In scholarly publishing, we are increasingly aware of issues of diversity from a societal point of view. It has become a part of our efforts to promote, facilitate, and ensure Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility (DEIA) in different areas of the publishing ecosystem. But other forms of diversity can also be found in academic publishing.

Researchers, for example, use a wide range of options to access research — from freely accessible to subscription to open access (OA) journals. Many researchers without institutional access get in touch with the authors or colleagues to get hold of journal articles. Over the past few decades, global programs and coalitions have been making thousands of journals accessible to researchers in the Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) or the Global South. Preprints have been around since the early 1990s, but recently have expanded to many major disciplines. Many journals are now working with preprint servers. On rare occasions, all published articles on a particular topic can be made free to read and use, as we saw in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If we look into OA a bit deeper, we will find diversity in OA models: Diamond or Platinum OA, Green OA, Gold OA, and Bronze OA. Many reputable publishers have launched new online OA journals in recent years, along with making their established journals OA. Many long-running journals also follow a hybrid model by offering both subscription and OA options. OA megajournals showcase a new (disruptive) dimension in scholarly publishing. Diversity can also be seen in the Article Processing Charge (APC) model: flat fee agreements between a publisher and institutions, equity models that take into account an institution’s country’s economy, and community models distributing publication costs more equitably among the participating institutions. Transformative agreements between libraries and publishers allow a shift from subscription-based reading to OA publishing. Regional OA journals are being launched to improve equity in open access models.


We also see diversity in the peer-review process. In addition to, single-anonymized and double-anonymized peer-review, triple-anonymized peer-review has been advocated for. On the other hand, some journals are not only sharing peer-reviewers’ names with the authors, but also publicly disclosing those names along with their reviews. Open, community-based peer review can be seen on preprint servers and other research platforms. To cut down peer-review time, options like transferable peer-review, AI-assisted peer-review, and collaborative peer-reviewer pools are in practice. While in almost all cases, peer-review is a voluntary service, some have argued that a paid peer-review model would expedite the review process, while others have argued to the contrary. It however may be more common in Southern journals, which traditionally pay a small amount to their in-country reviewers. While post-publication peer-review is practiced by some journals, peer-review can now be done on experimental design and methodology before starting data collection. Octopus represents new platforms where researchers would publish all steps of their research cycle and receive feedback from other registered users on a regular basis.

If we explore other aspects of scholarly publishing — publication format, workflow, data sharing mechanisms, copyright, or licensing — we will find diverse options in practice. We may explain such diversity as a manifestation of the vibrant innovation culture of this industry driven by the needs from its stakeholders. To understand what value such diversity brings about, let’s compare it with the biodiversity we see around us.

First, in a natural ecosystem, be it a forest or a lake or a salt-marsh, we often find many similar species performing similar activities. Let’s take for example the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans shared between my country Bangladesh (60%) and India (40%). Home of about one thousand plant and animal species, including the world-famous Bengal Tiger, Bangladesh Sundarbans, for example, has 37 species of butterfly, 13 species of orchid, and 7 species of woodpecker. This type of redundancy makes an ecosystem resilient to any shocks or stresses. It means that if due to some pest invasion one species is wiped out, other similar species will fill in the gap and the whole ecosystem will continue functioning without any significant changes. Similar redundancy in the scholarly publishing industry in the form of digital publishing, preprints, megajournals, diverse peer-review systems, for example, has already helped us to survive the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, which I pointed out in a Learned Publishing article.

Second, each species plays a specific role within an ecosystem, such as a rainforest in Indonesia, a peatland in Russia, or a coral reef off the coast of Mexico — it’s called the “ecological niche” of that species. In scholarly publishing, as context changes, our understanding evolves and new demands are raised, and we respond to them by creating new options (like species) and by putting them in our existing system (like finding a niche for the option within the scholarly ecosystem). These new options or innovations are in addition to what we already have, without replacing anything. That’s why, in 2022, we can see all the versions of research communication — from printed journals (as was published in the 17th Century) to the Octopus platform and every other form in between. Nothing seems get lost in the scholarly publishing ecosystem. This coexistence of similar options, being neutral to each other, highlights the less competitive, soft nature of scholarly publishing around the globe.

