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Glossa: how a journal took matters into their own hands to make research available


 The following interview was originally published on the Utrecht University website. Johan Rooryck, Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Glossa and director of cOAlition S joined the second meeting of the discussion series Publishing in transition as a speaker on May 24. Publishing consultant of the university library Jeroen Sondervan interviewed him on his experiences with open access publishing.


When did you first engage with open access and why is it important for you as an academic, also considering the different roles you have in the scholarly communication system (reader, editor(-in-chief), advisory board member)?

I became actively interested in open access around 2011/2012, when Timothy Gowers launched the Elsevier boycott and the Cost of Knowledge protest against Elsevier’s expensive subscriptions and journal bundling. A number of very good reviewers informed me that they would no longer review for Lingua, the Elsevier journal I had been an editor for since 1999. This was worrisome, because without access to the right reviewers, a journal cannot maintain its peer review processes. So I started to think about alternatives. In 2011, I had also met Saskia de Vries, who at that time was director of Amsterdam University Press, and who provocatively asked me if I was not interested in flipping Lingua to open access, and what would be required to do so. That conversation led to many more contacts, including Natalia Grygierszyk, director of the Radboud University Library in Nijmegen, and we jointly decided to look into possibilities to make Lingua open access.

You were an Editor-in-Chief of Lingua, a hybrid journal at Elsevier. At some point in 2015, you made a bold step and resigned, and immediately started a new full, non-APC (diamond), open access journal. What made you decide to eventually leave Elsevier?

As I said, I had worked for Lingua since 1999. At the start, it was a simple gentleman’s agreement. I didn’t have a real contract, and just received a one-page statement that declared the number of subscriptions they had and the percentage of royalties they would give me for my editorial services. I was free to run the journal as I wanted, there was clear trust that I would serve the journal in the best interest of the linguistic community, and that the publisher would benefit from my expertise. Ten years later, I found myself having to sign a 27-page contract that stipulated among other things, that all mail I exchanged with authors was Elsevier’s property, that the list of 3,000 authors and reviewers, which I had carefully curated, was also their property. In addition, I was being pressured to hire associate editors from China, possibly because they were selling so many new subscriptions there (however this was never made explicit). At annual meetings with the journal manager from Elsevier, I felt like I was being subjected to an exam about the journal’s performance. So I increasingly felt like a prisoner, an extremely small cog in Elsevier’s knowledge machine, with very little in exchange. I did receive an honorarium, but if I divided that by the hours invested in Lingua, I would have been better off distributing newspapers or washing windows in my neighbourhood.

I increasingly felt like a prisoner, an extremely small cog in Elsevier’s knowledge machine, with very little in exchange.

Could you tell us a bit more about how that process of leaving Elsevier went?

I started by discussing the idea with my editorial team and some board members in late 2012: if I find a sustainable open access alternative to transfer the Lingua community to, will you support that move and join me? The answer was an overwhelming yes. So I went back to Saskia and Natalia, and we started exploring options. I had two very elementary conditions for the transition: I did not want Lingua to be the only journal to flip to open access, but to involve at least two to three other linguistics journals to show that this was part of a broader movement. That is why we set up Linguistics in Open Access (LingOA), a foundation for promoting open access in linguistics. We managed to convince three other journals to join us in flipping to open access: Laboratory PhonologyItalian Journal of Linguistics and Journal of Portuguese Linguistics.

And secondly, I wanted a long-term sustainable plan for the sustainability of these journals in addition to initial funding for the transition. All too often, journals are given some money to transition to open access, and when the money runs out the journal ceases to exist. Giving money at the beginning of a journal feels very virtuous to sponsors, but in fact what journals need is permanent, sustainable funding. In the case of the LingOA journals, we were able to secure both funding for the transition and a solution for long-term sustainability. The money for the transition was secured via the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) and the Dutch Research Council (NWO): we obtained 500,000 euros for five years to transition the four journals to open access. The long-term solution was an agreement with the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) that they would adopt the journals after the transition period of five years, and pay for the associated costs via their consortial library funding scheme. The OLH publishes a total of 29 journals in the humanities via a system where libraries contribute a relatively small sum, between 700 and 2,000 euros a year, to the OLH that support the costs of running the journals and of maintaining their Janeway submission system and platform, a truly innovative and easy to use publishing platform for journals.

