The Coming of Age of Open Access (I) or… Where are the alternative journals 18 years after the BOAI?

For most of us, February 14th is Valentine’s Day; for open access activists and lovers, It is also the celebration of the BOAI anniversary. It was 18 years ago, they were sixteen, meeting in Budapest in December 2001. Far from agreeing on everything, yet they co-signed a landmark declaration published on February 14th, 2002. 18 years later, it is the coming of age for Open Access, a time to look at what has been changed, redifined, gained and missed. To start with, we have to remember that the BOAI really defined open access, as a virtually unlimited re-use of academic documents:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited ((BOAI, 14th February 2002)).”

They also put together what was largely separated before, the soon named “green road” and “gold road”. Nevertheless, contrary to the popular belief, the supposed “original version” of the BOAI reproduced in lots of copies on the web, they were not calling them “self-archiving” and “open access journals”. Indeed, the reference above is not the true original version, but one slightly changed in the summer of 2002. The former one, which can be seen on the Web Archive, stated : “Open access to peer-reviewed journal literature is the goal. Self-archiving (I.) and a new generation of open-access alternative journals (II.) are the ways to attain this goal. So following BOAI, we will deal with this coming of age in two successive posts : this first one will focus on alternative journals, the second one on the triumph of organized archives over self-archiving.

A revolution with no defined business model

How are described these alternative journals? Why and how are they alternative and to what? The main answer is given in a long paragraph of the BOAI: it is our actual starting point, from which the history of these journals shall be analyzed. To ease the reading, we have divided it in three parts.

Second, scholars need the means to launch a new generation of alternative journals committed to open access, and to help existing journals that elect to make the transition to open access.

The two ways for journals to commit were already happening at the beginning of the century. On the one hand, very early electronic journals, often without publisher but what we now call a platform, didn’t go the subscription way and were established as free for readers. On the other, the 2001 PLOS letter/petition pushed publishers to change their ways and open their content, with lots of signees but few positive answers apart from BMC. So the BOAI reminds them that they could still “filp” to open access. But what does it mean exactly?

Because journal articles should be disseminated as widely as possible, these new journals will no longer invoke copyright to restrict access to and use of the material they publish. Instead they will use copyright and other tools to ensure permanent open access to all the articles they publish. Because price is a barrier to access, these new journals will not charge subscription or access fees, and will turn to other methods for covering their expenses.”

The alternativeness doesn’t come from the way journals should be run (editorial boards, scope, peer review) but from their economic model. Journals are qualified as “alternative” because they shouldn’t anymore rely on the property of content and subscription as the main route to pay for journal expenses (and profit). More than that, they would have extra costs as they have to maintain open access through time. With the vanishing of current and future revenues, on what shall the new business model rest?

There are many alternative sources of funds for this purpose, including the foundations and governments that fund research, the universities and laboratories that employ researchers, endowments set up by discipline or institution, friends of the cause of open access, profits from the sale of add-ons to the basic texts, funds freed up by the demise or cancellation of journals charging traditional subscription or access fees, or even contributions from the researchers themselves. There is no need to favor one of these solutions over the others for all disciplines or nations, and no need to stop looking for other, creative alternatives.

This is probably the most important part of the whole BOAI declaration, besides the open acess definition. Three main points should be retained: firstly, the idea of a diversity of sources of income, in an optimistic vision of the means of financing a journal undoubtedly fuelled by the success of the open source software movement. Secondly, this diversity is reinforced by the final sentence which supports the absence of a “one best way” even when the exploration of possibilities would have fully taken place. Finally, thirdly, the idea of recourse to a payment by authors is tconceived as a last resort (“or even”). In other words, not only does the alternative economic model remained unclear and uncertain, but the paying author’s proposal was not considered a priority at all.

The stories of 11 pioneers

But with such vagueness, who then ventured to go on the alternative and how did they settle their journals once launched? On the George Soros site, funder of the BOAI meeting through the Open Society Institute, a very short list of 11 entities was then available, even if it was supposed to be only examples1.

11 journals

So, a first way to fulfill the promise made by the title of this post is to investigate the trajectory of these 11 journals, or rather publication websites, so great is their diversity. We will treat them in groups, according to their destiny:

  1. Still free of charge mathematicians & computer scientists journals: Algebraic & Geometric Topology and Geometry & Topology were respectively founded in 1997 and 2001, have always published open access articles and are still community-based journals, published by MSP, which puts a very strong anti-APC statement on its website. Document Mathematica is the first journal of the Elibm platform, founded in 1996, which acts as a repository for maths proceedings and journals, free of charge for readers and authors. JMLR was created in 2001 in an independance movement by 40 members of the editorial board of Machine Learning, then owned by Kluwer and is a always hard-to-believe from the outside $10 per article cost kind of journal – thanks to huge volunteer work, Latex, open source software, no fancy website and outsourced micropublishing for paper versions with no financial exchange.
  2. Still owned by societies, but have switched to APC: The New Journal of physics founded in 1998, now published by IOP with an APC of 1630 €. It was a part of some “offset deals” (Austria, UK) and is still one of the journals of the SCOAP3 agreement. The Journal of Insect Science was supported by the University of Arizona, launched in 2001, it changed with the death of its editor-in-chief in 2014, owned by a society but published by Oxford with a 1176 € APC.
  3. Bought by Springer platforms: Living Reviews in Relativity was founded in 1998 by a Max Planck institute, it published only reviews, which were “living” as authors could update them as new literature could be taken into account. It was sold to Springer in 2015, which kept the same formula with, remarkably, no APC . The trajectory of BioMedCentral is probably well-known to readers, let us just remind that it was founded in 2000, cosigned BOAI through Jan Velterop, its then director, was the first “big” publisher to bet on APC and was finally sold by its owner, Vitek Tracz, to Springer in 2008.
  4. Popularizers of APC and inventors of the megajournal: PLOS didn’t really exist as a publishing place at the time of the BOAI. Its call/letter for Open Access the year before as almost only BMC responded positively. But they were already able to secure funds, cosigned BOAI through Michael Eisen and soon lauched PLOS Biology and then, in 2006, PLOS ONE which was the first megajournal, which climbed to more than 30,000 articles a year, invented new forms of peer review and supported article-level metrics againts journal-based metrics . It was also the launch of APC as a standard way to provide Open Access for large communities.
  5. The Platform that used to promote open access among publishers: Highwire has never been a journal nor a platform-journal, but rather a hosting service which develops tools and software for publishers. Founded in 1995 and based at Standford University, it used to be the largest archive of free full-text science on Earth with more than 2,4 million articles. Bought by an equity fund in 2014 (a minority share is still owned by Stanford), this “free texts” webpage stopped its counting on the 25th March, 2015 and the webpage was not maintained after 2018.
  6. Terminated by its learned society: Psycoloquy had been launched and supported by the American Psychological Association, with Stevan Harnad at its helm, who translated some of the features he developed in his previous journal, BBS, notably open peer commentary, into the electronic form. It stopped publishing new articles by 2002.

