What to believe in the new world of open access publishing

Virginia Barbour, Australian National University Executive Officer, AOASG

It’s never been easy for readers to know what to believe in academic research. The entire history of science publishing has been riddled with controversy and debate from its very beginning when Hobbes and Boyle, scientists at the Royal Society in London, argued over the scientific method itself.

Even a cursory glance at academic publishing since then shows articles contradicting each others’ findings, papers subsequently shown to contain half truths (even in the serious matter of clinical trials) and yet more that are simply fabricated. Shaky and controversial results have been a part of science since it began to be documented.

Enter a new apparent villain – “predatory open access” publishing, now claimed by some to be overwhelming the literature with questionable research. As highlighted in the recent documentary on Radio National, and subsequently discussed in The Conversation, there has been a proliferation of dodgy new journals and publishers who call themselves “open access” and who eagerly court academics to be editorial board members, to submit their articles and to attend and speak at conferences.

These activities have led to concern over whether any open access publications can be trusted. Librarians in institutions in Australia and elsewhere attempt to keep abreast of all these “predatory” journals and publishers.

In a more positive endeavour, an organisation of legitimate open access publishers (OASPA) has come together and they and other journal associations and the Directory of Open Access Journals have produced ways to assess journals.

Academic publishing has changed since the advent of the internet.

Although the extent of the problem is not known (and may even be exaggerated by ever-expanding blacklists), some academics still submit to questionable journals, newspapers give publicity to bizarre articles from them, and non-academic readers rightly wonder what on earth is going on.

It’s worth remembering how new this all is. Whereas scholarly publishing is 350 years old, it is only 25 years since the web began; academic online publishing followed about 20 years ago. Open access – a part of the wider open scholarship movement (which seeks to enhance integrity and good scholarship) – is barely 15 years old.

What we are witnessing is the oft-repeated story of what happens when any new technology appears. Alongside an explosion of opportunities for good, there will always be those that seek to exploit, such as these predatory publishers.

But just as no one ever assumed that everything in print was trustworthy, neither should that be the case for open access content. And in the end the content is what matters – whether delivered by open access, subscription publishing, or a printed document.

To complicate matters further, alongside this revolution in access, the academic literature itself is evolving apace with papers being put online before review and revisions of papers made available with peer review histories alongside.

Even the format of the academic paper is changing. Datasets or single figures with little explanation attached to them can now be be published. The concept of an academic paper that is a definitive statement of “truth” is finally being laid to rest.

It was never a realistic concept and arguably has led to much confusion about the nature of truth, especially in science. Science evolves incrementally. Each finding builds on evidence from before, some of which will stand up to scrutiny via replication, and some not.

As the amount of information available increases exponentially, the challenge for everyone is to learn how to filter and assess the information presented, wherever it is published.

For scientists, one way of deciding how important an article is has traditionally been which journal it has been published in. However, even prestigious journals publish work that is unreliable. Hence there are initiatives such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment which discourages judging papers only by where they are published.

For non-academic readers, understanding what to trust is even more challenging. Whether the article has been peer-reviewed is a good starting point.

Most important of all perhaps is the need for a modicum of common sense – the type of judgements we apply every day to claims about items in our daily lives: can I see the whole paper or am I just seeing an exerpt? How big was the study being reported? Do the claims seem sensible? Is the result backed up by other things I have read? And what do other experts in this area think of the research?

The Conversation

Virginia Barbour is Executive Officer, Australasian Open Access Support Group at Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

So you want people to read your thesis?

 After three, four (… seven) years of hard slog, of course you do. There’s a ‘joke’ around that the 4034671172_7a25b8cb4c_monly people who will ever read your thesis (besides you) will be your supervisor, the examiners and your mum. And she will just *say* she read it.

It should not be this way. The reality is that PhD theses (or dissertations as they are called overseas) contain a huge untapped resource of original research that sits hidden unless it is shared.

