What Does It Mean To Start An Open Access Journal?

Following earlier interviews with Editors at Ethics & Global Politics and the newly open Cultural Anthropology, we present yet another insight into how to do open access, this time with Professor Kim Weeden of Cornell, a Deputy Editor of the new open access journal Sociological Science, which launched earlier this year. As the name suggests, this is a sociology journal (and a ‘general interest’ one at that), indicating yet another field in which open access is being taken seriously whilst International Relations languishes (not withstanding para-IR examples like Ethics & Global Politics and our friends at the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies). So what can we learn from the Sociological Science model? As usual, I’ve stuck some thoughts on at the end.


Sociological Science

1. Who initiated Sociological Science, and why?

Dissatisfaction with the traditional publication process, and in particular the peer review system, has been festering in sociology for a while. Seems like everyone has a tale of a paper that sat for months before an initial decision, received multiple rounds of “revise and resubmits” that extended the review process to several years, or was rejected because it reported on a replication study, didn’t make enough of a “theoretical contribution” regardless of the quality of the empirical analysis, or espoused truly novel ideas that ruffled the feathers of a single anonymous reviewer. Even papers that experienced relatively smooth sailing in the traditional review process can be 1-2 years on the wrong side of fresh before they finally see the light of day.

A couple of colleagues, including our Editor-in-Chief Jesper Sørensen, got together and started brainstorming alternatives. They recruited a few other like-minded colleagues to the cause, and this founding group hammered out the details. The founding group morphed into the current 7-person editorial board, which includes sociologists on the faculty of Cornell, MIT, NYU, Stanford, and Yale. All of us have tenure, and are at a stage in our careers where we have the energy and social capital to devote to starting a journal.

2. How has the launch of Sociological Science been funded?

We’re a volunteer effort. The founding group and core editorial team did all the legwork to set up the journal: incorporating as a non-profit, devising the editorial model, setting a fee structure, advertising through social media, creating the web site, hiring copy editors, working with libraries so that the journal is indexed in abstract search databases, you name it.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business has generously funded a temporary, part-time managing editor to help with the launch. Our next task is to raise the funds to make the managing editor position permanent.

3. Sociological Science uses a system of Article Processing Charges (APCs), charged at different rates depending on author seniority. How did this decision come about?

We’re a non-profit entity, so our goal in setting fees is to cover the costs of publishing, no more and no less. We decided on APCs as the easiest and fairest way to cover these costs.

The complexity is that federal funding for sociological research is very scarce, and many funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, don’t allow grantees to budget for publication costs. Instead, APCs fall on individual authors or their universities. Sociological Science ‘s progressive fee structure recognizes that the ability to afford APCs varies by academic rank. Including the submission fee, publication costs for a 6,000 word article are about £310 for a full professor, £220 for an associate professor, £160 for an assistant professor, £93 for a student, post-doc, or non-tenure track professor, and £21 for a scholar from a low or lower-middle income country, per the World Bank.

In effect, senior authors are subsidizing the publication of articles by junior scholars, which we think is appropriate. At the same time, we don’t want to set the fees for junior scholars so low that we receive every graduate student’s second year paper, or set the fees for senior scholars so high that they take their best work elsewhere.

4. Did Sociological Science consider other funding models apart from APCs? If so, why did it reject these models?

No, I can’t say that we did. We had many discussions about the fee scale within the APC funding model. There aren’t many non-profit, peer-reviewed, open access journals in the social sciences that we could use as a model, and the APCs in journals that publish grant-funded life and physical science research are much higher than the fees that social scientists could afford or accept.

5. Are Editors or their assistants paid?

No, but it would be pretty uncommon in sociology for an Editor to be paid for their service. Sometimes the host institution will agree to release the editor from one or two courses in his or her normal course load, but none of the core editorial team of Sociological Science are in this boat. It’s a labour of love.

6. How do you organise, and pay for, your online presence and submission system?

We work with a fabulous publication partner, Scholastica, that runs our submission system. Authors pay a modest submission fee to Scholastica, currently $35. Scholastica’s fees are $10 per paper, and the remainder goes to Sociological Science to help defray operating costs.

The Sociological Science web site was created and managed by our Editor in Chief and our part-time managing editor, who is a web designer in the other half of his time.

So far, all of our advertising has taken place through word of mouth, the blogosphere, and social media. The Sociological Science Twitter account is managed by another volunteer, a professor who is sympathetic to our cause and to the fact that most of the scholars on the editorial board aren’t used to communicating in 140 characters or less. As you can tell.

7. Sociological Science is committed to a number of principles beyond open access. What are they, and how do you see them relating to the academic open access movement?

