“Why I believe in Open Access and what it means to me” David McCune, Director at SAGE Publications

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With just over one week passing since our two year anniversary of PeerJ publishing articles and the opening of peer-review submissions to PeerJ Computer Science, we took this opportunity to ask David McCune, Director at SAGE Publications, to outline his thoughts on why open access publishing matters. Here’s what he said:

As an advocate of Open Access why do you believe it can change the academic ecosystem for the greater good?

The publishing process is only one part of an academic ecosystem that is ripe for disruption. The fundamental obstacle to that disruption is the way scholarly reputation is now built. The academy today is a slave to a single metric: the quantity of publications in high impact factor journals. A scholar’s reputation, prestige, job and tenure prospects, even grant and funding decisions – all are overly reliant on this single metric.

Scientific information should be disseminated as widely as possible. It should be evaluated and debated openly, vigorously and frequently. More human beings should create and have access to more scientific research. More research, more transparency, more dissemination, more debate – that is how we create the world I want my children and grandchildren to experience. Open Access can help, as can open, transparent, pre-publication and post-publication peer review.

You mention journal metrics – what is your view on this?  

I’d like to see the journal-based impact factor replaced – or at least supplemented – by an article-based impact factor. The system of journal-based impact factor breaks down in the modern world of mega-journals like PeerJ and PLOS ONE. That system is a legacy of how journals were packaged and disseminated in a print-based world. The technology for measuring the citations of an individual article or author is fairly straightforward. Let’s use it.

What about changing peer review? Do you believe this should become more open too?

Peer review itself needs to change and I would like to see much more open peer review. I understand why peer review occasionally needs to be anonymous. (The case of a junior scholar reviewing the work of a more senior, more powerful scholar comes to mind.) But anonymity should be occasional, not the default as it is today. I suspect the quality of reviews would improve if scholars knew their peers would be reading the reviews. Transparency tends to sharpen the mind, after all. I’d also like to see the “draft-review-revise-review” cycle be shorter, more lively and more open.

In order for the current system of peer review to change, though, scholars need an incentive to contribute to the peer review process. As it is, scholars get little or no academic credit for writing reviews. I don’t understand why that should be. The quantity and quality of a scholar’s review output should be influential in how that scholar’s reputation is built. Scholars should be judged on their output of new, original, high-quality research, to be sure, but they should also be judged on their participation in the debate about that research. (They should be judged and rewarded for other parts of the scholarly process, too, such as teaching and mentoring, but that is fuel for a different debate.)

Electronic Open Access can combine rigorous peer review with great publishing bandwidth and very wide dissemination. In a digital world, costs of printing and shipping journals no longer limit the bandwidth for how much research can be published and disseminated. The price of dissemination has fallen to practically zero.

That does not mean that there are no costs to publication. Creating a rigorous, trustworthy peer review system is labor-intensive, as is the editing process. Finding a sustainable business model is still a challenge.

The quality of a journal has nothing to do with whether it is paywall or OA. Alongside many first-rate paywall journals, there have long existed any number of poor-quality traditional paywall journals publishing questionable, poorly-reviewed research. Similarly, there are great, rigorous OA journals, but there can also be poor-quality OA journals.  (Just Google “predatory journals”!). The quantity of articles reviewed and published also has nothing to do with whether a journal is paywall of OA. Quality and quantity both cost money, however. In the OA world, of course, this is typically addressed via article processing charges.

Scholars are not paid by publishers to write reviews (being paid more generally by their institutions to participate in the scholarly enterprise). But the cost of finding, vetting, and managing the review process for thousands of article submissions is substantial. Indeed, in an electronic journal, where quantity of publications is not limited by printing and shipping costs, a vastly greater number of articles published requires a vastly greater number of reviewers. Simply finding quality reviewers is getting harder and harder, especially since there is little reputation-building incentive to become a reviewer.

You mention quality and the challenge of new business models – how does this apply specifically to OA journals?

The criterion for an article being accepted in an electronic OA journal can and should change from the narrow-bandwidth print past. Articles can be accepted for publication based on the rigor of their scientific method, regardless of whether an article is innovative research that moves a field forward. I don’t mean to minimize the extraordinary value of innovative, new research, but the legacy, low-bandwidth publishing model has long been biased against some important types of research, such as negative findings. Electronic, high-bandwidth OA can make vastly more research available to vastly greater numbers of people.

Still, this costs money. Some fields, mainly in the natural sciences, have a long history of APCs, and publication expenses are often covered in grants that finance research. I imagine that in STM publishing, where APC funding is common, more and more articles will shift to OA models. Eventually some paywall STM journals will wither and those library subscription expenses will shrink.

In the social sciences and humanities, however, there often are no grants funding research and so no money to pay for publication. If we are going to shift from the paywall model (funded via library subscription budgets) to an OA model, the costs of rigorous peer review and editing have to come from somewhere. One can imagine money being diverted from library HSS (‘Humanities and Social Sciences’) subscription budgets to pay APCs, but I have a hard time imagining departments being willing to cut their subscriptions before institutional APC funding exists. And in the HSS world there is no obvious source of APC funding until paywall subscriptions are cut. We have a funding standoff.

PeerJ is exploring a couple of very innovative funding models.  The lifetime membership model, at a very affordable price, is gaining traction quickly.  And the institutional membership is very exciting.  Both of these innovations will change the way STM Open Access is done.  PeerJ will prove that there is a sustainable model to encourage and pay for massive dissemination of large amounts of high-quality, rigorously reviewed scientific research. I think the PeerJ model is great for STM publishing, and it just may eventually revolutionize HSS publishing as well.

Note: SAGE Publications is a minority investor in PeerJ. Find out more about our funding.

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