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Esteem, peer-review, the RAE, and open access journals

So at the Copyright and Research Conference I got into a conversation with Prof. Lilian Edwards (among others) about open access and law journals, especially in relation to how people view open access law publications in terms of the Research Assessment Exercise and in terms of things like getting positions at universities and making a case for promotion.

She mentioned maybe moving to other methods of examing impact, such as book sales. I think that this is a pretty interesting avenue to explore, but I will save my thoughts on such a transition for a later post. I would like to concentrate here on the issues we were discussing in relation to open access journals and esteem.

Are open access journals held in low esteem?

I would agree that many if not all of the open access law journals in the EU have relatively low esteem, but I believe that it has to do with a whole host of other factors rather than the operation of an ‘open access’ policy.

I think to properly address this question, we must separate out the difference between open access journals and wholly online journals — the two are different. One can operate an in-print subscription-based journal with an open access policy. Of course ‘open access’ depends on how you define the term.

Policies reflecting greater access than the traditional paid subscription model, which could fall under ‘open access’, range from merely allowing pre-publication versions of individual articles to be maintained on sites like SSRN; to allowing full electronic access to the work either concurrently with publication or after an ‘embargo’ period (say 3 months).

Many open access law journals in the EU are wholly online journals. Thus we should think about the following possibilities as influencing the ranking of these journals rather than the ‘open access’ policy:

  • Most are relatively new to the field, and thus do not have the history and corresponding weight of authority behind them as other journals. People go with what they are familiar. Not to mention that older journals will have proved themselves as serious efforts and are likely to have a higher readership. As a corollary, many online journals have come and gone, and so many people may be understandably weary.
  • Many come out with new issues at extremely irregular times. This gives off the impression of a lack of professionalism. Perhaps if it was made clear that the journal was only published at irregular times, this could mitigate the impact of a random publication schedule. But I believe that if you say you are going to publish four times a year you ought to do it.
  • Because they are not in print and thus do not go through an experienced publisher, copy-editing often gets left by the wayside. Poor copy-editing directly reflects on how people perceive the journal. This is a direct result of copy-editing not being a task that itself is looked upon as an esteem indicator. Unlike being on the advisory board of a journal, being the chief copy-editor is unlikely to get any brownie points with promotions committees or hiring committees (or the RAE). In addition, because these online journals do not have paid subscriptions and do not have an ‘author pays’ model of publishing, they often can’t or choose not to fund such a position.
  • Poor web design. It may seem obvious, but I think that online journals should pay particular attention to how their journal looks, as it reflects on the how people perceive the journal. Many have spectacularly bad web design. In addition, they should offer .pdf downloads that are formatted as if they came straight from the pages of a print journal. This includes doing pagination for each journal issue similar to print journals, as it makes citation easier.
  • Lack of indexing on Westlaw and Lexis. I haven’t carried out a full study, but SCRIPT-ed, the journal I work on, isn’t included in UK Westlaw or UK Lexis-Nexis. From an author standpoint, this means that your work is less likely to get seen or cited by those that concentrate on these services to do their research.

I’m sure that there are other factors, but I think that the ones that I’ve outlined above have a far greater impact on the perception of these journals rather than the operation of an open access policy. It is only by paying attention to the smaller details and producing a quality product that any online journal will achieve (and I do think that one can) the status of EIPR or IPQ.

Note, earlier posts about UK law journals available here and here.

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