When open source meets academic publishing: Platinum open access journals

Academics can now publish free, read free, and still stay on track for professional success.
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Academics routinely give away their work to companies for free—and then they buy it back! Can you imagine a farmer giving away free food and then paying to get it back for dinner? Probably not. Yet academics like me have been trapped for decades in a scheme where we give free work in exchange for job security and then pay millions of dollars a year to read our own writing.

Fortunately, this is changing. The results from a study I just finished show that it is possible for academics to get job security without paying for it. My study found hundreds of journals that are platinum open access (OA)—that is, they require neither the author nor the readers to pay for peer-reviewed work—yet still carry the prestige and readership to help academics succeed in their careers.

This trend is exploding: The Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 17,300 journals that offer a means of OA at some level, and over 12,250 have no article-processing charges (APCs). I used a handy open source Python script to compare this list to a list of journals ranked by the frequency with which their published papers are cited in other articles (The Journal Impact Factor List). It is clear that the last few years have seen a growing trend towards both OA in general and platinum OA specifically. These trends have the potential to accelerate science while helping prevent academic servitude.

The academic's dilemma

Academics are generally pretty intelligent, so why have they engaged in this disadvantageous system for so long? Simply put, academics have been caught in a trap: In order to keep their jobs and get tenure, they need to publish in journals with a high impact factor. An impact factor is a metric based on the mean number of citations to articles published in the last two years in a given journal, as indexed by the proprietary Web of Science. Impact factors are a prestige metric for academics.

Historically, academic publishing has been dominated by a handful of major publishers that used subscription-based business models. In this model, academic authors write articles, peer-review articles, and often do the editing of these articles—all for free. The articles are published under copyright owned by the major publishing companies. Then either the same academics pay to read these articles on an individual basis (~US $35/article), or their university libraries pay to subscribe to all of the articles in a journal. These costs can be astronomical: often over US $1 million per year for all titles from a single publisher.

This system is senseless for many obvious reasons. Scientific progress is bogged down by restricting access to copyrighted scientific literature squirreled away behind paywalls. It is hard to do state-of-the-art research if you do not know what it is because you cannot read it. Scientists are divided into those who can afford access to the literature and those who cannot. Academics in the developing world often struggle to pay, but even well-endowed Harvard University has taken action to rein in its yearly journal expenses.

Costs to authors are similarly high. APC values range from a few hundred dollars to jaw-dropping thousands of dollars per article. APCs can be particularly damaging for some disciplines that are less well funded, such as the humanities and social sciences (as compared to physical and medical sciences or engineering). Substantial APCs also reinforce the wealth gap in academia, making professional success dependent on having income to invest in publishing. Is there another profession that asks workers to pay money to make products for others?

Open access to the rescue!

This problem can be solved by the OA movement, which advocates for making all academic literature freely accessible to everyone. There is an unmistakable rise in OA publishing: It now makes up nearly a third of the peer-reviewed literature.

The benefits of OA are twofold. First, OA is a benefit to science overall, because it provides a frictionless means of reading the state of the art for making significant advancements in knowledge. Second, from an individual academic's point of view, OA provides the pragmatic advantage of enabling the broadest possible audience of their writing by making it freely and easily available on the internet.

Funders have begun to demand OA for these reasons, particularly public funders of science. It is hard to argue that if the public funds research, they should have to pay a second time to read it.

Where is academic publishing now, and where it is going?

Conventional publishers still have control of this situation, largely because of the perception that they have a monopoly on journals with an impact factor. Despite the disadvantages of publishing the traditional way, many academics continue to publish in subscription-based journals or pay high APCs, knowing that publication in high impact factor journals is vital for demonstrating expertise for grants, tenure, and promotion.

A few years ago, academics simply had no choice: They could either publish in a journal with an impact factor or publish OA. Now they can publish OA and still get the benefits of an impact factor in one of three ways:

  • Green OA: Publish in a traditional way and then self-archive by uploading preprints or accepted versions of papers into an open repository or server. Some schools have an institutional repository for this purpose. For example, Western University has Scholarship@Western, where any of their professors can share their work. Academics without their own institutional repos can use servers like preprints.org, arXiv, or  OSF preprints. I also use social media for academics, like Academia or ResearchGate, for self-archiving. This can be complex to navigate because publishers have different rules, and it is somewhat time consuming.
  • Gold OA: Publish in a growing list of journals with impact factors that make your paper freely available after publication but require an APC. This method is easy to navigate: Academics publish as usual and OA is built into the publishing process. The drawback is that funds going to APCs may be diverted from research activities.
  • Platinum OA: Publish in platinum OA journals with an impact factor. No one pays either to read or to publish. The challenge here is finding a journal in your discipline that fits this criterion, but that continues to change.

There are tens of thousands of journals, but only a few hundred platinum OA journals with impact factors. This may make it hard for academics to find a good fit between what they study and a journal that matches their interests. See the Appendix in my study for the list, or use the Python script mentioned above to run updated numbers for yourself. The number of platinum OA journals is growing quickly, so if you do not find something now you may have some solid journals to choose from soon. Happy publishing!

Joshua Pearce
Joshua M. Pearce is the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation.

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