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?
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?