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Reputation, reputation, reputation – quality control and reward systems

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In the past, Open Access publishing has been accused of being akin to vanity publishing or self-publishing, while the term ‘predatory publishing’ describes a phenomenon in which a publisher charges expensive fees for guaranteed publication while failing to provide peer review or even basic editing.[1]

Reputable Open Access publishers clearly advertise their quality-control systems. For example at OBP we emphasise our rigorous peer-review system, as well as the high standard of our editing and production work – and this is evident in our publications, which are easy to check precisely because they are Open Access. Meanwhile the well-established publishers who produce Open Access work, such as Cambridge University Press, do not throw their quality control out of the window when they publish books or articles on an Open Access basis.[2]

The accusations of vanity publishing, and the problem of predatory publishing, hinge on the existence of author fees, which some people argue could corrupt any quality control system. However, as Peter Suber has pointed out, many closed-access journals charge author fees while many peer-reviewed Open Access journals do not. Although we at OBP do not support the use of author fees as a long-term way of sustaining Open Access publishing, their existence does not invalidate the quality of Open Access work.

Advice for authors concerned about the reputability of a publisher is simple – check them out. The website Think, Check, Submit offers a helpful checklist of questions to ask of journals you’re considering (also generally applicable to book publishers) while there are lists of reputable Open Access publishers (such as the DOAJ, which compiles its list according to a set of principles of transparency and best practice) to help guard against poor-quality outfits. Look out for publishers’ compliance with the requirements of other independent bodies such as OAPEN and the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB).

However, the issue of quality control raises a broader argument: on what basis do we assign value to published content? As Kirsten Bell has argued, ranking systems and impact factors can be problematic if they are self-referential – she points to Web of Science, a trusted journal-ranking system that indexes journals based on their impact factor, which they can only achieve by being indexed in Web of Science. Allowing metrics to determine research quality is particularly problematic when the system of evaluation is controlled by a for-profit company, as Web of Science is owned by Clarivate Analytics: Bell points to a 2016 study in which, although researchers challenged the metrics that underlie Web of Science, its owners “‘did not want to change anything that would collapse journal rankings, as they see this as their key business asset’”.

We must be critical about the structures of research evaluation and dissemination we maintain, and the ways in which the two are intertwined. How does a researcher choose a publisher? Qualities such as impact factor – or a less defined form of reputational heft, such as the value of a certain name on an academic CV – can effectively limit an individual researcher’s choice to a small number of well-known names that might aid swift career progression, rather than the journal or publisher that best suits the work or can disseminate it most effectively. A restricted set of options is therefore institutionally encouraged and rewarded, and the underlying system that directs these choices is invisible, being taken simply to represent “research excellence”.

Similarly, mandating Open Access publishing within structures of evaluation such as the REF is not enough to ensure that good research is published effectively. What forms of Open Access publishing are deemed advisable, and why? If Gold OA with author-side fee becomes the standard form of Open Access, then publishers could take advantage of the academy’s reliance on metrics and reputations to inflate their fees according to the perceived clout of the journal or publisher.[3] In such a system, academic success would depend on deep pockets. This is not publishing as dissemination; it is publishing as exploitation, and it is an agenda that is completely opposed to the aim of access without barriers. Any Open Access mandate that supports such a funding structure is fatally flawed and should be strongly resisted.

Open Access is potentially enormously exciting for academics and beneficial for research – it could lead to better forms of scholarship, to more readers, to a more equitable publishing landscape, and to a wealthier scholarly commons. But to achieve these aims we must move away from the language of compliance and begin to think about what we want Open Access publication to achieve, and how. There might be a significant role here for academic societies, which could give awards that recognise the best scholarship, regardless of publisher brand. However, the mechanisms of publication on their own cannot serve as a guarantee of, or a proxy for, research quality (or its lack).

In a publishing landscape that is changing rapidly, there is an urgent need for established academics in secure employment to advocate for a system that best disseminates excellent research, rather than a system that dictates where research must be published to be deemed excellent.

This blog post is part of a series for academics who want to find out more about Open Access. Click here for the other posts.

[1] A recent article by Tom Olijhoek and Jon Tennant argues that the problem of predatory publishing has been overstated and can be dealt with by ensuring that authors are better informed about their publishing options.

[2] There is an ongoing debate about how peer review can best serve excellence in scholarship, rather than entrenching various forms of inequality, but that debate is beyond the scope of this post. The important thing is that the publisher is open about what system they have in place; then the author is able to make a decision about whether to publish with them or not.

[3] As was proposed in Springer Nature’s withdrawn IPO from April 2018: “We also aim at increasing APCs by increasing the value we offer to authors through improving the impact factor and reputation of our existing journals”, p. 99, http://web.archive.org/web/20180507134223/http://proxy.dbagproject.de/mediacenter/ressourcen/pdf/emissionen/springernature_prospectus.pdf

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