Saturday, 12 September 2020

What should happen when an online journal dies


Over the last few days I’ve tweeted links to a research paper and two news articles, one from The Register, the other from Nature, on the phenomenon of disappearing open access journals.

I must say I’m not surprised.

While I have never worked on an open access journal, I have built a number of data repository solutions for both higher education and government, and was once even on the management committee for the long gone UK Higher Education National Software Archive.

And if there’s one problem with every solution I’ve built, it’s sustainablity.

While the systems are comparatively cheap and simple to deploy – you can build an Omeka instance in an afternoon, and building a non customised Dspace install is similarly quick, production based systems need hardening, security and customisation, all of which requires a small of software engineers – usually about two, and a part time manager to manage the install and deployment of the solution – and because the only metric we have is money, we can say that if deployment takes a year it will cost around $300,000.

Pre-cloud, and pre-virtualisation, the cost of hardware and storage was a significant consideration – nowadays, less so, so let’s stick with the $300,000 annual cost but assume we manage to deploy and get signed off in less that twelve months, and that we are using a virtualised server and cloud based storage. Sure there are hosting fees and storage costs, but you don’t need to worry about redundancy, backups, and maintenance costs for the hardware – a lot of these costs are simply abstracted into your monthly hosting and cloud storage bill.

After you’ve got your solution deployed, there’s probably less work for your deployment team, but they still need to have a role patching your repository or journal system, adding features, and so on.

So while you may not need so much of your repository or journal system team’s time you’ll still need a reasonable bit of it, so let’s stick our fingers in the air and say that the ongoing costs of running a solution is around $200,000 a year.

Remember that’s the cost of keeping it running. It doesn’t cover any of the costs, in the case of a journal solution, associated with managing the publication workflow – getting the submitted paper in, out to the peer reviewers, back from the peer reviewers, updated, revised, returned to the reviewers etc.

It’s quite a lot of work and require employing at least a couple of staff and a journal manager. Obviously, you can reduce your costs by running a preprint server as opposed to an open journal solution. Typically, though, preprint servers do not charge a submission fee, and trust that anyone submitting a preprint cares enough about their academic reputation not to publish rubbish.

Many open access journals work by charging a fee for you to publish your research – for example PLOS One charges a one off fee of US$1350. In the case of PLOS One, a well known journal with high impact scores, they almost certainly have a submission rate that allows them to cover their operating costs.

For smaller journals, and ones dealing with a highly specialist area, it may be difficult to charge a fee sufficient to cover their costs, or indeed achieve a submission rate that generates a sufficient level of income.

Inevitably, that will mean that the cost of running the journal is subsidised in some way by a learned society or by an academic institution, sometimes for reasons of prestige.

Now times are hard in academia. Government funding is grudging to say the least, and in these Covid times, student fees don’t provide the income they once did.

And departmental managers then look at the $200,000 or so it’s costing them to host a journal and not unnaturally think ‘we could get three, even four, postdocs for that, and they might do something significant’.

And so the journal ceases publication.

But of course it doesn’t end there.

To keep the already published content available, you need to keep the server running and patched, which means employing someone with suitable skills. In the old days you could trust that some libraries would keep the old issues on the shelf. With electronic journals it's a little more tricky.

So not surprisingly, sometimes the host ends up killing the whole thing and the content simply goes. Specialist dark archives such as CLOCKSS sometimes ensure that the content survives, but CLOCKSS is no resourced to cover everything, so smaller journals might simply be missed and disappear down through the cracks.

People who start small specialist journals sometimes fail to understand that starting a specialist journal is a bit like owning a cat – when you take on a cat you agree to cover its costs, feed it, take it to the vet, and in return you get affection, companionship and the occasional dead rodent – but the point is that you agree, implicitly, to pay for the animal for the fifteen or seventeen years of its life, and if circumstances change you get the animal rehomed so it can continue to scratch furniture for the rest of its natural life – in other words you have a tacit sustainability plan.

Small online journals need to have such a sustainability plan to cover what happens when the host institution can no longer afford to cover the costs of the journal, including alternative hosting arrangements …

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