Open-access mega-journals and the future of scholarly communication

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Information School

Abstract

Open-access 'mega-journals' are an emerging publishing trend which has the potential to reshape the way researchers share their findings, remoulding the academic publishing market and radically changing the nature and reach of scholarship. This project will investigate the influence of mega-journals in the academic community and beyond.

Mega-journals publish only online (they have no paper equivalent), and make their articles available on the open web (rather than just to subscribers). Typically, they support this by charging pre-publication article-processing charges (rather than post-publication subscriptions). These features are true of a growing group of open-access (OA) journals. What distinguishes mega-journals is their innovative approach to scope and quality. Their scope is unprecedentedly wide: PLOS ONE and Nature Scientific Reports, two major mega-journals, publish articles across the entire fields of science and medicine. Their approach to quality is based on an assessment of 'technical soundness', ignoring traditionally-valued criteria such as 'importance' and 'interest'. Crucially, these are addressed after publication through sophisticated machine-generated metrics on article use and citation. Thus mega-journals completely reverse the trend of increasing specialisation in scholarly publishing over the last 40 years by creating massive openly-available databases of multi-disciplinary research content.

Mega-journals are now beginning to make a real impact. PLOS ONE, founded in 2006, was the first journal of its type and is now the world's largest academic journal, publishing 31,500 articles in 2013. Following its success, other established publishers, including Nature, have launched titles. New publishers are also entering the market, encouraged by the potential for major economies of scale and recognising the disruptive potential of mega-journals in challenging the market dominance of conventionally-published specialised journals. Understanding how mega-journals are developing and their main characteristics are key aims of this project.

The potential influence of mega-journals on scholarship itself is also significant and will be a particular focus for this project. Mega-journals ostensibly deemphasise the role of 'gatekeepers' such as academic editors, editorial board members and peer reviewers who traditionally make judgements about a paper's disciplinary 'importance' and community 'interest'. This perhaps has implications for disciplinary identities and connections. Mega-journals seem to have the potential to enhance the ability of scholarly publications to move across boundaries - disciplinary boundaries and also those between academia and the rest of society. The extent to which mega-journals promote interdisciplinary working and the ways in which they can encourage use of scholarly content beyond academia are therefore important areas of enquiry. Another question for the project is the extent to which they contribute to an increasing trend of metrics-driven assessment of research rather than peer assessment, and the relationship this has on research funding and management.

This project will examine these and related issues asking in particular, 'What is the significance of the emergence of mega-journals both within and beyond the academic research community?' Using a variety of research methods, it will assemble both quantitative and qualitative data to answer this question. The research will include quantitative studies of the characteristics of mega-journals (for example, using bibliometric methods), interviews with major stakeholders in the publishing industry, focus groups and interviews involving scholars and research managers representing different disciplinary and professional communities, and an international survey of researchers. Assembling all of this evidence will allow the research team to draw conclusions of interest to researchers, publishers, research managers and policymakers.

Planned Impact

A key objective of the project is to open-up debate, inform development and influence policy around the dissemination and publication of research outcomes. The project's findings are expected to contribute to policy development in research evaluation, provide an evidence base for publishing business investment decisions, contribute to cultural change in higher education institutions (HEIs), and inform research and knowledge-exchange practices within institutions. The focus of the proposed project addresses directly the AHRC Digital Transformations Theme and the RCUK Digital Economy priority area, and the project is therefore expected to achieve impact in areas identified by those policy strands. In particular, the project addresses the following areas identified by Digital Transformations theme: "changes in publishing, notions of authorship...the democratisation of scholarship and the globalisation of the knowledge economy...transformations of disciplines and inter-disciplinarity...questions of access and availability..."

Direct beneficiaries will include publishers, research managers, library and information service providers, and researchers themselves. Publishers will benefit from a greater understanding of the changing scholarly communication landscape and the nature of the relationship between traditional subject-specific journal titles and new business models for the dissemination and publication of research. Research managers will benefit from an enhanced evidence-base for use in developing institutional research and knowledge-exchange evaluation mechanisms and the implications for future disciplinary and national research assessments. Library and information service providers will benefit from an improved understanding of the changing publication chain and the behaviours of their users. Academic researchers will benefit (quite apart from the 'academic' benefits above) from changes to organisational culture within HEIs that are culturally sensitive to researchers' differing practices across the sciences, engineering, social sciences, and arts and humanities etc, and also from publisher products designed to address their changing needs.

The broader beneficiaries include those in the wider research policy and scholarly publishing community, including learned and professional societies, government-funded agencies, charities and research funders. An understanding of current researcher behaviours and attitudes towards mega-journals and their place within the wider publishing landscape will be useful in informing debate around issues of open access to publically-funded research, and the degree of culture change which might be needed in different disciplines in order to bring this about. Outcomes of the research may therefore have an important impact on policy development which itself in turn impacts on funding allocations.

