A call to arms for established researchers

Dr Matúš Mišík is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. His main area of expertise is energy security within the EU. He also studies the role of perceptions within the EU decision-making mechanism.

Matúš has published articles in Nature Energy, Energy, Energy Policy, Geopolitics, Czechoslovak Psychology, Journal of Popular Culture, Comparative European Politics, Asia Europe Journal and Slovak Sociological Review. He regularly writes for the leading Slovak dailies and comments on energy policy related topics in the electronic media. He has undertaken study / research trips to Norway (2006), Kazakhstan (2009), Finland (2009), the UK (2011), Austria (2012) and Canada (2015-2016). Matúš will be spending the 2018 fall semester at the Carleton University in Ottawa as a EU visiting scholar.

He tweets from @misikmatus.

Photo by Finn Hackshaw | unsplash.com
Photo by Finn Hackshaw | unsplash.com

The decision of Swedish research institutions not to renew their contract with Elsevier after 30 June 2018 is the latest instance in the “database wars”.

Several countries – with Germany in the lead – have gotten into a dispute with major publishers over the rising prices for database subscriptions, which persist despite increasing numbers of open access articles.

I think it’s up to established researchers to initiate change in the way research results are being distributed.

Several governments have already claimed that publicly funded research has to be made freely available, while some research agencies require all supported research to be published open access. For example, the European Commission’s goal is to have all research freely available right after publication by 2020 and its grant schemes require all results to be accessible to everyone without paywall.

Journals have already started to offer open access options to enable unrestricted access to published papers, which requires authors to pay a fee to cover publishers’ costs.

However, the price of subscription to journal databases has not decreased with the increased number of open access papers (i.e. papers where Open Access status is paid for by the authors or their institutions). This creates a situation in which research institutions pay for publications twice: first to provide free access to articles published by their researchers, then to provide access to them behind the paywall.

Universities struggling with restricted budgets are joining forces and creating consortiums able to put pressure on the publishers. This strategy is bearing fruit, although not in the form of more favourable conditions (i.e. lowering costs for database access). For example, German universities have not lost their Elsevier subscription although they did not renew their contract after 2016. Also, university consortiums in France, Sweden, and the Netherlands have not reached an agreement with some publishing houses – however, this has happened only recently and we do not know what will be the consequences yet.

One solution to this problem might lie in the growing number of independent free access journals, where publishing comes at a reasonable or no cost. The problem with these new publications is that the majority of them are not considered high-ranking journals nor widely recognised yet within the academic community. There are several well-established, independent, and open source journals, but their fees for publishing accepted papers are very similar to those of the big publishers. Moreover, the number of such journals is limited and restricted only to some fields of research. Emerging researchers who need to establish themselves generally do not consider these journals to be a suitable venue for their research results as they need to fill their CVs with strong outputs that currently only traditional, high-impact journals can provide.

Publishing in a small, basically unknown (although free access) journal can also be problematic for other reasons. The number of predatory journals is on the rise and sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate them from small legitimate journals. In some disciplines, even the requirement to pay a small publishing fee cannot tip you off as this is common practice (for example, in economics). This makes it more convenient to publish in established journals that are part of big publishing houses. This practice, however, supports the current system in which a small group of publishers has strong control over pricing policies and the conditions under which research is distributed.

This situation is not sustainable and must change to support future development of research and researchers. Currently, our sector suffers because of the amount of resources being spent on the distribution of scientific results, rather than research itself.

That said, emerging researchers cannot be the only ones to change things. Their jobs and careers are too dependent on the existing system. Established, tenured researchers need to initiate change in the academic publication system and help the good, free online journals to take off and gain credibility. These are the researchers who already have strong CVs, form an integral part of academia, and do not need to prove their abilities time and again to land a nice academic job. Tenured university professors and senior researchers can easily provide legitimacy to emerging journals, and their academic networks can serve to spread the word about new publication possibilities outside of established (and monopolised) publishing houses.

Established researchers can become board members, reviewers, authors, editors for such publications, or even start their own journals. This is by no means an easy task and there is always a chance that the efforts will not bear any fruit. Starting a new journal these days is an intimidating project, but there are several examples of very successful new journals created in recent years. Although these have been backed by established publishing houses, the crucial elements here are the hardworking editors, reviewers, and authors. Increasingly, editors and scholarly associations are asking what actual value major publishing houses bring to the academic publishing process; so much of the work is pushed back to the editors and their teams.

The future lies in developing a more decentralised publishing system in which the wider community, rather than a monopolistic group of journals, will determine which research is worthy of consideration. This is a long but necessary process.

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