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

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

Abstract

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.

Publications


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Spezi V (2017) Open-access mega-journals in Journal of Documentation
 
Description Our early work has given us insight into the major characteristics of open-access mega-journals as an innovation in research publishing. Firstly, mega-journals operate at an unprecedented scale, in the case of the largest, publishing tens of thousands articles per year. Secondly, they have an unusually wide scope, with many covering all of the sciences and engineering in a single journal. Thirdly, they employ new approaches to quality control, with many paring down the peer review process to look only at the 'soundness' of the science used in the study, rather than the 'more subjective' criteria such novelty or significance traditionally included in reviews. Finally, mega-journals take full advantage of the new business model employed by many open-access journals: payment of pre-publication article-processing charges (APCs), rather than traditional subscriptions - a new approach where income scales with output, thus enabling rapid growth. Our analysis has enabled us to suggest a new economic model for journal publishing which allows the publication of highly-selective titles in an open-access environment (often seen as a problem with open-access publishing) alongside mega-journals, in which the mega-journals provide financial subsidy to the highly-selective titles which in turn provide 'reputational subsidy' to the mega-journals.

We have also uncovered some of the controversy associated with this new approach to academic publishing. Strong views have been expressed both in support of and opposition to mega-journals, with supporters claiming that they make for better science and a more democratic approach to publication and opponents labelling them a "dumping ground" for lower-quality work. Partly as a result of this controversy, there is disagreement about the long-term significance of the mega-journal approach with some seeing it as a minor (and unwelcome) variation on conventional peer-reviewed publishing and others seeing it as a potentially disruptive innovation, or at least a steppingstone to one. We have discussed these debates in our paper published in the Journal of Documentation (Spezi et al., 2017).

We have also carried out a thorough 'bibliometric' review of the main mega-journals currently published (Wakeling et al., 2016). Our analysis shows mega-journals to be reflecting major trends in academic publishing, particularly the rapid development of scientific research in the Far East. However, we also noticed a number of interesting features of mega-journals, such as marked variation in the number of other works citing articles from mega-journals (a proxy measure of quality), which you may not expect to see when the journals concerned all use the same 'soundness-only' review criteria.

Our ongoing investigations have been set up to try to explore and explain some of the major features of mega-journals and the ways in which they are perceived by key stakeholders - researchers, publishers, policymakers and so. We have recently carried out a set of interviews with senior publishers and others involved in publishing mega-journals to gauge their views on the phenomenon, and still more recently, have completed a set of focus groups with researchers from different disciplinary communities investigating their attitudes. These phases of our research will be reflected in future publications and other outputs.

As part of what we are doing, we have made particular efforts to engage in dialogue with the key stakeholder groups. This has meant presenting our work at professional conferences, including meetings of publishers and academic librarians. We have also published magazine articles describing our research for a more general audience (Pinfield, 2016; Pinfield et al., 2017). This has led to a great deal of interest in what we are doing and we intend to build on this during the final year of the project, ensuring we communicate our findings as widely as possible.

References:

Pinfield, S. (2016, October 13). Mega-journals: The future, a stepping stone to it or a leap into the abyss? Times Higher Education (THE) Online. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/mega-journals-future-stepping-stone-it-or-leap-abyss

Pinfield, S., Spezi, V., Wakeling, S., Creaser, C., Fry, J., & Willett, P. (2017, March). Open-access mega-journals. CILIP Update.

Spezi, V., Wakeling, S., Pinfield, S., Creaser, C., Fry, J., & Willett, P. (2017). Open-access mega-journals: The future of scholarly communication or academic dumping ground? A review. Journal of Documentation, 73(2), 263-283. http://doi.org/10.1108/JD-06-2016-0082

Wakeling, S., Willett, P., Creaser, C., Fry, J., Pinfield, S., & Spezi, V. (2016). Open-access mega-journals: A bibliometric profile. PLOS ONE, 11(11), e0165359. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165359
Exploitation Route We are currently carrying out work which will highlight areas for future research and will also spell out the implications for wider policy and practice.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education
 
Description ALPSP conference presentation (London) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation at the Association of Learned and Professional Society Conference, London, 15 September 2016. The paper was entitled, 'Open-access mega-journals: Research in progress', by Stephen Pinfield (presenter), Claire Creaser, Jenny Fry, Valérie Spezi, Simon Wakeling and Peter Willett. The paper provided an update on the findings of the project to date, including questions arising from the literature review and bibliometrics analysis. The session was attended by over 100 participants, mainly from the publishing industry.This resulted in useful post-session discussions and a set of useful contacts for the project. We were also approached by a journal editor encouraging contribution to a professional journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.alpsp.org/2016-Programme
 
Description Article in CILIP Update 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Pinfield, S., et al. (2017). Open-access mega-journals. CILIP Update, March. Article in the main professional magazine for library and information professionals, raising awareness about the project and its outcomes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Article in the Times Higher online edition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Pinfield, S. (2016, October 13). Mega-journals: The future, a stepping stone to it or a leap into the abyss? Times Higher Education (THE) Online. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/mega-journals-future-stepping-stone-it-or-leap-abyss.

This article in the Times Higher online edition summarised many of the key issues being investigated in the project and gave rise to interest evidenced by social media discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/mega-journals-future-stepping-stone-it-or-leap-abyss
 
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
URL http://www.rluk.ac.uk/event/rluk-conference-2016/
 
Description SSP conference presentation (Vancouver) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation at a pre-conference session of the Society for Scholarly Publishing conference in Vancouver, 1 June 2016. The paper, presented as part of a session on 'Open access and sustainability', was entitled, 'Open-access mega-journals and the sustainability of scholarly communication', by Stephen Pinfield (presenter), Claire Creaser, Jenny Fry, Valérie Spezi, Simon Wakeling and Peter Willett. This was attended by about 60 participants, mostly from the publishing industry. The presentation led reported research undertaken to date, and invited comment. The session prompted lively discussion and led to several detailed post-session conversations. Several senior publishers requested further involvement in the project and have subsequently been consulted or formally invited to be participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.sspnet.org/events/past-events/annual-meeting-2016/event-home/
 
Description STM conference presentation (Frankfurt) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation at the Association of Science, Technology and Medicine Publishers' conference at the Frankfurt book festival (Frankfurt, 18 October 2016). The paper was entitled, 'Open-access mega-journals: Research in progress', by Stephen Pinfield (presenter), Claire Creaser, Jenny Fry, Valérie Spezi, Simon Wakeling and Peter Willett. The presentation resulted in very useful discussion during and after the session with senior members of the publisher community. This included contact with individuals subsequently included as participants in the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.stm-assoc.org/events/stm-frankfurt-conference-2016/