The changing logics of scientific publishing Image by Lysander Yuen

The changing logics of scientific publishing

The subscription model is taken over by the open-access model in scientific publishing industry, which may favor quantity over quality. While we should be aware of predatory practices by any journal, labeling journals as predatory may reinforce established hierarchies in the scientific community.

With the advent of online publishing in the 2000s, the cost structure of scientific publishing changed drastically. Now, printing and distribution costs have become very low. This has not only lowered the entry cost of new publishers, but it also lifted the natural restriction on the number of papers per issue which provided a strong rationale for gate-keeping by legacy journals. At the same time, several repositories became available on the Internet with published papers and pre-prints, making these accessible to readers without subscription. Partly due to this, the subscription model is now slowly substituted by the open access model, often with author processing charges.

In this turbulent context, many new journals have been introduced, both by incumbent publishers and new entrants. Some of these journals are considered predatory by one part of the academic community, pointing to high volumes of papers, low review standards and misleading soliciting. Indeed, as revenues of such journals rely solely on article processing charges, they may be tempted to follow a market logic of quantity over the professional logic of quality. Another part welcomes the many new open-access journals as it provides more opportunities for scholars in less-favored, peripheral positions as well as for new topics that are less readily accepted in other journals. What is more, the fast turn-around of papers helps the quick diffusion of results and insights, while their relatively low article processing charges promote inclusiveness.

In this light, labeling particular journals as predatory assumes a binary world of 'good' and 'bad'. An alternative view is to acknowledge that there is a large 'grey area' of journals whose practices can be questioned, if only because most journals show little transparency about peer reviews, editorial policies and accept/reject decisions anyway. To illustrate this point, Siler analyzed 11,450 journals on the Cabells Journal Blacklist in terms of the varying degrees of predatory activity ranging from fake metrics and false addresses to sloppy copy-editing and poor webpages. The results show a clear continuum rather than a bi-modal distribution, questioning the binary opposition used by those who label (or some would say, stigmatize) journals as predatory.

A further analysis of the economics underlying article processing charges shows that the authors fees are closely and positively related to quality indicators of journals. An analysis by Siler and Frenken of 12,127 Open Access journals showed that journals with status endowments (JIF, DOAJ Seal), articles written in English and published in wealthier regions are also relatively costlier. The recent announcement of Nature to charge 9,500 euro for open access is illustrative in this respect. This suggests that while open access journals have opened up the publishing system allowing many more papers to be published, the hierarchy of journals will most likely remain intact, as high-status journals can sustain their high rejection rates with high open access fees, further boosting the extreme profit margins of incumbent publishers.

In all, one can conclude that the logics of scientific publishing are changing in complex ways, with economic logics becoming stronger and the types of journals becoming more diverse. Binary classifications of journals in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may hide the heterogeneity of journal practices and complex author motives, and may also reinforce established hierarchies in the scientific community. At the same time, we should be aware of various forms of predatory practices, by new and incumbent publishers alike, and continue to foster a critical debate among us.

2 Comments

Simon Linacre

The Cabells Predatory Reports database (Full disclosure: I work for Cabells) in part changed its name in 2020 to move away from the good v bad narrative alluded to in the post. There are currently 25,000 journals listed by Cabells in its databases, but probably double that exist outside them. Cabells full acknowledges this 'grey' area, but this does not mean that predatory journals can't be identified as such. Cabells has over 70 criteria that it transparently uses to identify and list predatory journals, and sloppy copy-editing or poor webpages, while demonstrably indicative of predatory behaviour, will not alone mean a journal is listed as these are minor violations of Cabells' criteria. Ultimately, defining and calling out predatory journals intentionally stigmatises them as they engender bad science and waste valuable research funds. But to do so is not necessarily to assume 'bi-modal distribution', it is to call a spade a spade.

Leo Waaijers

Quantity played an important role in the subscription era as well. Publishing more articles in a journal was the main argument of publishers for relentless annual price increases of 10% and up. And if a journal became too fat, it was split in two, creating two revenue streams. Competition, however, was absent as the subscription model was based on exploitation of exclusive copyright ownership.

Indeed, the open access model has created a market place for publishing services. It is in the interest of the authority of science that this market should be integrity-based. This leaves no room for leniency towards dubious practices, be they quantity based or popularity based. Let’s change the JIF to Journal Integrity Factor.

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