Research funders are being “taken for a ride” by publishers who launch new so-called mirror journals that mimic existing titles in an open-access format, according to the man spearheading an international effort to make more scholarship freely available.
Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open access envoy, said there was something “fishy” about mirror journals, which duplicate the title and editorial board of existing, subscription-based journals.
Some of these mirror journals have emerged since the launch last September of the international initiative Plan S, led by Mr Smits, which would make immediate open access mandatory for academics who win grants from participating funders.
For example, the publisher Elsevier recently launched Water Research X as an “open access mirror journal”, with the same editors and editorial processes as the established title Water Research. It published its first volume last month.
Some publishers see mirror journals as a way of allowing researchers to continue to submit to a near identical journal while remaining Plan S compliant.
But the fear for those leading Plan S is that publishers will end up being paid twice: once for subscription to the original, closed journal, then again when collecting payments from researchers to publish open access in the mirror.
This “double-dipping” criticism has also been levelled at hybrid journals, which contain a mixture of closed and open access articles.
Plan S has made clear that it will allow publication in a mirror journal only if it is part of a “transformative agreement” that will lead ultimately to full open access.
“You feel in your gut that you are being taken for a ride,” Mr Smits told delegates at the Academic Publishing in Europe 2019 conference in Berlin.
As part of a question-and-answer session, a representative of Elsevier insisted that mirror journals had not been created in response to Plan S and were a way to “split out previously hybrid content”.
The conference also focused on the impact of Plan S on learned societies, which sometimes help to fund their activities through running closed, subscription journals.
Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the prestigious journal Science, pointed to a variety of services that it provides, including EurekAlert!, which converts scientific articles into “short pieces that journalists can digest”.
"Speaking as someone who served in Congress for 16 years…I can’t think of five members of the House of Representatives who would make good use of the research articles published in Science magazine. But they do need a public digest of this research in a way they can understand,” he said.
“Yes, we use publishing revenue to do these things, and I will defend that fervently,” he told delegates.
“It’s difficult to see how journals like Science magazine [which runs on a subscription model] can have a sustained existence under the Plan S model. We’re looking hard at this,” Dr Holt added.
In an earlier speech, Mr Smits said that he was “a big admirer of learned societies – they do an amazing amount of outreach”. “But I don't like that learned societies run with the public purse an extremely expensive journal making an enormous amount of profit and they use that for whatever good reasons,” he added.
Mr Smits compared the publishing industry to the German diesel car industry, which had failed to invest in electric vehicles and was now stuck with a polluting product whose sales were declining.