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There are so many debates and criticisms around the topic of publishers, who are accused of charging excessive fees for access when all the work of the journal is done for free by academics. But why don't some of the big journals just go independent and open access? What do publishers actually provide as a benefit?

These are some of the things that publishers might provide, but it seems to me that they are easily replaced:

Typesetting

I edited a postgraduate journal and typeset it myself on LaTeX. It looks as good as any other journal. Surely there are many students familiar with LaTeX who would typeset for not much money, especially if people submitting papers were required at the minimum to provide an endnote/bibtex file of references and use proper document styles etc.

Paywall

Obviously, this would not be a problem for open access journals.

Promotion

Do academic journal publishers really need publishers to do this? Do publishers actually do this?

Website

I design and host my website on Weebly. It looks professional and costs hardly anything.

Printing

Well it's the 21st century, so print articles out yourself or read on a tablet. If this is absolutely necessary, print on demand.


It seems to me at least that to cover the costs of typesetting and webhosting, a journal would require hardly any money. They could raise this through a combination of charging authors (but not crazy money), donations and grants.

Either I'm missing something really important that publishers do or there is something holding back the likes of Mind (top-ranked philosophy journal) from doing this. All I could come up with was that perhaps publishers own the past content of the journal.


UPDATE

Some great responses below. To summarise, it seems there are broadly two answers to the question:

  1. Journals offer more than I and other people sometimes think (e.g. secure web hosting, submission handling, registering papers with various databases).
  2. There are costs associated with trying to leave a publisher. The name of a journal can be owned by the publisher, and the impact factor etc. are all held along with that. These costs present a barrier that already overworked academics rarely consider taking on.
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    You don't seem to understand how cartels work. ;) – 101010111100 Jun 21 '16 at 10:35
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    My comment was more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, but on a more serious note, the "problem" may be than people just don't care enough about publishers. From my point of view, nothing in my daily life would change if the major journals in my field become open. I've never had troubles accessing papers I need/want, so I doubt that will change. And I don't see any reason why submission practices would change. So the net change, in my case, is precisely zero. And I couldn't care less whether some publisher was lining their pockets. – 101010111100 Jun 21 '16 at 10:56
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    Really? It's a waste of time to reference manually! If you use endnote already, you can just export a file and use it for every submission. As someone who knows about LaTeXing a journal, I can say that a properly styled word document and accompanying endnote file is a world easier to typeset and really isn't much effort to produce. – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 11:00
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    @101010111100 you might not care since you have access, but there are loads of people who don't have access to the articles and it seems like that money going to publishers could be usefully spent elsewhere by universities. Don't get me wrong, since I have access I don't stay awake worrying about it ;) – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 11:11
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    @CapeCode Uh? Maybe this is a bias (I'm in math) of mine, but this seems to be a ridiculous comment. Anyone who submits to arXiv have to provide a bibtex (really a .bbl) file anyway, and I just checked a few (math) journals, many require to provide a LaTeX file for submission + anything necessary to compile it... Including the bibliography files, obviously. I don't think anybody thinks twice about it. – user9646 Jun 21 '16 at 11:25
48

Many journals are publishers' own products, "going solo" makes no sense. It's like asking why Gmail does not segregate from Google. In some cases, professional societies hire publishers to take care of their official publishing organ, I imagine your question relates to these cases. Otherwise, there have been cases of the entire editorial board leaving for another journal, I've heard it happened to a Frontiers journal over concerns on quality, but in this case the journal is still there, just edited by other people.

Running a professional-level journal is not trivial and there are reasons to favor established organizations, commercial or not, to handle that part. These include administration, secure web hosting, a long-term back-up strategy, typesetting, distribution, submitting accurate and complete article metadata to third parties like Pubmed or Web of Science, printing when applicable, etc. and of course finding the money to do all of these.

For many editors, it's a pretty straightforward decision to outsource these hurdles to a specialized organization, be it for profit or not, especially if there is an ongoing issue-free relationship going on for years.

