Navigating the changing landscape of academic publishing

  • 15 July 2020
  • General
  • Benjamin Lichman

Peer-reviewed journal articles detailing novel research have been the major currency of academia for centuries. However, over the past decade, the landscape of academic publishing has been undergoing rapid and profound change, and coupled with the impact of Covid-19, urgent questions are now being asked about its future.  

The principle force of change is the relentless drive towards open-access: publicly funded research that can be accessed by the public. Tied into this are other considerations, such how we measure article quality, and how payment structures for reading and publishing work. Open-access reform has morphed into a wider call for “open research”, a holistic vision that incorporates pre-prints, peer review and even study design into an open publication pipeline.

With a fledgling lab group to nurture, when it comes to academic publishing my immediate concerns are more basic: when do we have enough data to publish? And, what is the best journal in which I can publish the work? Whilst I might be tempted to accumulate data until we can write the best possible paper, it would benefit PhD students looking for their next job to have as many articles published as possible, whatever the journal. However, changes in publishing are becoming impossible to ignore.

Selecting a journal to submit an article to depends on factors such as subject appropriateness, speed of the publication, open access credentials, readership, and journal reputation. The journal impact factor (IF), a metric related to the number of citations an article in that journal typically receives, is often considered a proxy for journal reputation and, controversially, article quality. Having multiple articles published in high-impact journals has long been a sign of academic success. The 2013 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), with signatories including funding agencies, academics and institutions, urged the academic community to drop the use of IFs as way to assess research quality and instead judge the work “on its own merits”. 

In the REF process, an assessment the quality of a University’s research output, each submitted paper is read in detail and assigned a score based on novelty and scientific quality rather than journal name. However, there may be situations where an academic’s CV must be assessed and there is insufficient time to read articles individually to judge their merits. Here, alternative metrics to IF that could capture individual article quality may be useful. A candidate for this is the Altmetric score, which measures mentions of the article in traditional and social media. 

Part of the decision making process for choosing a journal may soon be taken out of the hands of the academics completely. Plan S is a radical initiative, supported by organisations including the UKRI and Wellcome Trust, to establish full Open Access as the norm in academic publishing in Europe by 2021. More specifically, all articles supported by public or private grants must be made immediately available in open access journals or repositories without embargo. Many traditional journals, including some “high-impact” flagships, do not currently support these immediate Open Access routes, and may be off-limits to academics. 

Much of the current debate revolves around payment structures. Traditional subscription journals require a single subscription, paid by readers, to access all articles. Some fully open access journals require Article Processing Charges (APCs), to be paid by authors. Many journals are hybrids, containing some open access articles (paid by APCs) and other closed articles (accessible by subscription). Libraries may be paying for content in these journals in two ways, one cost to publish and another to read. Though details of how individual funders will operate are not yet resolved, the wording of Plan S makes it clear that hybrid journals are not part of their vision for the future of academic publishing. 

There are some in the scientific community who have raised concerns about Plan S. One complaint is that it constrains academic freedom by restricting where work can be published. More concerning, perhaps, is that it could damage the global nature of science. Researchers in the US or China may continue to publish work in closed or hybrid journals that cannot be read by European researchers. There are questions around how certain trusted publishers can adapt to a new business model. Learned societies, for example, may generate significant income from journal subscriptions which they use to subsidise their other activities. There is a risk that submissions and subscriptions in these journals will fall in the future. A review of the UKRI Open Access policy is currently ongoing.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, publishers have shown themselves to be remarkably agile. The Royal Society journals have become immediately available free of charge to allow researchers to access them from home. Deadlines for peer-reviews and revisions have been relaxed to allow for uncertainty in working conditions. Remarkably this has become an extremely busy time for publishers, with many academics finally writing the papers that had been eluding them. This has also highlighted severe gender inequalities as submissions from women have fallen, perhaps due to an imbalance of child-care responsibilities.

In this period there has also been renewed interest in Open Research Practises in academia. Open Research is linked to Open Access, but calls for holistic changes to the scientific process: transparency and openness from inception to publication. Openness promises to increase the reproducibility of the research, reduce fraudulent practises and foster a supportive research environment. It encourages sharing of pre-prints, data sets and protocols, and also calls for reform to the peer-review process so reviewers are named, and comments and responses are public. Much of the responsibility for implementing these changes falls on publishers, and some open-access publishers have already taken steps in this direction. Even greater reform to the publication process is the “registered report” where work is peer reviewed twice, once before the experiment is conducted to assess the feasibility and soundness of the work, and again after completion of the article. This culture of openness, originally inspired by practises in coding and physics, may permeate further through scientific academia in the near future.

The impending implementation of Plan S coupled with increased calls for Openness and a reassessment of impact factors make the next five years extremely interesting for academic publishing. This coincides with the start of my independent academic career and promises to affect which I journals I can publish in and which journals I would want to publish in. It may also cause me to change my perception of how science can be judged. The push to openness may influence my own working practises as the way research is presented to academics and other stakeholders is fundamentally reformed.

Many thanks to Dr Kate Gasson, a fellow participant in the FST’s Foundation Future Leaders Programme and an employee of Frontiers Media; Dr Colin Beale, who is involved with the University of York’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) submission, and Thom Blake, a Research Support Librarian at York with responsibility for open-access.

Image CC BY-SA.

Dr Benjamin Lichman is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow based in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York. His research group investigates the origins and applications of natural products from plants. He is a participant in the FST's Foundation Future Leaders Programme.