Are Mirror Journals Just Hybrid Open Access Journals In Disguise Or Are They A Viable Route To The Open Access Future?

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.

Most large commercial scholarly publishers (e.g. Wiley, Elsevier) have recognized the frustration institutions feel about double-dipping and say they adjust subscription fees to take into account the number of OA articles. That they don’t charge libraries for access to these. There is no double-dipping happening here they claim. There’s two problems here though.

#1. Journal subscription prices keep going up and up, it doesn’t seem like any sort of OA discount is happening. As Danny Kinglsey has said “Even if we accept that the no-double dipping policy is in place and being enacted, the benefit is not felt by the institution publishing the work”. Elsevier argues in response to this that the cost is going up because the number of articles they publish are going up.

Which brings us to problem #2. Whatever sort of calculation these publishers are doing to ensure they aren’t double dipping, they aren’t sharing the data of it with us. It really just is a ‘trust us and keeping paying us more money’ situation. Which… isn’t ideal, especially in a industry where profit margins for scholarly publishers are so high.

All this is why Hybrid OA is so despised by OA advocates. Researcher Funders are starting to refuse paying for publishing in them and encouraging authors to publish in full open access journals. Which brings us back to Mirror Journals. A lot of the reason reason authors chose to publish OA in Hybrid Journals – even though they are often more expensive than full open access journals  – is because Hybrid Journals are more established journals. They are well-known journals that used to be completely closed but have added a Hybrid option as the open access movement has picked up steam.

It’s hard to start a new OA journal and attract authors, especially with the ongoing problem we have with authors seeing unknown OA journals as predatory. Mirror Journals are an attempt by Elsevier to solve this problem and also move away from the Hybrid model that OA advocates (rightfully) despise. Mirror Journals, with the same editorial board, allow them to keep the prestige of the original journal.

But do Mirror Journals solve the double-dipping problem of Hybrid Journals? The European Commission’s open-access envoy, Robert-Jan Smits, doesn’t think so. He thinks authors are being “taken for a ride” and has warned against them. Mirror Journals don’t seem to really solve the double-dipping problem, they just shift it. Institutions still have to subscribe to the original journal to access it, but now their open access article payments go publishing in different ‘collection’ that’s not in the original journal, but still very much attached to it.

It’s hard to explain what exactly feels so iffy about Mirror Journals. How it feels like they are Hybrid in disguise. Doesn’t creating a new journal, even if it is the same editorial board as a closed/hybrid journal, solve the hybrid problem? When Institutions subscribe to the original journal they now know they aren’t being double-dipped because there are no OA articles in that journal…right?

I think the double-dipping problem is bigger than just hybrid journals and that is why it doesn’t feel right. The real problem here is about determining how much it costs to publish a journal article. Institutions subscribe to most of their journals via Big Deals, packages where libraries subscribe to a large amount of journals at a reduced price than what it would cost them to subscribe to all those journals individually. Getting more for less like this seems like a deal – which is why they are called Big Deals – but it’s still the publisher that sets the price, they are the one telling us it is a deal.

Maybe it’s not actually a deal. Maybe publishers artificially boost the prices of individual subscriptions to make big deals seem like they are deals. Maybe mirror journals aren’t solving the double dipping problem, because the double-dipping problem is much bigger than hybrid journals. It’s about double dipping in Big Deals. Institutions pay more every year in subscriptions and also pay more every year in open access publishing fees.

Shifting from Big Deals to Read-and-Publish deals, where publishers get paid subscription and open access publishing fees together instead of by separate routes, might help solve this problem. Right now it’s a challenge to determine exactly how much money in publishing fees go to publishers from your institution, which makes it a lot harder to negotiate the cost of a deal to make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of.

But even before double-dipping was a thing, libraries didn’t have a good track record of negotiating fair prices with publishers for Big Deals. It’s an ongoing crisis that gets worse and worse every year. Subscription costs keep climbing at a high rate than inflation. Publisher profit margins keep going up. Whose to say the same thing won’t happen for Read-and-Publish agreements? That they look like a deal, but that’s only because publishers – the large commercial publishers – tell us it is one.

So for me it comes back to the question, how does it cost to publish a journal article? How much should it cost? How much should institutions be paying to subscribe and publish? It’s an unanswerable question really. The price is going to vary widely and depend on the size of the journal, how much they pay their employees, how long the articles are, how in-depth the peer review process is…etc.

PLOS One, a non-for-profit open access mega-journal that strives to publish articles for as cheaply as possible, has a publishing price of $1,595 USD. This still seems too high. That’s a lot of money. Is this really how much publishing a journal article should cost?

Every once in awhile someone advocating for lower article publishing charges on scholcomm twitter will dig into how much PLOS’ tax forms and express shock at how much they pay their executives and argue that decreasing these salaries is how they could make publishing more affordable.

Michael Eisen, one of the founders of PLOS, responded to this back in 2016:

“They make competitive salaries – and we’d have trouble hiring and retaining them if they didn’t. The board has been doing what we felt we had to do to build a successful company in the marketplace we live in – after all, we were founded to fix science publishing, not capitalism. But as an individual I can’t help but feel that’s a copout. The truth is the general criticism is right. A system where executives make so much more money that the staff they supervise isn’t just unfair, it’s ultimately corrosive. It’s something we all have to work to change, and I wish I’d done more to help make PLOS a model of this.”

Fixing the scholarly publishing system might require taking bigger risks. Like Plan S standardizing and capping open access publishing fees. Not allowing publication in highly prestigious and expensive journals. Or Big Deal cancellations. 

Interesting times.

So. Mirror Journals. I think the double-dipping conversation has always been a more understandable placeholder instead of the larger issue about the high costs of open access. It was easy to go after Hybrid OA and Mirror Journals might help us have more fruitful conversations. One good thing I can say about Mirror Journals is that we still really struggle with a bad journals problem when it comes to full open access journals. Mirror Journals could help increase the amount and reputation of these journals. That in itself is a big win.

Published by Ryan Regier

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

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