It’s still pretty early days for measuring open access journal articles. For a long time the only reliable way to determine if an article had an open access version available was via a Google Scholar title search. You can’t get at Google Scholar via an API or web-crawling (because of the Captchas they have in place), so any attempt to mass pull open access data from Google Scholar is a long and painful process.
There were/are a number of tools trying to mass capture open access though, ones that
- pull and merge open access content from repositories (e.g. BASE )
- index full open access journals and their articles (e.g. DOAJ)
- capture journals that become free to read after an embargo (e.g. PMC)
- collect individual copyright statements for published articles (e.g. Crossref)
The brilliance in Unpaywall is in how it pulls these all these sources together to create one database (Green, Gold, Bronze, and Hybrid). One that allows mass gathering of open access data but also easy use for individuals looking to find an OA version of a single article.
Being able to mass obtain data about open access publications opens all sorts of doors that were previously closed. We can see what kind of information is available to those without institutional access. We can start collecting open access articles and do fancy analysis of them with text-data mining and algorithms. We can track Research Funder OA compliance. We can measure where OA research has practical benefit to researchers.
Unpaywall is only as good as the data in can find though and that’s what I want to talk about.
Developments in the open access world seem to be moving at a lightning pace lately. Plan S has added a realism and urgency to OA discussions. Never to be behind on any ‘scholcomm’ development, Elsevier has started a pilot program of launching what they are calling ‘Mirror Journals’. Open Access (OA) ‘copies’ of existing peer reviewed journals. Journals that are “fully gold open access but share the same editorial board, aims and scope and peer review policies as their existing “parent” journals – and the same level of visibility and discoverability.”
Angela Cochrane gave a good analysis of Mirror Journals as a route to the full OA future in October. Worth a read! She argues that Mirror Journals have the potential to solve several problems publisher face when trying to publish OA, including accusations of double-dipping and the steep challenge of starting a new OA journal from scratch.
The double-dipping debate has always been one that has fascinated me. The argument goes that with ‘Hybrid’ OA- where the journal is by default paywalled, but authors can pay a publishing charge to have their individual articles made open access – that publishers get paid twice. Once by the institution subscribing to the journal, because most of it is not open access, and again by the author who chooses to publish open access and pays, with the institutions dollars, the publishing cost. The publisher dips twice into institutional funds. Institutions pay to subscribe to the journal, but don’t see a discount from the OA articles, and so they end up paying for them again.
I’m always a bit surprised the way some researchers use the term ‘predatory’ to refer to any and all open access journals they think are of lower quality. Since trying to rebalance the conversation around these journals is kinda my shtick, I used to push back pretty hard on this, but I’ve been rethinking it There’s been a move lately to move to using the term “questionable publishers” when broadly referring to these journals. That way you can talk about bad journals and ‘journals that are actually trying to scam you’ together without conflating the two like ‘predatory” does.
I’m not sure though. “Questionable” still puts bad journals and predatory ones in the same box. It’s not really solving the problem (telling the two apart), just avoiding it. When I talk to researchers who use the term predatory freely, they usually seem to be well aware that they are using it to include both bad journals and actual predatory ones. It doesn’t matter to them. Publishing in a bad journal is the same as publishing in a predatory one. Only one might actively be trying to scam you, but both result in sub-par research being published.
This has got me thinking about the ‘quality trap’ that new journals often have a hard time escaping from. You can’t be a quality journal without good authors submitting good papers and good peer reviewers volunteering to review them, but in order to get all these good things, you kinda need to already have them. To be a good journal you need good researchers who contribute, but in order to convince them to contribute you need to already be a good journal. Catch-22.
There’s been an ongoing push by those in the open access movement to convince authors and publishers that a copyright transfer is not needed to publish scholarly works. The default in the system still seems to be that authors need to transfer their copyright to publishers and then publishers will grant some ‘author rights’ back to the author so that they can still make use of their works.
Typically publishers will justify this copyright transfer with the following reasons:
- To protect the copyright of the article. (e.g. Wiley)
- For a wide dissemination of the article (e.g. Springer)
- To increase the financial income of the publisher as a trade-off for the services they provided freely to the author. (e.g. Canadian Veterinary Journal)
The issue with these reasons is that all the above could still be accomplished via a license agreement. The author doesn’t need to transfer ownership of their work – their copyright – in order for a publisher to protect it, widely disseminate it, or make a profit off of it. They just need to give the publisher the right to do all these things. With a license agreement authors’ retain copyright, but grant rights to the publisher to use the article in these ways. Continue reading
An interesting thought experiment is comparing the Open Access (OA) movement to other current social movements for progressive change, e.g. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Like these movements, OA recognizes an injustice in the system and is fighting to make it more inclusive.
Of course, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are the much more important fights. They are fighting for a specific end result; better lives for discriminated groups, while OA is fighting for a means to an end; OA so that research is better and better research so that people have better lives.
You can see advocacy strategies used within the OA movement have grown out of strategies used by social justice movements. Things like developing more creative ethical (and practical) arguments that can be used to convince others. Advocating for strategic policy changes. Solidarity and community building. Intersectionality. Continue reading