as they were building that portfolio of titles. If the publisher doesn’t own the title, they are in a contract with a society to market and operate the title. Wiley bought Blackwell and inherited a significant group of titles under contract from various societies. My point is that the publisher or society is the legal owner of a title and can sell, trade or merge any title. Buying a title from one publisher and moving to the next is common place and drives librarians crazy as few transfers actually happen without considerable disruption. Unfortunately editors have no ownership stake in a journal. Building a journal can be a 7-10 year process of financial support and that investment is made by the publisher.

Joe is absolutely right in his sentiment that there is zero excuse for not reading the contract!

As an aside, it’s worthwhile pointing out to readers some of the vested-interest characters sitting on the ed board of Learned Publishing. Something the authors of this post (conveniently?) forgot to mention. Explicit conflict-of-interest declaration anywhere? To my mind, it’s very much in the authors’ interest to obfuscate, rather than critically assess, and question the motives of the old JOI board.

Hi. We are the editors of Communications in Information Literacy, a library science title that’s been in publication for a little over twelve years now. We are a diamond open access title, so we don’t charge any publication or subscription fees. Our editors, reviewers, copy editors, and other staff are all volunteers, and we recently found a partner in Portland State University Library who maintains our journal site at no cost. We ask for first publication rights for articles and the right to disseminate them to professional indexes, but the copyright for articles remains with our authors.

When we started, another similarly-focused title, Research Strategies, had just been eliminated under Elsevier. We invited the editorial board members of that auspicious title to come and join us instead, and most of them agreed. Although there are at least two other information literacy titles that have sprung up since Research Strategies folded, we’re not aware of any similar title being published by any for-profit scholarly press, including Elsevier.

Scimago rank information for Research Strategies shows that when it ended in 2007 it had an SJR of 0.277. At the height of the journal’s run in 2000, it enjoyed an SJR of 1.079. By comparison, Communications in Information Literacy currently has an SJR of 1.657. In the “Library and Information Sciences” category on Scimago, our journal is ranked 6th, just two rungs below Journal of Informetrics.

Why does any of this matter? If our journal is seen as continuing the work of Research Strategies, then it has to be asked why we’ve enjoyed greater success than our predecessor, a journal the publisher ended because it was not profitable to keep it going. It could be that information literacy has taken off as a sub-discipline of library science, and there’s certainly some truth to that. But also, we get cited more frequently than other similar titles – Really, a lot more – and we owe that to (a) the quality of our articles, (b) our discoverability, and (c) our lack of a paywall of any kind.

If Quantitative Science Studies works hard to (a) attract excellent researchers, (b) get itself indexed wherever possible, and (c) never insert fees between itself and its authors and readership, we have little doubt it will soon outpace its predecessor as well. And Journal of Informetrics will end up being a distant memory for the editors, much as Research Strategies is today. We wish Quantitative Science Studies and its team all the success in the world!

Many thanks for an interesting post, and all kudos to you for making such a success of your journal. You clearly demonstrate that there was a need/gap in the environment for such a journal (but library budgets don’t necessarily accommodate scholarly needs, hence Elsevier’s decision I guess) – long may you continue.

The situation with QSS is slightly different as they will be in direct competition with JOI, so the question is whether there are enough articles in the market for a new journal (probably yes), and whether the best authors (i.e. those with the most high quality content) will decide to go to them rather than JOI (how important is publishing in IF journals to the authors?). However – like you – I wish them all success.

On access to citations I’d like to clarify Elsevier’s position (part of our response Lettie and Pippa link to above): Elsevier provides options to enable unrestricted free access to some of the data it publishes and curates, including bibliographic metadata related to all articles it publishes, and basic metadata for citation records in Scopus. The Scopus API also provides access for bibliometric scientific research. Institutional subscribers are granted access in most cases, and non-subscribers who do not have access to the data can also submit requests for individual evaluation.

I’d like to say, Lettie, that I found your post to be a fair reflection of author behaviour and a fair reflection of many editorial boards. And I see Pippa Smart’s introduction of moral rights as germane, in Europe and beyond. Moral rights exist elsewhere and, although they can be waived, they cannot be assigned. I see the vehemence of some of the comments as reflective of the legal right of commercial interests to protect their property. The insistence on those rights makes clear their priorities: commercial value. This positioning tends to differ from many scholar-owned and society-owned and -managed titles where scholarly communication is the first and foremost goal.
One other point, foolishly or not, I would venture to say that very few scholars read a journal publisher’s contract prior to submission of a paper. Thus, they are severely conflicted by career interests when a request for their signature comes after acceptance by a respected journal.
Come to think of it, my sense is that there are two primary issues that have led to the disaster that is the realities of OA. The principle is a separate matter. They are 1. cost, and 2. overly restrictive constraints on post-publication circulation.

A lot of what has been written in the main article about the challenges to do with ownership/authorship etc, and the subsequent comments, reflects mainly the situation in the high income countries (HIC) of Europe, USA, Australia, etc and not the ‘take-it-or-leave it’ environment of low and middle income countries (LMIC) in Africa, Asia, etc. In LMICs because of lack of support (institutional/official Government, corporate and others) for researchers and authors, society journals and publishers and even commercial independent publishers, the ecosystem of scholarly works research and production is totally skewed against researchers and authors. So much so that it may be suicidal to refuse to sign those commitments to hand over ownership to a publisher, in an environment of ‘publish or perish’ before any advancement in career or recognition and reputation can be made. It is a matter of basic survival in a very difficult, poorly organised environment dominated by the traditional model of knowledge development and publishing.
Open Access is yet to yield the dividends in LMICs that was anticipated when it was first started over two decades ago.

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