OASPA: act now or lose credibility forever

So the backstory of the truly horrific murders at the University of Alabama at Huntsville has taken an open-access turn: the perpetrator (not being a journalist, I don't think I need to say "alleged") got a rather dubious-looking article published in an open-access journal.

Further investigation into the journal only heightens concern; while we're not quite talking about Bentham or SJI here, we're definitely in that ballpark. I won't rehash details, because Richard Poynder has it covered with admirably succinct directness. I believe what he's recounted, and I agree with his analysis in its entirety.

Let's talk for a moment about the credibility of open-access journal publishing in general, and OASPA in particular.

As Peter Suber is fond of pointing out, open-access and toll-access journals are more similar than they are different. Both need to cover costs some way or other. Both apply peer review or don't, in roughly equal proportions. A subset of both charges author fees (yet somehow the "vanity publishing" brush only seems to tar OA, go figure). Both struggle to establish themselves when new. Both rely on free authoring, reviewing, editorial, and sometimes production labor. Et cetera.

It should seem natural, then, that both open-access and toll-access journals contain bad seeds, suffer scandal. For every Bentham, there's an Australasian Journal; for every SJI, there's an El Naschie. (Well, actually, I would guess there are quite a few more Australasians than Benthams lurking out there, because the toll-access slice of the journal pie is still so much larger, but you take my point.)

It seems to me there's one important asymmetry in a journal scandal or failure, however: its transparency. A toll-access journal belonging to a large publisher can disappear practically without a trace, especially if most hints of its existence are limited to membership in yet another gigantic Big Deal bundle. Its editors quietly sidle away; its web page quietly vanishes into pixeldust. Nobody is particularly tarnished by the failure (not that anyone necessarily should be, of course).

It's not quite that simple for an open-access journal. Most of the ones I know of that have folded never had a coherent shutdown plan. The website can't (or at least shouldn't) just vanish unless the actual content has been handed off, so it just sits there on the open web and moulders, its failure obvious to anyone who borrows a bit of Google's or the Internet Archive's all-seeing eyes.

In my more cynical moments, I wonder whether the DOAJ's journal-archiving plan was developed partly in response to this problem, in hopes of being able to shut down dead OA journals halfway gracefully. If it was, good on 'em.

Toll-access journals also have an easier time concealing scandal, not least because they are not subject to the gaze of Google's pitiless eye. Sure, once in a while they get found out and some corporate type has a few sleepless nights, but how much dross slips through the system because the system is too big and too closed to monitor after the fact? You could ask China, I suppose.

(If your knee-jerk answer to the previous paragraph is "peer review!" please take your dunce cap and go sit in the corner. Peer review is a leaky heuristic at best. It fails, often, and that's when it's done in good faith to begin with! We should in fact expect it to fail—and, given the stakes, to be gamed. Necessary? Maybe. Sufficient? Not by a long shot.)

It's not so simple for open-access journals, for reasons I hope are obvious from what I just said about toll-access ones. It doesn't help that (please pardon my bluntness) a fair few OA journals, particularly of the shoestring-budget variety, haven't really thought through such ugly scenarios as plagiarism, fraud, innocent but nonetheless major errors, and suchlike phenomena requiring article retractions. (Neither have institutional repositories. They should. I have, though I'm still stuck on how best to find out that something in the IR I run needs retraction.)

Moreover, because open-access journals are new and academia is conservative, OA-journal scandals are more likely to run into scrutiny and opprobrium. Unlike the neverending stream of FUD coming from the for-profit toll-access journal industry and its quislings, this isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's a good one! We want bad actors to be discovered and removed from the system! It's only bad insofar as it unfairly colors academia's perception of open-access journals generally—which it unfortunately does. (I dimly sense a pattern emerging in public academic discourse of PLoS/BMC/Hindawi as "okay OA" versus "all that other vanity-publishing dreck." It's not a fair or an accurate characterization, but I keep finding traces of it.)

Now we come to OASPA. When OASPA formed, I speculated about whether it would take on basic journal quality-control duties. I hoped it would, because the more OA-journal scandals can be prevented and punished, the better for OA journals' credibility. Indeed, I wondered whether transparency-led freedom from scandal could turn out to be good for open access:

I think an OASPA certification program represents a tremendous opportunity for the OA community. Gold OA is still small. It’s much easier to put meaningful quality regulation in place over a small, emerging, prestige-hungry industry. If gold OA manages to do that, then it suddenly has another competitive advantage over toll-access, which hasn’t done so and (given its extent and decentralization) very likely can’t.

