The Open Access Journal Rant

I am sick of getting emails asking me to contribute to the International Journal of Materials Psychology, The Galactic Journal of the Science and Engineering of Exotic Titles, and so on. However attractive it is on the surface, I think there are big problems with open access.

I can see why it could be good. Much research is publicly funded, so why is it published behind a paywall? It has already been paid for. The big publishers do not pay for content, so their business model looks pretty outrageously greedy — send us your best work, we will publish it and sell it back to you and your institute. We will not pay you for it. Nearly as good as running a casino.

Beall

Paradoxically, it is the cost of subscription that is a strength of the conventional model. Periodically, university libraries have to tighten their belts, maybe cut some subscriptions. Usually, they’ll consult the relevant researchers, who will suggest what journals can be cut. They may keep download statistics and look for unused journals. Therefore, if a journal is charging a high subscription fee, it needs to be providing a quality service. Also, since it is not charging authors for publishing their content, it’s business model is not linked directly to the absolute number of papers it publishes. Both these things push the journals to provide higher quality. Some even promote their rejection rate. What is the first thing you look at when evaluating an unfamiliar journal? Impact factor. How does a journal get a good impact factor? Essentially, reputation and quality of content feeding back into each other. Nature papers, Science papers, Physical Review Letters, JACS papers; these are the ones scientists look for in each others’ CVs. These are the ones that win grants and make reputations. They get citations.

In open access, the author pays the journal. The journal notionally uses the money to ensure good quality refereeing, and to actually publish the work. But the big problem is the direct link between income and number of papers published. There is a big and immediate incentive to publish a lot of papers. Being more selective and trying to build reputation is perhaps a better long-term strategy, but from the author’s point of view it becomes a major exercise to determine whether an open access publisher is worth publishing with or really just a vanity press. Of course, your first point of call must be here, Beall’s List.

Some OA publishers who seem to have some credibility have resorted to trying to buy material that will boost their profile. Hindawi, who used to be on Beall’s list as probably OK but one to watch, have solicited long review articles and offered honorariums of around $1000. This is presumably to lift them above the sloshing sea of lightweight, vanity press OA publishers, which is itself an indication of just how much rubbish is out there. The articles are supposed to be long and have many references, presumably to link them in to the existing literature and help make Hindawi part of the establishment, and also to vacuum up the citations that might have gone to the papers subsumed into the review.

Some OA journals are one of a suite of journals from a reputable source. Examples include IUCrJ (International Union of Crystallography), PRX (American Physical Society), the New Journal of Physics (Institute of Physics) and so on. These do have page charges, but they come from organisations that have reputations to lose, which is crucial.

The bottom line for me is think very carefully about publishing in an OA journal. Is there strong evidence that the quality is good enough? That could be a convincing array of metrics (impact factors and so on, though I am not fond of metrics), the fact that a journal comes from a reputable source (I would be happy to publish in any of IUCrJ, PRX and NJP), or (for a young journal) an evaluation of the papers they have published, or evidence that the journal stands behind its content and is working to make it good.

This might make it hard for a new publisher to break in, but frankly it should be. Every week I get a dozen unsolicited emails from different open access publishers I have never heard of, often with a mention of the cost buried somewhere on their webpage, an address in Egypt or the Bahamas, a huge editorial board of people I have never heard of, and no papers in their previous issues that I would want to read. The idea of OA is nice. But the invidious feedback mechanism that promotes vanity publishing and low standards undermines the whole idea, except for a few special cases.

As a rough rule, if you’ve never found a useful paper in a journal, don’t put your good work in there. And even if you have found a nice piece of work, make sure it’s not an outlier.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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