By helping to take the open access debate forward there is also potential for wider impact in terms contributing to the facilitation of access to knowledge for professional and practitioner groups outside of academia such as researchers in commercial organisations and public/third sector practitioners. In particular, commercial enterprises and other organisations relying on technology development and/or creative innovation have the potential to benefit through better understanding of the ways in which research findings are disseminated and how they might be discovered and accessed.

Publications

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Description Our work has been the first sustained analysis globally of open-access mega-journals (OAMJs) using a series of different research methods. It has provided a range of perspectives from different stakeholders on OAMJs, which are one of the most controversial innovations in research publishing of the last decade.

There is agreement amongst key stakeholders about the key defining characteristics of open-access mega-journals: they are defined by their large scale, wide scope, open-access (OA) business model, and 'soundness-only' peer review. This combination is unprecedented. However, there is some disagreement about the factors' relative importance. Commercial publishers typically emphasised large size, and non-profit publishers, the approach to peer-review. The innovative approach to peer review of OAMJs has proved to be particularly controversial. In this approach, judgements on acceptance of articles for publication dispense with assessments of their novelty, significance or relevant to a particular readership (factors normally taken into account in selective journals) and focus entirely on their soundness or rigour.

There is also considerable controversy about the value OAMJs, with views varying between those who see mega-journals as a very significant component of the future of journal publishing and those who see them as a dumping ground for low-quality content. The debate is, however, complicated by the fact that, as our research shows, there is also considerable variation across the OAMJ category, meaning there is no such thing as a typical mega-journal. There are significant variations across the category with very large scale titles such as 'PLOS ONE' and 'Scientific Reports', other established smaller titles such as 'PeerJ', discipline specific titles such as 'BMJ Open' and 'AIP Advances', and then a range of essentially 'cascade journals' that accept articles rejected by more highly-selective titles (often published by the same publishing house).

Mega-journals have grown in number, particularly since 2011, and numbers of articles published in OAMJs have also grown. However, this growth has been largely driven by a small number of large titles, particularly 'Scientific Reports'. The first journal of its kind, 'PLOS ONE', after rapid growth from 2006 to 2012, has since shrunk as competition has developed. Mega-journals appear to have established a significant (if still quite small) market-share but figures suggest initial rapid growth is now slowing. They have established a place in the market but have not come to dominate in the way that some commentators predicted five years ago.

Publisher motivations for setting up mega-journals include range of major factors but these can be played out with more or less emphasis on 'societal benefit' or 'business benefit'. Key factors emerging from our analysis motivating publishers included the desire to provide "a home for everything" (including replication studies or null results which may be difficult to publish elsewhere), the aim of effecting significant change in the structure of the publishing industry, particularly focused on a desire to enable more 'open science' approaches. At the same time, publishers wish to achieve greater efficiency in their production systems (with the possibility of economies of scale), generate revenue in such a way that allows rapid scaling of content, retain rejections from highly-selective titles, and improve the way in which the publishing market operates. Some of these very ambitious aims have only been partially achieved.

Amongst researchers there is little awareness of the mega-journal concept, although a greater awareness of some OAMJ titles. There is little understanding, however, of what makes these titles different from conventional selective journals. One of the main challenges for mega-journals is developing and maintaining "communities" within broad scope journals, something our research shows to be important in researcher behaviour in their relationship with journals. The OAMJ model also remains particularly challenging in humanities and social sciences, where the nature of the literature is perceived not to fit the model, with approaches such as soundness-only peer review apparently making less sense.

Perhaps the most distinctive and controversial characteristic of mega-journals, soundness-only peer review, has proved on analysis to be problematical in the way it has been operationalised by publishers and also in terms of levels of understanding amongst authors - a central finding of our research. Soundness-only peer review has been seen by its supporters as more 'objective' and as a 'democratising' influence: articles are published based on pre-publication 'objective' assessment of rigour or soundness only, and then "the community decides" whether a paper is novel, significant or relevant after its publication. However, our findings suggest that in reality criteria beyond technical or scientific soundness can and do influence editorial decisions. Deviations from the original OAMJ model are both publisher supported (in the form of requirements for an article to be 'worthy' of publication) and practice driven (in the form of some reviewers and editors applying traditional peer review criteria to OAMJ submissions). Also, publishers believe post-publication evaluation of novelty, significance and relevance remains problematic and that part of the model is still underdeveloped.

At the same time, it is clear that the majority of researchers, even those who have authored articles published in mega-journals do not understand the soundness-only approach. Two thirds of the OAMJ authors responding to our international survey stated they believed their articles were assessed for novelty, significance, and relevance, rather than just soundness. This is in many respects a startling finding since it shows that one of the core characteristics of mega-journals is not understood even by their own authors.