Third, a list of all the species found in an ecosystem is a basic representation of its diversity. But all species don’t exist in equal number in an ecosystem. When the abundance of each species is put into the equation, we get a weighted expression of all species. Such calculation is important because with the increasing number of a particular species, the overall functional diversity of the ecosystem decreases, and the dominant species start dominating the ecosystem. Thus, how diversity is measured and presented matter. Although several OA models exist, for example, their collective proportion varies: In 2019, OA articles represented more than 30% of total published articles, but when expressed in journal publishing market value, OA occupied a little above 7% (US$ 763m). So, when we see diverse options are available or are recommended, we need to ask ourselves what proportion of the population (or journals in this case) have adopted them. Dominant species which influence an ecosystem by their sheer number or size are crucial to transform an ecosystem. It is also true for the scholarly ecosystem where a handful of publishers guide the overall directions of the industry.

Fourth, a species’ survival and continuity depend on sufficient resources in the ecosystem — for plants, the nutrients in the soil; for predators, the prey; for fungi, dead matter. But, given the exponential growth of the scholarly publishing industry, it seems, at least theoretically, there are no limits to the sustenance of journals. Unlike many other businesses, scholarly publishing remained largely unaffected during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only because it showed amazing resilience — defined by robustness, resourcefulness, redundancy, and rapidity — but probably also due to journal articles’ intrinsic relationship with academia’s research funding, scholarship, recruitment, tenure, and promotion. Further, species in nature go extinct over time; in recent decades, the rampant over-exploitation by humans has accelerated the extinction rate 100 times faster. But, the “death of a journal” seems to be a myth — my recent Google Scholar search came up with only 23 documents; just three articles bear that phrase in their titles.

All of these make me wonder, is academic publishing thriving by offering new ideas and innovations in policy and practice, by embracing and capitalizing on digital advancements, and by acquisitions and mergers? Or is the diversity discussed above is just a way to brand ourselves as critical, unique, relevant? We indeed define our brand on our own terms, otherwise how could we ask authors anything between US$ 100 and US$ 10,000 to process one manuscript?

Finally, we use diverse ways to measure the impact of our research and publications. With so many indicators, indices, factors, matrices, rankings, and scores, every researcher and their institution, every journal and its articles, have a number to talk about. It seems we have turned ‘research impact’ into ‘impact of numbers.’ As journal publishers, we follow the number of times authors cited us, social media mentioned us, appropriate agencies ranked us, but not what is happening on the ground based upon the articles we publish. We know that not all research outputs have immediate, direct, practical implications or applications. But have we ever searched how many of our articles were translated into reader-friendly briefs to reach out to policymakers? Or were cited in public strategies benefitting vulnerable people? Or quoted in donors’ working papers to channel funds to deprived regions? What is stopping scholarly publishers from innovating in measuring research impact? I wonder.

Haseeb Irfanullah

Haseeb Irfanullah

Haseeb Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development facilitator, and often introduces himself as a research enthusiast. Over the last two decades, Haseeb has worked for different international development organizations, academic institutions, donors, and the Government of Bangladesh in different capacities. Currently, he is an independent consultant on environment, climate change, and research systems. He is also involved with University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh as a visiting research fellow of its Center for Sustainable Development.


