Small scholar-led scholarly journals: can they survive and thrive in an open access future? (published as early view February 2016)

If you are citing my commentary or have not viewed the original article, cite this post as:



$1,300 per article or $25K / year in subsidy can generously support quality scholar-led OA journal publishing

Update May 14:the Austrian Science Fund published very similar numbers in 2012 – 20 articles per journal, €22,000 per year, €1,100 per article. See below for details and comments.
Second update May 14: see Stevan Harnad’s comments on the GOAL list Fair Gold vs. Fool’s Gold and my comments below.

This is one potential model for supporting small scholar-led open access journals, drawing on interviews and focus groups with editors. In brief, $1,300 per article (mixing CDN and USD, currently not too far off par) or a subsidy of about $25,000 per year can pay for the following for a small journal publishing 20 peer-reviewed articles per year:

  • $8,000 for a course release to hire a sessional to free up close to a full day per article for a senior academic to focus on the journal (e.g. academic editing, coordinating with the board)
  • $12,790 to hire a senior support staff for one day (7 hours) per week at a total of $35 / hour (including benefits) – tasks to include things like communicating with authors, copyediting, marketing and promotion which may include social media; this is over two full days per peer-reviewed article
  • $2,700 USD for top of the line OJS journal hosting (see the PKP site* for what’s included in Enterprise hosting)
  • $2,500 annually for various other costs (e.g. language editing, graphics)
  • $25,990 total. Assuming 20 articles per year, that’s $1,300 per article.

In addition to the modest costs, local advantages include the leadership opportunities, prestige and local profile-raising that come with leading a journal and local part-time job opportunities suitable for new or emerging scholars and the universities’ own graduates. A faculty with a few journals like this might consider combining some of the part-time positions into one full-time, i.e. 5 one-day support staff positions could add up to a full-time permanent job at a rate of $63,950 including benefits. This is a generous model. There are sessional positions at less than $8,000 per hour. The Canadian minimum wage is about $10 / hour, so the $35 / hour for support staff is a nice professional salary. OJS offers basic service at a third of what is budgeted here.

Austrian Science Fund 2012 data (thanks to Falk Reckling)

Reckling, Falk et al.. (2012). Initial funding for high-quality open access journals in the humanities and social sciences. Zenodo. 10.5281/zenodo.16462


For the time after the three-year initial funding period, the median costs assumed were
approximately €22,000 per year. As the journals aim to publish some 20 articles each
year, the medium-term costs were estimated at €1,100 per article on the average.
  • As of today, these figures translate to $22,000 CDN per year or $1,500 CDN per article at the 1.3632 exchange rate according to the Bank of Canada daily currency converter.
  • The journal-level peer review process described is worth having a look at as a potential model for assuring quality in scholarly publishing, another benefit of the subsidy model. Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council also has a journal subsidy program with journal-level peer review as part of the application process. It would be interesting to hear about other examples of journal-level peer review.
  • The Austrian Science Fund is looking for journals with an international visibility. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. Based on my interviews, funding tied to publishing local authors is too limiting for a number of journals. On the other hand, internationalization sometimes makes sense in the humanities and social sciences, but not always. There are some research areas in any discipline (sciences too) where important research topics are of necessity local, e.g. local history, geography, politics and culture. One suggestion for funders to be flexible to recognize the varying needs of different research communities.

Stevan Harnad’s comments on the GOAL list Fair Gold vs. Fool’s Gold : excerpts and comments.

To paraphrase Harnad: Fool’s Gold is paying for open access publication while still paying for the subscriptions system, while Fair Gold is what will emerge after all scholarly works are available open access through repositories. The sole immediate priority is mandating open access archiving. Comment: I absolutely agree that the immediate priority is open access policy and that all policy should be for green self-archiving, not gold open access publishing (with the exception of publishing organizations and publishing funders setting internal policies). I share Harnad’s concern with spending on open access publishing without cutting subscriptions. My perspective is that this takes money away from the research itself. Unlike Harnad, I do see value in a gradual transition as a collective learning process.

Harnad: re *(a) “top-of-the-line journal hosting”*: Obsolete after universal Green OA.

The worldwide distributed network of Green OA institutional repositories hosts its own paper output, both pre and post peer review and acceptance by the journal. Acceptance is just a tag. Refereeing is done on the repository version. Simple, standard software notifies referees and gives them access
to the unrefereed draft.

Morrison: I agree that this is optimal. The Houghton / JISC study found the repository-peer-review overlay to be the most cost-effective option (by far) for UK open access (as compared with gold open access publishing or just repositories). The journal as a format was optimized for print (hence the bundling into mailable issues); whether journals will be needed in the future is far from clear. There are signs of convergence in repository and journal hosting software and services. For example, many library scholarly communication services provide both types of support. Bepress Digital Commons repository software advertises that “A Digital Commons repository showcases the breadth of scholarship produced at an institution – everything from faculty papers, student scholarship, and annual reports to open-access journals, conference proceedings, and monographs”. DOAJ uses the Open Access Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) to harvest content from open access journals.

