‘Diamond’ journals’ reliance on volunteers ‘unsustainable’

Many university-owned periodicals are considering changing their business model, but report authors call for new funding strategy

March 9, 2021
Cutting diamond
Source: iStock

Hundreds of small open access journals that do not charge publication fees are considering changing their business models amid concerns that their heavy reliance on volunteer labour is unsustainable, a study suggests.

Debate over the future of scholarly publishing has focused largely on the transition to open access research, in which publication is funded by article processing charges (APCs) instead of subscriptions, but some academics have argued that open access “diamond journals” – which charge neither APCs or subscription fees – may represent a feasible alternative to paying the high publication fees of about £8,000 charged by some prestigious titles.

Investment in these smaller not-for-profit organisations may even push down charges of larger academic publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature, they contend.

According to a report funded by Science Europe, which represents research funding bodies, and commissioned by Coalition S, an international consortium behind the Plan S open access project, there are about 29,000 OA diamond journals that publish 356,000 articles a year, compared with the 453,000 papers published annually by APC-based journals.

The study, which assessed almost 10,000 diamond journals and received responses from 1,619 respondents working in them, explains that most are small, university-owned outfits, with fewer than one full-time equivalent staff member and reliant on volunteer labour to the extent that their costs are often under $10,000 (£7,197) a year. Most publish fewer than 25 articles a year, generally in humanities and social sciences subjects and often have a national rather than international focus, it explains.

However, while the costs of diamond publications were low and mostly covered by support from universities, learned societies, research funders or the government, almost one in five (18 per cent) of these publications said they were concerned about their financial sustainability.

Twenty per cent said there were considering moving away from their current business model, citing “longer feasibility”, “economic viability” and “importance of impact factor” as the main reasons for doing so.

Another reason was a strong reliance on volunteers, with 60 per cent of publications saying they were largely dependent on volunteers and 89 per cent “medium or highly reliant” on them.

“The journal is at risk of disappearing due to the exhaustion of those involved,” explained one academic cited in the report. Another said, “I am old – I cannot do this forever,” and another claimed that while their journal’s business model was feasible it “relies too much on goodwill”.

Nevertheless, some 60 per cent of surveyed publications had confidence in a business model, albeit one supported financially by other institutions. However, many respondents based at diamond journals were “concerned that university or learned society ownership and funding might also be threatened by changes in policy or sudden crises, like the Covid-19 pandemic”, says the report.

Funding worries were most acute among diamond journals run by university presses, with 29 per cent of journals surveyed from this group expressing financial concerns, while some 24 per cent and 18 per cent of journals owned by individuals and learned societies, respectively, were concerned about their economic model, says the report.

In addition, very few (4.3 per cent) diamond journals are fully compliant with Plan S, which would make it impossible for scholars funded by the scheme’s backers to publish in these venues, explains the report.

This is largely because of technical specifications outlined by the plan, with only 37 per cent of the journals using a CC-BY open licence and 49 per cent having embedded machine-readable licences in their metadata as required by Plan S. Some 68 per cent of diamond journals have no preservation policies, the report adds.

The study’s authors called for the creation of a funding strategy within 12 months to “sustainably strengthen OA diamond journals in the context of open science”.

Diamond journals are “making headway towards Plan S compliance but face a number of operational challenges despite multiple scientific strengths”, they added, saying they need to be “more efficiently organised, coordinated and funded to better support researchers in disseminating their work”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

As the editor of a very long standing, University library-published diamond OA Journal in the social sciences, I can confirm that we have found Plan S compliance to be impossible. We have a budget of $0 and publish 60 articles a year, relying on voluntary labor. We therefore have no money to turn our articles into XML format, which is technically difficult for academic editors and time consuming, or to archive them according to Plan S specifications [LOCKSS etc.]. Our own gold standard is nicely formatted PDF articles, and 'archiving' is done by our university library, which seems more than safe enough. Nonetheless we are nicely ranked [top quartile in 3 disciplines] and well respected. The Plan S demands for machine readability and so-on are frankly unrealistic, as we said in this report's consultation survey. If Plan S, or the major funders, would like to give us some money to fulfill their technical expectations that would be acceptable. Otherwise we will continue to remain non-compliant.

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