What Does It Mean To Edit An Open Access Journal?

Yet another post on open access, but this time featuring a non-Disorder voice. I recently exchanged emails with Dr Eva Erman of Uppsala University on the possibilities and constraints of open access publishing. Eva is the Chief Editor of Ethics & Global Politics, a fully open journal that not only attracts authors of note in normative international political theory (Zygmunt Bauman, Saskia Sassen, Bruno Latour, John Agnew, R.B.J. Walker, Heikki Patomäki, Lea Ypi, Catherine Lu, and our own Rahul Rao!), but has also achieved an Impact Factor above that of many well-known and ‘closed’ journals (0.808, putting it 20th in Ethics and 53rd in Political Science).[1] As we have already discussed, fully open journals of this kind (what might be termed ‘No APC Gold’ journals) can face serious resource constraints, so it is worth understanding what might be possible. My exchange with Eva is book-ended with some thoughts on what it all means.

Ethics and Global Politics

1. Who began the journal, and why?

I got the opportunity to start the journal in 2007. A woman from a newly established publishing company, Anne Bindslev who runs Co-Action Publishing, who knew about my work, asked if I thought there was a subfield/niche within political science that was lacking among prominent journals. And I thought that back then, journals in ethics were not very good at publishing articles in political philosophy and, more specifically, on international political theory and global politics; and journals in international affairs, such as Ethics & International Affairs, were not very theoretically impressive. So, this is why I said yes to launch Ethics & Global Politics. Another reason was that I became interested in open access (OA) as a publishing model, and also for normative reasons thought that a journal that publishes in global ethics, global justice and so on, should do so open access to all people.

2. How is the journal funded? Are Editors or their assistants paid? 

Together with Co-Action publishing (who now run more than 25 OA journals in natural and social sciences), I have managed to get funding for OA publication from two different Swedish funders, the Swedish Research Council and FAS. The last year, FAS has been replaced by funding from Uppsala university, where the journal is editorially based. Of course, this is an insecure situation, economically, since I have to apply for renewed funding every year, which is always a bit uncertain.

The exact budget for 2013 consists of 165,000 Swedish crona (from the Swedish Research Council) and 70,000 Swedish crona from Uppsala university. This is in total an annual cost of around £23,500 or $36,000.

Pretty much everything goes to Co-Action Publishing, who are responsible for production management, webpage, copyediting and type-setting, as well as getting everything out on professional proof reading. Co-Action Publishing do not make any profit from running OA journals. Of course, the voluntary or almost voluntary work on the editorial side, by me mostly, is more difficult to measure.

3. How do you organise, and pay for, your online presence?

Co-Action publishing has professional web designers and web experts, so they take care of all that (I don’t know many details, since I try to stick to the editorial side of the work with the journal). But I am the one who decides how I want to rearrange the homepage as well as work out proper functions in the submission system (which has become increasingly developed the last years).

4. How do you organise, and pay for, your submission system?

We organise our submission system via OJS (Open Journal System), that Co-Action Publishing uses for all their journals.

5. Your website says that publication is ‘free’ from 2013 but that APCs are charged if there is a university fund for them. Could you clarify if OA is free just for 2013 or if that is the norm? How often authors are actually charged to publish in Ethics & Global Politics?

Our norm is of course to always be OA, which in my view is the most defensible publication model for academic journals from a normative point of view. And thus far no author has been charged for publishing in the journal. Concerning the question of what financial model would best fit this publication model, our publishers are strong believers in the future for the possibility of having publication fees in the social sciences and humanities, similar to what has been the default system in the natural sciences for decades. Personally, I am less sure that this is the best alternative. I think we are more likely too see the continuation of what we have experienced so far, thus, that academic OA journals (at least in political philosophy and the like) could be financed via universities, university libraries and research councils. However, their guess is (at least) as good as mine, so we will see what happens in the future. The last couple of years most research councils have started to require that all financed research must be published OA, one way or the other.

6. How difficult was it to get included in a journal ranking system like Journal Citation Reports?

We submitted an application to Thompson Reuters just to try, and surprisingly, got positive news that we were to be included the following year (2011). From what I have heard, it is pretty unusual to get impact factor and ranking only after four volumes so we were very happy about that.