It is usually a requirement of graduation that a copy of the thesis is held in the university library and is available for ‘borrowing’ on request. This can be by physically going to the library and requesting to see the printed version, or by requesting a copy through interlibrary loan. I can attest, by looking at the borrowing list on the inner binding of many theses held in the library of a prestigious Australian university, that most physical theses are only borrowed once, many never. Comparing the list of requested theses against the total number of theses produced by the university indicates that the majority of theses simply never get requested.

This is a tragedy. More than that it is a massive waste of time and money – yours, your university’s and the taxpayers’.

Sharing your findings

The way the information in a thesis is distributed changes depending on the discipline. In some areas, tending towards the sciences, recent PhD graduates will publish several papers that emerge from the research. That is, if they have enough time after securing (and working as) a post-doc. Indeed, in some disciplines the idea of a ‘thesis by publication’ has taken hold. In these instances, the research does find its way into the academic discourse.

While publication of papers from theses is laudable (and in some disciplines necessary for academic standing), bear in mind that a thesis is usually completed a year or two after the empirical work was originally done. Then the information needs to be rewritten as a paper, which takes time, then submitted to a journal, accepted or rejected, any corrections made before publication, and then there is often a considerable wait before the accepted work is published. By the time these papers appear in the scholarly literature often it is many years after the original research was done. And in some disciplines this means it has lost its potency.

Publishing work as a book

Putting this delay issue aside, if you are in a non-hard science or in the humanities then producing a series of pithy papers based on empirical research might not be an option. It might even be that the expectation is that your work will be later published as a monograph. The idea of this is very appealing. Your name on the cover of a book, royalties and book talks flowing in…. but unfortunately the reality is very different.

For a start, if you are lucky enough to get a contract, it will not be to publish your thesis as it is. It will need a substantial rewrite. The blog It’s a Dissertation not a Book  makes that case. This rewriting process will be on top of the new work you will be expected to do in your job.

And then, once it is published, the number of sales of the book is likely to be in the low hundreds. So the royalties will be very small, if there are any. In some instances the money flows the other way, there is an expected contribution by the author or their institution to the publication process. But possibly worse, the number of people who are then able to read your work is limited to the people who are working or studying at the 200-odd institutions holding your book in their libraries. Around the world.

So what can you do? Well you can make your thesis available open access. But first a word of warning.

Watch out for rogue publishers

If you have recently completed your thesis you may be contacted by a publishing company called VDM Publishing Group or its imprint, LAP Lambert Academic Press with an offer to publish your thesis. This is a German based publishing house, and in Germany there is a requirement that theses be published before a PhD is awarded. In order to service this need there are some publishing companies which ‘publish’ theses for students. But there is no editorial process, they simply print it. While that is fine in Germany the issue is that these companies have expanded their business model to approaching recent PhD graduates around the world.

The problem with publishing your work in this way is you then prevent yourself from ever publishing your work as a ‘real’ edited book. If you are aiming for an academic career this can cause complications in relation to your publication record. A good resource explaining the issues with this is put out by Swinburne University  and the Australian Catholic University also have some warnings.

Making theses more findable

Many Australian universities require that a digital version of their students’ theses be placed in a database within the library called an institutional repository. Indeed the Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies (ROARmap) lists 17 Australian institutions with thesis mandates (out of 39 universities in total). While most institutions are simply requiring deposit in the repository, some mandates actually require the theses are made publicly available – more about that later.

Generally the requirement or not of providing electronic copies or making theses open access is an institutional decision. But in a possible indication of the increased momentum towards open access around the world, Japan has recently introduced a country-wide mandate. As of April this year all doctoral dissertations approved by Japanese universities are required to “be publicly available via Internet”.

Digital repositories have strong metadata which means their contents are easily found by search engines like Google and Google Scholar. All records about Australian theses held in university repositories are also harvested into the National Library of Australia’s search facility called Trove. This string takes you to a pre-populated search for all Australian open access theses available, and you can click back to the original repository to open the thesis.

And there is no doubt open access theses are being consulted in large numbers. The 500+ theses held in the ANU’s Digital Theses Collection are accessed over 10,000 times every month. Think about how much that would increase the chance of your thesis being cited in the published literature.

