Overcoming Obstacles to Launching and Sustaining Non-Traditional-Publisher Open Access Journals

As I noted in "What Is Open Access?," there is a fairly long history of non-traditional publishers producing free electronic journals:

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Internet had developed to the point that scholars began to publish free digital journals utilizing existing institutional infrastructure and volunteer labor (e.g., EJournal, PostModern Culture, and The Public-Access Computer Systems Review. These journals were not intended to generate income; they were "no-profit" journals. Although many of these journals allowed authors to retain their copyrights and they had liberal copyright statements regarding noncommercial use, they preceded by a decade or more the Creative Commons, and, consequently, did not embody that kind of copyright stance. While some of these journals ceased publication and others were transformed into non-profit ventures, they provided a model that others followed, especially after the popularization of the Internet began in the mid-1990s, which followed the earlier introduction of Web browsers. In recent years, the availability of free open source journal management and publishing systems, such as the Open Journal Systems, further simplified and streamlined digital journal publishing, fueling additional growth in this area. Now, a wide variety of academic departments or schools, institutes and research centers, libraries, professional associations, scholars, and others publish digital journals, a subset of which comply with the strictest definition of an open access journal and a larger subset which comply with the looser definition of an open access journal as a free journal. Since these diverse "publishers" would have been unlikely to be engaged in this activity without facilitating digital technologies and tools, I refer to them as "non-traditional publishers." Many of them are also "no-profit" publishers as well.

Given open source digital journal publishing systems, the idea of starting an OA journal has become more attractive than it was in the days when digital journals required a fair amount of specialized, labor-intensive technical support. However, the obstacles that non-traditional-publisher OA journals (hereafter called NTP OA journals) face are not primarily technical.

Here are some issues that NTP OA journals can face:

  • NTP OA journals are new journals. New journals have much more difficulty attracting authors, especially high-visibility authors, than established journals. Therefore, they also have more difficulty attracting readers, especially scholars who will cite their articles. This is a vicious circle. There are three key strategies for overcoming this problem: (1) focus your journal on a specialized, emerging topic of great interest that is not covered or not well covered by existing journals; (2) establish a high visibility editorial team and editorial board; and (3) actively recruit articles from authors.
  • NTP OA journals are digital-only journals. Certainly there is less prejudice against digital-only journals today than in the late 1980s; however, there may still be residual feelings by some scholars that digital journals are not "real" journals, and many scholars may have legitimate concerns about whether these journals will be available 10, 20, 30 or more years into the future. Regarding the latter point, it is highly desirable to have a convincing digital preservation strategy in mind, such as LOCKSS (a growing number of academic libraries are using this system to preserve digital journals). Authors who must face the prejudices of tenure committees against digital journals may be reluctant to publish in them or wish that they hadn’t when facing a promotion review. Provosts, department chairs, and others need to tackle the difficult issue of separating the digital wheat from the chaff so that junior faculty can be comfortable publishing in sanctioned NTP OA journals in their disciplines.
  • NTP OA journals often lack strong "branding." Conventional journal publishers typically have well-established reputations and they invest significant resources in promoting their journals, especially new journals.
  • NTP OA journals typically publish fewer articles than their conventional counterparts. In my view, this is not an intrinsic problem, but it can lead to negative perceptions of these journals.
  • NTP OA journals may not be indexed in traditional disciplinary indexing and abstracting services, they may lack standard identifiers (ISSN numbers), and they may not be cataloged by libraries in systems such as the OCLC Online Union Catalog (now publicly available as WorldCat). Fortunately, the latter two issues can be fairly easily addressed by NTP OA journal editors working with the National Serials Data Program at the Library of Congress and their local libraries; getting in I&A systems may require both time (to demonstrate that the journal warrants indexing) and persistent effort. The existence of directories of freely available digital journals, such the Directory of Open Access Journals, ameliorates the I&A problem somewhat, and NTP OA journal editors should make every effort to get their journals in such directories.
  • For the reasons noted above, NTP OA journals may lack citation impact; however, if they do have impact this may not be known because they are not included in prominent ISI publications that are widely used to measure such impact. However, with the advent of Google Scholar and similar systems that provide alternative ways of measuring citation impact, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, but these new methods of determining impact need to be widely recognized as being legitimate for them to be effective. One favorable impact factor is that, since NTP OA journals’ contents can be freely indexed by commonly used search engines (e.g., MSN Search), scholars are more likely to find their articles and cite them.
  • NTP OA journals require copy editing. This seems like an obvious point; however, novice editors can easily underestimate how much copy editing is required to produce a high-quality journal and how demanding this can be.
  • NTP OA journals survival may depend on the continued interest of their founders. Founders can lose interest in their journals, they can move to new jobs (leading to issues of their continued affiliation with the journal or the transfer of the journal to a new organization), they can retire, and they can die (see Walt Crawford’s "Free Electronic Refereed Journals: Getting Past the Arc of Enthusiasm").

For the reasons outlined above, NTP OA journals have a higher probability of success and survival if they are produced by a formal digital publishing program that has the firm backing of a nonprofit organization (or a unit of such an organization) than they do if they are published by a loose confederation of individuals. This digital publishing program does not need to invest anywhere near the level of resources that conventional publishers do, but it needs to have a parent organization that is committed to the continued operation and preservation of its journals, a distinct brand identity, a small core of subsidized part- or full-time editorial staff supported by a much larger number of editorial volunteers, a minimal level of supported technical infrastructure that relies on open source software, an active vs. passive content recruitment orientation, and a vigorous targeted promotion effort that integrates its journals into conventional finding tools and uses disciplinary and dedicated mailing lists, RSS feeds, Weblogs, and other free or low-cost communication tools to publicize them.

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