Scholars without Borders: the OPUSeJ model reduces barriers in academic publishing
“The medium is the message” Marshall McLuhan
“Information wants to be free” Stewart Brand
The traditional journal-based model of academic publishing comes with a number of inherent barriers and limitations to scholarly communication. These barriers, such as cost, time, space and isolation, are being eroded by a revolution that is propelled by digital technology. Electronic media puts particular pressure on academic publishing to become more open, flexible, immediate and interactive. A new model of scholarly publication is emerging, as exemplified by the OPUSeJ (Open-access Peer-reviewed Universal Scholarly electronic Journal).
The traditional journal-based model was established in seventeenth century Europe, as serial publications of learned societies as exemplified by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London from 1665.[i] Subscriptions were necessary to cover the cost of printing and distributing these journals. The number of journals and the cost to maintain complete collections of journals was manageable for most universities until recently. The last decades of the twentieth century has seen the cost of journals rising at four times the rate of inflation.[ii] This, combined with the exponential growth in journal titles, has caused a crisis in university library budgets. This “Serials Crisis” has seen the cancellation of journal subscriptions by a number of institutions.[iii] Opposition to the restrictive practises of traditional journal-based publishers was well under way when a blog by Timothy Gowers,[iv] in 2012, galvanized support for the elimination of barriers in academic publishing. The Economist referred to this movement to open-access as the “Academic Spring”.[v]
In the traditional journal-based model of academic publishing, an author must decide on the journal most appropriate to his or her article, with the highest level of prestige that is likely to accept his or her manuscript. Once formatted to that journal style-guide, the author submits their work by regular mail or electronically. Once reviewed by an editor, the manuscript may be rejected or sent on to be reviewed by experts. They will recommend that it be either rejected as not appropriate for the journal, returned with recommendations for revision or accepted. If rejected, and not until it is rejected, the author could then reformat the manuscript to the style-guide of a subsequent journal, likely of lower prestige, and enter another cycle of submission, editing and reviewing. The repeated cycles will end, hopefully, with the article accepted for publication. Once accepted, the article will appear in a subsequent issue of that journal. If the journal is completely open-access, the article will be immediately available to all. If the journal enforces an embargo period, there will be a delay. Or the article may never become freely available, if it is contained behind pay-walls by the journal.
This model has a number of flaws, including the redundancy of disparate journals reproducing the same exercise of submission, editing and reviewing, each in a reformatted version. Having a given article repeat this cycle is a waste of the resources of peer-review. All academic articles worthy of publication should be made available to scholars in an efficient, effective and timely manner. The other set of flaws inherent in the traditional model is its tendency to create and maintain various barriers.
Barriers to the communication of scholarly material, comes in a number of forms. The foremost barrier is cost. Traditional publications are based on subscription fees for journals or tolls for access to particular articles. It is odd that universities, who provide much of the content to journals, must pay to access them. Most of the authors, editors, referees and readership of academic journals are affiliated with universities or other research institutes. Much of the funding to produce the research that is reported as an article comes through the institutions. The public pays for much of the research in the form of tax revenue or donations. Most of these institutions maintain repositories of pre-reviewed forms of the articles. Yet universities are burdened by the high cost of subscribing to journals.
Cost barriers are also evident when university members try to access articles that are found in journals that are not on their university’s subscription list. This is the same for anyone who might be interested in an article that requires a fee to view it. Charging this tariff, which is not paid to the author, contradicts the author’s intent that his or her article be widely read. The research may have been promoted by the public donating to a research fund. The author might have his or her university salary and costs associated with producing the article paid from general tax revenue from the public. However, commercial publishers maintain pay-wall barriers between the general public and the articles. The public will have paid to produce the article and once again be asked to pay to read the article.
In affluent countries this cost barrier is an unjust nuisance. In less affluent countries or for poor scholars this barrier is insurmountable.
Time and space is a barrier with publications based on the traditional model. An article must go through the submission process of manuscript preparation, submission, editing, reviewing and acceptance. If the article is rejected, another cycle of reformatting, submission, editing and reviewing is engaged, which is repeated with each journal until it is finally accepted. Journals do not accept a manuscript that is in the submission process at another journal. Once the article has been accepted, there can be a further delay while waiting for an acceptable publication cycle; journals may only publish monthly, quarterly or yearly. All this prolongs the time between an article’s initial submission until its publication. If the journal has an embargo period, typically six months to a year, then that time must be added to the wait until the article is openly accessible. Space factors into the time constraints of journals that stick to the traditional model. With limited space for articles in a given issue, publication of an accepted article may be delayed to a future issue.
