Choosing scholarly journals: The influence of open access, and journals to avoid

This post is part of a mini-series on my blog, where I’m tying together all my ideas about choosing where to publish. You can look back through previous posts where I start with the most important factors, but this post is about Open Access (OA) and it discusses how to achieve OA, useful sources and journals to perhaps avoid. Concepts of academic freedom and funder/institutional mandates as well as predatory journals are discussed below. A couple of quick tips if you’re in a rush though: check what your journals of choice allow regarding OA on the SherpaRomeo site (& compare this with your research funder’s OA mandate). Or look for an OA journal on DOAJ.

open access logo (opened padlock)

What is Open Access?

Open Access, as defined by the Berlin declaration has two main characteristics:

  1. Content or information is free of cost to the reader – price barrier removed
  2. Content can be freely copied – permission barrier removed

However, people have interpreted the concept of OA fairly widely and not everyone signs up to the Berlin declaration: some “open access” content is not shared in a way that enables free copying, especially from the early days of the OA movement. The Berlin declaration is, for me, the ideal type of OA, since the ability to copy enables text and data mining research techniques, as well as document sharing among readers. SPARC have a helpful post about libre and gratis OA, which might help if you’ve come across these terms to describe different interpretations of the OA concept.

There are also different ways to make your journal article open access, whether libre or gratis: the two main routes are:

  1. Green OA, or repository deposit (often of an early version, but possibly the route giving authors most freedom of choice about journals: read on!)
  2. Gold OA, or choosing a journal where you can either:
    1. pay a fee to “unlock” the article, also known as an Article Processing Charge (APC)
    2. publish for free because the journal is subsidised in some way

More about these two routes follows below.

Why do we want it?

Motivations vary but the reasons why an author might want their article to be OA include:

  1. It is mandated/required by your research funder / institution (more on mandates & policies, below)
  2. You think it’s a good thing that publicly funded research should be available to the public, free of charge
  3. You believe that OA results in your work being shared more quickly and more widely, and enables further research in your field
  4. You think that there is a career advantage to OA, based on a “citation advantage” (this is discussed further below)

It’s also worth noting of course, that some scholars don’t feel motivated to publish their research OA, for example because they believe that subscription/readers fees are reasonable and support their scholarly societies and thus their discipline. However, even non-OA journals may leave the “Green OA” route open to you.

Unlocking content: Green OA

The “green” route to open access is, in principle, suitable for all journal articles (but see below why it might not be, in practice). It involves authors depositing a copy of their journal article into an OA repository, perhaps an institutional repository or a subject repository. So you can theoretically submit to whichever journal suits your work best (discussed earlier in this mini-series) and at the same time deposit your submitted version to your institutional repository, safe in the knowledge that you have now made your work:

  1. available for all to read
  2. visible in new channels online, brought to new audiences
  3. more likely to get cited (although the citation advantage for Green OA isn’t huge. I like this balanced view of the citation advantage for deposited articles)
  4. archived as a back-up to the published “version of record” and for future generations
  5. available for others to copy and use – among other benefits of OA

However, it’s not that easy being green…

puzzled green cartoon frog

There is one major hurdle to achieving Green OA: your authors’ agreement that you signed with the publisher of that journal. This is sometimes called an Exclusive Licence to Publish, or a Copyright Transfer Agreement. So, if you are an author then read what you sign, and keep a copy along with your journal article drafts so that you will know in future what is and is not likely to be allowed under copyright law. It helps to have a folder for draft versions of your article anyway, as these are the ones that may be suitable for deposit, and I’ve always been a fan of the Versions toolkit from LSE, when it comes to tracking your article versions. So add screenshots of whatever tick boxes or terms and conditions you’re agreeing to when you submit your article, into that folder.

Find out what mandates apply to your research

Many authors are aiming for Open Access in order to meet a policy or mandate from their funder or at their research institution, which requires them to publish their work in an Open Access way. Often these policies expect “gratis OA” where both price and permission barriers are removed. Not all journals’ policies will allow you to do this in the “green” way, although they may also offer a Gold OA route (see below). SherpaJuliet summarises the requirements of many research funders and attempts to help you match these to journal policies, as listed on SherpaRomeo and helping authors to choose journals which will meet everyone’s needs.