7 Thoughts on "The Other Diversity in Scholarly Publishing"

It’s great that Haseeb Irfanullah draws attention to diversity in the stuff we publish. However, his ecosystem is more diverse than he thinks. If he looks closely, he’ll find more diversity in peer-review systems and his ‘mangrove’ research forest also comprises research reports, datasets and working papers from non-academic research communities: IGOs, NGOs, research centres and think tanks. (Including a dataset from Global Mangrove Alliance). These research ‘species’ are overlooked and, yes, sometimes discriminated against, because they don’t publish in books and journals. Although, perhaps this is changing. I found it striking that of the 12 reports Yale recommended be read ahead of COP26, only one was published in a journal. As Haseeb says, not all species contribute equally to an ecosystem. While journals are plainly dominant, publishing some 2.5 million new articles a year, it might surprise you to learn that ca.7,500 non-academic research organizations released 158,000 reports onto their repositories and websites in 2021. And this research can be important, Conseil D’Analyse Economique’s evidence that Covid vaccine certificates work. So, where are the resources for continuity and survival in this corner of the research ecosystem? Like universities, NGOs and the like rely almost entirely on grants from governments, benefactors and foundations. Unlike universities, when these dry up, the organizations slip out of sight, their websites go dark, the content falling among the litter of the internet archive: there is no LOCKSS or CLOCKSS to pick up the pieces. Until last year, hardly any content from the world’s IGOs, NGOs, research centres and think tanks was part of the scholarly knowledge ecosystem, very little could be found in research libraries and discovery systems either. What changed? We launched Policy Commons and set about making this content an integral part of the scholarly publishing ecosystem and we’re preserving it too. If you’d like to learn more about this hitherto invisible part of the research ecosystem, check out a talk I gave last year at NISO’s Open Research event:

Thank you so much for highlighting the role and position of non-academic research documents, often called the grey literature, in our overall research ecosystem. Working in the development and environment sectors over the last couple of decades, I can’t agree more with your points on how these pieces of research are often treated. The examples you gave of the fate of such documents and the project websites match with my experience. Thank you also for sharing the positive changes, exemplified by Policy Commons.
Another way to appreciate the non-academic research would be bring them in the scholarly publishing arena. Last year, I was part of such an attempt. In a systematic review paper on Bangladesh, we researchers from Bangladesh and Oxford not only analyzed peer-reviewed journal articles, but also final reports of a few long-running environmental-developement projects. This OA article could be read here:

Thank you for your comment and the link to the paper. I think one of the problems is that the industry refers to the research coming out of non-academic organisations differently – i.e. tagging it as ‘grey literature’, as if it’s of inferior quality or of dubious origin. This is, of course, nonsense not least since much of it has been prepared by the very same researchers who also work in the academy and publish in journals. I think it’s time this term was consigned to history. Research is research, whether done in a university setting or by an NGO. Today’s digital toolkit means the findings can be published many more forms than were possible in print: journal articles, reports, preprints, blog posts, books, interactive websites, VR experiences, video, podcasts – even tweets can play a role. The challenge is to organise all these various published formats into a useful ‘whole’ for the benefit of readers, both now and in the future.

This headline feels like a bait-and-switch, where people (incl myself admittedly) will click through out of an interest in issues around diversity and inclusion, and will instead find a quick slight-of-hand that moves us into open access and then goes from there. The article is fine, of course, but the headline feels not just off but an effort to capitalize on a pressing issue that many of us are hoping is more than a trend right now.

I certainly admire the other articles on diversity and inclusion found here, which is why I was confused and a bit concerned in this case, with this headline.

I’m pretty amazed that Dr Hasseeb is so impressed by academic publishing’s incredible resilience. Quote: “Unlike many other businesses, scholarly publishing remained largely unaffected during the COVID-19 pandemic … publishing remained largely unaffected during the COVID-19 pandemic … because it showed amazing resilience”.
He answers ‘why’ himself, “… embracing and capitalizing on digital advancements” Where the gross margins of the large commercial publishers (already far greater than the ‘evil’ sugary soft drink manufacturers) before COVID have been accelerated by a massive surge in demand and zero marginal costs due to digital distribution. It’s not that publishing is “unaffected” that is amazing, it is that the market has become even less competitive and massively open to price-gouging and profiteering despite all the ‘incredible charity’ of making content that was free at source to be made free to market. Is there a more failed marketplace than scholarly publishing? It’s not resilient it is flourishing. And as long as those of us in the business continue to benefit from serious pay increases and annual bonuses based on increased off-campus access, I don’t think we’ll be challenging the status quo just yet.

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