We’re committed to rigorous, rapid, and decisive peer-review. We promise authors decisions in 30 days, and our average so far is 12 days. Our reviews are evaluative, rather than developmental: Sociological Science doesn’t give “revise and resubmits,” and it doesn’t give authors, nor ask reviewers to produce, lengthy reviews filled with suggestions about how to improve the paper. Compared to the flagship journals that offer developmental reviews, we are more likely to publish a paper with modeling assumptions, for example, about which reasonable people can disagree, as long as the author specifies what those assumptions are. The beauty of open access is that that a wider range of scholars can debate the papers post-publication.

We’re also trying to create a publication outlet for articles that deviate from the template of traditional articles in the discipline’s flagship journals. In particular, we’re open to papers that offer careful empirical findings in the absence of “theoretical contributions” or purely theoretical papers, papers that report on replication studies, and, especially, papers that get to the point quickly and eschew lengthy literature reviews. It’s not uncommon for sociology articles in the flagship journals to run over 12,000 words, not including tables, when in many cases 6,000 words would do. (Mea culpa.)

Sociological Science is also committed to being a non-profit journal. We acknowledge that there are economies of scale in academic publishing, and that the for-profit publication outlets can offer benefits such as cheaper copy editing and manuscript preparation (often by offshoring the labor to South Asia), slicker web sites, and shorter start-up times for new journals. However, we’re concerned about the potential for a handful of for-profit publishers to dominate the OA space, just as they dominate the subscription journal space. Indeed, many for-profit publishers are finally moving into OA social science publishing, whether because they foresee the demise of subscription journals or because they are following a classic strategy of product proliferation: fill the shelves with your own product, thereby squeezing out smaller and independent producers. Although in the short term these new products may lose money, in the long term a greater market share means greater profits for the publisher and higher prices for authors, institutions, and, indirectly, taxpayers.

8. Sociological Science has also innovated a ‘Reactions’ feature where comments can be left on published papers. How does this system work? What are the advantages and drawbacks of it thus far?

Readers can write quick reactions, which are posted with the paper in a similar form as reader comments on a blog. We don’t allow anonymous comments, so readers have to sign up with their real names and a university e-mail address. (Non-academic readers can sign up, too, it just requires an extra e-mail to the editor.) The reactions are moderated by the editors for tone but not for accuracy: we’re just trying to keep the conversation civil, not shape its substance.

Readers can also write Comments, which go through the standard review process. These are typically longer, and may involve additional analyses or a more in-depth critique of the paper. The Comments are published as regular articles, but thanks to the on-line platform, we can include a link to the original article in the header of the Comment and vice versa to make it easier for readers to follow the give-and-take.

So far, we’ve seen some very high quality Reactions. So, for example, the most recent Sociological Science paper is on the diffusion of social behaviours. It sparked a very thoughtful reaction by a senior scholar who offered an alternative theoretical model for diffusion, an effort by another senior scholar to reconcile the two theories by laying out scope conditions for each, and a response from the original author. All this took place in a matter of a couple of days, and drew many more readers than would have, say, attended a session on diffusion at the American Sociological Association meetings. And, because it’s a relatively low time investment to write up a 500-word reaction, the format creates a space for conversations that might not otherwise happen at all.

We have heard concerns, particularly from junior scholars, that Reactions put more of a burden on authors, who may feel like they need to need to monitor the web site constantly and respond to every reaction. Another junior scholar expressed concern that a harsh critique from a high-status senior scholar would turn readers against the paper even if the critique is dead wrong. As much as we’re sympathetic to the pressures of being an assistant professor, our view is that post-publication debate and dialogue is critical to the growth of knowledge, and that we all benefit from a publication technology that facilitates post-publication debate.

9. Have you encountered reluctance from particular groups of academics (by seniority, region or discipline) in submitting to Sociological Science, or resistance to the idea of an open access sociology journal?

Not surprisingly, we’ve heard from graduate students and assistant professors who are concerned about submitting to a new journal that doesn’t have a proven track record and that may not help them at tenure time. The same problem exists with new subscription journals, but for some reason the perception is that deans are more skeptical of open access journals. I know it sounds elitist, but the status and reputations of the members of the editorial team, including our consulting editors, have helped to quell some of these fears. So did the first set of papers, which included papers by well-known senior scholars and by assistant professors at top-tier departments. If papers are judged by the company they keep, Sociological Science is offering junior authors good company.

Related to this, we’ve also encountered some confusion over the relationship between open access and quality. Perhaps because faculty inboxes are inundated with spam from OA outlets that guarantee publication on receipt of a money order, there’s a tendency to equate open access with a lack of rigorous peer review. Coupled with this, some people in the field are concerned that open access will create a market for research that gains a lot of media attention, but that is fundamentally wrong or “dumbed down” for a public that isn’t trained to assess research. Sociological Science, and journals like it, show that open access can be combined with rigorous peer review.