What is open access?

At its most basic, open access means making work available freely to anyone with an internet connection.

There is a comprehensive page on this site called FAQ about open access which addresses the topics:

  • What is open access?
  • Why open access?
  • Open access journals?
  • Open access and copyright
  • Author concerns about open access
  • Publishers and open access

Here is a simple graphic on the Benefits of open access and another on How to make your research open access.

Having your thesis available in a repository means you can engage your social media networks – you have somewhere to point people. If you are a stats junkie you can watch the downloads add up. Hopefully you will start to see citations to your work appear in the scholarly literature. These are all important ways of demonstrating the relevance of your research in job interviews and grant applications.

But, but….

Over the many years I have had this conversation with PhD students, two questions always come up:

Won’t this open my thesis up to plagiarism?
Response: No. Plagiarism is always a possibility in any environment when you make work available (either in an open access form or by publishing in a traditional journal). But there are academic norms which require acknowledgement of sources.

Having your thesis available in a repository and date-stamped clearly identifies the work as yours, and could actually make it easier to refute a plagiarism case. There have been instances where PhD graduates have specifically made their thesis open access to identify themselves as the author of the work. This has allowed them to demonstrate that others have used their work without attribution.

Won’t this prevent me from being able to publish my work later if I do get a book contract?
Response: No. Making your work available open access in a repository is disseminating your thesis, not publishing it in an academic sense. It does not preclude your work being published as a book. The process of rewriting a thesis for publication involves substantial alteration so usually there is no commercial disadvantage in having the original thesis available. Occasionally publishers will ask the open access thesis be removed from a repository when a book is published, and if the repository has a take-down policy this is unproblematic.

But don’t take my word for it. This Office Hours: Open Access video from Harvard University, answers the questions:

  • Should dissertations be made open access?
  • If my dissertation is publicly available won’t someone steal my ideas? and
  • Can I negotiate with publishers to make my articles open access?

So go and chat to your library about putting your thesis in the institutional repository. Today.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group

Journal editors take note – you have the power

Some interesting news has come across my desk today, both as an open access advocate and someone who is based in a library.

The editorial board from the Journal of Library Administration has resigned in protest of the restrictive licensing policy imposed by its publisher Taylor & Francis (T&F). Brian Mathews includes the text of the resignation in his blog here

They might not be aware of it, but the editorial board are following in the footsteps of other editorial boards. A webpage put together by the Open Access Directory called Journal declarations of independence  lists examples of “the resignation of editors from a journal in order to launch a comparable journal with a friendlier publisher”. There are 20 journals listed on the pages, with the timeline running from 1989 to 2008.

What is a licensing policy?

For those people new to open access, a quick explainer. This is referring to the restrictions the publisher is imposing on what an author can do with copies of their published work. T&F say on their author pages that authors who have published work in a T&F journal are limited in what they can do with copies of the work:

  • Authors are not allowed to deposit the Publisher’s Version

This is fine – the publisher does manage the peer review process and provide the electronic distribution platform. They also have investment in the layout and design of the page and the manufacture of the downloadable pdf. Most publishers do not allow the Published Version to be made available.

  • Authors are allowed to put a copy of the Submitted Version (this is the version sent to the journal for peer review) into their institution’s web-based repository. In some disciplines this is called the pre-print. T&F rather confusingly call this the ‘Author’s Original Manuscript’.

So far so good – it seems quite generous. But in many disciplines, sharing the Submitted Version is inappropriate because it may contain errors which could reflect badly on the author, or even in some instances be dangerous to be made public without correction.

  • Authors are allowed to put a copy of the Accepted Version (the author’s post-peer reviewed and corrected version) into the institutional repository. T&F call this the ‘Author’s Accepted Manuscript’.

Again this seems generous. But the author can only do this “twelve (12) months after the publication of the Version of Scholarly Record in science, engineering, behavioral science, and medicine; and eighteen (18) months after first publication for arts, social science, and humanities journals, in digital or print form”.