7. Have there been any difficulties around peer review because of the open nature of the journal?

In the beginning it was a bit difficult, perhaps because social scientists (and philosophers in particular!) are very conservative, and skeptical of OA as they equal OA with bad quality (in contrast to, say, in physics and medicine, where they have been using to OA for a long time). But the more people have come to understand that OA is a publication model, not a financial model, and, thus, OA does not mean that there must be publication fees (since social scientists, in contrast to natural scientists are not used to that idea either), they have become more positive. Moreover, many scholars have been impressed with the huge spread we have had, in terms of number of downloaded papers and from the wide range of countries. So, it has become increasingly easy to get peer reviewers and now it is no problem at all, I would say.

8. Have you encountered reluctance from particular groups of academics (by seniority, region or discipline) in submitting to an open access journal?

Yes, a bit in the beginning, see answer 7. But since we have managed to avoid publication fees, academics have become increasingly positive to submitting. I have also had the luck to have a very well-remunerated editorial board, whose members have spread good words about Ethics & Global Politics around leading and up-and-coming political philosophers and theorists.

A few things stand out as open access lessons for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) here.

First, this is a much more viable model than some may have feared. Breaking down individual journal cash flows is beyond my ken (and the relevant information is seriously lacking), but £24,000 per year is not a horrifyingly high figure in journal costs. It is particularly notable that this figure has been maintained, despite no one having been charged to publish in Ethics & Global Politics, whilst still attracting such prominent scholars, and whilst also satisfying some of the more conservative elements by achieving a strong initial impact factor.

Second, the key seems to be getting library and research council support, which may indeed be difficult. Perhaps the real challenge is better understood as getting this kind of support for lots of journals, rather than just for one or two (not because one or two are bad, but because profiteering will never end without critical mass).

Third, although Co-Action seem to do a good job, it would be interesting to see if the costs levied by them could be brought down. Since they provide copy-editing as well as web infrastructure, this might mean having authors take more responsibility for final texts and bringing more of the website design ‘in-house’ (particularly attractive if we imagine economies of scale in universities themselves taking on these functions). It is also possible that other open access platform/publishers, like Open Humanities Press, offer a superior model.

Fourth, a challenge remains in sustainable funding cultures. This is far from an open access only issue, but where journal editing happens voluntarily, without any relief from other duties (lecturing, research, admin), there are clear dangers. We should not, for example, seek a system of openness build on the back of unpaid postgraduate labour. Different institutions will likely treat Editorial work in different ways, but it is reasonable for journal sweat to be compensated in coin, and a trend towards ‘open’ editing meaning ‘no-pay’ editing consequently needs to be guarded against.

All this still leaves open the question of a super-repository or mega-journal which might be able to rival ‘traditional’ publishers can emerge (an arXiv for AHSS, if you will). It will require prominent academics to defect from profiteer models, and some proper start up money. Are Research Councils and universities capable of providing this money, and matching rhetoric with funds that do not simply flow in the usual directions? On this information, it seems worth pushing the question.

[1] This is of course not to endorse the spurious ranking of journals according to Impact Factor. Nor is it to endorse the quantification of journals in general. But academics do take Impact Factors and similar into account for publishing and career progress. That it is possible both to be fully open access and to be successful on standard disciplinary measures will be relevant to anyone fearful of open access in principle, even if it is obvious to others that there is no necessary contradiction.

UPDATE (13 August): That Impact Factor has just slipped in the latest figures. Which goes to show you how unreliable they are as indicators. Point stands.


20 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Edit An Open Access Journal?

  1. Interesting. I found the reply on Q5 rather evasive. Why say there are APCs if there aren’t? Given that many UK HEIs now have APC funds, wouldn’t we fall foul of that?

