Jeffrey Beall used to maintain Beall’s List, which was intended to identify predatory journals and publishers. He also has a long history of skepticism toward the Open Access (OA) movement, much of which he seems to equate with those predatory entities.

The gentleman’s agreement

His latest contribution officially brings us into the era in which the commercially published peer-reviewed journal belongs to the good old days. It belongs to a golden age when “scholarly publishing was largely governed by a sustained implementation of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’” (emphasis original), which “functioned, for a long time, to promote quality, honesty, and scientific integrity in scholarly publishing”.

The gentleman’s agreement has become the creation story of the current journal system. Quite apart from the quaint gendered language that recalls days of plush, smoke filled Faculty Clubs, that simple formula, as they would call it in poetics, hides a world of inequity and arbitrariness in the selection of who and what should be heard, what should be seen, and who should get hired, tenured and funded.

The lamented death of publishing by gentleman’s agreement is welcome relief to anyone who has been on the receiving end of old boyism for any lapse in the infinite list of unacknowledged criteria that define the gentleman scholar. It is also good news for peripheral and unaffiliated scholars and for those with novel ideas that might rankle a gentleman.

Beall strongly appeals to the grievances of those who feel a loss of power in the new OA landscape. “With open-access journals, readers and libraries no longer have a say on which journals succeed or fail”. That’s correct, and it is not a problem. Journals do not equal scholarship. Their physical bulk used to be, for purely logistical reasons, the only efficient way to disseminate and access scholarship, but the steamships which carried them to our colleagues are mostly gone by now, and the paper on which our scholarship lived has fallen somewhere to the bottom of our toolbox. It hasn’t been seen in a while.

With open access, readers and libraries certainly have a say, indeed a much increased say, on what scholarship is rated highly. The “important quality control function” filled by journals, far from being “rapidly lost”, is in fact strengthened because a much broader base of readers can participate in the evaluation of published work, post-publication. The function is not being lost, it is being redistributed away from the respectable gentlemen, who naturally feel threatened.

In the prestige economy of academia, peer-review is power. Power should be distributed as broadly and equitably as possible. If peer-review is a quality control function, distributed peer review is more likely to give a good evaluation of a contribution because it involves a much broader set of minds and skillsets and expertise than can be found in the typical two or three gentlemen reviewers. It is more likely that the pet peeves and idiosyncrasies of a broad base of reviewers will balance each other out, than those of the typical two or three.

Gold OA

Beall and I agree on one thing: Gold OA is bad. From his perspective, the system in which publishers receive author processing charges (APCs) instead of reader subscriptions, allows unscrupulous predatory journals to profit from the professionally driven need of scholars to be published rather than to publish (the distinction is important). From my perspective, it allows large, mainstream publishers to illegitimately profit from publically funded research, and it reduces access to the scholarly process by keeping out those who can’t afford to participate.

We disagree on one significant point about gold OA. Beall pretty much equates OA with gold OA. I think we can very well do OA without the gold, the green, or any other colour.

The open access social movement

Driven by ideological zeal, Beall argues, OA advocates have been “promoting open-access as an ideological good rather than evaluating whether it is the best solution to existing problems in scholarly publishing”. In reality, what I see is a growing realization that journals in their current form are simply no longer needed. I have nothing against my father’s collection of 78 rpm records, some of which now resides in my basement. I just no longer need them very often. I am not promoting mp3 files stored on an external drive as an ideological good. I simply use them more than the 78s.

Publishing is already accessible to most, and getting more accessible all the time. The problems of publishing are not caused by this increasing access. They are caused by the desperate defensive battle being waged on true OA by the mainstream commercial publishers, in the form of gold OA.

I am not trying to “kill off subscription journals”, as Beall would have it. I am observing that they have outlived their purpose (which was an important one), and I am predicting that they will gradually fade away. People will get used to publishing their scholarship rather than having it published, to looking for scholarship where it is published rather than where the gentlemen tell them to, to evaluating contributions for their content rather than the venue where they appear, and to participating in the review of that content. At this point, it is a matter of time.

When that happens, the predatory journals that Beall is so worried about will have no structural weaknesses of academic publishing to exploit, and neither will the mainstream commercial publishers that I am so worried about.

References

Beall J 2018. Predatory journals exploit structural weaknesses in scholarly publishing, 4Open 1, https://www.4open-sciences.org/articles/fopen/full_html/2018/01/fopen180001s/fopen180001s.html

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