The “mega-journal” trend, which has arrived in the humanities (including linguistics) may turn out to seriously disadvantage junior researchers, independent researchers, and researchers from low-income countries. This is not good for science.
In the 20th century, scientific publication served two purposes simultaneously: dissemination and reputation-building. The first is important for scientific progress, the second is important for the careers of scientists. Both are needed by the system, and they happily coexisted because there was no conflict.
Publishers needed paying customers, so they adopted restrictive, exclusive, selective policies: Only the best works were published in their journals and book imprints. High-profile publishers were able to sell more copies and charge less for their books (and journals), so authors had a double incentive to aim for a good brand.
In the 21st century, two things happened that destroyed this system: (1) Globalization (and the expansion of science budgets) turned scientific publication from a niche occupation into a global market with a few major international players, and (2) the internet decoupled dissemination from reputation-building. The first meant that publishers tried to extract the maximum amount of money from science budget, and the libraries revolted (leading to pro-Open Access declarations). The internet allows anyone to put their papers on the web, either on their personal web page, or using “blue open access” (Academia.edu, ResearchGate). Dissemination is now effectively possible at zero cost.
But what about reputation-building? Most open-access advocates seem to have forgotten about this aspect of (20th-century style) scientific publication. But can one simply transform high-profile journals into author-pays journals? Will a high-profile publisher like Oxford University Press charge authors for publishing freely available books, and everything else will remain the same?
I think that the answer is no. If the author pays for publication, there is no particular reason why publishers should adopt an exclusive, selective approach. The more papers and books they publish, the greater their income. The number of readers is irrelevant for publishers, so they should attract authors in great numbers. And indeed, there is an increasing tendency to abandon selectiveness, and to publish whatever is submitted – this trend goes by the name of “mega-journals”.
The best-known mega-journal is PLOS ONE, which publishes tens of thousands of articles each year (and charges USD 1350 per article). But more and more such journals are springing up, also in areas relevant to linguistics:
Brill Open Humanities (Brill)
Modern Languages Open (Liverpool University Press, GBP 500)
Open Linguistics (De Gruyter Open)
Open Library of the Humanities (not yet launched)
Frontiers in (50+ journals, e.g. Frontiers in Psychology with linguistics papers, EUR 575-2000)
The journal websites do not always say explicitly that they have abandoned selectiveness, but in the absence of a limit on the number of papers they will publish, they are clearly moving in the direction of “significance-neutral peer review”.
With the established mega-journals, the idea that evaluation is not for significance (or “impact”) but merely for “soundness” is an explicit policy. PLOS ONE says on its website that it does not have “subjective” acceptance criteria, and advocates of mega-journals argue that this is good, because it also allows the publication of negative results.
There seems to be a strong trend in many fields of science toward mega-journals (see this article by Peter Binfield, a former editor of PLOS ONE). Suppose that it also takes off in linguistics, the field where I work – what would it mean?
It would mean that linguists from low-income countries or early-career researchers would no longer have good access to mainstream publication modes, because they do not have the funds to pay the publication fees. The rich would get richer. But of course, if a journal publishes without any selectiveness, then publishing in it would not be a sign of scientific excellence (only of “soundness”). So how can scientific excellence be measured? Advocates of mega-journals commonly cite Article-Level Metrics (ALM) or “altmetrics”, i.e. social-network impact.
Yes, it is indeed possible to imagine that we may no longer associate the places of publication with any kind of reputation in the future. “Blue open access” is not restricted, and it measures a scholar’s impact. My ResearchGate profile tells everyone that my RG score is 16.47. But I have two questions:
(1) Why do we need specific mega-journals if we are going to be evaluated by article-level metrics anyway? Isn’t it sufficient to upload everything to Academia.edu and count the views and downloads? Does “peer-review for soundness” really matter that much?
(2) If reputation is based on article-level metrics, then what will scholars do in order to enhance their reputation?
I have no answer to the first question, but I can imagine some creative solutions in the second case. For instance, if an altmetrics system counts the tweets in which a paper is mentioned, then I might set up a couple of new Twitter accounts, or order the tweets from a specialized company (as is well-known, it’s relatively cheap to buy a couple of hundred Facebook “likes” for your company’s Facebook page).
More seriously: People attach reputation to labels, i.e. names – that’s an anthropological fact that is not going to change. Just as nowadays a paper published in a high-profile journal will get more tweets, the number of tweets will in the future be associated not only with a paper’s content, but with names. Hence, if journal names are no longer associated with reputation because one can buy oneself into a journal, other names will take up that space. Reputation may instead be attached to names of universities, or names of individuals. If you’re at a prestigious university, your chances of being read will increase greatly, and if you’re at a low-prestige university, nobody will read your papers. If you already have an established name, you will have many readers, regardless of how good it is (it will take readers a while to realize that a senior author has become lazy and no longer produces excellent work). By contrast, the work of junior scholars will hardly be read. At present, linguists do not put their names on papers written by their students, but in the future, students may be begging their renowned professors to become their coauthors. Even the names of cities and countries may become much more relevant than they are now, because they are associated with the publication.
Thus, if we give up the selectiveness/exclusiveness that is associated with traditional publication models, a completely new dynamic will probably unfold. Mega-journals are typically praised by open-access advocates, and one can indeed hope that they will bring the costs of the system down. But they may also damage science, because they remove a key ingredient in the old system, which has to be replaced by something else. Exclusive journal and book publication creates a kind of level field among all researchers – senior researchers and researchers from high-profile institutions need work hard to get into the good labels. (Thus, I’m not so sure that the current system is “a grading method from hell“, as Colin Phillips has recently called it.)
Thus, before we all jump happily on the new bandwagon, we should think hard about the possible consequences. My own favourite model is still the publisher-pays model, where universities pay for journals because they want to profit from the prestige generated by the journal. Such publisher-pays journals (and book imprints) would still be exclusive, but they would be open-access at the same time. (And in fact, most open-access journals are publisher-pays journals, as Stuart Shieber has observed.)