Trends in Open Access

This evening I gut an email from a new Open Access journal: Trends in Evolutionary Biology:

Trends in Evolutionary Biology, March 2009
We would like to invite you to submit your next paper to Trends in Evolutionary Biology.

Looking around, it’s evidently a new journal from some publishers who are moving into OA. But I was sceptical about how long they’ll last. Poking around their websites, it seems they are a small operation that is just starting up, but don’t seem to be doing a great job. For starters, the title is a bit too similar to one of Elsevier’s journals, Trends in Ecology & Evolution. I can see Elsevier getting upset about this, and would you really want to annoy a company involved in the arms trade, eh?

This impression was confirmed when, 57 minutes later, I got another email which started like this:

*Applications are invited for a new Editor-in-Chief of

Oh gods! They’re asking for submissions before they’ve even got an editor in chief, let alone an editorial board. This doesn’t look like a good start. If I submit now, how long will I have to wait before an editor even sees my manuscript?
Now, this does seem to be a particularly cack-handed attempt at starting a journal, but it makes me wonder – how can an OA journal successfully start? The problem for any OA journal is that it has to have a high acceptance rate in order to bring in revenue, which means it can’t target the top end of the market. BMC seem to have cracked this, largely (I suspect) by being early, and hence getting name recognition. PLoS went for a strategy of having some high-impact loss-leaders, with PLoS One arriving later to be the income generator. Their high-impact journals acted to create a recognisable brand (PloS Biology’s citation rate is equivalent to PNAS). They have also worked hard to create added value – comments on papers, and blogs, for example.
Neither of these strategies is bound to work: it’s impossible to be early now, and the high end of the journal market is difficult to break into without a lot of resources. So what other approaches are there? An active and well-known editorial board would help, basically hustling scientists into submitting (start with some big names, so that people see the journal has support). This might be difficult with a low-impact journal, though. Another alternative would be to have a society back the journal, e.g. ESEB. This would give a stamp of approval, suggesting that the journal is here to stay.
Another possibility might be to target conference proceedings. How well this works, I don’t know, and it might depend on the traditions of the field. In the areas I work in, these special issues aren’t common.
I wonder how else one would go about promoting a low-impact journal. By its very nature, it seems difficult – you’re not offering a lot of scientific social capital for publishing there, so what is there instead? Especially now there are plenty of other OA journals available.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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8 Responses to Trends in Open Access

  1. Frank Norman says:

    Bob – I agree, that request does sound a bit rum. Perhaps you should volunteer to be editor and then just close it down 😉
    There have been other routes to OA journals. J Clin Invest was an OA journal even before they had been invented. I’m not entirely sure how their business model works, but they started making their content totally free on the web some years back.
    There have been cases where editorial boards resigned en masse to set up new journals, either open access or low cost journals. They are kind of “new journals”, but not totally new.
    Other publishers, e.g. Hindawi, also started up many OA journals. Being based in Egypt they can keep their costs low thus giving them a breathing space to establish a reputation. They also concluded a deal with established publisher SAGE to establish some new OA journals.
    I have really answered your question, but just wanted to point out it’s not all about PLoS and BMC.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks, Frank. I guess one route, then, is to shift a pre-existing journal to OA. Although in the case of J Clin Invest, I read somewhere in the last week that they had given up, because they were leeching subscribers.
    I haven’t taken much notice of Hindawi, but looking just now at their ecological titles, my reaction was that they weren’t great. This is, of course the problem – I assume they’re getting enough submissions in all journals to survive, but I can’t see why I would submit. If I want OA, I can go to BMC or PLoS, which have name recognition. This isn’t really a criticism of Hindawi, but comes back to my main point – how does an OA journal develop a reputation and a presence?

  3. Frank Norman says:

    I guess the thing to do is look at what BMC and PLoS did. It’s not so long ago that they were new start-ups. Both had big promotional splurges. You couldn’t move on the net at one point without falling over a BMC announcement. I seemed to get phone calls every few weeks from their marketing people- and they are still quite persistent.
    BMC had experience – Vitek is a well-respected figure in publishing with many success stories behind him – and he assembled a good team of people. PLoS had the community support – it started out of the abortive PLoS petition with I-forget-how-many signatures from leading scientists – and a lot of goodwill.
    Both BMC and PLoS had deep pockets – from Vitek’s previous business success, for BMC, and from their charitable start-up funding, for PLoS.
    I think then that marketing and money (which translates into time to build the reputation) are the essentials.

  4. Cameron Neylon says:

    There is also an awful lot of people around who assume they can start up a journal in their spare time “because publishing on the internet is basically free, right?”, and there are also a number of fly by night operations that are basically setting up as “pay to publish” with limited peer review. Traditional journal based publishing has large overheards. Peer review costs money (even when you’re getting the reviews for free) so small start ups without a big cash pile are going to struggle.

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    I don’t suspect Trends in Evolutionary Biology to be one of those, but there are also black sheep among open access journals.

  6. Cameron Neylon says:

    Yeh, sorry that was a bit harsh wasn’t it? But more gently I think people have a tendency to underestimate the amount of work involved and the importance of a very slick presentation.

  7. Raf Aerts says:

    I received similar mails (calls for papers and requests to join the boards of editors) from International Journal of Ecology and International Journal of Forestry Research.
    As most high-impact journal publishers (including Springer, Elsevier, Wiley, NPG,…) allow authors to post their unformatted accepted manuscripts on their institutional repositories, rendering their conventional articles de facto open-access, I guess these new low-impact open-access journals will face large difficulties to survive. I for one, would rather use my limited funds to pay for an extra DNA extraction kit than to pay for the publication fee in one of these journals. This allows me to collect more data for a publication in a traditional reader-pays journal, and provide an open-access version on my university’s open access repository Lirias.

  8. Maxine Clarke says:

    Thinking of the success of the author-pays open-access publishing model, I just read on Friend Feed that JOVE (_Journal of Visualised Experiments_) has had to switch to a subscription model, for reasons of cost. (Someone there suggests online advertising as a business model to support a[n OA] journal!)