Later, OASPA said outright that making decisions about quality was indeed within its scope: "OASPA aims to become the stamp of quality for open access publishing." I rejoiced.

I am not rejoicing now.

Here's the thing, OASPA: being a stamp of quality means stamping out bad practices where and when you find them. Yes, even when doing so is awkward and uncomfortable. In the case of Dove Medical Press and the International Journal of General Medicine, you have conspicuously failed to do that. Your comment to Richard Poynder regarding Dr. Bishop conspicuously misses the point: nobody is asking you to opine about Dr. Bishop or her record; they're asking you to investigate the practices of Dove Medical Press because of what looks on its face like an extremely dubious (and now, conspicuously dubious) publishing decision.

You should have jumped on that, tragic circumstances be damned. Because you didn't, your "stamp of quality" has been tarnished. It's even worse that Dove is an OASPA member; I certainly hope you're not cutting sweetheart deals for membership fees, but I'm afraid that's how it looks from my worm's-eye viewpoint. And because you've mounted your flag in the stamp-of-quality territory, your first-mover advantage means you will be hard to supplant if you go rogue—not to mention that if you do turn out to be corrupt, OA suffers a major and possibly unhealable black eye, because you're all the stamp-of-quality heuristic there is.

This gaffe can be recovered from, OASPA, but I urge you to act fast. Apologize. Own the mistake. Start an investigation of Dove now, explaining clearly and publicly what you're looking for and what you'll do should you find that Dove has erred. It's probably not too damaging that you don't yet have a standard procedure for such investigations, given how young you are, but another thing you need to say clearly and publicly—and with a due date—is that such procedures are under active development. A screening procedure for OASPA applicants is a good idea as well.

Referring screenings and investigations to a well-chosen quorum of disinterested but appropriately critical third parties—dare I suggest "academic librarians?"—might work out well for you. Please consider it.

From the bottom of my heart, OASPA, I beg you: do not compound this error. We OA advocates need a responsible steward and monitor much too badly for you to go and squander all the initial goodwill you garnered.

This seems an opportune time to remind people of Book of Trogool's comment policy. I will enforce it if I need to. I'd rather not need to, please.

More like this

So the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is mired in a rapidly heating controversy over a report that apparently let some dubious information slip through the cracks. Here's the money quote: The discovery of the glaciers mistake has focused attention on the IPCC's use of so-…
Back in the day, Time Warner merged with AOL. It turned out to be one of the worst merger ideas in the history of merger ideas, and I believe the evidence suggests that most mergers actually turn out to be clunkers! AOL was simply at the top of its orbit, nowhere but downhill to go. I wonder, I do…
Having made it back at last from Scotland despite the ash cloud, and overcome jetlag and (some) to-do list explosion, I finally have leisure to reflect a bit on UKSG 2010. My dominant takeaway is that nearly everyone in the scholarly-publishing ecosystem—publishers and librarians alike—is finally…
My husband and I have been stranded by the ash cloud from Iceland. We are well-housed thanks to good friends and the strength of weak ties, so there is no need to worry about us. With luck, we'll be able to get home Tuesday the 27th. Blogging will continue to be sporadic until we're home. I couldn'…

I'm afraid I've been a bit credulous where OASPA was concerned, honestly. I knew that good people were involved, so I assumed all would be well... but sometimes even good people can't manage to overcome the deadweight burdens of organization-forming.

I really want them to turn it around. I do believe they can. I can only hope that they will.

Thank you for your continued attention, Richard.

I fear the mistake made on open access goes back to the BOAI, and examples such as this and OASPA reinforce this, in my mind. The original BOAI statement, embracing the green and gold routes, was too complex for something new. OA should be concerned with outcomes - OA papers - rather than process. The mantra, for the target content, should have been simply: publish and make open access. Then all that's needed is to define OA, and the only process necessary was what was new, to support this mantra, the green route. The rest is just publishing, and we should not be differentiating types of publication and different business models. That should be left to the publishers. Had that been done, there would have been more focus on open access, and fewer distractions from publishing, such as this case.

By Steve Hitchcock (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

I don't know, Steve; I don't think I can go along with that. If OA and TA had started off on an equal footing, or if there had been one clear, unambiguous, obvious way to achieve OA, I'd have been fine with BOAI saying so and moving on.

But OA started off and persists under heavy fire. Moreover, it's never been clear whether green or gold was the way to go, or even whether there is or can be just one way to go.