Space is a challenge in the traditional model in other ways. Raw data that was collected in research is not always included in published works due to barriers of cost and space constraints. This is also the case for extensive collections of still photography, maps, tables and graphs or for other media such as video.
The success of open-access journals has lead to an embarrassment of riches. The number of new journals grows by the day. The proliferation of journals can force university librarians, burdened by budgetary constraints, to forego some journals, which represent a barrier to scholars using that library’s access.
This proliferation produces other barriers. Journals of a particular focus tend to promote academic silos, isolating scholars into narrow circles of sub-specialization. A journal with a narrow scope runs the risk of catering to authors, editors, referees and readers who focus on one aspect of inquiry while ignoring relevant developments in closely allied disciplines. This could discourage the process of challenging conventionally held but erroneous ideas. The language used in such a publications tends to become filled with jargon which might alienate allied scholars, further isolating that sub-specialty. Idiosyncratic jargon is a potential barrier to be avoided in any model of scholarly communication.
Language and translation represent particular barriers in the access and dissemination of knowledge in any model. This challenge is faced by the potential author who might not be fluent in English or other languages widely used in scholarly publication and by the researcher or reader who finds an article written in a language that they do not understand.
Scholarly articles are being published at an accelerated rate (estimated at 1.5 million articles a year, four thousand a day, one every 21 seconds). As discussed, this challenge cannot be met by old models. Print is facing growing challenges to its very existence that an electronic journal would resolve. Print is slow and expensive. It has limitations of space and time. Scholarly publication has evolved from the historical print model to the traditional journal-based model and finally towards a digital based open-access model. Yet the evolution of academic publishing has retained a number of vestigial limitations and barriers. An alternative model is overdue.
The OPUSeJ model provides solutions to overcome or eliminate the barriers mentioned above. It would gather any scholarly material, on any subject, submitted by any scholar, from every discipline and from anywhere in the world, to be made available quickly, to any other scholar in a free and open manner. This site would provide peer-review of submitted work and a repository to archive these works. This would be the core activities of OPUSeJ but the site would provide an umbrella organization for other activities related to academic publishing. Other peripheral activities will be discussed later.
In the simplified version of the submission process, an author would submit a manuscript to a central submission site. The manuscript could be prepared in the suggested format of the OPUSeJ style-guide, or in the format of any commonly used, complete and consistent style-guide. The article would be tagged by the subject matter of the article and by the university or institutional affiliation of the author. The author would suggest a sponsor editor or be assigned an editor, preferably from their institution. That person would be the designated editor, assigned to usher the article through the review process. The editor would reject it if it did not meet minimum requirements of scholarship or send it to referees for review. The editor would arbitrate any suggestions for revision between author and referee. Once it was acceptable, the article would be immediately posted and become freely and openly available to anyone on the internet.
There would be no specific journal as such. OPUSeJ content would be organized by discipline and subject. There would be any number of general or specific OPUSeJ Digests. For example, there would be general ones like OPUSeJ Science Digest and more specific ones like OPUSeJ Biochemistry Digest and even sub-specialized ones like OPUSeJ Protein Folding and Structure Digest. An article could be included in the table of contents of one, two or all three of these Digests.
The OPUSeJ core activities would have the traditional blinded peer-review process, as mentioned. But it would also include an open peer-reviewed process. In the submission process an author would be able to choose the traditional, double-blinded peer-review or the open review option. If the later route were chosen, the article would be posted immediately after vetting by an editor as appropriate. The article would be available for discussion by open commentary by any interested scholar. After an arbitrary period of time – say six months – the article would be revised by the author, hopefully helped by the commentary. And after a final vetting by an editor, it would be permanently posted.
The core activities of OPUSeJ have been described. The OPUSeJ core would form the base and provide a platform for peripheral sites that would be of interest to scholars. One peripheral site would be the OPUSeJ Forum. An author may be content to simply have the article available as is, in the archive. However some authors might want to register a given article to OPUSeJ Forum. This site would provide a forum for further discussion about the article through an author-mediated commentary space, along with space for addendum, erratum and citations forward. The article could be from OPUSeJ or from any open-access site. The site would provide the author with a way to disseminate their work by generating interest in it. It would also be a gauge for impact. The number of visits downloads and citations – both academic and non-academic – could be measured.