Despite author take up of OAMJs, motivations for publishing in mega-journals is very similar to those for publishing in conventional non-OA titles. Authors of articles in all journal types prioritise publishing their papers in high-quality journals which facilitate high-quality peer-review. They want their work to be published speedily and efficiently. They are concerned about reaching intended audiences. The fact that OAMJs are open access matters less even to authors of OA articles than these other factors. Factors such as journal impact factor are important to all, although our research shows some interesting country variations in this, and the perceived importance of openness, perhaps reflecting local policy differences.

Our study has highlighted some key points about possible futures. OAMJs seem to have established themselves (at least in the case of some titles) in the market but have not achieved the levels of growth that were predicted by some 10 years ago. However, the mega-journal continues to evolve, with recent developments showing them continuing to innovate. Some such as 'PLOS ONE' now actively require data underpinning studies which they publish to be made open, with the aim of promoting integrity and replicability. 'PeerJ' and 'PLOS ONE' have also launched new approaches to the publication of preprints (early, pre-refereed versions of articles), with the aim of accelerating the dissemination of research. 'F1000 Research' already has publication of pre-peer-reviewed papers and also includes an even more radical approach to peer review, making it open and transparent on the journal website. Such developments are pushing the boundaries still further in terms of mainstream scholarly publishing and it will be interesting to see whether such innovations enter the mainstream of scholarly communication.
Exploitation Route Our research has involved consistent engagement with relevant potential beneficiaries throughout. This has included in particular publishers, policy makers, library professionals and research managers. Our work has produced some key findings in terms of the current state of the publishing market, the impact of policy, and the behaviour of authors.

These are likely to inform commercial product development decisions amongst publishers. Our work would tend to indicate, for example, that there is little room in the market for another OAMJ title of a similar character to the existing ones, since the existing titles seem largely now to competing for a share of the same market.

Our work also has major implications for funders, interested in the impact of their policies on research funding and quality assessment. For example, even amongst authors who contribute to OAMJs, the understanding of what distinguishes mega-journals from conventional journals is surprisingly low and factors which motivate them to publish in any particular venue are very similar to those publishing in conventional venues. The inertia amongst authors, who still operate with a set of behavioural incentives dominated by the journal impact factor, and other traditional measures of value and prestige, is very apparent.

Library and research support professionals' approaches to working with researchers can also be informed by our work, particularly in understanding disciplinary communities and author motivations, which are relevant in policy development and in shaping advocacy at institutional and other levels.

Our work has been published in a variety of academic and professional high-visibility venues and has raised a number of questions which we would like to pursue further around funding and publication models of scholarly material, particularly in relation to open access. Other questions around community understanding, acceptance and adoption of OA channels of scholarly communication also remain crucial in understanding its long-term future.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education

URL http://oamj.org
 
Description We have maintained a close engagement with publishers, policymakers, library professionals, research manager, and other key stakeholder groups throughout research project. The research approach was designed in consultation with an Advisory Board, consisting of senior representatives from all major communities associated with our research. We have engaged extensively in impact-generating activity, including presentation of our work at all of the major international scholarly publisher conferences (in the UK, continental Europe, and North America) during the course of our project. We have also been invited to several individual publishers to present our findings and engage in discussion on its implications for practice. Feedback we have received from publishers has indicated that our work has highlighted a number of challenges in various publishing models which need to be addressed (for example in relation to soundness-only peer review). Our data has been a useful basis on which they have reviewed their approaches, we have been told. In addition, our work has been published in professional magazines, the HE press, as well as peer-reviewed journals. We have produced nine peer-reviewed papers in total (six published and three currently in review) - four more than we committed to in our funding proposal, something enabled by the richness of our findings. Some of these articles are in journals widely-read by practitioners, including 'Learned Publishing'. We have also published in the 'Times Higher' online edition. Work has received high alt-metrics scores, evidencing coverage in social media. The latter includes use of our work by publishers and others in debating the future of scholarly communication in high-visibility online professional venues such as the 'Scholarly Kitchen'. We are now just about to engage in a programme of work seeking to illustrate practice-based impact of our findings. This will involve systematic consultation with various stakeholders about the impact that our work has had on their thinking, planning and practice.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description A presentation to staff at the eLife offices in Cambridge, 21 November 2017, covering our research findings 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A seminar on our research findings to staff based at the open-access publisher, eLife. The presentation was attended by about 30 staff and resulted in a great deal of interesting discussion. I was then involved in meetings with staff, including the company CEO. Given by Stephen Pinfield.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description ALPSP conference presentation, London, 16 September 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation at the Association of Learned and Professional Society Conference, London, 15 September 2016. The paper was entitled, 'Open-access mega-journals: Research in progress', by Stephen Pinfield (presenter), Claire Creaser, Jenny Fry, Valérie Spezi, Simon Wakeling and Peter Willett. The paper provided an update on the findings of the project to date, including questions arising from the literature review and bibliometrics analysis. The session was attended by over 100 participants, mainly from the publishing industry.This resulted in useful post-session discussions and a set of useful contacts for the project. We were also approached by a journal editor encouraging contribution to a professional journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.alpsp.org/2016-Programme
 