Open access challenges

What were, and maybe still are, the biggest challenges of Glossa, starting immediately as a full, diamond open access journal?

I think our main challenge was how to reach the community and inform and convince them of this change. Because for the new journal to thrive, we had to convince the entire community to move to the new journal with us. A bit like abandoning your old car and buying a new one: will it be as good as the old car? Because, of course, Elsevier kept the old journal alive after we left, and managed to find replacements for us. They also completely changed the aims and scope of the journal while maintaining the old title. Apparently a title is a very flexible thing for a publisher. 

And this is where the power of social media became apparent. We were able to rally the researchers belonging to the Lingua community via Facebook for instance, and mobilize them to support the move to Glossa. A few key figures in linguistics also heavily promoted the move, and they also engaged the community into a boycott of the old Lingua, which was called ‘Zombie Lingua’ for quite some time. Suddenly, many linguists refused to publish there or review for them.

I think without that social media campaign the move might not have succeeded. There really was a confluence of several elements that reinforced each other: we had institutional backing and support which allowed us to hire a lawyer to advise us on key aspects of the contracts Elsevier had with us, we had the support of the research community, and for some reason the story of the flip also attracted a lot of media attention and support from various organisations worldwide, which also helped a lot.

Another challenge was governance: what does it mean to have a journal owned and led by scholars How does that work? How do we imagine ownership in such a way that the journal cannot be bought by a commercial entity in the future? That is a process that we laid down in the Glossa Constitution, a document that specified that the Glossa title is in the hands of the community, and represents no monetary value. Recently, we were offered 300k to sell the journal title. We made that simply impossible via this Constitution, so there cannot even be a temptation. And you can easily understand why someone would want to offer 300k for a journal like ours: we publish between 120 and 150 articles a year. If a commercial publisher were to charge 2,000 euros per article, that could mean a gross income of 300k per year. Deduct costs of about 500 euros per article for production and manuscript handling, and you are left with a tidy profit of 225k.

An essential research infrastructure

What were the experiences in the first years of being an independent, self-controlled journal? What are good practices? And, in hindsight, what could have been organised better/more efficiently? 

The experience was an exhilarating one. Suddenly I received emails from people in Indonesia, Africa and South-America who had previously been unable to read the journal. But on a daily basis of course, there was also a lot more work, because we had to set up a system of governance for the journal: how is the editorial team and the editorial board selected? How do we ensure continuity? I also think the help and commitment of experienced people in LingOA, like Saskia de Vries and Natalia Grygiercyk was crucial in this first phase. But it also helped that we were able to work with a professional open access publisher like Ubiquity Press, who helped us think about many questions of good practices.

Secondly, the increasing realization that a journal is in fact a community, and not just an outlet for articles owned by a commercial publisher, led us to make explicit the good practices that can be shared by other journals. We formulated author guidelines, not only in terms of what authors must do before submitting their paper, but also in terms of what they can expect from the editors and the reviewers. We formulated editorial policies and reviewer guidelines, again with the generous help from people in the community. We developed data policies, and ethics guidelines in line with COPE.

Funding is a major issue here and in the last decade or so, many journals that started as a diamond journal struggled with their long term ambitions, due to lack of sustainable funding. What do you think is needed (and let us focus here on the Dutch situation) to support diamond open access journals (and platforms) in a sustainable way?

