“You Do Have to Jump off the Plane without a Parachute” Diving into Open Access Academic Journals 

By Luuk Kuiper

Collage by Amal

Open-access (OA) and open science initiatives have become more prevalent within the academic publishing communities in recent years, both the Dutch University Association (VSNU) and the European Union are pushing for more research to be published in freely accessible manners. Famous journals, such as Elsevier, are also dedicating themselves to publishing more and more of their papers in an open-access format. However, has the open access movement had a positive impact on the academic publishing environment? And do all open access initiatives share the same goals? The Herring interviewed two career academics and the founder of an open-access journal about their experience with publishing and open access to uncover whether there is any merit behind the hype. 

Jean-Sébastien Caux, professor in theoretical condensed matter physics at UvA and founder of SciPost.org, explains that “Open-access is a very ill-defined concept.” This is because defining open access as having papers freely accessible to the public does not specify when this access is provided. “Can [the public read] it immediately when the preprint arrives? Or is it the first version of the published paper? Or is it 6 months after the publication of the paper?” Caux questions. Finally, noting that “There is a huge cacophony of different meanings of open access.” 

The large discrepancy in how the word open-access is used also fuels some more critical stances towards its growing popularity. Younes Saramifar, assistant professor in cultural anthropology at VU and AUC lecturer, explained that “open access has become commercialised,” adding that “it’s a deceptive idea. It deceives by not exposing what is its idea of public, with the idea of ‘this is for people’. It is deceiving because it’s not really about people; it’s about the larger industry that is running.” This is due to the fact that almost all of the top academic journals are corporate entities, which as Caux states: “[causes] lots of non-scientific, almost business, interests [to get] minged into these publishing activities that are so important for scientists.” 

“I did two papers for Nature Communication, an open-access journal from the Nature group (…) and two times I had to pay four thousand euros to be able to publish.”

Dr. Antoine deblais, uva

These business interests can be seen in how the upper-echelon of journals has reacted to the open-access movement. Altering their economic model from being subscription-based to Article Processing Charge (APC)-based. Caux explains that: “in this model, you have at the moment of publication a transactional payment to the publisher by one of the institutions, by either a funder or a university library, to the publisher for getting [the publishing] done.” The open-access movement has thus shifted the cost of publishing from the readers to the authors. Caux remarks: “It’s a very strange economic model (…) [and] it is only in academia that you could install such a model. But it has been successfully installed”. These APCs range in how much they cost the author, Saramifar stated: “[APCs] cost around a thousand [euros]”. Antoine Deblais, assistant professor in soft matter physics at UvA, notes that: “I did two papers for Nature Communication, an open-access journal from the Nature group (…) and two times I had to pay four thousand euros to be able to publish.” With the prices of APCs for open access publishing in Nature’s main journals being as high as €9500.

Saramifar continues his critical stance toward the commercialization of open-access movements: “If the idea is open access it means the platform needs to be open as well. (…) So each step of this loop has to be critiqued and unpacked in order to see if this is running for justice. Because open access could open up the platform to exploit other places as well. Let’s say a big platform is accessible everywhere and nobody gets stuck behind a paywall but such a platform would start negotiating with universities in Vietnam from the position of power and pushes them into deals. So it would mean we make the vulnerable exposed to the big bad wolf in the name of justice.”  

The APC model for academic publishing has led to other negative side effects. Caux describes that the adaptation of the APC model “has created a number of essentially cancerous habits in the space [of academia]. The payment of the APCs being contingent on publication means that very often you would disregard the negative referee reports and publish the paper anyway. Because what is the point in running refereeing on a paper if you’re not going to publish it because then you can’t cash in.” 

Although this is of course not something that is universally prevalent in academia, the way that the APC model functions has created an incentive for practices that could be harmful to science. Journals that abuse the APC model in this way are now being referred to as ‘predatory journals’. Caux refrains from calling any particular journals out but does mention that “you just need to go on Twitter and you’ll find plentiful lists of these organisations that very gladly cash in on APCs, while maybe being a bit careless with the refereeing because there is a direct financial incentive to overpublish.” A quick google search already yields rather extensive lists for academics and curious individuals to consult. 

