The Perils and Profits of Open Access

If you’re within smelling distance of someone who’s involved in academic publishing, you’ve probably caught a whiff of the alarm that open-access publishing is causing.  The movement in favor of open access is founded on the ideal of the free flow of information (particularly information resulting from federally funded research).  Much of the debate has focused on publishing in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which has been dominated by large, for-profit publishers charging steep fees.  Nonprofit publishers are caught in the middle: the open-access model has left many scratching their heads over how to monetize their products, especially since journal subscriptions are often a press’s most lucrative and reliable asset, sometimes funding the riskier world of book publishing.

The issue is big, however, and getting bigger, and even nonprofit publishing organizations are in the process of coming to grips with it.  In the March 2014 issue of its newsletter Footnotes, the American Sociological Association announced that it would launch its first open-access journal in the summer of 2014.  Like the ASA’s more established journals, including the disciplinary giant American Sociological Review, the yet-unnamed journal will be published by SAGE.  The article cites the many advantages of this new enterprise: the journal will publish research in “any area of sociology. . . . It will allow authors to receive a publishing decision quickly, have article lengths unconstrained by printed page limits, as well as have accepted articles published online immediately after editorial review and acceptance.  Authors will retain their copyright.”

These are all worthy goals, of course.  But the complications of this model of publishing become clear as the article rolls on.  Authors will asked to revise and resubmit only rarely, meaning that the refinement of the peer-review process may be endangered.  The manuscripts will be subjected to “only light editing,” creating a potentially low standard for good copy.  And most worrisome, the articles will have a $400 publication fee—and that’s just for ASA members. Nonmembers will be charged even more.  We are assured that this is “well below the current open access standard in today’s scholarly publishing marketplace.”  For context, the American Sociological Review charges all authors, members or no, a $25 submission fee.  That certainly answers the question of how to monetize open access; however, the ASA also promises that “anyone who has been accepted and requests a waiver will be granted one,” suggesting some ambivalence about the charge.  (No author, “ASA to Launch Open Access Scholarly Journal,” ASA Footnotes 42 [March 2014], 11.)

That’s how one reputable organization is approaching the changes in the industry.  But the speed and ease of open-access publishing, along with these substantial publication fees, has opened up fertile ground for flimflammers in the “publish or perish” world of academia.  My friend Colin Reynolds, a graduate student at Emory University, recently presented a paper at the American Society of Church History/Ecclesiastical History Society’s joint spring meeting.  The paper was listed on the conference website, and Colin soon received what he found to be an “enticing” e-mail.  “This is [journal name and ISSN redacted], an international, professional and peer reviewed journal published across the United States by [redacted] Publishing Company.”  The message went on to solicit all of Colin’s “original and unpublished papers.”  According to Colin, “This seemed a little too good to be true, especially since nobody besides my panel chair had read the conference paper.”

He dug into things a bit and discovered an online community of people who were also suspicious of the company.  “The biggest offense alleged here,” Colin comments, “is that [redacted] charges $50 per page to publish articles. . . . [the publisher] seems to be a wise entrepreneurial company that is taking advantage of the fact that young researchers don’t expect to get paid for writing and might be willing to pay large sums of money to (hopefully) start their careers.”

“Wise” and “entrepreneurial” are generous adjectives to use for this and other, similar companies that are little more than criminal enterprises.  Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at University of Colorado Denver, has a blog devoted to identifying what he has termed “open-access predatory publishers.”  He reports a surprising range of  misbehaviors, ranging from simple “poor quality” to faking impact factors to the spreading of misinformation.  Perhaps most colorful of all is the “hijacking” of genuine journals’ sites in an effort to steal their submission or publication fees.  But Beall’s most sustained effort is a list of publishers to avoid, literally titled “Beall’s List.”  While he does seem to be on something of a one-man crusade, he’s upright enough to publish the criteria he uses to deem these publishers “predatory” and to institute an appeals process.

When the Wild West of the internet meets the staid world of academia, flimflam ensues.  Beware, authors!  If you’re going with open access, know the dangers (from bad copyediting to stolen submission fees).  On the bumpy road to a restructured field of publishing, it looks like scholars are braving the crosswalk along with everybody else.