Indeed funding is essential. Very often, diamond journals are treated like commercial startups. Various organizations are quite enthusiastic about giving some initial funding which makes them look good because it allows for considerable virtue signaling. The idea then is that the journal should be able to sustain itself after a number of years. But that is erroneous: since diamond journals typically do not charge authors or readers, they entirely depend on revenue streams from the public sector: ministries, research funders, universities and their libraries, donors etc. And that money tends to come in the form of time-limited projects that do not even ensure renewal of the money as a function of successful and sustained publication.

While in fact journals should be viewed as essential research infrastructure, in the same way as university buildings, labs, and libraries: you have to maintain infrastructure for the long run. Imagine you were to tell professors: here is a classroom, but three years from now, we expect you to be able to pay for the chairs and the tables and the blackboard and the chalk. That would be completely ridiculous, but that is how scholar-owned and scholar led journals are being treated today. Now of course we need not just throw money at journals just because they are journals: funding can be made conditional on the regular evaluation of good practices, the regularity and quality of their outputs etc. But temporary funding is no good.

What is really required is a change in perspective: journals are essential research infrastructure, and if we do not fund it, nobody will.

Focusing on the Dutch situation and Dutch diamond open access journals, I think it would be good to adopt a model like that of the OLH, that is a system where a number of libraries contribute to sustaining those journals that have a proven record of quality outputs, good governance, and good practices. This need not be limited to libraries. I also think there is a role here for the ‘landelijke onderzoekscholen’ (national research schools). These organisations already organise work at a PhD-level nationally, and often operate the publication of PhD dissertations, such as the Landelijke Onderzoeksschool Taalkunde (LOT). These research schools could also play a role in organizing the disciplinary communities that cluster around journals and make choices to found new journals or cluster existing ones, and make financial contributions to them. They could even be involved in the governance of these journals.

In addition, disciplinary institutes could formally recognize editors involved in these journals to make this part of their duties. Right now, that is not the case: editing for a journal is tolerated but not encouraged, as the top currency of research outputs are peer-reviewed articles, and any type of community service is somewhat looked down upon and certainly not valorized.  So what I am imagining here is sustainable funding for diamond journals that involves various permanent institutional revenue streams – coming from libraries, research schools, and in-kind contributions from individuals and their department – conditional on periodic, say three to five year, external evaluation. But what is really required is a change in perspective: journals are essential research infrastructure, and if we do not fund it, nobody will.

What do you expect from (big) publishers with a commercial for-profit  publishing model, which already have started moving specific journals to non-APC (e.g. publishing as a service, or S2O). How can we ensure prices for commercial services are fair and will stay that way?

I think the only way to ensure that prices are fair is to ask for price transparency. This is something that I started to do with the Fair Open Access Alliance on a small scale in 2016, but of course that initiative has now been overtaken by the cOAlition S Price transparency initiative that will result in a Journal Comparison Service that will allow librarians to compare a breakdown of commercial publishers’ services and their prices. And indeed, library consortia negotiating read and publish deals should also ask for detailed price transparency: when libraries are paying up to 3,000-4,000 euros per article in these deals, and when prices can differ from one country to the next by about 1000 euros, library consortia should ask what that is based on. And the answer can no longer be that it is based on historic subscription spend: we should pay for publishing services alone, not for reading privileges.

I also think a well-organized European or even global Diamond Open Access community could help us gain insight into prices. If we take back academic publishing, and only use very specific publishing services, say copy-editing and typesetting, and open source platforms and submission systems, we can easily calculate ourselves what the cost of various publishing services is, and compare that to the services provided by commercial publishers.

We see an increase of open access (funder) mandates. We need to touch upon this, since you are also executive director of cOAlition S, the coalition behind Plan S. Could you say something about the ideas and work the coalition is doing to promote equality and inclusiveness in scholarly publishing?

cOAlition S is of course an alliance of funding agencies, and their remit is that of their funded researchers, not that of all researchers in the world. At the same time, the cOAlition is keen not to promote inequities. I think there are two initiatives that we have developed that transcend the narrow scope of our funded researchers and are promoting equality and inclusivity. Rights retention strategy: claiming a CC BY license on the Author Accepted Manuscript of an article in a subscription journal allows authors to deposit that article in a repository. This does not require the author to pay anything. The Diamond action plan: strengthening and aligning diamond open access journals that do not charge authors or readers.