There is also a class of journals that publish open access research without APCs, so-called Diamond OA or two-way OA. ‘Stichting’ SciPost, the nonprofit organisation founded by Caux in 2016, is one of the foundations which offers two-way OA journals. 

“I was dissatisfied with the whole process at all levels and I thought: it’s too difficult to change from inside, it’s better to just start from scratch on the side and just try to displace the incumbents.”

Prof. Jean-Sébastien Caux, Uva & Founder of SciPost

Caux explains why he founded SciPost: “It is obvious that scientists are not in control of the publishing industry (…) you’ve got these beasts that have developed over the last few decades really trying to protect vested interests of certain journal titles and certain almost money-making machines, essentially holding scientists hostage to a way of doing which they didn’t choose, which they didn’t build, which they don’t own, which they can’t control, and which they can only change with great difficulty. That was what [gave me] a bit of a revolutionary spirit.” Having worked as an editor for various journals, on top of publishing and refereeing as a career academic, Caux is intimately familiar with the process of publishing. He however saw little opportunity in changing the existing infrastructure, stating “I was dissatisfied with the whole process at all levels and I thought: it’s too difficult to change from inside, it’s better to just start from scratch on the side and just try to displace the incumbents.”

This mission turned out to be rather difficult due to a number of obstacles new journals have to overcome. One of the biggest obstacles is the existence of the journal impact factor, this is a measure of how important a journal is, measured by external organisations such as Scopus and Web of Science. Where the issue is that they are very slow to list new journals, Caux told us “you have to run an infrastructure for years before you are even recognized in these rankings that are more or less systematically still used.” And not being recognized in these rankings has a massive impact on a journal. 

The importance of the journal impact factor was also echoed by Saramifar “This idea of ‘oh big impact factor I must go there’, I try to resist that. However, I suffer the consequences of making this kind of political decision when I apply for grants and the grants say: ‘oh these are really great publications, good journals, but it has not been referred to enough’.” 

Deblais mentions that “as a young researcher you always feel a kind of pressure from the institute, from your employer, to publish in prestigious journals.” Impact factor thus clearly plays a big role in academia, and when a new journal such as SciPost is withheld a ranking it comes down to the platform to maintain and reassure its user base. Caux says: “you spend a lot of diplomatic time effort and goodwill telling people: stay with us. We understand you jumped off the plane, we understand we asked you to jump off the plane without a parachute but we have told you we will give you a parachute before you hit the ground.” 

“[We] don’t want to punish scientists for the stupidity of the administrative side.”

Prof. Jean-Sébastien Caux, Uva & Founder of SciPost

Another big obstacle for SciPost is what Caux calls their: “suicidal business model”. He elaborates: “[We] don’t want to punish scientists for the stupidity of the administrative side. So we tell the scientists we publish [regardless of monetary support] and it has absolutely no influence on the publication decision of your paper. But on the other hand, we can only do that if we can afford to do that (…) So it is a very difficult model to install because of this lack of forced payment.” This does not only form a problem for the organisation now but also prevents SciPost from growing, with Caux stating: “At the moment I’ve got bankruptcy for SciPost only a few months in the future constantly. So I can’t hire a team, I can’t grow. If I grow it’s on my ass during the weekend. So that’s tough and I do my best but I am not a magician.”

In spite of these obstacles Caux and the SciPost Foundation have managed to successfully establish themselves within the field of physics, with the journal SciPost Physics. Soon after the launch of SciPost, Caux noticed that: “there were lots of young people sending their papers in. Sometimes even single-author young people and I really had not expected that.” This surprised him so much that he even ran an informal survey with a few of these young applicants: “I asked them ‘Why are you publishing in SciPost?’ and they all had the same response: “Look it’s very simple, it’s not the old farts who are going to change the system because they have no incentive to change it, it’s the system that put them up there in the first place and they are out in a few years. I, however, am staying for 40 years in academia and if the system doesn’t change then I am stuck with that system for 40 years. So take my paper please.” This interest and political will from the younger generation at an early stage was not only surprising to Caux but also a big motivation to continue his work.

Author: Luuk Kuiper

Physics student at Amsterdam University College

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