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Some Open Access Journals Spark Controversy Due to Internal Problems but Also for Lack of Model Sustainability

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Bulgaria-0743 - Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, May 6, 2012 | © Courtesy of Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.

As recent news on the HAU and Springer Machine Intelligence journal show, Open Access needs to be paired with sustainable publishing models to serve scholarly communities and deliver on its promise of unrestricted access to knowledge.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

While interface barriers can contribute to the difficulties of scholars with accessing scientific articles and data, as proponents of technological solutions to that suggest, Open Access provides an alternative to subscription-based access only to the extent that it can be based on sustainable economic models that can support the operation of Open Access journals. Otherwise, accessing pre-prints or post-prints of accepted academic articles from repository servers can lead to the implosion of the business models that conventional, subscription-based or Open Access journals have.

This is illustrated by the economic implosion of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory launched in 2011 without a business model that could ensure its long-term viability, as it sought to outsource its costs to external institutions, such as universities and libraries, in order to provide free access to its content. As the journal has been transitioned to a hybrid model involving both subscriptions and conditionally subsidized or free access, such as for scholars from the global South, controversy has erupted both due to the departure from Open Access principles and alleged editorial mismanagement.

Media coverage suggests that this flip into closed access that the journal HAU has accomplished was not due to the article processing charges (APCs) that its previous model involved but stemmed from growing operational expenses and resource misallocation. Yet financial misconduct and lacking accountability, inherently unrelated to the previous model of the journal, have also been likely to be the decisive factors behind the reorganization of this journal. However, the relative freedom that the Open Access model gives to journal management to set APC levels could also been part of the reason for which the apparently poor governance at the HAU journal has precipitated the switch to the hybrid, subscription-based model, which amounts to a freemium approach to journal publishing, in partnership with the University of Chicago Press.

The case of HAU, thus, demonstrates that balancing Open Access with economic sustainability can be more managerially challenging than assumed, as APC-charging Open Access journals operate as business ventures for all intents and purposes and are as exposed to agency problems as business organizations in other industry sectors are. For this reason, partnerships or affiliation with scholarly publishing houses can be expected to contribute to good corporate governance at both Open Access and subscription-based journals.

At the same time, though scholarly communities increasingly vaunt Open Access as a revolutionary alternative to subscription-based models, as the calls for boycotting the subscription-based Nature Machine Intelligence journals show, the adoption of Open Access-based models in itself does not guarantee journal governance free of conflicts of interest and significant overall cost reductions, as operation expenses need to be sustainably covered, if Open Access journals are to continue to exist in the long term.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Bulgaria-0743 – Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, May 6, 2012 | © Courtesy of Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.

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