A Checklist of Questions for Working with Open Access Journals

This blog concludes two previous blogs on MDPI’s recent growth, and a survey of people’s experience of working with them. It should also be read in conjunction with Paolo Crosetto’s recent exploration of MDPI’s growth

The meteoric growth of MDPI is one of the recent surprises of academic publishing and part of a broader shift in publishing. Elsevier have produced a raft of new ‘X’ journals with online access. Springer has expanded the lucrative ‘Nature’ brand with a raft of new titles. Companies like Frontiers are also growing (with investment from Springer). The rise of MDPI has to be understood in the context of increasing opportunities to publish, and desires of publishing companies to capture the lucrative charges researchers are prepared to pay to publish, and the free labour researchers provide when reviewing, writing and revising.

A frequent refrain among the survey I conducted about experiences with MDPI was the complaint that the publication landscape, and the behaviour it encourages and exploits, was the problem. I don’t think it helps to declare this situation to be ‘unsustainable’. That merely means that it cannot continue in its present form. But since its present form is the result of change, and since we know it will change, pronouncing it ‘unsustainable’ does not tell us anything at all.

We can say that it produces strange dysfunctions. It creates ever greater pressures to publish, which makes people miserable. It produces more work than we can ever read (see here). It adds to the mistakes and falsehoods that circulate as ‘science’, which decreases public trust in our work. It decreases scientists’ trust in science too.

Research communities like to feel looked after. We want their funders, governing institutions and publishers to have our best interests at heart. In the case of journals this means that we want journal editors to protect us from having to review bad papers. These should be desk rejected before review. We want journals to shield us from faulty publications, which use up reading time, and can entail unwelcome distractions compiling responses. We want to be able to understand colleagues CVs, such that lists of publications indicate real achievement.

The research communities of which I am part do not feel looked after by academic publishing. The more we learn about it the more we feel exploited. And our own behaviours and incentives make it easy for us to be exploited. The relationship between academics and publishing is sometimes like that between alcoholics and a liquor store. We need each other. But this is not a wholesome relationship.

There are moves to tackle some of these dysfunctions. And it will require interventions by collectives of Universities, governing departments, and the institutions which guide and fund research. The sort of structural change required cannot be effected by individuals. But there are questions which we can ask ourselves that will help to push things in the right direction. I have listed these below, that are prompted by the survey of MDPI experience. They apply, however, to all manner of companies.

If you work in library and information services at a research institution

  • Do the research and departmental managers at your institution know what payments (for subscriptions and open access licences) are to different publishers?
  • Are they using this information to advise their colleagues about where to publish findings?

If you are a senior or mid-career researcher

  • Does your publishing, journal support and guidance to junior colleagues promote the best open access outlets and practices?
  • Do you know how much it costs your institution to access the journals in which you are publishing?

If you are a junior researcher who is thinking about acting on a request from a journal to do something

  • Does this journal support the best standards in open-access publishing?
  • How much does it cost your library to subscribe to this journal?

If you are the editor of a journal

  • Are the targets your journal’s support staff face going to encourage good email behaviour and rigorous review and revision?

If you are thinking about editing a Special Issue

  • Do you know what the word ‘Special’ means?
  • Is it apposite for the journal in question?

If you are willingly a member of a journal’s editorial board

  • Can you recognise the names of more than 25% of the other members?
  • If not, or if that presents you with more than 50 names, then have you undertaken any activities in the last 12 months which means that you are adding to the intellectual work of the journal?

If you a critic of an open access publishing company

  • Are you promoting effective open access publications through other sources?
  • What have you done for an Elsevier journal in the last year?

If you are a manager in a publishing company

  • Are the incentives, rewards and sanctions of your staff encouraging healthy interactions between them and research communities?
  • Are levels of pay enough to encourage employees to stay on and build memory of good practices within specific journals?
  • Are you monitoring the right metrics to determine which journals are enhancing the company’s reputation?

If you work at a journal and are about to email someone to ask them to review a paper or edit a Special Issue

  • Does this person know about the topic in question?
  • Have they been emailed recently by any journal in your company?
  • Have they asked not to be contacted by your journal?
  • Do your proposed deadlines fit the working days available in your correspondent’s country?
  • Does your email give the option of opting out of receiving further emails?

If you are researching a company’s trends and data

  • What kind of nerd are you?
  • Does your family think you are a complete loser?
  • Are your friends still talking to you?

If you are a friend of someone researching publishing trends and data

  • Couldn’t you at least have filled out his survey?
  • When are you going to talk to him again?

Dan Brockington,
27th April 2021


About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
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2 Responses to A Checklist of Questions for Working with Open Access Journals

  1. If you want to know more about the question “do you know how much it costs…” there is a very interesting dataset here: https://treemaps.intact-project.org/apcdata/openapc/

  2. simon batterbury says:

    Our OA Manifesto with a similar type of checklist https://doi.org/10.21428/6ffd8432.a7503356

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