OAMJ:
Open-Access
Mega-Journals

“Mega-journals have been something of a lightning rod for the debate around open access in general because they bring together a lot of the issues that open access is about, from the business perspective but also in terms of the very way we ‘do science’.”.

Great research is meaningless without an audience. In the world of scholarly communication, this audience is traditionally found through the peer-reviewed journal. “One of the most important developments to impact that area is open-access – the increasing drive to make research outputs freely available to anyone”, says Stephen Pinfield, Professor of Information Services Management at the Information School and lead on the Open-Access Mega-Journals project.

The principle of open-access helps to disseminate research findings widely, through the academic community and beyond, into society at large.Now, with the advent of so-called ‘Mega-Journals’, the way in which this information is published is facing the possibility of further, controversial change.

Academic journals have for some time followed a trend of getting progressively more specialised and niche, with new journals set up as new fields of research emerge, all leading to a very high number of journals, each with a very narrow community of interest. “Open-access mega-journals have the potential to reverse what’s been happening in scholarly communication over the last 50 years”, says Professor Pinfield. These vast publications are very broad in their subject ranges, some covering an entire discipline (e.g. the whole of physics) and some even covering several (one such journal covers the entire of science, technology and medicine). “They are massive in their scope, and that also leads to them being large in their scale”, says Professor Pinfield. Some of the largest of these mega-journals, like Scientific Reports and PLOS ONE, publish tens of thousands of articles per year, compared to the tens or hundreds in conventional journals. The AHRC-funded Open-Access Mega-Journals project is developing an understanding of this new publishing trend as a phenomenon, looking at both how it works and what those involved think about it.

Working with partners at Loughborough University, Professor Pinfield works on the project in Sheffield alongside Professor of Information Science, Peter Willett, and full-time Research Associate, Dr Simon Wakeling, who is also a past PhD student of the School. The project began in 2015 and is due to finish at the end of this year.

Peer review is seen as a mainstay of scholarly publishing,
and open-access mega-journals are challenging conventional approaches.

The open-access mega-journal model of scholarly communication has been causing much debate and discussion in the academic publishing community, its most controversial aspect being its change in approach to the peer review process. “Peer review is seen as a mainstay of scholarly publishing, and open-access mega-journals are challenging conventional approaches”, says Professor Pinfield. Peer reviewing in traditional journals is based on several criteria: novelty, impact, interest to the community and scientific soundness. Mega-journals dispense with all of these except scientific soundness, a judgement purely on whether the research follows the correct and expected processes and practices to make it ‘good science’. “Proponents of mega-journals argue that judgements of novelty, significance and interest are subjective”, says Professor Pinfield. “They are usually made by a small group of senior academics and are based on existing paradigms which, it is argued, can mean there are few departures from ‘the norm.’” It is also argued that authors over-emphasise the novelty or impact value of their work, interfering with the objective reporting of the results. Open-access mega-journals simply publish any papers submitted which are considered scientifically sound. “That creates a lower barrier for publishing, but the argument is that after publication, the community can decide whether it is original, significant or interesting by their use and citation of the work”, says Professor Pinfield.

This model diminishes the traditional ‘gatekeeper role’ of senior members of the academic community. “That’s why these journals are so controversial”, says Professor Pinfield. “They’re changing the approach to journal publication that has been around for a long time.” Some argue that the traditional peer review process provides a useful filter for trivial research. “You could have an article published which is perfectly sound science, but all it’s about is the boiling point of water”, explains Professor Pinfield. The counterargument follows that the significance of research is often not known at the time of publication. Additionally, the replication of past studies to check validity often has value, particularly in some areas like clinical trials. “Some people see this as the democratisation of science, but other people say it takes out the valuable function of the senior members of the community doing their job”, says Professor Pinfield.

Working with partners at Loughborough University, Professor Pinfield works on the project in Sheffield alongside Professor of Information Science, Peter Willett, and full-time Research Associate, Dr Simon Wakeling, who is also a past PhD student of the School. The project began in 2015 and is due to finish at the end of this year.

The project is bringing together the expertise
of a team made up of different sorts of scholars.

“The idea of using both quantitative and qualitative methods in our project is that we get a holistic picture of what mega-journals are, what they’re trying to be and what impact they are having”, says Professor Pinfield of the choice to undertake a mixed methods study. “The project is bringing together the expertise of a team made up of different sorts of scholars. One of the strengths of the Information School is that we have that variety, and this project plays to that strength, as well as links with other institutions.” The project began with a literature review, including looking at social media discourse on the topic, where a lot of the controversy can be seen to be playing out. Next, a quantitative look at the bibliometrics of who is publishing in mega-journals, where they are working, who they are citing and other statistics led to a published paper on the way things are right now. Qualitative work followed in the form of 31 interviews with publishers and editors of various journals, both mega-journals and otherwise. “We wanted to get inside their heads and find out what their strategy was”, explains Professor Pinfield. Focus groups with a variety of researchers (from PhD candidates through to senior academics) then asked about their attitudes to publishing and the new mega-journal phenomenon.

“Different disciplinary communities have different traditions of scholarly communication and react differently to open access in general, as well as open-access mega-journals”, explains Professor Pinfield of their findings. The final data collection method was an international survey of authors who have published in mega-journals (plus control groups of authors who have published in other open-access journals and selective traditional journals), asking their experience of publishing and their perceptions. “It’s really exciting because we’ve got an exceptionally large data set we can now analyse”, says Professor Pinfield of the 11,000 responses received.

The debates that surround mega-journals appear throughout the data so far. Are open-access mega-journals just a dumping ground for poor quality research? No, many would say; the peer review process is not necessarily any less rigorous just because its remit has been narrowed. And so, the arguments roll on.

The project’s results have potential commercial significance, in addition to contributing to the fledgling scholarly record on this new field. “Our research helps publishers understand what is going on in their commercial space”, says Professor Pinfield. “That’s also true for other practitioners: policy-makers, research managers, librarians. Most of the presentations we’ve done so far have been to these professionals.” Having worked with open-access systems since 2001 and with a major research interest in the publication and dissemination of information, it’s easy to see Professor Pinfield’s interest in what he describes as one of the biggest landmarks in the field in the last ten years. “Mega-journals have been something of a lightning rod for the debate around open access in general because they bring together a lot of the issues that open access is about, from the business perspective but also in terms of the very way we ‘do science’”, he says. “I’m a great believer in the potential of open access, which we’re now just beginning to see realised in a major way, and mega-journals are potentially a huge part of that.”