Finally, we’ve encountered resistance to the APC funding model. The argument is that APCs are elitist, in that authors from less well-resourced institutions are effectively shut out of publication because of the high price tag of APCs relative to publication fees at subscription journals. We think that this form of inequality has to be balanced against the inequality inherent in subscription journals, namely that only scholars at well-resourced institutions can access the articles. And, in theory, some of the resources that universities currently use to pay for journal subscriptions could be reallocated to pay for APC fees. Cornell, for example, has been a major instigator in the open access movement — ArXiv is housed here — and has “put its money where its mouth is” by subsidising OA fees for authors who don’t have grants to cover them. We’ve heard of several other institutions, including less well-resourced public universities, that are doing the same.

10. Thus far, how have you found the response to Sociological Science

We’ve been very pleased by the support we’ve received from our colleagues, by the quality of the papers that we’ve seen so far, and by the positive “buzz” about the journal in the field. We’re also very pleased that many of the Sociological Science papers have generated high-quality discussions on line, both on other scholars’  blogs and on the Sociological Science web site.


Four broad observations.

First, Sociological Science serves as yet another example of the feasibility of a move to open access. The Editors don’t get relief from other duties, true, but that is not unusual. More crucially, the progressive pricing structure mitigates some concerns about the likely impact of APCs. £93 for a PhD student to submit a paper is not nothing, but it’s a long way short of the terror of Dame Finch’s projected costs (c. £1,500). University-funds to pay for, say, a submission or two per PhD student would not be hard to resource (which isn’t the same as saying that universities would in fact resource them). At these kinds of prices, it is indeed plausible that moving from subscriptions to APCs will also lead to a net saving for university libraries (leaving aside the huge collective action and transition problems that we will continue to face until open access reaches critical mass).

Second, Sociological Science‘s embracing of other innovations indicates a hopeful, if not unambiguous, future. At this stage the quality of reactions and comments are indeed high, and have something of the tenor of an intense and productive discussion at a research seminar. As has been pointed out before, the speed of communication currently embodied in journal publishing was the most efficient one available to the 17th century, but is crushingly slow given today’s technologies. This is a quite separate complaint to bemoaning the lack of integration of academics into policy and media cycles, although speeding up academic publishing will help in both cases. Combining these features (open access, lighter peer review, shorter papers, reactions, etc.) accelerates the shift in publishing, but will also raise concerns. I doubt that ditching ‘revise and resubmit’ would command wide consent, perhaps for good reason. And while our fields could, and should, accommodate a range of outputs, from research notes to short empirical summaries to substantive theoretical interventions, but we haven’t really begun to think about the implications for epistemic authority or funding.

Moreover, there are some notes of caution worth striking. As ‘open’ comes to stand in for all kinds of networked exchange, so too does the demand go up for academic ‘relevance’, measured against an arcane and perhaps unknowable standard. In this world, short and simple matters. And while articles need not be 12,000 words long, insisting on the correlation between brevity, turn-over and contribution is a death-trap. We need spaces for slow thought, abstract reasoning and lengthy exposition, Nick Kristof be damned. Similarly, rhetorics of openness tend to imagine flat spaces of egalitarian interaction. Would that it were so. Power operates, even where there is access for anyone with an internet connection. For example, concerns about anonymity in commenting are not misplaced. An increased pace of discussion for tenured Professors is surely progress in and of itself, but we should reflect somewhat on who gets to contribute, and how, in the open systems of the future.

Third, Sociological Science‘s experience to date underlines the need to rethink resources and scale. In a prestige economy, it is not surprising that it takes the brand recognition of Yale, Cornell et al. to convince risk-averse academics to submit papers. That does not indicate cowardice or stupidity on the part of the submitters. Pressures to publish in recognised journals are real, and job security (including the security to do other, less formalised kinds of work) depends on success there. But it does mean that beginning an open access journal of this sort is something of a luxury, and that it remains (for now) a marginal alternative to the well-established outlets. This is not a comment on the Sociological Science project, but on the ecology of publishing itself. To belabour the point, we still need to be thinking about the kind of mass transformation that only learned societies and university presses can bring about. Until that happens, subscriptions will continue to rise, with some paying APCs on top. Open access alternatives will steal some of the attention, and commercial entities will play with open access alternatives, but the underlying wealth transfer will remain much the same.

Fourth, and most depressingly, our own field (call it International Relations, global politics, international political theory, or whatever) is being typically reactionary in the face of these opportunities (and the underlying ethical justifications for openness). Let us again note here the authoritarian fantasy of the International Studies Association blogging proposal (in which anyone involved in editing an ISA journal would be forbidden from blogging anywhere apart from official journal blogs). This kind of land-grab-cum-disciplinary-system is the control element of official responses to open academia. The other element is neglect. I understand that a proposal for an open access BISA journal was recently euthanised behind the bike sheds. This isn’t just sad (learned society sticks to the old ways shock!). It’s becoming actively stupid. Calls for revolutionary change are easy to script when you’re not being offered prestigious Editorships, but we have to collectively get our shit together.

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2 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Start An Open Access Journal?

  1. Pingback: Twitter Open Access Report – 18 Mar 2014 |

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