Other peripheral sites would be OPUSeJ Reading Lists for the Digests. The volume of new academic material in any discipline is huge and growing. Keeping abreast of this material is a challenge. Editors and reviewers have a unique vantage, because of their work, in identifying, ahead of others, which work is of greater value than others. They could provide a valuable service by keeping an updated list of articles that rank high in value and noteworthiness. The list could include the abstract along with a brief critique. The list would include articles published in OPUSeJ and elsewhere with a link to those that are open-access.
The general public plays an interactive role in these peripheral sites and activity here proceeds after the peer-review process and final publication. Because they group people with a particular interest, these sites would be attractive to sponsors for advertisements. Therefore, revenue generated from the peripheral sites could support the core OPUSeJ activities, without compromising the impartiality of the editing and peer-review activities.
These and other yet-to-be-imagined aspects, show that digital technology, as exploited by the OPUSeJ model, could revolutionize academic publishing without engaging the traditional journal-based model.
Cost is greatly reduced by keeping all activities in the OPUSeJ model strictly electronic. Publication proceeds without printing presses, or postage and thereby completely eliminating this cost barrier. A centralized electronic submission site with an editing and reviewing process, that is off-site and peer-produced, is a low cost mode of operating. The archiving of most published works in institutional repositories transfers this cost to server capacity that is already budgeted. The maintenance of the archive by institutions might provide the institutions with the justification and cost savings of not renewing certain journal subscriptions and with the clout to renegotiate the cost of other subscriptions.
The OPUSeJ peripheral sites of reading lists and forums could provide sponsorship revenue from advertisements which would feed back to sustain the core OPUSeJ activities.
With the cost barrier reduced, poor scholars and scholars from the developing world would have access to submitting their work and open access to the work of other scholars. Anyone with access to the internet would have free and open access to OPUSeJ.
The barrier of time would be reduced by OPUSeJ in shortening the time from submission to publication. With a centralized submission site there would only be one cycle of submission, editing, reviewing and posting. There would be no time wasted in reformatting to the style-guide of another journal. There would be no time wasted in waiting for an accepted article to be published in a subsequent issue. The article would appear the day it was accepted. There would be no embargo period; the article would be openly and freely available for all to read, download and cite. The journal would be able to publish every day and thereby live up to its name as a true “journal” i.e. a daily.
In the open peer-review stream, an article could appear the day it was submitted by an author and vetted by an editor. An author might choose this route because of the time-sensitive nature of a particular article – say an epidemic or the appearance of a transient celestial body. With commentary openly and immediately available, this form of scholarly publication would approach the pace of a real-time discussion.
Space, for an electronic journal, is nearly limitless. The number of articles published would equal the number that were acceptable for publication. Content, such as raw data, video, photographs and other images could be easily accommodated in digital format.
Barriers of discipline and sub-specialization would be discouraged. Articles that cross disciplines and therefore do not fit well in the journal-based model would be easily managed by the OPUSeJ model. Such articles would be tagged as such, reviewed by experts in the different fields and would be posted in more than one OPUSeJ Digest. So that an article that dealt with, say the psychological aspects of perception, could be indexed in both OPUSeJ Humanities Digest and OPUSeJ Science Digest. It would be editorial policy that articles be written with strict use of nomenclature but as free of jargon as possible. This policy would promote language that is clear, precise and accessible to the non-specialist reader.
OPUSeJ sites would work towards bridging language barriers. The submission process would require that all articles include an English language abstract and if possible a second abstract in another language. The non-English articles would have abstracts in their language and in English, as it is the common language of the internet. Because articles are accessed through the internet, automated translation – though of limited quality – would be easily available.
[i]Philosophical Transactions (1665-1886) homepage http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/
[ii]Brenda Dingley U. S. Periodical Prices – 2005 http://www.ala.org/alcts/sites/ala.org.alcts/files/content/resources/collect/serials/ppi/05usppi.pdf
[iii] Panitch, Judith M; Michalak, Sarah (January, 2005), “The Serials Crisis”, Hill Scholarly Communications Convocation (white paper), UNC-Chapel. http://www.unc.edu/scholcomdig/whitepapers/panitch-michalak.html
[v] “The price of information”. The Economist. http://www.economist.com/node/21545974