Other journals or platforms could have been indicated as examples in early 2002. One can notably think of Scielo which was already working very well in South America, Erudit was growing up in Quebec as well as Revues.org in France. But the BOAI was rather focused on STM and English-language journals, and the alternative journals of the BOAI are also located within a world already dominated by an oligopoly of big publishers that was to be changed or at least challenged. Despite these limitations, the 11 stories nevertheless show the diversity of actual trajectories, the adoption of economic models that had yet to be defined and implemented and the adoption of the alternative by some big publishers.

From Gold to Diamond:
when the alternative remains alternative

Above and beyond these examples, what trends could be drawn from these last 18 years? We have to consider a wide range of moves from public policies, learned societies, universities & libraries, research funders and finally of course publishers in order to give a second answer to the titile of this post. Of course, the first evolution is the invention of a locution, soon after the BOAI : open access journal, which replaced the “alternative” ones.

Then, as with 4 of the 11 listed, we observed a massive rise of the APC model, from BMC and PLOS pioneers. The idea that authors would accept to pay to publish was not to be taken for granted, would it be in principle or in practice with questions about the accounting circuit, the actual source of funding (authors, labs, departments, universities…), the level of price, etc. And still in some disciplines, being forced to pay is putting a low-quality stamp on the output. The Wellcome Trust in the UK and the ERC programs in the European Union played a huge role in experimenting with the possibility of paying APC through grants, which made them a “normal cost”, especially in well-granted disciplines (biomedecine, physics…). The UK official public policy, after the Finch Report in 2012, also injected money to pay for APCs.

It not only fueled the growth of relatively new publishers – BMC, PLOS but also MDPI, Frontiers in, Hindawi – but pushed “traditional” big publishers to adopt APC and make their journals “hybrid”, with a “basic funding” by subscription and “extra funding” through APC. Springer began its “Open Choice Program” in 2007, which name deeply reflects the liberal-market vision of open access. These two evolutions led to very harsh critiques of the whole Gold OA project : on the one hand, it raised the question of the birth of predatory publishing through APC ; on the other hand, hybrids meant double dipping and the deepening of the serial crisis.

Hybrid journals were conceived as transition tools to open access, as the then director of SPARC Europe theorized them2 So these private and public policies of APC funding were conceived as a way to reach a tipping point after which the Open Access, now renamed full open access journal, would happen. How naive wrote Richard Poynder in a recent essay3! Some powerful actors came to the same conclusion, so they recently try to impose new radical changes in the funding of journals, most notably Max Planck Gesellschaft in 2015, then the now famous Coalition S, which aim is to accelerate the transition to open access by in fact killing the subscription model, having a CC-BY license to authors for content. Does this sound familiar?

So it seems to go full circle: almost twenty years later, trying to get rid of the traditional economic modela for journals and to do that, talking with big publishers in order to sign “transformative agreements”. Open access has gone mainstream, Elsevier even now present open access as a standard. If changes happened, it was more on the way journals were run, most notably open peer review4. But wait a minute, if the alternative has gone mainstream, where is the new alternative? In fact, the support and success of the APC modeal made the impression on a lot of commentors and actors that the Gold way was now the equivalent of an author-payor model. That led some activists to coin new names for “no APC journals”. Would it be Diamond or Platinium, it meant that it was also free for authors, and not only readers.

Scielo, Erudit, Open Edition were already mentioned, just as 5 of our 11 pioneers. But we could add Open Library of Humanities or Redalyc as “big platforms” for journals5. They are the majority, as no APC journals still represents more than 70% of entries in the DOAJ, their business models are diverse, from bricolage to strong institutional support, just like the BOAI predicted. So the alternative is still alternative, though it has vastly grown in the last 18 years. Getting to adulthood, we will see whether OA journals coexist into two genres, non-APC and APC, or whether one of them in not sustanaible in the long run. Unless, of course, the other open access road gets us into a post-journal world through preprint servers and open archives. To be continued…

  1. this list didn’t evolve a lot in the next two years, Highwire and PLOS were removed, while two MDPI journals were added []
  2. Prosser, David C. “From here to there: a proposed mechanism for transforming journals from closed to open access.” Learned publishing 16.3 (2003): 163-166. []
  3. Poynder, Richard. “Open access: Could defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory?.” (2019). []
  4. Which means lots of different things, see Ross-Hellauer, Tony. “What is open peer review? A systematic review.F1000Research 6 (2017). []
  5. Not to mention the ones for books which are catalogued into the DOAB. []

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