Has Open Access become a 'band-aid' for an historical 'innovation-gone-wrong'?

Has Open Access become a 'band-aid' for an historical 'innovation-gone-wrong'?

In this blog post, we examine key historical moments in research assessment, access to, and affordability of published research, to explain why Open Access and its economic models have become an incremental solution to a problem requiring a revolutionary change.

Open access: a change in publishing with a limited reach

Open Access is a movement and policy directive dedicated to reforming the closed or subscription-based gatekeeping of scientific research. In the subscription-based (when readers pay) model scientists communicate the results of their research, by submitting it to publishers, and in many cases to one of a small number of large commercial publishers, considered to be an oligopoly. Publishers 'process' this work, then provide academic institutions (i.e., libraries) with an 'opportunity' to buy back research via journal subscriptions. This is neither sound economically, nor is it conducive to the growth of scientific knowledge. Open Access has therefore become a critically assessed and well-researched subject, focused on alternative approaches to publishing - i.e., green, gold, and hybrid journal publishing, and Article Processing Fees (APCs) paid by institutions or scholars themselves (author pays model). As a global project there is ample evidence that Open Access has a limited reach.

Journal citation indexing and ranking (Assessment)

Dr. Eugene Garfield is a renowned figure in certain scientific communities for having founded the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), and for his innovation in automated journal citation indexing - the first Science Citation Index. Dr. Garfield lived a long and successful life (until the age of 91!); long enough to see his Science Citation Index grow to be one of the most useful reference tools for scholars and scientometricians worldwide. Today, this index has been expanded commercially to include additional products, which are now part of Clarivate's trademarked Web of Science™.

Dr. Garfield's vision was not only to trace the history of ideas, but develop a tool to assist university/college libraries with their journal selection needs: a one-time legitimate process that had already been on the minds of other scientists. Gross and Gross (1927) are credited by Garfield for being the first to ask: "What files of scientific periodicals are needed in a college library to prepare the student for advanced work... ?". The answer was to "compile a journal list” considered to be "indispensable", and to base this list on an "arbitrary standard of some kind by which to determine the desirability of purchasing a particular journal" (p. 1713). That arbitrary standard was to focus on their citedness. Years later, Brodman (1944) became a critic of Gross and Gross's (1922) quantitative method, then shortly after, Fussler (1949) took up the task again of listing leading journals. However, it was Dr. Garfield, along with his innovation in electronic indexing, who introduced the Journal Impact Factor (JIF).

For a long time, the Science Citation Index had a positive impact. Although Garfield both witnessed and warned against the misuse of the JIF when evaluating individuals, he is ‘blissfully’ unaware of the scale of problems resulting from the use of the Journal Impact Factor. Now, we are looking down a long dark hallway leading to what some might call 'grimpact'. If we exit this dark hallway, we veer into a lit room called 'Open Access', but, how does this relate to research assessment, and when did we get here? To answer this, we can go further back in history, when science first handed itself over to the profitable business of scholarly publishing.

The growth of commercial publishing and journals (Access)

When scientific letters, reports, and later periodicals first appeared (i.e., the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) there were good reasons to outsource publishing to fledgling businesses. Early editors, like Henry Oldenburg (i.e., founding editor of the Philosophical Transactions), were keen to generate income, but soon recognized how difficult it was to process, print, collect subscription fees and manage society publications without accruing financial losses. Commercial publishing grew at one time from a legitimate and realistic need. Editors required the support, and were for the most part, relieved to hand over the work. In the beginning scientific publishing was not profitable, but gradually it became more so. New businesses were founded, and for the past three and half centuries we have seen journals grow at an exponential rate, amounting to more than 30,000, though according to recent estimates, this number falls woefully short.

Digital publishing and pay models (Affordability)

We have now moved further and further away from this print-based history, having stepped firmly into the digital age. Digital publishing is less costly, and affords a significantly broader reach. However, the commercial subscription model paired with the ISI-Citation Index and elite selection of journals (based on the JIF) contributes not only to the evaluation problem, but the access problem as well.

With the legacy of print maintained, Open Access is transitioning towards a ‘flipped’ publishing economy solution, with an increasing market concentration of academic publishers. This development is pushed by science policy and transformative agreements, but also by the acquisitions of Open Access publishers. Consumption-side business models are slowly being replaced by supply-side-business models, but we cannot assume that there will always be enough money in the academic system. Some scholars can benefit from Plan S, which allows them to rely on public research funding to make research results immediately accessible, but such affordability is not available to all. Research shows that when scholars intend to submit a new manuscript for publication, consideration is still given to the prestige attached to a highly-ranked journal. Empirical studies in the field of biomedicine have also shown how knowledge production is consolidated around the JIF. Many journals are simply privileged with a high rank, because of a strong age bias. And, in the age of AI, new empirical research has found that a journal’s impact factor is a bad predictor for ‘thoroughness’ and ‘helpfulness’ of reviews. 