I also can't believe in "outcomes without process," because that's EXACTLY what doomed the IR as an OA mechanism for the peer-reviewed literature. "We want the peer-reviewed literature in IRs!" "Okay," said the repository-rat, "how is that supposed to happen?" "We've told you the outcome; you go figure out the process! Oh, and by the way, you don't have any resources other than yourself, some [expletives deleted] open-source software, and some server space." Somehow that didn't fly...

If BOAI had just defined outcomes, both libraries and publishers would have shrugged, said "gee, that sounds nice" and roundly ignored the movement, both because they had no idea how to get there from here (neither publishers nor libraries find themselves unduly gifted with strategic vision), and simply because they could. The OA movement does not have now and has never had the kind of broad-based support from academia or the moneyed interests in libraries to force a new road.

(OA is starting to have broad-based support from funders, and it's absolutely no coincidence whatever that its biggest gains have been funder-driven.)

Anyway, I'm not sure it's any fault in the OA movement per se that resulted in this particular mess. Bad publishing practices are legion. OA just makes them more obvious; that's an inescapable corollary of openness (and not at all a bad one!) rather than any tactical error by the OA movement.

Because bad practices are more obvious in OA, OA has a greater need to step up and deal, to avoid unfairly invidious comparisons. I'm sure that's what motivated OASPA to say they would shoulder the burden of industry self-regulation. If they'd done a prompt, transparent, competent job of it, we'd be fine. Alternately, if they'd said "this needs to be done, but we're not prepared to do it," somebody else could step up, and we'd still be fine.

But OASPA said they'd do it and then fell down hard when the first occasion arose to live up to their pronouncements, and that's not fine.

I should remark that there is one specific bad practice that is arguably more commonly figleafed by gold-OA than by TA, and that's scammy vanity publishing of the Woodhouse Literary Agency ilk. There's something of a built-in guard against this in TA publishing, because no TA journal plans to fund itself solely on author charges, so they have to gun for subscription revenue somehow or other. That guard is admittedly less than it once was because of the Big Deal, which removed a great deal of librarian scrutiny from smaller TA publications.

Still, gold OA needs to expect that vanity scams will happen, state clearly that they are unacceptable, and stamp them out where they appear. OASPA agreed to do this. Insofar as Dove's practices look dubious and OASPA is doing nothing about that, OASPA is falling down on the job. OASPA needs to either fix that or get out of the game.

I wish OASPA had more time to get itself in gear too. Life happens, however. OASPA now has a crisis on its hands that it's already fumbled once. OASPA needs not to fumble it further.

Dorothea, Thank you for prompting me to clarify my thoughts. To go back to BOAI in 2002, what we can see is that

1 OA (particularly what became known as 'green', repository-based OA) needed BOAI, after OAI had dropped the OA ball a few years earlier.
2 OA publishing (represented then by BMC) did not, that is, I doubt BOAI was a major factor in the business decisions of big OA publishers.

You have put quotes around the term "outcomes without process," but I didn't say that. I talked instead about emphasising outcomes over process, and I left open a route to process, to what was new, which was green OA. As you say, there are continuing problems with green OA. After all, it is nothing less than the institutionalisation of repositories for OA. We should have recognised the scale of that challenge earlier, and been able to focus on that.

In contrast, the OA publisher proposition to an author is 'publish your paper with us, it will be free for people to read, and btw there may be a publishing charge to you'. What is new about that? It is BMC saying publish with us rather than Elsevier, same as Elsevier saying publish with us rather than Springer. BOAI need not be an arbiter here. Fundamentally the questions an author needs to answer about where best to publish a paper are the same. Introducing a charge for the purpose of publishing OA was perhaps new - and I have said I welcome OA as an outcome - but given the imbalance between TA and OA publishing, which you note, gold OA merely serves to focus on publishing rather than on OA and to obscure the real and much larger alternative of green OA, which could be linked to many, many more publishers.

Yes, research funders are now a major and welcome force in driving OA, but they recognised they can't mandate OA publishing, and need green OA and repositories, hence e.g. PMC.

The rest - bad publishing practices that have been mistakenly connected with OA, OASPA, etc. - are just consequences that seem to entrench the problem further. We should recognise and thank BOAI for much progress in OA, and I recognise it may be easier with hindsight, which is why I hope that the good people behind BOAI might try and untangle the green and gold routes somehow so we can be clearer about OA for all those whom OA can help, sooner rather than later.

By Steve Hitchcock (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink