OA vs. Nascent Communities

With "special issues" and reviewers being asked to edit as well, OA publishers are gutting communities and adding to academic burdens

OA vs. Nascent Communities

There seems to be a spectrum of OA publishers emerging, and nothing feels particularly reassuring about the future of scientific publishing as a social good.

High-end journals with stratospheric impact factors and major legacies are projecting equally stratospheric APCs, which makes publishing in them less feasible for early-career researchers or small research teams with remarkable findings but limited funding.

Scientific insights do not always come from heavily funded research teams — recall that two scientists on a one-year grant proved Koch’s postulate when it came to H. pylori causing ulcers, a finding that changed the medical and public perception of ulcers forever, and led to the Nobel Prize. Their main work was published in the Lancet. Similar stories permeate the history of scientific discovery.

Could such researchers afford being published in a top-shelf outlet in the coming years? Would a perceived price tag make them self-select another venue with less prominence, and therefore less of a chance of making the kind of splash that can change the world for the better?

Concerns about the privileging of quantity and price over quality and merit when it comes to OA publishing are starting to emerge with more frequency and at broader levels, with China in particular exhibiting an edginess about the model and how it can be exploited via the Matthew Effect — those with money can use it to cement their place, regardless of the intrinsic scientific or social value of their research.

“Special issues” represent one way some OA publishers are following the natural incentives of the pay-to-play APC model to drive profits. These focused article collections allow exploitative OA publishers to maximize the obvious financial upside of the model by strip-mining an emerging scientific community via a call for papers, pumping their finances with a bolus of APCs, and then walking away with the cash. MDPI and Frontiers are major practitioners in this area.

As a result of this practice, emerging communities are rendered bereft of long-term support, their initial resources exported to a quasi-journal space that may not be revisited in months or years, if ever.

Contrast this with legitimate, long-term journal development — a benefit of the subscription model, which is predicated on substantial initial investment and long-term payoff. Development would start with the identification of an emerging sub-discipline or community, encourage the cultivation and support of this community and its scientific pursuits with the long-term interests of both parties involved, and often result in a top-flight journal, one which persist for decades or longer, and which supports the growth and intellectual pursuits of the growing community.

I remember when neonatology was an emerging discipline in pediatrics. I helped identify thought leaders and editors for a new journal to support this community, whose practitioners had developed useful new ways to treat premature babies, saving lives and preserving function. The resulting journal — NeoReviews — is still around, 24+ years later, and premature infants emerge into a world that provides them with more support than ever. This is a common theme around legitimate journal development efforts, and the communities they both support and legitimize — the science accelerates, and society benefits in the long run.

But what happens to nascent communities when they are strip-mined by exploitative OA publishers, leaving researchers exploring important new areas high and dry, their papers consumed, and their faith in publishers shaken?

The OA model encourages such exploitation, and does nothing to head it off or disincentivize it.

Rumors abound of MDPI and Frontiers pressuring editors to accept manuscripts in order to meet quotas for special issues and otherwise. Recall that the Executive Editor of Frontiers visited Jeffrey Beall’s boss personally to apply pressure over his blacklist — so, it’s not as if these people aren’t known for bare-knuckled brawling.

In a new development, Frontiers is asking reviewers to not only review manuscripts, but to edit them, on an unpaid basis.

Yes, that’s right — editing, not just reviewing.

In this mode, OA is adding to the volunteer burden on academics, not alleviating it, because exploitative OA publishers are profit-seeking in a manner that OA advocates would condemn if only the halo of OA weren’t blinding them.

OA doesn’t work on the high-end — it may shut out too much potentially useful research with not only a perceptual barrier (“our stuff isn’t good enough for Prestige Journal”) but increasingly often with an explicit and definite financial barrier (“besides, we can’t afford it”).

OA doesn’t work on the low-end — predatory and exploitative publishers are everywhere, strip-mining nascent communities and leaving them as empty husks, while the credibility of some potentially important work is shattered.

And it doesn’t work for communities generally, with mega-journals sweeping up vast swaths of papers that never coalesce into meaningful community catalysts, new societies, interesting meetings, or new academic disciplines of any scale.

OA may paralyze science if allowed to stymie the natural evolution of its interdisciplinary virtues.

Not only are our current approaches to publishing creating confusion with the public, they are undermining the emergence of potentially vital new scientific communities and hurting the overall enterprise.

No wonder the new OSTP guidance speaks of “restoring trust” in the scientific reporting system. Publishers have not maintained trust by dallying with techno-utopianism, legitimizing non-peer reviewed postings, and allowing exploitative and predatory species allowed to thrive.

The scientific community isn’t the only community being damaged. The progress of science in the abstract is not served by publication practices that don’t support the emergence of its nascent communities and therefore science’s natural evolution.