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    Many of the activities you listed I hadn't thought of. I think things are skewed for me as a philosopher, since things like data don't apply. – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 12:11
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    Don't forget a system for handling submission and peer review (reviewer database, automatic handling of deadlines/reminder emails, streamlined decision workflow, transfer to production staff) -- "send out manuscripts per (e)mail" just doesn't scale. The major players (EES, ScholarOne, ManuscriptCentral) are for-profit (if not directly publisher-owned) and are probably used to dealing with bigger fish than single open-access journals (i.e., charge hefty rates). – Christian Clason Jun 21 '16 at 13:21
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    @DavidRowthorn Only hundreds per year? In my field (astrophysics) the journals could easily be dealing with hundreds of new submissions per week. And don't underestimate the typesetting component -- everyone in my field has been exclusively using tex for the last 20+ years, and most of them are terrible at it. – user4512 Jun 21 '16 at 17:22
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    To be honest, Easychair offers an automated submission system for free, arXiv offers web hosting, metadata export and backup for free, and in many fields most of the authors produce decent-quality tex (to the point that some journals have started to exist as "arxiv overlay" only). – Federico Poloni Jun 22 '16 at 6:24
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    @FedericoPoloni that's like asking full professors to rake the leaves in the university yards to save on landscaping contracts, and then saying "look, it's free". – Cape Code Jun 22 '16 at 7:47
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Actually, some journals do successfully go solo, just as you suggest. A nice high-profile example is the Journal of Machine Learning Research, a top-ranked journal that formed when the entire editorial board of Machine Learning resigned to create this free alternative.

This points to the main reason why traditional journals have much inertia. The reason that JMLR could work is because:

  1. A large fraction of the key players in the community coordinated to make the change (thereby immediately granting the new journal a high academic reputation) and,
  2. They were able to arrange sufficient support from their home institutions to bear the start-up costs of organizing the journal.

These are both difficult to arrange, requiring quite a bit of coordination and personal investment, and so it is not surprising that it is rare to happen.

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    Other prominent examples, more recent than JMLR, include Topology and Lingua, replaced by Journal of Topology and Glossa. – Mark Meckes Jun 21 '16 at 14:24
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    @DavidRowthorn For most people, it's not a choice between "accept the system vs. go independent" it's a choice between which of dozens of worthy battles to fight. Is it better to work on an open journal or to improve your institution's undergraduate curriculum or to fight academic harassment or to fight pro-forma judgements based on impact factor or to improve experimental reproducibility or ... or ... or, etc. – jakebeal Jun 21 '16 at 14:43
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    @ jakebeal I'm definitely getting a good idea now of how this situation is maintained. It seems that there are two strands of answer: 1) publisher offers more than I thought; 2) cost (in all senses) of going independent is a greater barrier than I thought in an environment where many barriers of various sorts need to be overcome. – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 14:56
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    @darijgrinberg Absolutely not: if you look, you will notice that many open access journals legitimize themselves in part by declaring their impact factors! – jakebeal Jun 21 '16 at 21:00
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    A further reason why JMLR works is that author are generally capable of writing in LaTeX, so there is no typesetting cost for the journal, besides writing an table of content in HTML. Also indexing services such as Google Scholar make discovery of articles in JMLR easy. JMLR does not need to setup a indexing service on its own website. – Finn Årup Nielsen Jun 22 '16 at 9:06
31

I am going out on a limb here and disagree with Darrin. I think there are plenty of academics who would be both, capable and perfectly willing to run a university- or self-published journal. I think it is an illusion that academics want to do only research, all the time. A lot of (tenured) academics do plenty of things that require lots of time and don't directly contribute to their research, be it writing entry-level text books, maintaining scientific software, communicating their work to the broader masses through events or magazine articles, running for offices in their university or various societies, etc. etc. I fail to see how running a journal would be so different to these activities that no-one would take up the task.

The main reason, in my opinion, why this rarely (although not never) happens is because of legal issues. Most journals (and, in computer science, conferences) are mostly identified through their name, and this name is owned by whoever currently publishes it. For instance, the editorial board of the IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering (TSE) is not free to just decide that the journal now goes self-published. Sure, the editorial board can decide to jointly quit and start a new journal, but it is not guaranteed that the community would see this new journal as a continuation of TSE. Much more likely, the new journal would need to start building a reputation from scratch, which is not easy at all. TSE, in the meantime, would continue even with a completely new editorial board, because I can guarantee you that there would be many qualified new people waiting in the wings for a chance to get into the board of the most important journal in their discipline.