    On your commentary, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of trying to bring more stuff ‘in-house’ to cut costs. That only seems plausible because academics are constantly taking on extra work without additional cost to their universities; but as you know this just involves them working longer hours unpaid. It seems more sensible to me to determine what is a reasonable amount to pay someone for the labour involved in, e.g. editing, type-setting, distributing, etc, and then ensuring that gets paid (and no more). I would also suggest that we would want to see scale above all else (a guy from PLOS gave a very convincing talk on this recently at QM). It would be very inefficient if individual universities started trying to develop the technical infrastructure and skills to run/host journals. It makes a lot more sense for expert, non-profit organisations like Co-Action to do it, because they achieve efficiencies of scale, and are easier for end-users because they are uniform. Even better would be the mega-archive/mega-journal you discuss for all AHSS, because this achieves massive scale. But obviously this would require large sums to fund; it would be sensibly housed at RCUK or something like that, or at just one university on behalf of the rest.

    Indeed, given HEFCE’s OA suggestions I think it’s worth asking whether we are actually bothered about creating OA journals, when all Final Accepted Versions seem set to be put online for free, and the difference between them and Versions of Record are so slight. In terms of achieving the real ends of OA – free, easy, public access to research outcomes – it may actually be far more effective to focus limited energies on promoting the creation of a national mega-archive for all UK research. If that were achieved, bang — everything would be accessible in a couple of clicks. If we went through the hard slog of establishing an OA journal, it would be accessible, but everything else wouldn’t be. The returns seem far more slight.


    • Agree that ‘outside’ parties may be best placed for efficiencies of scale, and didn’t mean to imply that universities should do any endogenising on an individual basis (I envision something much more like a conglomerate of research-intensive universities which have the most to save from reducing library subscription costs).

      However, I maintain that there is a crucial difference between running a proper open journal like Ethics & Global Politics and settling for ‘post-print’/Finally Accepted Versions in repositories. The minor point is that the journal branding remains important for external parties (and the more is available ‘direct’ to them through the primary outlets the better). The major point is that a 24 month embargo, potentially from ‘hard’ publication rather than acceptance or online publication, is a huge barrier. So long as there are embargoes of this length, everything will not be accessible with an immediate click.


      • OK, it is available after 24 months with one click. But if you run an OA journal, only your stuff is available immediately; the rest still isn’t. I agree that embargoes would ideally be shorter but it seems to me that the net benefits of 100% FAV availability versus, say, 1% VoR availability, are obviously bigger. The relevant question is: how do we drive down embargoes? Would having more OA journals really achieve this? How? How many would it take?


      • You say it like 2 years (3-4 if measured from hard publication) is nothing!

        It’s not zero-sum: there can be full OA journals as well as 100% FAV deposits by HEFCE mandate. I’ve been fairly consistent in arguing against lots of new journals (liable to be sinks for time and effort) but I think: a) details on what that involves are important and generally lacking; and b) Ethics & Global Politics‘ experience might be just as helpful for closed journals considering ditching their publishers and going open.

        Repository routes with embargoes of course also have the effect of preserving business as usual. When it comes to ‘impact’ and public engagement, I think these lags exacerbate an already shitty situation. The possibility of serious research impacting real politics is eroded by any wait, and the usual academic time lines of research and review are bad enough. And when it comes to profiteering, my sense is that embargo lengths would be reduced if there was an increase in immediate openness from new journals or super-repositories, more openness from currently closed outlets, soft and hard boycott pressures on worst offenders and institution-side changes like the Harvard or UC initiatives.

        I see these strategies as compatible, with the challenges much more prominent in relation to Learned Societies, voluntary academic labour and the future of peer review and dissemination/debate.


  2. P, I agree with what you say and didn’t mean that 24 months is nothing or that strategies are exclusive. I just recognise that we have limited time/energy/resources and need to prioritise to maximise gain for effort.


