Open Access and International Relations Journals

Berto Jongman

Open Access and IR Journals

By Dan Nexon

The Duck of Minerva, Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some time ago Thomas Rid had an amazing post arguing for an open-access revolution in our field. I won’t repeat the arguments here; you can read them for yourself. The open-access movement is showing signs of momentum. Indeed, at BISA/ISA in Edinburgh, a number of people agitated for open access for the Review of International Studies (RIS) at its relaunch event.

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It seems that there are very few significant IR journals in a position to go open access. The obvious candidates would be journals associated with professional associations — in addition to RIS, that would include the International Studies Association journals, the European Journal of International Relations, and some others. But at least BISA and SGIR (soon to be EISA) use the revenue from the journals to support their activities. That leaves the independent foundation journals, such as International Organization, as the most likely candidates for moving to open access.

Open-access journals sustain themselves through some combination of subsidy and pay-for-publication. In essence, authors provide a fee upon acceptance if they want their articles to appear “in print.”It took PLoS — probably the most famous member of the open-access family — a number of years for revenues to exceed costs. I can imagine a lot of IR scholars recoiling at paying such a fee. The math suggests that their institutions (if they are associated with one) should be happy to fork over the money, as doing so is cheaper than subscribing to journals. But right now, at least, institutions already pay for standard IR journals, so the open-access journals represent an additional fee. This isn’t an issue if the institution is Harvard University, but it might be for smaller places — particularly if the fee comes out of cash-strapped Departmental coffers rather than scientific grants.
The graphic comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which, in 201, reported on a study highlighting the two biggest hurdles to open access:

A new survey of nearly 40,000 scholars across the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences shows that almost 90 percent of them believe open-access journals are good for the research community and the individual researcher. But charges for publishing and the perception that open-access journals are of lower quality than traditional publications deter scholars from the open-access route, according to the Study of Open Access Publishing report, by an international team of researchers.

These concerns are likely to be a particular problem in IR. The aforementioned factors suggest that most open-access journals will be both digital-only and new. Given the field’s elitism concerning “journal hierarchy,” and its general conservatism when it comes to all things smacking of “web 2.0”, those are both significant barriers to success. I think it would be very difficult to ask IR scholars to pay-for-publication in an unranked, digital-only journal. While everyone knows this is the future, it isn’t clear how we will get there.

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This reticence comes despite the fact that, if mid-tier blogs such as the Duck of Minerva are any indication, more people will read a given piece in an open-access digital journal than a typical one in a top-tier — let alone a second-tier — traditional journal.* Thomas Rid got access to the raw Taylor and Francis “most read”numbers and this is what he found:

These are, as Thomas notes, crude indicators. And blog posts are, in general, shorter and more accessible than academic articles. Still, they point to the advantages of ungated academic work, particularly if presented in the right way. It would be interesting to know the readership of the papers at e-ir, which might provide a better comparison.

Indeed, a few months ago PTJ and I had some discussions about starting a journal using a “non-traditional” model. We estimated our barebones costs at about ~$25k to pay for a graduate-student assistant, plus some unspecified amount to handle incidentals. Startup costs would probably run between $5-7K, and it would be best to have some money to subsidize undergraduate interns to help keep the technical side running. All of this assumes a journal that is, in essence, a labor of love. No money for course releases, travel and promotion, and all that other stuff.

One idea was to publish volumes as e-books for .99$, but the economics don’t work and you wind up with a cheap, but still gated, product. The pay-for-play model would impose prohibitively expensive costs on authors, particularly in the context of a startup. And, of course, we both think that there are too many journals in the field already.

So the question remains: how to finance this kind of endeavor?

Still, there’s a certain attraction to the model.

An online open-access journal could firmly break with the tyranny of the quarterly volume. No more “online first” as an orphan, uncertain category. The editors simply need to keep the standards of the journal high — as reflected in quality and acceptance rate — and they can publish pieces whenever they are accepted and processed. Volume numbers would persist, but as temporal markers for the purpose of citation rather than as bundled artifacts.

Because the content would be ungated, it would be even easier to integrate the journal into a blogging and social-media environment than it would be for a traditional publication. One could build an intellectual community and ensure repeat visitors — and with them, greater likelihood that articles would be read and cited.

But, even if we could somehow come up with the funds, the experiment strikes me as pretty high risk. We would need to convince some high-profile scholars to provide quality pieces — ones good enough to survive rigorous peer review — to legitimize the endeavor. We’d need to convince reviewers to take it seriously. And there are a lot of other institutional barriers.

I guess what I’m talking about is, in essence, a Duck of Minerva journal, but (probably) with a less whimsical name. I wonder what our readers think of that?

*As I discovered while putting together a proposal for wrapping a journal in a webzine (see here for an example of poor implementation of a good idea) an undercount of the most-viewed pages at the Duck outdistances the download figures for the most-read piece at the American Political Science Review. And, as I alluded to earlier, neither KoW or the Duck are in the same league as Crooked TimberThe Monkey Cage, Steve Walt, Dan Drezner, or any number of higher-profile blogs. By the way, if any journal editors out there are interested in bringing me on to spearhead a web strategy likely to (among other things) increase your impact factor, contact me.


Phi Beta Iota:  The best of the publishers are beginning to understand that world-class authors have aright to publish their work in draft for comments as well as post-publication on their personal web pages.  What has not emerged, because Google founders did not truly understand the value of Eugene Garfield’s life work as embodied in the Institute of Scientific Information and the two core publications, Science Citation Index and Social Science Citation Index, is a combination of legitimate Web 4.0 citation (looks, cites, copies, links) and a structured means of integrating all information in all languages all the time.  Doug Englebart and Pierre Levy have each been working toward solutions, at the same time that others have promoted diversity of language and method as a means of sparking innovation.