What should society journals do about open access?
July 7, 2012
I got an interesting email a couple of days ago from Robin Wilson:
Something which I thought may be of interest to a number of people who are keen on OA is your views on what learned societies should do about the closed journals they currently run. I’m particularly interested in this as I have just joined the Publications Committee of a (smallish) learned society in the UK who publish a journal through Taylor and Francis which is currently closed access.
In some ways I want to go to the next meeting and suggest that they make it Green OA – but I can’t see that happening because it brings in a significant revenue stream for the society, thus allowing them to charge far less for their annual conference, employ admin staff, publish a quarterly newsletter etc. Gold OA is possible, but would restrict publication to those whose departments or funding bodies would pay the fee – and as this journal isn’t right at the top of its field the argument may go “Why publish in X for $3000 when I could (try to) publish in Y for free!
It’s an important question. Before I try to answer it, let me make it clear that I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment on this subject. I am an extremely junior researcher — not even a postdoc, I have an honorary position. I have never been an editor of any journal, nor on any publication committee. Regarding the flagship journal of our discipline, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, I am not even a member of the society that produces it, having not renewed my SVP membership after the society’s cowardly abdication of responsibility over Aetogate. So I have no authority, no experience, and no influence. Anyone who is interested in my opinion anyway is welcome to read on. The rest of you should read this comic instead.
Pros and cons
First, there are vcry good reasons why society journals should go open access. Here are some:
- It’s in line with societies’ missions. For example the SVP says “The object of the society is to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology and to serve the common interests … of all persons concerned with the history, evolution, comparative anatomy, and taxonomy of vertebrate animals”. Without question, freeing the research in its journal would be a huge step towards fufilling that mission.
- There is a significant citation advantage. This graph shows the changing impact factor of Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica through time. It’s on a definite downward trajectory from 2000 till 2006; then it goes open-access with BMC, and immediately switches to a strong upward trajectory.
- Increasingly, authors are reluctant to give their best work non-open journals. (For myself, I no longer give any of my work to non-open journals; I realise that not everyone is in a position to make such a blanket commitment, but many people make it at least part of their decision process.)
On the other hand, there are also reasons why society journals might want to remain subscription-only. Here are a couple:
- As Robin noted, the big one is subscription revenue. From a quick browse of the SVP web-site, I can’t find any accounts (which is a bit of a transparency fail), but I am guessing that JVP subscriptions are a pretty big part of the society’s income. That income might be threatened by going open-access.
- A journal that switches to Gold OA (i.e. the author or his institution pays a publication fee) may find that it gets fewer submissions, as authors switch to free-to-submit venues.
(I think I have all the major pros and cons here — did I miss any?)
We know from many independent studies — not just anecdotes like the graph above — that the open-access citation advantage is real. A good summary is found in Swan (2010), which surveys 31 studies of the OACA, showing that 27 of them found an advantage of between 45% are 600%. I did a rough-and-ready calculation on the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often — that is, 2.76 times as often — as non-open.
By contrast, we have no actual evidence for either of the negatives. To be clear, I’m not saying that the downsides are necessarily not true, only that we have to rely on our intuition about them rather than hard facts. We don’t actually know what effect a switch to Gold OA would have on submissions rates, because there are no studies that analyse this. (At least, none that I know of — can anyone enlighten me?) The example of Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica doesn’t help us here: its impact-factor increase says nothing about how many articles it published, only about how widely cited they were.
Similarly, no study has ever shown that Green OA — allowing or even encouraging authors to deposit preprints in repositories — harms subscription revenue. In fact there is good evidence that Green OA either does not affect subscription revenues or, surprisingly, actually increases them by acting as an advertisement for the “official” versions of papers. For example, Swan (2005) wrote:
We asked the American Physical Society (APS) and the Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd (IOPP) what their experiences have been over the 14 years that arXiv has been in existence. How many subscriptions have been lost as a result of arXiv? Both societies said they could not identify any losses of subscriptions for this reason and that they do not view arXiv as a threat to their business (rather the opposite — this in fact the APS helped establish an arXiv mirror site at the Brookhaven National Laboratory).
A Randomised Controlled Trial indicates that making preprints visible in PEER repositories is associated with more traffic to the publisher sites at the aggregate level, but this varies by publisher and subject. Overall, PEER is associated with a significant, if relatively modest, increase in publisher downloads, in the confidence range 7.5% to 15.5%.
The likely mechanism is that PEER offers high quality metadata, allows a wider range of search engine robots to index its content than the typical publisher, and thus helps to raise the digital visibility of scholarly content.
Gold, Green, subscription or hybrid?
So what should subscription-based society journals do? Stay as they are? Switch to the author-pays Gold OA model that has served Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica so well? Support Green OA by encouraging preprint deposit? Or become hybrid journals (as JVP is now) by offering optional open access within otherwise subscription-based journal?
It will come as no surprise that I think subscription-only is a disaster, and that some kind of change away from that is necessary. A scholarly society simply can’t best serve its discipline by locking its work behind a paywall. It just can’t.
I also have an increasing sense that “hybrid OA” (i.e. a subscription journal with an optional open-access fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. I’ve heard that JVP‘s optional-OA uptake has been disappointing, too — probably the true reason for the recent price-cut. My guess is that this is pretty representative. So I think that hybrid is really a bit of a fig-leaf that’s used by publishers and journals that don’t really want to do OA but feel they have to be seen to be doing something.
So journals that do want to move to open access have to choose between Gold and Green. My best judgement is that Green is easier in the short term, but that most journals will want to go Gold in the end. The advantage of Green at this point is that it doesn’t require the societies to actually do anything — just to tell authors that they are welcome to self-archive preprints, after revising for reviewer comments, but before copy-editing (if any) and typesetting. A forward-looking society might host an archive for this purpose, but that is not necessary.
The thing is, a society that is serious about open access — that really wants that 176% citation advantage — will need to not just grudgingly allow Green OA, but actively shout about it. That’s maybe the single most important point here. Open access is not a threat to be deflected, it’s an opportunity to be grasped. The journals, and societies, that do that most effectively will be the ones that flourish. Right now, JVP is dead to me, and to some few other palaeontologists I know. I’d love that to change.
(Going forward, I am not sure that Green will remain viable indefinitely, but that is a subject for another post.)
- Swan, Alma (2005) Open access self-archiving: An Introduction.
- Swan, Alma (2010) The Open Access citation advantage: Studies and results to date.
 Yes, yes, I know.