Bear in mind the peer review and amendment process can take many months and there is often a long delay between an article’s acceptance and publication. This means the work is only able to be made open access two to five (or more) years after the original research was done.

This is what the Journal of Library Administration editors were originally protesting about, and then they took exception to the suggestion by T&F that authors could take up the open access ‘option’ for a fee USD$2995 per article. This amount is far beyond the reach of most H&SS scholars.

The lure of the commercial publisher

Talking to stressed, overworked editors it is easy to see why allowing a commercial publisher to take over the responsibility of publishing their journal is attractive.

But there is a catch. For a start, in the conversations I have had to date with journal editors who have ‘sold’ their title to a commercial publisher, it seems there is no exchange of money for ‘goodwill’ in the way there would be for the sale of any other business.

In addition, when a commercial publisher owns a journal title, it means they impose their own copyright transfer agreements – which determine what the authors are able to do with their work. This is often more restrictive than what the independent editorial team was allowing.

But the most dramatic difference to operations when a previously independent journal is bought by a commercial publisher is the amount they charge for subscriptions. For example, the Journal of Australian Studies  has a subscription which comes as part of the membership to the International Australian Studies Association (InASA). Members receive other benefits such as discounts to conferences. It costs AUD105 each year.

But if you consult the journal’s page on the T&F website  the online subscription is USD781 and the Print & Online subscription is USD893.

It is not that T&F are the only ones, mind you. The Journal of Religious History  is published by Wiley. Members of the Religious History Association can join for AUD45, and receive the print and online version of the journal. But subscriptions through Wiley range from USD593 for an institutional Print & Online subscription, to USD76 for a personal Print & Online subscription.

And when you start looking at Wiley’s permissions they are even more restrictive than T&F. Again the author can archive the Submitted Version, but for the Accepted Version there is an embargo of 0-24 months ‘depending on the journal’ and even then written permission from the publisher is required (good luck with that).

So what can journal editors do?

For a start remember that you are crucial to the success of a journal. Publishers rely on their editors absolutely to produce journals, which means you come into negotiations from a position of strength.

So if you are an editor of an independent journal and are considering ‘selling’ your journal to a commercial publisher the issues worth consideration include:

  • What are the restrictions the publisher will place on the re-use of the work published in the journal? Do they align with your current (or intended future) position? Are they prepared to negotiate these with you?
  • What will the subscription cost be to the journal? Does that mean some readers will not be able to afford subscriptions?

If you are the editor of a journal that is currently being published by a commercial publisher:

  1. Check out the restrictions imposed on your authors by looking the journal up in Sherpa/Romeo
  2. If those restrictions do not meet with the philosophy of the dissemination of your journal, consider contacting the publisher to request a less restrictive permissions policy

There is evidence that this has worked in the past. On 1 November 2011, T&F announced a two year pilot for Library and Information Science Journals, meaning that authors published in 35 library and information science journals have the right to deposit their Accepted Version into their institutional repository.

It seems that library journals have a reasonable track record on this front. In March this year- Emerald Group Publishing Limited announced a ‘special partnership’ with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Under this agreement, papers that have their origins in an IFLA conference or project and are published in one of Emerald’s LIS journals can become open access nine months after publication.

Moving your journal to an online open access platform

If you are the editor of an independent journal and you are considering moving online, some questions to consider include:

  • Who is your readership and how do they read the journal? In some cases the journal is read in lunchrooms in hospitals for example, so the printed version is necessary
  • Can the journal go exclusively online and assist readers by providing an emailed alert for each issue?

There are many tools to assist journal editors manage the publication process. The Open Journal System (OJS) was developed by the Public Knowledge Project, and is an open source (free to download) program to manage journals.

Australian universities host many open access journals (listed here) with a considerable portion published using OJS. Most of these journals are run with some subsidy from the institution, and do not charge authors article processing charges. From the researcher’s perspective they are ‘free to publish, free to read’.

In addition, the National Library of Australia runs the Open Publish program which hosts many open access journals.

If you have questions about this and want to know more please leave a reply to this post.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group