  3. I am the editor of one of the oldest OA Gold journal in the social sciences (a few others were started the same year), the Journal of Political Ecology dating to 1994, just after Adobe PDF was maid freely available. (www.jpe.library.arizona.edu).
    I have been doing this since 2003. What is this crazy talk of core funding needed to run an OAJ? We have none. Zero. The entire publication process happens on my old Dell laptop. I have one active co-editor in the US, Casey Walsh, and both of us are in tenured jobs, so we spend from zero to a few hours a week on the journal. Any assistance from postgrads or translators is paid at University of Melbourne union rates (much higher than in the US or UK), out of my consultancy fund. There is no creep into labour exploitation, except my own I guess. As you can see, we don’t waste money on web site design – nothing to distract you on the homepage except a Google search bar.
    The Univ of Arizona Library hosts the journal. I have learned to copyedit and create PDfs to an acceptable, but probably not super-high, standard, and spot bad grammar.
    What more do you need? I love the work and don’t feel exploited, submissions are very healthy, and the work is shared. Citations are healthy too and we are ‘listed’ in journal rankings, but don’t care too much about those. Junior scholars have published with us for years, and senior figures are now doing so in greater numbers (they dropped off during a period 15 yrs ago when publishing was falling behind).
    What I would call for is better recognition of this work, better recognition of this type of journal, and more attention to the ethics of publishing among scholars. But I am not sure more money is really the answer.
    My extended comments on OA are here http://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/158/


    • Thanks Simon,

      I’m not sure it has anything to with need. As the experience of the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies shows, things can be run in much this way in IR too. The argument is much more about scale, sustainability and prestige. As Nathan Coombs suggests in the post linked to in the above, there can be a considerable degree of voluntary labour involved, and in the absence of recognition for that work within Departments, this is simply saying that academics should do more for free in an age of increasing workloads and declining pay. Of course, if Departments do in some way recognise the labour (time off from other duties, pay for Editorial assistants), then this is a ‘cost’ paid from somewhere, regardless of whether a journal charges APCs or not. The figures you provide are lower than those paid by Ethics & Global Politics but are still not nothing. On your estimate of $200 an article, and not counting book reviews, this would mean that the 2013 issues of Journal of Political Ecology so far come in at a bit under $5,000.

      Such costings are fraught, to say the least. When I was editing Millennium we would receive in the region of 5 or 6 unsolicited submissions a week, each of which had to be read by two Editors to assess its suitability for review. Reviewers were chosen by Deputy Editors but checked by us. As well as running weekly Editorial meetings (there is an Editorial Board voting system for acceptance), there were the emails to authors, copy-editing of papers, representation of the journal, organisation of the annual conference, special forums, and so on. Running the inbox alone could be a headache. And all this in an arrangement where Sage took care of PDF production and (some) copy-editing. I can’t speak for others, but “zero to a few hours” a week sounds like rather short-changing it. That’s not to say that publisher pricing is a reflection of true cost, and (as I suggest) there are probably cheaper ways to do things depending on platform, but a journal simply does involve (serious) work.

      The broader point is not about whether cheap (and free) open access journals are possible. They clearly are. The issue is whether they are capable in themselves of reorientating the journal system as a whole. Given Lee’s comments above, I wonder if you feel that the Journal of Political Ecology has had much impact on other journals’ practices in your field? Well established journals attract authors and subscription costs not just because they often contain good material, but also because the reputational economy of academia involves an elaborate second guessing of what outlets will make you look sufficiently hireable or tenurable or promotable or whatever. Those of us contemptuous of such cognitive shortcuts should nevertheless recognise that the overall ecology of journal publishing is unlikely to change unless openness can be made compatible with those pressures (or, alternatively, unless those pressures can be made to go away). Proper funding, it seems to me, has to also be part of the story for that to happen.


    • Perhaps I’m being thick, Simon, but in what sense is JPE “gold” OA? I can’t see anywhere on the website where an APC is identified. Do you mean “green”? Like Pablo I would also be interested to know whether JPE has shifted practices in the wider publishing subfield.