Thus, it seems more important than ever to ask ourselves how we can continue with Open Access, when the technology behind indexing, and the journal reputation economy has added to continued problems.

Has Open Access become a ‘band-aid’ for what has essentially become a technological ‘innovation-gone-wrong'?

Open Access Ideology

Most academics are keen to support Open Access. Some are even Open Access ideologists. Certain ideologists may be refusing to publish content in any journal which is currently not freely available and fully accessible. Some might even refuse to carry out peer review for publishers that they do not respect (note: Why should I volunteer my time and efforts to support a greedy industry?)

An approach like this, with all good intentions, has a downside. Though it is meant to put pressure on the commercial publishing industry, it is socially and scientifically unaffordable for many members of our broader scientific community, especially at a time when peer review is in crisis. Scholars are responsible for peer review, yet find it difficult amidst this tension between open access and paywalled content. The last thing that we need is fewer reviewers to call upon, or at least one less in situations where certain researchers have little choice but to publish in one of the commercially indexed, paywalled journals.

Perhaps support for Open Access no longer demands that we focus solely on current ideologies attributed to this mandate. Is it not time to exit the well-lit OA-room and trip down that long dark hallway again, towards a radically new, and disruptive socio-technical innovation?

Socio-Technical Innovation

The creation of a systemic change, or shift in perceptions and behaviour patterns within our global scientific community implies that innovation starts with some sort of ‘symbolic strategy’. A strategy, which encourages scholars and institutions worldwide, to relinquish the symbolic nature of journal rank and prestige, especially in evaluation systems.

Dr. Garfield was a socio-technical innovator for his time. He took us from the print age into the electronic age. We have also been introduced to the semantic Web, and now we are at the development stages of Web 5.0 - the open, linked, and intelligent Web. Let us not forget that Tim Berners-Lee’s idea behind the Web in the first place was to keep track of scientific information! In addition to a symbolic shift within the scientific/scholarly communication system we can move towards a material or tangible shift.

Imagine, therefore; a reputation economy in science/scholarship, which is not attached to journal rank and title. What is a scientific journal, if not its editor-in-chief, editorial board, and thousands of volunteer academics worldwide who peer review submitted manuscripts? Many, if not most scholars believe in preserving the journal, and we will likely find it difficult to forget about them. Journals perform a constituent and organising role; a tangible outlet for scientific fields and disciplines. But, if we open ourselves up to more radical solutions, we might rather focus on preserving the registering, curating, evaluating, disseminating, and archiving function of journals, whilst keeping in mind that their real value lies in the communities that they create.

Editors and editorial teams, for example, may choose to forgo journal titles altogether and exit a commercial publisher (Note: Exits do happen, as in the case of an editor and editorial board leaving a commercial publisher to form a new Open Access journal). In Shakespearian terms, what is in a name if ‘by any other name’ the rose would ‘smell as sweet!’ (i.e., journal name is different, but the editorial community is the same, and scholars continue to respect that editorial community)? In a similar vein, editorial boards might be encouraged to leave a commercial publisher, and move to an Open Access International Scholarship Space: A space focused on managing and maintaining digitally transformed scholarly records, which fulfils the traditional functions of a journal, ready to adapt to any future needs.

Imagine a solution where an editor and editorial team are assigned to a topic management center of their own creation (i.e., a kind of digital library or scholarly digital infrastructure). At each online center, there could be a description of the topic area, including the specialty research areas of the editorial team. So, for example, if we renounce a commercially published journal called the “Journal of the Information Age” and renounce the titled journal called “Quantitative Studies of Quantitativeness”, our international community would then think about putting an article up for review at the “A Topic-Editorial Team” or the “B Topic-Editorial Team”.

Whatever solution we choose, it starts with abandoning journal titles and rank then shifting to an innovative international socio-technological platform, based on key journal functions. The result would still be accessible research, still peer reviewed, and valued according to what should be valued: editorial teams and engaged peer review.

This solution may be realised in many different shapes or forms, and may not necessarily solve all problems. We are not aiming to be strictly prescriptive here. However, it would put the scholarly record keeping firmly back into our own hands, and not in the hands of commercial ownership, though any kind of solution can include some commercial service providers (e.g., technical expertise, administrative support; style-setting/XML). It would also enable us to give more attention to other issues, like challenges associated with peer review. Taking such steps would be difficult, but we believe that the international science community is ready, and that there is more to gain through technological innovation.

Header image created with GPT-4/Dall-E


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