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December 6, 2012, by Warren Pearce

The end of journals? Open access, impact and the production of knowledge

Under direction from the government, there is a drive to make publicly funded research open access; that is, if you go to the website where the journal article resides, non-subscribers will not be met by a page asking you to part with $30+ for the privilege of reading. Research articles will be free to read….but not free to publish. Instead of the publishing companies being funded by university libraries paying for journal subscriptions, income streams will instead come from authors. There are various models of open access available, but the underlying principle is that authors pay for their article to be published in a journal. The cost will generally be around £900 to £2000, which will theoretically be built into future proposals for research funding. While there is widespread support for tearing down the paywalls around research findings, changing publishing’s funding model raises some significant issues, not least for the social sciences where monographs (books) and other non-journal outputs play a more significant role than in the natural sciences (although this may be on the decline).  If you are new to the debate,  Here, I will concentrate on just one of the most far-reaching potential consequences – the withering away of the journal.

Are publishers worth the money…?

Placing the cost of publishing onto the author brings the role of publishing companies in the journal merry-go-round into sharp focus. Despite efforts by the industry to defend their role, it is striking to me that academic publishing’s unique selling point – peer review – is the one which is almost entirely unfunded, relying on the goodwill of academics to act as reviewers or editors. Having acted as a co-editor on the ENQUIRE postgraduate journal over the last 12 months, I have seen first-hand how the entire reviewing, editing and publishing process can be done for practically zero (financial) cost. This relies on a lot of goodwill and time, volunteered in the name of improving academic knowledge. Publishing companies may protest that they add value through superior promotion, websites, tagging, formatting etc. However, there are now low/no-cost models available around publicising papers via blogposts on which come pre-baked with attractive user interfaces and are well-indexed by search engines platforms (WordPress, Tumblr etc). Writing such a post also provides a useful way of writing a ‘plain English’ summary of articles which are often written in academic language. For an example, see Andy Balmer’s  excellent blog post summary of his recent journal article on sex offenders and lie detection.

Are journal titles proxies for quality?

This is all very well, but the suspicion remains that the impact agenda is being driven by the status of the journals in which papers are published, which acts as a proxy for making a judgement on the quality of an article. While publishing companies maintain a stranglehold on the top journals and impact remains central to the HE agenda, these journals will continue to benefit from a stream of submissions from impact-hungry authors. But what if impact becomes less important in academia? Or perhaps more realistically, what if the interpretation of impact changes? The Wellcome Trust, admittedly a private funder, is already very explicit in asking funding applicants to submit their most *significant* publications for consideration, not necessarily those in the ‘best’ journals. This requires funding committees to actually read an article rather than surmise its quality from the journal which publishes it. I find this focus on quality of content heartening.

The future of journals

This leaves the question: what future for journals? I posed this to a panel at the LSE Future of Impact Conference on Tuesday. Stephen Curry‘s answer was closest to my own thoughts, which I will paraphrase as ‘journals were a good idea in the seventeenth century, but the idea is now coming apart at the seams’. If (and it is an if) we move to a focus on intrinsic quality of content, rather than the perceived quality of the journal itself, in conjunction with a drive towards open access based on a Creative Commons-BY licence allowing free reuse and republication of material (with attribution), what role remains for journals? Organising peer review perhaps, but why not have editorial boards break away from publishing houses and organise themselves more explicitly as subject-specific research networks, or as specifically tied to universities – a new form of university press perhaps? At least that way the ‘value added’ by a journal – chiefly through peer review – can be kept within the HE sector rather than leaching out to multinational publishing houses.

Journals decoupled?

The picture I paint here is one of current trends being taken to their logical conclusion, where the scholarly journal becomes decoupled from traditional publishers; moving to leaner models of closed peer review or incorporating more open refereeing and alternative metrics for judging paper quality. They are by no means certain to take hold quickly – there is a lot of inertia and interests in trying to maintain the status quo, as well as many good reasons for maintaining the expertise of peer review. However, public policy and technological advances have come together to challenge the traditional model of scholarly publishing. Academics and their institutions should consider responding boldly to ensure these changes serve the public interest above all others.

Further reading on open access

There is a great overview by Harvard’s Peter Suber and a good beginner’s guide to the different open access models by Bill Hubbard and here at Making Science Public we compiled a very handy round-up of views and policy positions earlier in the year.

Image credit: Movable Type galley, by Xose Castro

Posted in Impactopen access