Harnad *(b) “a senior academic to devote just a little less than one full day per
article”*: This is a genuine function and expense:

The referees have to be selected, the reports have to be adjudicated, the author has to be informed what to do, and the revised final draft has to be adjudicated — all by a competent editor. The real-time estimate sounds right for ultimately accepted articles — but ultimately rejected articles take time too (and for a 20-accepted-articles-per-year journal there will need to be a no-fault submission fee so that accepted authors don’t have to pay for the rejected ones. (Journals with higher quality standards will have higher rejection rates.)

Morrison: thank you. I know you have years of experience as an academic editor, these details will really help with this research.

Harnad: *“(c) a part-time senior support staff at a nice hourly rate to provide
over 2 days’ support per peer-reviewed article”*:

Copy-editing is either obsolete or needs to be made a separate, optional service. For managing
paper submissions and referee correspondence, much of this can be done with form-letters using simple, standard software. Someone other than the editor may be needed to manage that, but at nowhere near 2 days of real time per accepted article.

Morrison: again, thank you. In retrospect I think I’ve overestimated the time for the support staff person. I am not sure that copyediting will be obsolete, but would agree that we should at least talk about this. There are probably areas where copyediting does not clearly benefit scholarship per se, for example re-writing to fit the style of a particular journal or translating the minor spelling and grammar differences of British/Canadian and American English. In situations where copyediting is beneficial, it makes no sense to include this in a blind review process. To minimize the risk of introducing errors, a copyeditor should work as closely with the author as possible. This is another area where it makes sense to work with a local copyeditor charging local rates in the local currency. It makes no sense, for example, for an author in the developing world to pay for copyediting services in the developed world if these services are available locally. Many authors can do their own copyediting and proofreading. If support services are provided to authors, local services that might be extended to help with grant and report writing might be the most useful, i.e. services that are institutionally rather than publisher based.

* Note that the main reason for using OJS / PKP in calculations is transparency of pricing. There are other hosting services and other ways to provide OJS hosting service.

This post is part of the resource requirements for small scholar-led open access publishing project.

From conference to newsletter to journal: a challenge to the emphasis on peer review

The reason for posting the following excerpt from one of the resource requirements interviews is intended to raise the question: is the current focus on the technical aspects of peer review out of touch with the communication / community aspects of scholarly communication of which formal publishing is arguably just one part?

This journal is one among the many thousands of small, scholar-led fully open access journals that would clearly meet all of the requirements for inclusion in DOAJ, including the peer review process. However, the peer-reviewed journal is just one portion of the rich history of the communication of this scholarly community, which flows from the conference(s) and early newsletter. Does it really make sense to separate the peer-reviewed bits from the larger history of communication among this scholarly community? I argue that it does not, that to fully understand the peer-reviewed literature it is important to know the historical context.

What about today’s emerging scholarly communities? I think I am seeing a narrow emphasis on the technical aspects of peer review, understandable in the context of open access debates but probably not optimal for scholarly communication and communities. This would be a good topic for further research, one that might appeal to historical researchers. There is probably a good deal of material within scholarly journals (there are often editorials about recent developments) and on the websites of scholarly societies. Current scholarly societies could be interesting to explore for researchers in anthropology or other social sciences.

In the words of the anonymized interviewee:

“we had a conference on this in [years several decades ago], at [our university], on the topic of we called it [our topic] and it was sort of a new field in [our discipline] and by the way we’re all [members of our discipline] it’s a multidisciplinary field now and I guess it always has been, but anyway we had this conference and people discovered that they’re breaking away from previously standard arguments / approaches [in our discipline] independently and in much the same direction and so it’s quite exciting to find that among the [less than 100] people that came to this conference that there was this commonality, and somebody said that we should keep in touch, and so we offered to set up this newsletter, and so we had a newsletter from [period of 5 years] but people began to send us manuscripts and people who didn’t need to publish in a refereed journal to get tenure sent us manuscripts and we began to get more and more articles and by [the end of the 5-year period] we said clearly there is a demand for the journal so we turned ourselves into a journal by getting ourselves an editorial board and establishing some procedures”.

This was a rich interview and content will be included in other posts. The purpose of this narrow excerpt is to focus on this challenge to the narrow focus on peer review.

This post is part of the resource requirements for small scholar-led open access publishing project.

Wanting to be open does not mean we want to be open about everything

In planning interviews with editors of small scholar-led journals that either are, or would like to be, open access journals, I started off with the assumption that interviewees might want their interviews to be open, too, either as audio online or as transcripts. This would have been a deviation from the custom of confidential or anonymous interviews. Therefore, my approach was to offer the customary confidentiality / anonymity with the invitation to share the interview openly if desired by participants. None of the 8 interviewees to date has taken me up on the offer to make their interviews open. This makes sense. A journal might want to be open access, but some of the behind-the-scenes discussions around this decision might need to be kept private. There may be justifiable concerns about a revenue stream or supporting resource for the journal in the context of universities in tight financial situations looking for areas to cut. I’ll keep the invitation open, but for now will consider this a learning experience. In retrospect, this just makes sense. We can be advocates for both strong open access and strong privacy rights at the same time (I am very much for both); consider the intertwining of freedom of information and privacy.

This post is part of the Resource Requirements for Small Scholar-Led Open Access Publishing project.

If you are doing or thinking about doing research in this area, please let us know in the comments section.