We Need to put Open Access Journals at the Heart of Academic Publishing

We Need to put Open Access Journals at the Heart of Academic Publishing 1024 576 Open and Universal Science (OPUS) Project

The current system of academic publishing serves only a select few and needs to be overhauled to better align with academic ideals and provide better value for money, writes Tim Glawion.

It’s widely acknowledged that academic publishing is problematic. Unlike other complex socio-economic phenomena that become less intimidating as you learn more about them, the deeper you delve into publishing, the more concerning it becomes. One bright spot is the Open Science movement, which holds great promise and attracts dedicated individuals, many in Africa. However, it still lags behind the private sector in usability, accessibility, and reach.

Despite understanding the limitations of impact metrics, scholars continue to publish in high-impact journals because these metrics serve as recognizable benchmarks in the competitive academic job market. Academics tolerate exorbitant article processing charges (APCs) of up to £8,000, which have no relation to the actual cost of publishing, because research institutions cover these fees. This practice reinforces the dominance of these institutions and marginalizes those who cannot afford the “open access” fees, resulting in their work being cited less.

Journal editors often remain with large publishers because these publishers simplify their tasks by negotiating impact factors with Clarivate, submitting articles to databases, and providing services like copyediting, typesetting, and archiving. Starting a new independent journal quickly reveals the challenges of handling these responsibilities without such support.

The capitalist nature of scholarly publishing undermines its quality. When profits are tied to APCs, there is an incentive to increase submissions at the expense of quality assurance. This might explain the proliferation of in-house journals and series by large publishers and the disproportionate increase in the number of published articles compared to doctorates issued.

Non-capitalist publishing alternatives align more closely with academic principles of free scholarly exchange and public outreach but are often too complicated. For instance, hosting a journal using the Open Journal System requires web development and online database skills, which can be daunting for most users. More publicly funded institutions are needed to offer the comprehensive services that large, profit-driven publishers currently provide.

Such institutions are rare but do exist. For example, Science for Africa funds and connects Open Science projects, the Public Knowledge Project enables journal hosting, and Open Research Europe publishes through open peer review. Additionally, university librarians in North America or Europe can offer a surprising range of in-house not-for-profit publishing services tailored to academic needs.

So why aren’t these alternatives more widely known and used? European science funders have created parallel tracks, doubling the financial burden on taxpayers instead of reducing it. For example, many institutions fund the overpriced APCs of large publishers through public science funds—the same funds meant to support independent Open Access journals. This approach supports both David and Goliath, without any clear rationale.

A New System

To move away from the current flawed system, we must make it harder to profit excessively and simplify Open Science. Additionally, journals and articles should be evaluated separately.

First, we need a clear alternative to the Journal Impact Factor. Current alternatives are merely variations of quantified metrics. Journals should be ranked based on the quality of service they offer authors, including meaningful review processes and professional editing. This would encourage a race to the top in scholarly services.

Second, we need to reassess the role of articles in academic careers. The trend of measuring an academic’s worth through journal rank, personal citation scores, and publication counts needs a straightforward alternative that conveys a scholar’s standing. A relational score, potentially utilizing Artificial Intelligence to analyze an author’s work for its methodological, theoretical, and empirical depth, could be beneficial. Hiring committees should focus on finding the right fit for the team, not just the most high-profile candidate.

Third, we must stop paying APCs. Instead, long-term funding should be directed to Open Access journals hosted by academic institutions globally, especially in Africa where research and publishing funds are scarce. This funding should collaborate with local publishers to professionalize the OA movement, preventing it from becoming as US-Eurocentric as the broader higher education sector. Localizing scholarship can help integrate indigenous knowledge and decolonizing epistemologies into global academia.

Shifting from APC funding to journal and infrastructure funding is a political decision that could save taxpayers money. This ongoing debate about how we fund academic research and publishing should aim to establish a simpler, more equitable system.

About the Author

Tim Glawion is an interim professor of political science at the University of Freiburg and a senior researcher at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute. He was co-Editor in Chief of Africa Spectrum from 2022 to 2024 and is the author of “The Security Arena in Africa” (Cambridge University Press).

Original article at LSE

Photo via Royal Society of Chemistry

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