Open access for scholarly publications, part 11 – Journals

The National Library of Sweden has held the appropriation directive from the Swedish Government to produce recommendations for the change to an open access scholarly publication system. These recommendations are presented by Henrik Schmidt, librarian here at KIB, in a series of blog posts.

In a series of blog posts, we have discussed the recommendations presented by the National Library (KB) in the spring of 2019. The main target groups for the recommendations are researchers, educational institutions, research funding agencies, scientific societies, governmental authorities, and politicians. The eleventh recommendation concerns the role of journals and publishers in the scientific publishing process.

During the past two decades, criticism has been raised, primarily, against the major scientific publishers. It has been spoken in terms of a severe crisis in the system itself. The criticism has partly been provoked by the rapid rise of the costs and the publishers’ high profit margins. But the criticism has also been directed at publishers for more fundamental reasons. The products that the publishers sell most often are the result of publicly funded research. In addition, the universities and research institutions have not only produced scientific results, but also peer-reviewed each other’s data, methods and conclusions. These researchers, fundamentally funded through public means, are also working in the journals’ editorial boards. In order to ensure that the publisher has a product to sell, the researcher will often abjure their commercial rights in the submission process, through a so-called ”copyright transfer agreement”. This is the basis for the product that then will be sold back to the universities, research funders, policy makers, the general public and others.

To this can be added a rather intricate eco-system, developed over time, involving prestige, indicators and status. This means that we cannot really talk about free competition within this area, neither for the researcher publishing their results nor for the subscription fee-paying libraries. One journal is not easily replaced by another.

Nevertheless, new publishers as well as established ones, commercial ones as well as non-profit ones, need to be given opportunities and provided with the means to ensure an effective and beneficial adjustment to the new circumstances, new demands and partially new target groups. Therefore, a starting point in the KB’s investigation is that the transition to open access should be beneficial for both researchers and journal publishers. After all, the scientific journal is still an essential component of scientific communication. 

The investigation identifies 218 scientific journals published in Sweden. Among them, there are about 30 dealing with medical issues. If you search in these medical journals, you will find KI researchers active in various editorial boards. A large portion of the identified journals are run by a scientific associations or universities that are not driven by profit interests. Many journals, however, are published in collaboration with a commercial company, primarily to free up time for editors to focus on scientific content rather than having to spend time on administrative or technical matters. 

The attitude towards a business model reliant on publishing charges rather than subscription fees varies on the editorial boards of these journals. There is widespread concern that the vital income provided by subscriptions will disappear and thereby undermine the journals’ ability to pay for production and editorial services.

This is the case in many other countries as well. The concern expressed by scientific societies here at home also appears in international investigations. It is the business model that generates the most doubt. Can one trust that it will provide a steady and predictable income? Will potential authors be deterred if a publishing fee is added to submission process? Will the income generated be sufficiently large to finance other activities done by the society? But it is also clear from the investigations that both research funding agencies and library consortia are willing to support the scientific societies, financially as well as otherwise, in their transition to sustainable, transparent and open business models. So it´s not the part about the open access that is perceived as a problem; in fact, it is often in line with many societies’ mission statements regarding scientific communication. 

A newly launched initiative has assembled several scientific societies around the collective ambition of implementing an orderly and sustainable transition to an open access scientific publication system. Signs of the transition can be observed in a project at Harvard University that looks at the number of journals produced by scientific societies committed to open access. There, are at the moment of writing, 1,041 pure open access journals (gold) produced by scientific societies; this list does not include hybrid journals.

The tempo and the extent of the transition may entail difficulties and uncertainties, particularly for small and medium-size publishers. These publishers will need various forms of support in order to ensure that the transition proceeds smoothly and that motivation is maintained throughout the process. Financial support for Swedish journals is disseminated partially through the Swedish Research Council and partially through Forte, and consists of roughly 4,8 million SEK per year. In their investigation, KB recommends that this should be increased, become easier to apply for, and is assembled under the umbrella of one governmental authority, in order to protect the integrity and breadth of Swedish scientific publishing in the long-term.

Recommendation 11 reads as follows: That the Swedish Reasearch Council is to be commissioned to establish support for journals in their transition to an open access scientific publication system, without restrictions as regards to discipline.

Find out more about the description of and argument in favour of this recommendation in the report: Ekonomiskt och tekniskt stöd till tidskrifter som publicerar med öppen tillgång (only in Swedish).

All blog posts in this series

Henrik Schmidt

Librarian engaged in research support in various forms. Teaches doctoral students and researchers in areas related to literature search, publishing strategies and publication analysis.