      • We don’t charge anybody, readers or authors. For a while in the 90s authors and when I was still teaching at the U of Arizona authors were charged $10.
        One author a year wins a $500 Eric Wolf prize for the best grad student article – this money comes from the political ecology society of the Society for Applied Anthropology in the USA, and we then publish that paper after reviews.
        I wrote some stuff below about wider influence – probably minimal, but following a Polanyan philosophy perhaps, we are not trying to create a change across the whole publishing arena, just doing a good and relevant journal in a decidely radical and anti-commercial corner of the social sciences surrounded by the mainstream. We get many authors who support that model explicitly. I am writing a 20 year anniversary paper on all of this, out next year.
        Bigger, marginally related OA journals in the society-envt. interface with a big reach include ‘Ecology & Society’ and ‘Environmental Research Letters’ but they have big APCs too. A paper in ERL on climate change just featured very widely in the international media and has been downloaded 78,000 times in a few weeks – OA definitely getting mainstream…. http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024/article


  4. My costings are genuine.We are not ‘Millennium’ which I remember from my time at the LSE. We are dealing with 10-20 outstanding submissions at any one time. There is no $ to be made so there is no marketing. There are no editorial meetings. No conference, no forums. Liaising with the publisher involved me sending a PDF to Bob at the library, with a citation. Liaising with authors and reviewers is efficient and brief. This week I received 2 papers and will spend half an hour sending them out to referees. I also spent 2 hours editing a proof. The previous two weeks I did nothing on the journal. One way to reduce time burdens is to get authors to sort out their references properly. My great dislike is uncited and wrongly prepared refs. They add another hour or more. But I regard my time commitment as fully compliant with university research/teaching/service norms. In closing the loop, I actually teach political ecology and can give the readings to students from the journal without reprod. or copyright charges. This saves the university and the students some money.

    We are in a decidedly non-corporate part of the social sciences, and so to reject high cost, or high charging OA models is entirely compliant with what we do. As to whether others are learning from and adopting this way of working, I think it already exists in Maths, and in some other areas. I am on the Boards of conventional journals and there have been some pithy conversations at their Board meetings with publishers, some that I have raised, and conviction in some quarters that ‘change’ is afoot. By the way, a lot is going on in that space that I can’t talk about here – particularly around journal cascades and Green OA. (contact me). As I have said on my blog, we may be 5-10 years off a big change. But reorientation of a commercially driven journal world does require us to put in some hard graft-and to teach our PhD students how to do journal publishing too – this is not really a great point of difference.


    • But you see my point? What goes for Journal of Political Ecology may not go for others, and the fact that small but valuable journals can be run in a certain way is no guarantee that, say, Political Geography or Ethics or International Studies Quarterly could go the same way on the same financial model. Again, this isn’t in the slightest to justify corporate control, and has nothing to do with whether OA is the way to go (it is). Nor is it about whether people should edit OA journals. I just don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that colleagues will get more recognition, time and prestige for a big non-OA journal editing gig in AHSS today than they will for setting up a small OA journal from scratch (cf. Lee’s comments above). The question for me is how to get us some big maximal OA journals.

      I also think there is a shift, although it’s rather glacial. If free labour, low-cost journals could replace the existing names without serious resource redistribution, I think we would already have seen a much stronger move towards them (as you say, OA journals have been around for decades). That we haven’t does, in part, reflect some of the resource pressures (which can legitimately be disagreed about) and makes me at least cautious about voluntary labour as the solution to the journal crisis.


      • I have now moved this forward. See https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-open-access-journals/ for a large list of cheap or (largely) free OA journals in the social sciences. This list has attracted several thousand views in a few weeks, so perhaps there is a small rumbling of interest in change.
        The high impact ones are listed but I refused to think about giving their scores, which vary. Journals like ‘environmental health perspectives’ are WoS listed, that one has an impact factor of 7, and it is totally free and online (like all the others). There are some remarkable Web of Science and Scopus listed journals that you may not have realised existed and which are ‘indexed’ if that matters for you. Anthropology is faring well with HAU; Geography with ACME; see also a couple of the urban list. I reckon given this, it is entirely possible to forge a career in certain fields from a list like this. I know nothing about international relations, but in geography or planning, I reckon in a few years you could have a perfectly good career publishing in OA journals,most of which are non commercial (this is two different things). And the list is growing almost monthly, even as the ‘top five’ publishers suck up smaller publishing houses.
        Whether to touch the big publishers at all is an ethical decision, one much easier for senior scholars, but they do offer some OA options at a cost. I have listed those too. If Pablo says again that all this is not mainstream enough, I will be annoyed.


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