Publisher & journal policies

SherpaRomeo provides overviews of publisher restrictions that affect whether or not Green OA is possible. Don’t just rely on the overviews though: check out their links to publisher sites for more information and the most updated perspective. Note that SherpaRomeo don’t have historical data about what journals included in author agreements from the past, which is why it’s important to keep a copy of what you signed. Typical restrictions (which might clash with funder or institution OA policies) include:

  • early versions only: this assumes that you have kept clear records of which version was your submitted one, also known as the pre-print. And that you have a copy of the final version after peer review but before typesetting and formatting into the final version, sometimes known as the post-print but also confusingly sometimes also called a pre-print. These are also sometimes called your manuscript, and it is not uncommon for researchers to feel that their early versions should not be publicly available: this varies across disciplines and perhaps is affected at the individual article level by how much polish the peer review process has actually added.
  • you can only deposit in certain places: sometimes publishers have only allowed authors to put copies onto personal web pages and not allowed deposit in repositories.
  • after an embargo period: it’s fairly typical that even if you deposit immediately upon submission, an embargo period of 6, 12, 24 or 36 months (or more!) is required after the date of publication, before your repository version can go live to the public. Most institutional repositories can handle this, so when you make your submission of your manuscript, deposit to the repository and set an embargo countdown.
  • no further copying allowed: or restrictions on further copying of the repository version are to be applied, essentially restricting you to achieving “libre OA” where the price barriers are removed, but permission barriers remain in place.

Copying/re-use enabled by Creative Commons Licences

If you are able to make a Green OA deposit that allows “gratis OA” (so permission to copy is something that you can grant) then you will probably attach a “CC-BY” licence to your article in the repository. This is just one of many different types of licences that Creative Commons make available, and it basically means that others may use your content in any way, so long as they attribute it properly to you.

You can read lots more about Creative Commons licences on their website: they are behind images available for re-use on sites like Flickr and Pixabay, because not only are their licences legal documents with clear explanations for the lay person, but they also have a computer-readable layer. I’m a big fan!

If you’re attaching a licence to your own article, you will need to be careful of any third-party copyright content in your article. For example a photograph or illustration that someone else allowed you to use: what permissions can you now grant to others? If they used a CC-BY licence then it’s fine for you to use the same licence. However, if they used a CC-BY-SA or “share-alike” licence then you must also use CC-BY-SA. Anyway, do read more on the CC website!

Gold Open Access

golden coins, stacked & spread

This is where the author (or their institution, or funder) pays an Article Processing Charge (APC) in order to unlock the content so that it is free to read and available to copy and re-use. Nothing else needs to change for Gold OA to be achieved, and essentially this is about a new business model for the publisher: their income is achieved in a different way.

It may even be free for the author if the journal’s costs are sponsored in some way, for example journals published by a university or funder, or indeed traditional journals who want to support research from scholars in lower-income countries. Some journals are entirely Gold OA, and will be listed on the DOAJ which is perhaps the most comprehensive listing, but it’s not the only way to find OA titles:

Of the 21 500 journals tracked by Scopus, an abstract and citation database, around 3500 are gold OA titles.

This quote is from relatively recent article (May 2017) in Physics Today which discusses lots more about the business model and economics of Gold OA. Many abstract and indexing databases will support searches for OA journals. The Open Research site has some useful ideas, too, to help authors choose the right OA journal. (More on quality questions coming up, below!)

Hybrid journals & Gold OA

Some journals (often well established ones) allow authors to pay APCs to achieve Gold OA on an individual article basis, while other articles are locked only to subscribers: these journals are called “hybrid”. Sometimes funders might not want to pay Gold OA fees for hybrid journals: this is typical in Germany, and strictness over OA, price of APCs supported and type of journals supported could be construed as restriction of the right of academic freedom.

The fear with “hybrid” is that publishers make money twice (so-called “double dipping”): once from authors and then again from those who subscribe to journals. Offsetting schemes for subscribers with open pricing models help to remove such fears but openness and clarity are needed for this to work. In any case, some believe that if there is no progress towards a journal becoming wholly OA then the hybrid situation doesn’t help the academic community in the long term.

A very thorough discussion of the hybrid journal situation can be found on Cambridge University’s excellent “Unlocking research” blog, but part of the picture involves generally higher costs for APCs in hybrid journals than in OA journals – perhaps because the hybrid journals are those longer established and so claiming more prestige. Anyway, do read Cambridge’s blogpost for a fuller picture of the issues with hybrid journals and lots of further reading.

Lower quality?

One of my first criteria for authors when choosing where to submit articles, was journal reputation. It’s important that OA journals are not thought to be of lower quality, if your research publication is to enhance your CV. Indeed, it is important that OA journals are equally as good at improving and filtering for quality as traditional journals if scholarly communication is to continue in the known, tried and trusted way. (That said, there is room for improvement in the known, tried and trusted way – see earlier blogposts about peer review.)