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    "the new journal would need to start building a reputation from scratch" -- I think this is an overstatement. If the community were aware of this new journal's origin, it had the same editorial board and solicited high quality submissions straight away (through known contacts, for example), it wouldn't take long I think – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 12:19
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    @DavidRowthorn At least in my field, the editorial board matters much less than you think. I honestly couldn't even tell you who is in the editorial board of TSE currently. The trademark is the journal, not who happens to currently run it. – xLeitix Jun 21 '16 at 13:05
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    Well it's not that different in my discipline to some extent, but I think if a new journal was set up by the same people who were previously running a top journal then the community would hear about it. I guess one problem is that journal rankings wouldn't follow them though – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 13:22
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    @darijgrinberg And now factor in a big chunk of uncertainty in hordes of pre-tenure academics who are unsure whether their tenure committees and administration bean counters have also got the message ... – xLeitix Jun 21 '16 at 17:00
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    I never doubted the ability of editors. I only questioned if they had the time and or interest to pursue this endeavor. – Darrin Thomas Jun 22 '16 at 2:29
9

I have been thinking about starting a "startup" journal owned by academics in my discipline and it seems to me that getting community support (authors and reviewers + quality content) is by far the biggest challenge. There is a strong feedback cycle where people don't want to submit to you unless you are reputable but you cannot get reputable without good submissions.

Note that the publishers own the ISSN + name and thus the impact factor and all the prestige of the journal - you cannot "move" a journal (and publishers will not be likely to just give it away). You need to start a new one. You are IMHO correct that most of the technical aspects can now be done with little cost that could be easily covered with minor financial support from a university/society.

Another problem is that with a slightly "punk" journal (which you will be, if you do not have money) you may run into trouble getting indexed by Web of Science and thus not get impact factor, which is sadly a necessary thing to attract submissions. While there is no charge to get ISSN (ISSN guidelines) and to submit your journal contents for indexing (WoS guidelines,Scopus info), the people who review the application might be suspicious about you.

Succesful examples exist, e.g. http://www.the-cryosphere.net/ Though I am not sure the journal is completely owned by academics - it seems to be. It nevertheless started quite recently and is reasonably modern in its publishing and pricing policies.

So if you are angry about publishing, you can actually change it - but you need strong support from the community. Good ideas to improve the publication process to fit better with your field than the current one should also help.

See also this question: How is a new academic journal born

  • I sympathise with these difficulties. However, as I said in another comment, I do think there is a distinction between setting up a journal from scratch and setting up a journal that is the unofficial new version of an established journal. – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 13:25
  • I agree, I guess "unofficial new version" is simply quite likely to get support from the community. – Martin Modrák Jun 21 '16 at 14:03
6

Typesetting running a website and many of your other suggestions take time and organizational skills that many academics do not want to invest in.

If you outsource all of this to a publisher it allows you to focus on other projects. Why Chase money to run a journal when you need to chase money for other forms of research.

Your ideas are reasonable but few are interested in Having an entrepreneurial mindset toward an academic journal.

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    This makes sense. Although a website isn't that much work. Typesetting can be. I guess from my perspective as an unemployed academic with the requisite skills I'm thinking "I'll do it for way less than your publisher!" – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 10:59
  • @DavidRowthorn You're right that "a website isn't that much work" and "typesetting isn't that much work" (etc.), but "a website and typesetting (and the rest)" starts to add up quickly, especially if you need to take care of it each and every day (no matter whether it's exam season or you're at a conference or there's this deadline for the huge collaborative grant proposal you're working on). To be blunt: the average employed academic just doesn't have the time to run their own journal (set up, maybe, but not maintain), nor the money to hire an unemployed academic. – Christian Clason Jun 23 '16 at 7:35
  • @ChristianClason I see – DavidR Jun 23 '16 at 8:26
  • @DavidRowthorn The latter would of course be a pretty good alternative, although making a living from "way less than your publisher" might be difficult. If you're seriously considering this, you'd probably have to acquire several journals to manage. It could make sense to go freelance and to contact universities and small scholarly societies that publish their own journals. A university library might already have the IT infrastructure for sustainable online publishing, and if your rates are sufficiently low, paying you for the typesetting etc. might actually be in the library budget. – Christian Clason Jun 23 '16 at 9:07
  • @ChristianClason I was more talking about being willing to typeset a journal in LaTeX for a fee while I'm currently building my CV for Academic jobs. To be fair, in philosophy the articles are simple to typeset. Perhaps not in the sciences though – DavidR Jun 23 '16 at 11:24
4

There are more organisational issues than you think. Take the website for example: you say that you run one for peanuts, but is it suitable for a journal?

  • is it compliant with personal data processing regulations?
  • does it have a backup strategy?
  • do you have your own certificate for secure connections?
  • can your website process payments and/or donations?
  • is it guaranteed to stay online when facing the slightest DDoS attack?

A similar list can be brought up for other tasks as well. So it's not impossible to run a free journal, but this activity is hardly compatible with full-tile research, teaching and other activities scientists already have.

