One of these days — I promise — I will get back to writing about science. But a conjunction of tweets today brought to me three articles on open access that were interesting in different ways but curiously all seemed to point in a similar direction.
First, a post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog (h/t Alicia Wise) from Rick Anderson, who is the Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collection at the University of Utah. His post was a critique of the ‘Big Deals’, bundled or grouped journal subscriptions that large publishers sell to university libraries. They may have low ‘per article’ costs but inevitably mean that libraries have to subscribe to journal titles they don’t want. Big deals consume very large fractions of library budgets and restrict flexibility for changing subscriptions.
But the more interesting point was that the ‘big deal’ was a larger version of a long-standing practice of ‘Medium Deals’ by which he meant ‘journals’. To get access to an article of interest you have to subscribe to the whole journal. Anderson argues that this made sense when the literature had to be printed to be distributed; but this is no longer the case now that distribution is online. He doesn’t quite come out and say it, but are we on a trajectory that leads to the abandonment of the journal form?
There seems no immediate danger; even relatively new and online-only journals, such as PLoS ONE, have a journal identity. But what does that mean in the absence of a physical object that looks like a printed journal? I suspect the dissociation of the concept from the thing itself may weaken people’s habituation to the form.
There is some evidence for this from the second interesting article I came across today, a recent preprint in the ArXiv (h/t @figshare) that claims to detect a “weakening relationship” between journal Impact Factors and individual papers’ citations. To quote the abstract:
Historically, papers have been physically bound to the journal in which they were published but in the electronic age papers are available individually, no longer tied to their respective journals. Hence, papers now can be read and cited based on their own merits, independently of the journal’s physical availability, reputation, or Impact Factor. We compare the strength of the relationship between journals’ Impact Factors and the actual citations received by their respective papers from 1902 to 2009. Throughout most of the 20th century, papers’ citation rates were increasingly linked to their respective journals’ Impact Factors. However, since 1990, the advent of the digital age, the strength of the relation between Impact Factors and paper citations has been decreasing. This decrease began sooner in physics, a field that was quicker to make the transition into the electronic domain. Furthermore, since 1990, the proportion of highly cited papers coming from highly cited journals has been decreasing, and accordingly, the proportion of highly cited papers not coming from highly cited journals has also been increasing. Should this pattern continue, it might bring an end to the use of the Impact Factor as a way to evaluate the quality of journals, papers and researchers.
This doesn’t amount to a prediction of the end of the journal, (though there is some prospect of reducing the disturbing hold of the Impact Factor over academic careers). But it does suggest that it is the paper and not the journal that may be the focus of interest in future.
Traditions, like familiar coastlines, are slowly being eroded. The standard journal faces new competition from the disruptive impact of the web. And it is not just the advocates of open access who are saying that. The third piece flagged up to me on Twitter today (h/t @GaviaLib) is a sober analysis by Jared Woodard, a financial analyst, of how the rise of viable open access options is presenting real challenges to Elsevier.
His analysis is worth reading in full but to pick out just a few quotations:
Elsevier’s upside potential looks capped, since there is no room for top-line expansion given tight university library budgets, and no room for cost-cutting in an industry where the labor of academic researchers, editors, and peer reviewers is provided, literally, for free.
Social media and improving technology have allowed opposition to rent-seeking by publishers to become more coordinated and widespread. The public relations disaster and boycott triggered by the Research Works Act (RWA) provides an excellent example.
The best argument that the company has put forward to defend their business model is that, in exchange for all of the free labor that makes the business so profitable, Elsevier provides academics with the “high-impact” journal brands that committees want to see on the CVs of tenure applicants. Until recently, the only response from the open access movement was to point out that rentier capitalism is unjust. Today, the best response is that high-impact open access journals exist as a viable alternative to the old model.
These are uncertain times for publishers — and academics. Change is coming, and perhaps more than any of us is bargaining for.