Open Access Journals

Just as research has changed a lot over the years as the world moves online, so too has academic publishing!

Scholarly journals still publish articles (or “papers”) written by experts in their fields—mostly university faculty and graduate students.  They still peer-review those papers, which means that they send them out to other independent experts, not affiliated with the journal, who review the content first to make sure that it meets certain standards of reliability.  And the journals’ editors still edit the papers professionally. By and large, these processes make them excellent sources of information. On the other hand…

If you had to choose between trekking to a library and retrieving a printed journal from the stacks, or just looking up a popular website from home, which would you go for?

Seeing the problem, most scholarly journals long ago started publishing online versions of all their papers—and many don’t even bother with the printed versions any more.  Plus, most publishers have gone back and scanned their old issues to put them online too.

Still, though, a lot of publishers still have not removed another huge barrier: the financial one.  To access many scholarly journals, you have to have a subscription.  That’s usually no problem for people at university, because they have login info that lets them use the university library’s institutional subscription. They don’t need their own.

But it does mean that the papers in those journals will mainly be read inside universities, since nobody else is likely to buy a pricey subscription just to read an article here and there.

Hence the concept of “open access.”  Many journals now (but by no means all of them) have embraced the open access idea, which means that their papers are not only digital, but also free to read.

Even open access papers are usually still not quite as easy to find as normal web sites, so not all the barriers have been taken down. (I’ll write more on finding and navigating academic sources as a non-academic in upcoming posts.)

For now, I want to celebrate the open access movement with a local example, the journal Newfoundland and Labrador Studies.

I wonder if the journal wears monogrammed pyjamas?

Maybe I’m a bit biased because I’ve published with them before, but I think NLS is a fantastic source of papers written by provincial experts on provincial topics.  And Labrador comes up in there a lot more often than you might think!

The journal is published twice a year, in spring and fall, and usually has around 5-8 academic papers, sometimes a few shorter pieces, and always some book reviews. (The book reviews are my favourite part, but if you’ve read this blog before, then I bet you guessed that!)  The papers, too, are of all different styles and disciplines, so you never know what fascinating thing will turn up there next. Their tagline is “a journal as diverse as its landscape,” which tells you something about their priorities, right there.

If you’re like me, then you probably ever won’t read an issue of any journal cover to cover (another weakness of the subscription model), but you’ll find yourself coming to the NLS back issues over and over again, just the same.  NLS is really the premier source for academic writing on our province, so if you read widely on Newfoundland and Labrador, you’re bound to find that people mention its papers all the time. That’s another reason the back issues are so important. Usually we come to a paper via some reference we read somewhere else or found in the back of a book, or maybe via an online search. In either case, the papers we’re interested in is far more likely to be from one of the back issues than the most recent one that’s just coming out!

But what about open access?

Newfoundland and Labrador Studies has been moving towards open access for some time.  They’ve long been posting their back issues freely online. As of right now, all the issues up to the end of 2018 are up. Also, I recently corresponded with managing editor Alison Carr, and she tells me that this year the journal is converting to a completely open access model, without any delay between publishing and online posting.  By the end of the year, they expect to have everything online right up to 2020. As Carr wrote to me:

“It was a relatively easy decision to make the transition to open access. Not only do we support the philosophy behind open access, but as a small and well-established journal, it was not a difficult change to make.”

It’s true that it’s not so easy for all journals.  After all, if readers don’t pay for the content, then how does the journal pay the bills?  We certainly don’t see book or magazine publishers just putting things up for free.  One big difference is that paper authors don’t get paid for papers (or rather, most of them get paid by their universities, indirectly). However, there are still lots of other costs.

The bigger difference is that scholarly journals are usually (not always) supported by public funds.  In the case of NLS, that means Memorial University and the federal government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).  So they’re not in publishing to make money.  And fair is fair: if the public is paying for the journal, then shouldn’t the public get to read it?

Carr put her finger right on that point:

“As such, we felt a responsibility to our contributors, readers, and the scholarly community to open up the research we publish. […] The transition to open access is about the widest possible dissemination and barrier free access.”

At the same time, she also assured me that this didn’t mean giving up on the old, tried and tested approach either. “Nothing else about the journal is changing,” Carr wrote.  “We remain committed to robust peer review, professional editing, and high quality production. We also plan to continue to offer the journal in print (for a small fee) as long as there are readers who prefer to read it in a traditional format.”

So to my mind, open access journals are the best of both worlds, or they’re getting there, anyway.  They provide good, reliable, thoughtful content like traditional journals, and they make it convenient, free, and accessible like popular websites.

And even better: Newfoundland and Labrador Studies does all this specifically with our local topics in mind!

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