Some thoughts on Open Access’ ‘Bad Journals’ Problem and the APC Model

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.

New society journals can get around this problem because they already have a contributor base, but for other journals, especially ones starting without the familiar branding of an established publisher, it’s a big challenge. The Open Access movement has opened up scholarly publishing, it’s now easier than ever to start a journal and also easier than ever to find a journal that will accept your article. Some scammers have taken advantage of this. And so be it. ‘Openness’ is always a gamble that by allowing more people to take part in the production of information and access to it, will ultimately result in better information (and use of it). This is a gamble I think we have enough evidence to show that is a good one. The unwanted side affect that is predatory publishers will likely/hopefully be one that fades out over time as we see more quality open access journal alternatives.

Unfortunately though, it’s still very hard for new open access journals to compete with established (paywalled) journals that already have spent the time and effort to build up those contributor bases. I might be able to convince a researcher that open is a gamble worth taking and also of the whole ‘they should not be giving their research to a large publishing company that makes huge profit margins off their free labour and commercializing their research’, but when it comes down to it, established paywalled journals are still the better journals. They still attract the best article submissions and the best peer reviewers.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution here. It’s a tragedy of the commons. If we could just flip all the contributors from commercialized paywalled journals to non-profit OA journals, it would be a massive step in solving the problems around research access and affordability. As things stand though, if a researcher wants to ensure their journal article gets the best peer review, editorial services, and widest indexing in databases (which will lead to higher citation rate), commercialized paywalled journals are still the best way to go.

I’m oversimplifying a bit here. There are a bunch of successful open access journals out there. Ones that could be considered the leading journals in their field, but the open access movement still really struggles with the bad journals problem. Fear around predatory publishing has made this even worse. I’ve run into a fair number of cases where researchers refuse to peer review for smaller OA journals because they are scared they are predatory or just bad journals not worth their time. What’s an OA journal to do if they can’t attract reviewers? They start getting desperate. Ask some less-than qualified reviewers. Results in reviewers and authors both having a bad experience. This happens a few times and journals reputation gets worse. Next thing they know they are on a blacklist.

Apart of this is also because these journals are trying to operate as efficiently as possible. Charging low article process charges (APCs) to attract authors and make scholarly publishing more accessible means you don’t have much money to spend on promoting your journal or going through the complicated steps to get indexed in databases. We may have made a big mistake with the APC approach to open access. It’s a bit of a feast or famine, with low level OA journals being unable (or not wanting) to charge more and build themselves up and large commercial publishers charging ridiculously high APCs that researchers are willing to pay because they want that prestige.

I’ve been watching zero-APC OA journal initiatives like the Open Library of the Humanities and the Free Journal Network  with interest. Funded journals that don’t require APCs or subscription fees seem to be the best route for a sustainable OA future. Any APC-based model is going to result in bad actors trying to scam authors and/or commercial publishers trying to reclaim their unsustainable price increases (the Serials Crisis) using the APC model.

There’s been a lot happening lately in the Open Access movement with Plan S, Publish and Read models, and University of California cancelling their Elsevier subscriptions. The OA movement has been shifting from the ‘why’ debate to the ‘how’ debate lately, which has been nice to see. It be nice to see more experimentation with direct funding of no APC OA journals, but it’s hard to start an OA journal.

Published by Ryan Regier

Doing lots of different stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier

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