Description Article in CILIP Update, March 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Pinfield, S., et al. (2017). Open-access mega-journals. CILIP Update, March. Article in the main professional magazine for library and information professionals, raising awareness about the project and its outcomes. Article co-authored by all members of the project team.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Article in the Times Higher online edition, October 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Pinfield, S. (2016, October 13). Mega-journals: The future, a stepping stone to it or a leap into the abyss? Times Higher Education (THE) Online. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/mega-journals-future-stepping-stone-it-or-leap-abyss.

This article in the Times Higher online edition summarised many of the key issues being investigated in the project and gave rise to interest evidenced by social media discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/mega-journals-future-stepping-stone-it-or-leap-abyss
 
Description Close-of-project conference to discuss the impact of project findings, London, 28 November 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Full-day conference discussing our findings attended by 30 senior executives, publishers, policy makers and information professionals to discuss the impact of our findings on their work. The event was very successful and will be followed up by further discussions on what impact it has had on practice. Presentations given and discussion facilitated by all members of the project team.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Conference presentation - Researcher to Reader conference, London, 27 February 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to a conference with delegates from the publishing, policy-making and library communities. Attended by over 100 delegates with significant interest in the project expressed by a number of attendees. Given by Jenny Fry with contributions from all of the project team.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://r2rconf.com/programme/
 
Description Research Libraries UK conference conference presentation, London, 9 March 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation (plenary session) to HE library directors and other senior managers on the project and its early findings, 9 March 2016. Designed to encourage engagement with the project from a major stakeholder group and also enlist support for future stages of the project (particularly hosting focus groups). Given by Stephen Pinfield with contributions from all of the project team.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.rluk.ac.uk/event/rluk-conference-2016/
 
Description Research seminar at Hanken School of Management, Helsinki, 23 May 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Activity to communicate our research in progress to colleagues in Helsinki and one US-based visitor. Given by Stephen Pinfield.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description STM conference presentation (Frankfurt Book Festival), 18 October 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation at the Association of Science, Technology and Medicine Publishers' conference at the Frankfurt book festival (Frankfurt, 18 October 2016). The paper was entitled, 'Open-access mega-journals: Research in progress', by Stephen Pinfield (presenter), Claire Creaser, Jenny Fry, Valérie Spezi, Simon Wakeling and Peter Willett. The presentation resulted in very useful discussion during and after the session with senior members of the publisher community. This included contact with individuals subsequently included as participants in the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.stm-assoc.org/events/stm-frankfurt-conference-2016/
 
Description Seminar for information professionals at CERN, Geneva, 14 June 2017 covering out latest findings 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Seminar attended by 15 people, on our findings for information services professionals who are involved in delivering open access repositories and other OA-related services, as well as advising users on questions relating to OA. The seminar led to interesting questions and discussion on the future of scholarly publishing. Given by Stephen Pinfield.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Session at the Society for Scholarly Publishing conference, Boston, USA, 2 June 2017; including presentation and discussion of our research findings and implications for practice 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference session convened by the project and including presentations from Stephen Pinfield (PI) and Simon Wakeling (RA), who presented our research findings, plus two other invited speakers who responded to our findings, Dr Joerg Heber of Public Library of Science and Prof Peter Suber of Harvard University. The was attended by about 30 participants, mostly from the publishing industry but also including policy makers, and library and information professionals. The session prompted lively discussion and led to several detailed post-session conversations. Several senior publishers requested further involvement in the project and have subsequently been consulted or formally invited to be participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Society for Scholarly Publishing conference presentation, Vancouver, Canada, 1 June 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference presentation at a pre-conference session of the Society for Scholarly Publishing conference in Vancouver, 1 June 2016. The paper, presented as part of a session on 'Open access and sustainability', was entitled, 'Open-access mega-journals and the sustainability of scholarly communication', by Stephen Pinfield (presenter), Claire Creaser, Jenny Fry, Valérie Spezi, Simon Wakeling and Peter Willett. This was attended by about 60 participants, mostly from the publishing industry. The presentation led reported research undertaken to date, and invited comment. The session prompted lively discussion and led to several detailed post-session conversations. Several senior publishers requested further involvement in the project and have subsequently been consulted or formally invited to be participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.sspnet.org/events/past-events/annual-meeting-2016/event-home/