More new OA journals are being launched all the time (although note that DOAJ’s steadily climbing total took a dive last year when they tightened their listing criteria), and new journals don’t have years of quality track-record or experience of quality filtering processes behind them. So authors may feel that a new and OA journal is less of a “safe bet” when it comes to gaining CV prestige. However, not all OA journals are new! And many have been launched by publishers with good track-records and experience. Many OA journals follow exactly the same peer review and editorial processes as traditional journals, although some OA journals and publishers are innovating too (PeerJ and F1000 spring to mind). Sometimes an “up-and-coming” journal that will process your article quickly and meet all your funder/institution requirements is just what you’re looking for…

Building a name: mega-journals

PLoS ONE is one of the longer-established OA journals (10 years). It is also a pioneer of the so-called “mega-journal”, an innovation where the journal publishes articles across many different fields and disciplines rather than specialising. With the mega-journal, usually there is no restriction in terms of page numbers, articles per issue or indeed any issues or volumes: in this type of journal, articles simply go live when they are ready. Peer review is based on soundness of the research only as there is no requirement to match the subject or more specific mission of the journal. This has advantages (speed!) but can make it harder for the journal to get known for quality across all the fields it covers, and perhaps that’s why PLoS have a suite of journals these days.

You can read lots more in a recent article with the title “Open Access mega-journals: The future of scholarly communication or academic dumping ground? A review.”

Cascading systems

I think that the large publishing houses’ cascading systems may have something to do with accusations of lower quality for OA journals. After all, if you’re told that your article is rejected from your journal of choice after peer review, but accepted to another journal (possibly a mega-journal) where you have to pay a fee, then you might feel that the journal that accepts the article is of lower quality. But it could just be a question of subject-match and relevance, and cascading systems do help authors to find a publication route more quickly.

In essence, quality isn’t really about OA or non-OA, but of course there are lower quality OA journals. I’ve written about identifying quality journals before, but read more below about predatory journals in this context. I think that because APCs are being paid by authors, you need to be able to identify the best place for your article and also for the public funding that is often behind OA funds that cover APCs. This is where libraries and librarians can help!

“Predatory” journals: journals to avoid

the beak and head of a hawk

There have been some more unscrupulous players who have seen Gold OA funds as a money-spinner, so that they can harvest APCs while providing little more than a website where an article sits. The unscrupulous players solicit submissions to their journal with not-very-well written e-mail invitations to authors, but of course non-native speakers of English might not find it easy to spot that the emails are badly written. And not all solicitations are necessarily from unscrupulous players – although it would make me check such a journal out very thoroughly indeed.

Such players have been called “predatory” publishers, or their journals labelled “predatory” journals. It’s a phrase that was used in Beall’s list, which was essentially a blacklist, and it was a convenient way to categorise publishers who offered little to the academic community, while making massive profits from APCs for Gold OA. Cabell’s blacklist takes over where Beall’s list left off, focussing on behaviours that might ring alarm bells. I think that the key to any blacklist is that it is clear about what has been investigated and found lacking – and how uptodate it is.

What makes a “predator”

I think it’s worth considering at this stage, what authors want from scholarly journals. I’d like to focus on 3 main criteria:

  • Quality assurance: polish the article and publish it alongside other high quality work.
  • Bring it to the attention of the right (scholarly & disciplinary) audiences (thus the field advances & the author(s) gain “intellectual territory”)
  • Do the above as quickly as possible !

Quality and speed aren’t always compatible elements: add in the publisher’s need to make money and manage costs, and you get some innovative journals which makes it difficult to spot the ones that are doing things that are not in the interests of the academic community.  The Think.Check.Submit. pages are a good place to explore if you want to check a journal out for yourself, but I would also want to ensure that a journal offers features like those listed below.

Predatory journals might lack:

  1. High quality website with other articles of high quality, perhaps from prestigious authors
  2. Articles are issued with DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers)
  3. Journal is indexed in important abstracting and indexing databases for my field, especially citation tracking tools (check this by searching those databases, don’t just take the journal website’s word for it!)
  4. Publisher is a member of industry good practice & standards organisations like COPE, OASPA and CrossRef
  5. Journal is listed on DOAJ and meets their transparency and best practice criteria.

In summary

Make sure that you know exactly what you want from your journal publisher, when choosing a journal to submit your manuscript to. This may or may not include Open Access, but I’m sure that it will include markers of quality, and that’s something that your subject expertise, reading and contacts can help you to identify, quite apart from the clues discussed in this blogpost.

Next in my mini-series: reaching the right audience.

Images credits: CC0 via Pixabay


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