  • Admittedly, my website is not a powerhouse. I use weebly. To be honest, I was basically thinking of the site just being a repository for PDFs of articles with some information about submission. I don't see why it would need a secure connection unless it held user data. Donations through paypal (weebly can do payments though), etc. Maybe I'm naive to think this would be enough – DavidR Jun 22 '16 at 17:33
  • @DavidRowthorn PDF submissions will require you to store personal data unless you want your site to turn into an imageboard or an illegal file share. And this requirement will depend on other stuff I have mentioned, like a certificate and a backup strategy. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 22 '16 at 17:37
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    would you therefore say that the criticisms of publishers are unfair to some extent? After all, they seem to offer something valuable for the money. – DavidR Jun 23 '16 at 8:33
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If you own the journal's brand (which is seldom the case), this is in fact possible quickly if somebody champions it (assuming authors do their typesetting). You can also recreate a brand, but that's a big coordination problem: it requires getting enough scientists to agree that it's worthwhile in some form, which is hard, like herding cats; then each must believe enough people agree to switch. There are partial success stories, but I never see evidence they worked (did the original journals die out?) and I still see too few of them. The brand of your accepted papers is in practice your curriculum, and this motivates lots of inertia, especially when junior, untenured researchers are involved.

Here's a case study on the first possibility, which I believe to be generally relevant from my computer science subfield, the one of programming languages (PL) (where we use conferences, but this is mostly orthogonal), where the switch happened in months (after some time for discussions).

CS doesn't use arXiv so much, but pressure toward open access is rising. Most of PL publishes at ACM, except for ECOOP which is run by its own association. They had a contract with Springer. But since Springer refused to allow for open access, organizers surveyed submitters, and submitters voted overwhelmingly to switch immediately (even for already submitted articles). They switched to Gold Open Access with a 15 € open access fee.* Here's the rest of the story: http://2015.ecoop.org/track/research-track#Open-Access

The same people who organized this switch so quickly are much more cautious about ACM, exactly because ACM owns the conference brands. Also, lots supported the switch, but most of the work was done by few who cared enough for it.

On the downside, this move is good, but it didn't seem to move submissions from ACM to ECOOP—most still submit to the closest appropriate deadline, and young researchers often can't afford waiting. And of course most old papers are still behind an expensive paywall—Springer is so expensive I've never been able to get through their paywall without workarounds.

*The organizer explained that a few minor issues about metadata & C. are not handled satisfactorily by arXiv, but this is only worth 15 €, not the thousand of € asked by publishers for gold open access. Since the publishers have huge profit margins but not absurd ones, I assume traditional publishers still have huge actual costs—I don't think they fired all employees whose jobs have become irrelevant. (Not that those people should be thrown on the street without concern, but that's no reason to support publishers.)

0

Scientific journals and also some other parts of the academic infrastructure like universities, will be replaced by online resources. The reason why journals don't start to move in that direction all that much, is because it brings them closer to their eventual doom. The change to the new 21st century system will have to be implemented by the authors, they have to stop submitting to traditional journals, online resources replacing traditional journals will have to be set up. The reason why this isn't happening is because of tradition. We're all indoctrinated to use the resources we grew up using, and change requires considerable effort even if sticking to the old system is inefficient.

A good example is the arXiv preprint server. This server was not set up by Elsevier, the American Physical Society, or some other major publisher. It was mostly due to Paul Ginsparg's efforts. We may see the peer reviewed analogue of this appearing in the near future for specific subjects. But like arXiv, this will then not be considered to be just another online open access journal, it will be more like an entire field of science becoming an open access science.

  • Philosophy is the worst for being stuck in the past. half of my faculty still type with two fingers. It's no indictment on them, but it also suggests that change might be slow – DavidR Jun 21 '16 at 21:03
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    This is a common misconception. The reason why researchers continue to submit and read "traditional" journals is because it works fine, not because of tradition. Commercial publishers do follow the "open access" hype especially the part that says editorial rejection is bad karma. Infinite papers! – Cape Code Jun 22 '16 at 14:47
  • @CapeCode Of course, the traditional system works fine, otherwise our ancestors wouldn't have been using it. It's just that with the modern electronic infrastructure a much better system can be set up. – Count Iblis Jun 22 '16 at 17:09
  • @CountIblis I'm referring to the current digital implementation of that system. It is quicker and more efficient now, that's for sure. – Cape Code Jun 22 '16 at 18:25
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    @CapeCode I agree, but that's a far cry from having the best system we can have given the current infrastructure we have available. – Count Iblis Jun 23 '16 at 18:14

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