Open Access mega-journals have in some academic disciplines become a key channel for communicating research. In others, however, they remain unknown. Drawing on evidence from a series of focus groups, Jenny Fry and Simon Wakeling explore how authors’ perceptions of mega-journals differ across disciplines and are shaped by motivations associated with the multiple communities they function within.

Open-access mega-journals are a relatively recent innovation in the scholarly communication system and started with the launch of PLoS ONE in 2006. Mega-journals have four main characteristics: 1) broad scope (accepting articles across a range of disciplines); 2) large output (aiming for high volume of published articles); 3) an open access publishing model (typically based on an Article Processing Charge paid prior to publication); and 4) a peer review system based solely on the basis of technical/scientific soundness. This final element of the mega-journal is the most controversial and has divided opinion amongst those with an interest scholarly communication as to whether such journals herald the future of scholarly communication or are an academic dumping ground?

As part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project led by Prof. Stephen Pinfield that investigated open-access mega-journals and the future of scholarly communication, we wanted to gain in-depth insight into the motivations and barriers influencing the adoption of mega-journals by academic researchers in the UK. We were particularly interested in the role that disciplinary cultures played in the uptake of mega-journals and conducted focus groups with researchers from astronomy/physics, biosciences, education, and history. We chose these four disciplines because they span the physical, applied, social sciences, and humanities and capture disciplinary communities that have been early adopters of mega-journals (biosciences) and those that may not even have heard of them (history).

What we found

Our main finding from the focus groups is that the notion of community plays an important role in the adoption of any innovation in the scholarly communication system. Disciplinary communities have been criticised as being conservative in their adoption of new forms of dissemination and publication as illustrated in a recent LSE Impact Blog post by Dave Nicholas. The continued prominence of the published journal article and journal hierarchies in authors’ publishing preferences, despite the entry of new players into the scholarly communication system, such as mega-journals or preprint servers, is somewhat perplexing. We think the explanation is in the notion of community. Accounts provided by researchers in the focus groups show they are simultaneously members of multiple communities, whereby each community has distinct norms, values, and, importantly, methods of recognition and reward. The peer-reviewed journal article is central to all these communities and the various demands of the different communities generate factors that influence authors’ choice of journal.

Why we came to this conclusion

These multiple communities can be perceived as nested. For example, an academic researcher is simultaneously a member of a defined institutional community (e.g. a HEI); a disciplinary community (or communities) that transcends institutional, geographic, and cultural boundaries; the wider science system (e.g. funding bodies, national/international research and development policies, research ethics, research infrastructures); and society as whole (e.g. accountability, social/economic impacts, and developments in technology).

Researchers described to us how being an active member of each community requires achieving certain communication goals, such as promotion within one’s institution or to contribute novel findings to a discipline. The peer-reviewed journal article plays an important role in achieving these communication goals by signifying certain elements of the underpinning research and its academic and social/economic impact.

In practice, a peer-reviewed journal article satisfies more than one communication goal since authors will be addressing multiple community audiences with any single article. The researchers we spoke to experienced tensions between satisfying these different communication goals when it came to journal choice. Journal characteristics such as quality of peer review, journal metrics, prestige, and audience/readership meet these competing priorities in different ways, as shown in the model below.

Figure 1: Levels of community, examples of communication goals and their relationship to factors influencing journal choice. This figure first appeared in the authors’ co-written paper, “Academic communities: The role of journals and open-access mega-journals in scholarly communication”, published in the Journal of Documentation, under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Amongst the researchers we spoke to, the UK’s REF was cited as the most important factor influencing journal choice, which emphasises the importance of the institutional and science system levels of community. The influence of REF translated into various publication behaviours, the primary one being selecting journals with a high impact factor, despite the recent emphasis on the responsible use of article-level and journal metrics amongst HEIs and policymakers.

Implications for the adoption of open-access mega-journals?

With the exception of the bioscientists, awareness of mega-journals amongst the focus group participants was low, with many researchers expressing scepticism towards the model. This scepticism mainly relates to the peer review model based on scientific/technical soundness only (i.e. not filtering for significance and interest) and the broad subject scope. For those researchers who had not published in a mega-journal there was a general misperception of the review process being less rigorous than traditional peer review. On the other hand, those who had experienced publishing in a mega-journal reported receiving reviewer reports that were more rigorous than non-mega-journals and lacked some of the bias experienced in the reviews of high-prestige traditional journals. These findings perhaps offer an explanation for surprising results obtained during other phases of our research – particularly that the reality of mega-journal peer review does not always match the intent, and that many authors of articles published in mega-journals are apparently unaware that these journals apply different methods of peer review.

Scepticism towards mega-journals is likely to stem from a perception amongst researchers that they do not adequately meet the needs of the various communities to which they belong. The implementation of disciplinary sub-sections in some mega-journals may go some way to addressing community needs. Certainly, the model needs to evolve in order for publishers to persuade researchers that mega-journals add significant value to the scholarly communications ecosystem.

This blog post is based on the authors’ co-written article, “Academic communities: The role of journals and open-access mega-journals in scholarly communication”, published in the Journal of Documentation (DOI: 10.1108/JD-05-2018-0067).

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Featured Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, via Pixabay (licensed under CC.0 license)

About the authors

Jenny Fry (ORCID ID: 0000-0003-3110-1683) is a Professor in Information Science and Publishing at Loughborough University. She was a Co-Investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded open-access mega-journals and the future of scholarly communication project. Her research interests and recent externally funded projects include disciplinary cultures, scholarly communication, open science and research policy.

Simon Wakeling (ORCID ID: 0000-0002-0611-9083) is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield’s Information School. His current research interests relate to scholarly communications, particularly emerging models of Open Access publishing. He is currently a research associate on the AHRC funded project Open Access in Theory and Practice, which is addressing the question of the extent to which theory has been helpful in explaining the OA phenomenon and has been used to inform action by practitioners.

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