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Reputation Factor in Economic Publishing

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“The big problem in economics is that it really matters in which journals you publish, so the reputation factor is a big hindrance in getting open access journals up and going”. Can the accepted norms of scholarly publishing be successfully challenged?

This quotation is a line from the correspondence about writing this blogpost for the OKFN. The invitation came to write for the Open Economics Working Group, hence the focus on economics, but in reality the same situation pertains across pretty much any scholarly discipline you can mention. From the funding bodies down through faculty departments and academic librarians to individual researchers, an enormous worldwide system of research measurement has grown up that conflates the quality of research output with the publications in which it appears. Journals that receive a Thomson ISI ranking and high impact factors are perceived as the holy grail and, as is being witnessed currently in the UK during the Research Excellence Framework (REF) process, these carry tremendous weight when it comes to research fund awards.

Earlier this year, I attended a meeting with a Head of School at a Russell Group university, in response to an email that I had sent with information about Social Sciences Directory, the ‘gold’ open access publication that I was then in the first weeks of setting up. Buoyed by their acceptance to meet, I was optimistic that there would be interest and support for the idea of breaking the shackles of existing ranked journals and their subscription paywall barriers. I believed then – and still believe now – that if one or two senior university administrators had the courage to say, “We don’t care about the rankings. We will support alternative publishing solutions as a matter of principle”, then it would create a snowball effect and expedite the break up of the current monopolistic, archaic system. However, I was rapidly disabused. The faculty in the meeting listened politely and then stated categorically that they would never consider publishing in a start up venture such as Social Sciences Directory because of the requirements of the REF. The gist of it was, “We know subscription journals are restrictive and expensive, but that is what is required and we are not going to rock the boat”.

I left feeling deflated, though not entirely surprised. I realised some time ago that the notion of profit & loss, or cost control, or budgetary management, was simply anathema to many academic administrators and that trying to present an alternative model as a good thing because it is a better deal for taxpayers is an argument that is likely to founder on the rocks of the requirements of the funding and ranking systems, if not apathy and intransigence. A few years ago, whilst working as a sales manager in subscription publishing, I attended a conference of business school deans and directors. (This in itself was unusual, as most conferences that I attended were for librarians – ALA, UKSG, IFLA and the like – as the ‘customer’ in a subscription sense is usually the university library). During a breakout session, a game of one-upmanship began between three deans, as they waxed lyrically about the overseas campuses they were opening, the international exchanges of staff and students they had fixed up, the new campus buildings that were under construction, and so on.

Eventually, I asked the fairly reasonable question whether these costly ventures were being undertaken with a strategic view that they would eventually recoup their costs and were designed to help make their schools self-funding. Or indeed, whether education and research are of such importance for the greater good of all that they should be viewed as investments. The discomfort was palpable. One of the deans even strongly denied that this is a question of money. That the deans of business schools should take this view was an eye-opening insight in to the general academic attitude towards state funding. It is an attitude that is wrong because ultimately, of course, it is entirely about the money. The great irony was that this conversation took place in September 2008, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the full force of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) soon to impact gravely on the global higher education and research sector. A system that for years had been awash with money had allowed all manner of poor practices to take effect, in which many different actors were complicit. Publishers had seized on the opportunity to expand output massively and charge vast fees for access; faculty had demanded that their libraries subscribe to key journals, regardless of cost; libraries and consortia had agreed to publishers’ demands because they had the money to do so; and the funding bodies had built journal metrics into the measurement for future financing. No wonder, then, that neither academia nor publishers could or would take the great leap forward that is required to bring about change, even after the GFC had made it patently clear that the ongoing subscription model is ultimately unsustainable. Change needs to be imposed, as the British government bravely did in July with the decision to adopt the recommendations of the Finch Report.

However, this brings us back to the central issue and the quotation in the title. For now, the funding mechanisms are the same and the requirement to publish in journals with a reputation is still paramount. Until now, arguments against open access publishing have tended to focus on quality issues. The argument goes that the premier (subscription) journals take the best submissions and then there is a cascade downwards through second tier journals (which may or may not be subscription-based) until you get to a pile of leftover papers that can only be published by the author paying a fee to some sort of piratical publisher. This does not stand much scrutiny. Plenty of subscription-based journals are average and have been churned out by publishers looking to beef up their portfolios and justify charging ever-larger sums. Good research gets unnecessarily dumped by leading journals because they adhere to review policies dating from the print age when limited pagination forced them to be highly selective. Other academics, as we have seen at Social Sciences Directory, have chosen to publish and review beyond the established means because they believe in finding and helping alternatives. My point is that good research exists outside the ‘top’ journals. It is just a question of finding it.

So, after all this, do I believe that the “big hindrance” of reputation can be overcome? Yes, but only through planning and mandate. Here is what I believe should happen:

  1. The sheer number of journals is overwhelming and, in actuality, at odds with modern user behaviour which generally accesses content online and uses a keyword search to find information. Who needs journals? What you want is a large collection of articles that are well indexed and easily searchable, and freely available. This will enable the threads of inter-disciplinary research to spread much more effectively. It will increase usage and reduce cost-per-download (increasingly the metrics that librarians use to measure the return on investment of journals and databases), whilst helping to increase citation and impact.
  2. Ensure quality control of peer review by setting guidelines and adhering to them.
  3. De-couple the link between publishing and tenure & department funding.
  4. In many cases, universities will have subscribed to a particular journal for years and will therefore have access to a substantial back catalogue. This has often been supplemented by the purchase of digitised archives, as publishers cottoned on to other sources of revenue which happened to chime with librarians’ preferences to complete online collections and take advantage of non-repeatable purchases. Many publishers also sell their content to aggregators, who agree to an embargo period so that the publisher can also sell the most up-to-date research directly. Although the axe has fallen on many print subscriptions, some departments and individuals still prefer having a copy on their shelves (even though they could print off a PDF from the web version and have the same thing, minus the cover). So, aside from libraries often paying more than once for the same content, they will have complete collections up to a given point in time. University administrators need to take the bold decision to change, to pick an end date as a ‘cut off’ after which they will publicly state that they are switching to new policies in support of OA. This will allow funds to be freed up and used to pay for institutional memberships, article processing fees, institutional repositories – whatever the choice may be. Editors, authors and reviewers will be encouraged to offer their services elsewhere, which will in turn rapidly build the reputation of new publications.

Scholarly publishing is being subjected to a classic confrontation between tradition and modernity. For me, it is inevitable that modernity will win out and that the norms will be successfully challenged.

This post is also available on the Open Economics blog. If you’re interested in the issues raised, join our Open Economics or our Open Access lists to discuss them further!

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