But more is needed, and not only from cOAlition S. We would like to promote globally equitable pricing for services. That is each country and university contributes financially as a function of their means (for instance income, but also purchasing power). This is something library consortia should also take up: they should ask how the price they pay offsets the price charged to countries with lower purchasing power.

Still, we’re stuck in the traditional academic credit (and funding) cycle where prestigious journals and presses can stay dominant players and further commercialize the academic publishing sector because they also own and/or use elements of this cycle, which in a sense stalemate the much needed transformation of recognition and rewards structures based on impact factors, excellence, and prestige. It is one of the reasons why open access (especially full and non-APC) is lagging behind, at least in some disciplines. Often heard arguments are: it can’t be good, because there is no one taking care of the quality,  it doesn’t have an Impact Factor (IF), so it can’t be of high-quality, etc. etc. What do you think of this? And what is needed in order to make sure full (non-APC) open access journals are taken equally into account in recognition and rewarding structures? 

Well, first of all there is of course the illusion that the IF measures quality. It does not. As we know, it is a very flawed measure that is based on very questionable underpinnings. Those people who invoke the IF as a measure of quality would never apply methodologies used in determining the IF for their own research. And yes, we need to change the incentives and rewards system, cOAlition S is contributing to that via its principle 10 in which funders pledge not to take the publisher, the name of the journal, or purely quantitative metrics into account when selecting grant applications. Narrative CVs are now widely used among cOAlition S funders, also by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) which has been a Plan S signatory from the start. And clearly, also we need new quality-based metrics that do a better job of measuring the impact of an article and a researcher in a given community. That is also something that depends on the size of the community, and its validation practices. Validation is not always given through citations. We need to have a much better and fine-grained understanding of such mechanisms. And last but not least, editing a journal and reviewing for journals should be much better rewarded. We know that every article requires three reviews, so we should ask people for their review-to-publication ratios during annual reviews. That is a metric I could get behind as a journal editor.

When it comes to full open access journals we of course already have the Directory of Open Access journals (DOAJ) that is doing a great job in determining the quality (academic and technical) and the practices of open access  journals. cOAlition S, for instance, only recognizes fully open access journals that are registered in DOAJ.

But still, there are many obstacles. For instance, so-called ‘official’ recognition as a proper journal in many countries still requires being registered in the Web of Science (WoS), which is owned by Clarivate. And in many countries, researchers can only publish in journals that are in WoS and that have an IF. So this leads to the crazy situation that if you want to attract authors from those countries, you need to have an IF, even if you know full well that the IF is a completely flawed metric, and also that if you flip a journal from a commercial publisher to open access, you need to wait for five years to get that recognition. While the old journal you left behind, which was taken over by a new community, still takes advantage of the hard work of the previous community for five years after they resigned. This is what happened to Lingua: only now is it becoming apparent in Google Scholar’s h5 index for instance that the journal’s papers in that journal are being cited much less than before the resignation of the editorial board in 2015.

What does ‘publishing with impact’ mean in practice?

Read more impact stories from researchers here: Utrecht University Library – impact stories


Johan Rooryck

Johan Rooryck is Executive Director of cOAlition S and a linguistics professor at Leiden University. He is the editor-in-chief of the Fair Open Access journal Glossa: a journal of general linguistics since 2016. From 1999 to 2015, he was the executive editor of Lingua (Elsevier), when its Editorial Team and Board, as well as its reader and author community, decided to leave Lingua to found Glossa. He also is a founding member and president of the Fair Open Access Alliance (FOAA) and Linguistics in Open Access (LingOA). He is a Member of the Academia Europaea.