Open-access mega-journals and the future of scholarly communication

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Information School


Open-access 'mega-journals' are an emerging publishing trend which has the potential to reshape the way researchers share their findings, remoulding the academic publishing market and radically changing the nature and reach of scholarship. This project will investigate the influence of mega-journals in the academic community and beyond.

Mega-journals publish only online (they have no paper equivalent), and make their articles available on the open web (rather than just to subscribers). Typically, they support this by charging pre-publication article-processing charges (rather than post-publication subscriptions). These features are true of a growing group of open-access (OA) journals. What distinguishes mega-journals is their innovative approach to scope and quality. Their scope is unprecedentedly wide: PLOS ONE and Nature Scientific Reports, two major mega-journals, publish articles across the entire fields of science and medicine. Their approach to quality is based on an assessment of 'technical soundness', ignoring traditionally-valued criteria such as 'importance' and 'interest'. Crucially, these are addressed after publication through sophisticated machine-generated metrics on article use and citation. Thus mega-journals completely reverse the trend of increasing specialisation in scholarly publishing over the last 40 years by creating massive openly-available databases of multi-disciplinary research content.

Mega-journals are now beginning to make a real impact. PLOS ONE, founded in 2006, was the first journal of its type and is now the world's largest academic journal, publishing 31,500 articles in 2013. Following its success, other established publishers, including Nature, have launched titles. New publishers are also entering the market, encouraged by the potential for major economies of scale and recognising the disruptive potential of mega-journals in challenging the market dominance of conventionally-published specialised journals. Understanding how mega-journals are developing and their main characteristics are key aims of this project.

The potential influence of mega-journals on scholarship itself is also significant and will be a particular focus for this project. Mega-journals ostensibly deemphasise the role of 'gatekeepers' such as academic editors, editorial board members and peer reviewers who traditionally make judgements about a paper's disciplinary 'importance' and community 'interest'. This perhaps has implications for disciplinary identities and connections. Mega-journals seem to have the potential to enhance the ability of scholarly publications to move across boundaries - disciplinary boundaries and also those between academia and the rest of society. The extent to which mega-journals promote interdisciplinary working and the ways in which they can encourage use of scholarly content beyond academia are therefore important areas of enquiry. Another question for the project is the extent to which they contribute to an increasing trend of metrics-driven assessment of research rather than peer assessment, and the relationship this has on research funding and management.

This project will examine these and related issues asking in particular, 'What is the significance of the emergence of mega-journals both within and beyond the academic research community?' Using a variety of research methods, it will assemble both quantitative and qualitative data to answer this question. The research will include quantitative studies of the characteristics of mega-journals (for example, using bibliometric methods), interviews with major stakeholders in the publishing industry, focus groups and interviews involving scholars and research managers representing different disciplinary and professional communities, and an international survey of researchers. Assembling all of this evidence will allow the research team to draw conclusions of interest to researchers, publishers, research managers and policymakers.

Planned Impact

A key objective of the project is to open-up debate, inform development and influence policy around the dissemination and publication of research outcomes. The project's findings are expected to contribute to policy development in research evaluation, provide an evidence base for publishing business investment decisions, contribute to cultural change in higher education institutions (HEIs), and inform research and knowledge-exchange practices within institutions. The focus of the proposed project addresses directly the AHRC Digital Transformations Theme and the RCUK Digital Economy priority area, and the project is therefore expected to achieve impact in areas identified by those policy strands. In particular, the project addresses the following areas identified by Digital Transformations theme: "changes in publishing, notions of authorship...the democratisation of scholarship and the globalisation of the knowledge economy...transformations of disciplines and inter-disciplinarity...questions of access and availability..."

Direct beneficiaries will include publishers, research managers, library and information service providers, and researchers themselves. Publishers will benefit from a greater understanding of the changing scholarly communication landscape and the nature of the relationship between traditional subject-specific journal titles and new business models for the dissemination and publication of research. Research managers will benefit from an enhanced evidence-base for use in developing institutional research and knowledge-exchange evaluation mechanisms and the implications for future disciplinary and national research assessments. Library and information service providers will benefit from an improved understanding of the changing publication chain and the behaviours of their users. Academic researchers will benefit (quite apart from the 'academic' benefits above) from changes to organisational culture within HEIs that are culturally sensitive to researchers' differing practices across the sciences, engineering, social sciences, and arts and humanities etc, and also from publisher products designed to address their changing needs.

The broader beneficiaries include those in the wider research policy and scholarly publishing community, including learned and professional societies, government-funded agencies, charities and research funders. An understanding of current researcher behaviours and attitudes towards mega-journals and their place within the wider publishing landscape will be useful in informing debate around issues of open access to publically-funded research, and the degree of culture change which might be needed in different disciplines in order to bring this about. Outcomes of the research may therefore have an important impact on policy development which itself in turn impacts on funding allocations.

By helping to take the open access debate forward there is also potential for wider impact in terms contributing to the facilitation of access to knowledge for professional and practitioner groups outside of academia such as researchers in commercial organisations and public/third sector practitioners. In particular, commercial enterprises and other organisations relying on technology development and/or creative innovation have the potential to benefit through better understanding of the ways in which research findings are disseminated and how they might be discovered and accessed.


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Spezi V (2017) Open-access mega-journals in Journal of Documentation
Description Conference presentation - Research Libraries UK conference (London) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation (plenary session) to HE library directors and other senior managers on the project and its early findings, 9 March 2016. Designed to encourage engagement with the project from a major stakeholder group and also enlist support for future stages of the project (particularly hosting focus groups).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016