An Imaginary Dialogue in My Head About Academic Journal Publishing [rant]

An imaginary dialogue has been rolling in my brain for a little bit, prompted in part by a rhetorical question by Nancy Sims on twitter.

This was prompted by the current furor over Sci-Hub, which uses “donated” credentials to share PDFs of research with scholars who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them.

Academic authors have signed away their copyrights to the publishers, which means the authors no longer control access to their own work.

The reason they don’t have access is because their libraries can’t afford to subscribe to the journals in which they are publishing their work.

The reason their libraries can’t afford to subscribe to them is because, in a nutshell, academics (who mostly work for non-profits) provide free (or close to free) labor (editorial, peer review, etc.) to for-profit publishers who then turn around and sell their work back to libraries at a significant markup. (More explanation from Scientific American for the curious, and this is only one tiny part of the literature).

Librarians have, for quite a while now, been trying to promote Open Access journals as an alternative. Every time this comes up, I have this dialogue in my head with faculty resistant to changing the way that we work (I, too, am faculty, on my campus). So I thought I’d write it down, as it is, in part, related to the audience questions I got when I spoke about Open Access at Governor’s State a couple of years ago.

Common objections I’ve heard:

But How Can I Get Published If I Don’t Sign The Publisher’s Contract?

Publisher contracts (like ANY contracts) are not set in stone. Don’t just sign the boilerplate, if it doesn’t allow for open access of some kind.  SPARC provides LOTS of info about this for authors.

But How Will I Get Tenure/Promoted If I Don’t Publish In The Expensive Journals?

SHORT TERM: There are plenty of Open Access journals and subject based repositories full of excellent peer reviewed research. You could join your colleagues there.

LONGER TERM: We need to update our promotion & tenure documents so that we get appropriate credit for open access work. There is nothing stopping us from adding reputable open access journals to our “approved” lists, or from encouraging open access publishing through a departmental or university-wide mandate. We came up with those guidelines; we have the power to change them. Heck, we could make open access articles worth more credit than non-open articles if we wanted. (And we should consider it, given that they have demonstrably higher impact factors.) The best way to do that? Already tenured? Do your junior colleagues a favor and serve on the T&P bylaws committee and advocate for those changes. 

But How Do I Know If These Open Access Journals Are Any Good?

Check the Directory of Open Access Journals. Look for members of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association which has a code of ethics and a Think. Check. Submit. website that helps you figure out if journals are any good.

Still don’t trust it? Start your own open access journal using open access software. Invite colleagues you trust. Create the standards you want to see.

But Who Will Pay The Open Access Publishing Fees?

That local answer will vary. The good news is that the vast majority of open access journals have no fees; those fees that do exist need not be paid out of pocket.

If you are in a field that is grant dependent, write open access fees into your grant budgets as line items. All of the major national funding agencies encourage open access publishing (NSF, for example), and require data management plans.

Alternately, advocate for an open access publishing fund on your campus (NIU has one, for example) through your libraries or your provost’s office. Your library may have been pushing for this already; have you checked?

But What About Unintended Consequences?

Every choice has unintended consequences. The current unsustainable journal funding model we are in is a direct result of unexpected consequences (academia didn’t seem to expect the for-profit industry to gobble up all those journals and sell them back at a ridiculous premium, did we?).

So, what’s the harm in at least trying something different? Right now, we can’t afford to keep going forward in the same direction.

Okay? Okay.



About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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