MIT Press to trial open access journals, so long as someone else pays for it

Great: Fewer paywalls. Not great: Long-term funding is still a question

Academic publisher the MIT Press has announced a new initiative to move from subscription-funded journals to open-access papers that are free of charge.

The project, dubbed Shift+OPEN, is now accepting applications from English-language journals without geographic restrictions, but it's only funding a single publication for now, MIT Press Director of Journals and Open Access Nick Lindsay told The Register.

That lucky journal will have "the expenses of transitioning a journal to an open access model" covered for three years, access to the MIT Press's "full suite of publishing services," and support to "develop a sustainable funding model" once the three years of funding ends. 

"Shift+OPEN seeks to catalyze needed change in journals publishing, introduce authors to new readerships, and increase the reach of vital scholarship that has previously been locked behind paywalls," Lindsay said. Funding for Shift+OPEN is being provided by the UK's non-profit Arcadia Fund, which has made open-access publishing one of its core focuses.

Diamond open access publishing has gained traction in recent years, with the open access world making headlines in early 2019 with the resignation of the entire editorial board of the Journal of Informetrics due to disagreements on the issue with publisher Elsevier.

MIT and the International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics stepped in to fund the creation of Quantitative Science Studies (QSS), an open access journal that MIT Press said predated the creation of Shift+OPEN, "but illustrates some outcomes of flipping a journal to open access."

In a case study [PDF] MIT Press said page traffic, downloads and citations have steadily risen since the journal first published in 2020, which QSS editors said indicates "a tremendous Zeitgeist towards openness as the scientific community reasserts its role in the responsible governance of the scientific record."

Diamonds aren't forever

There's a problem with diamond open access journals their subscription cousins don't have, at least to as large a degree: funding.

As has previously been shown, open access journals tend to disappear from the web over time, with some 176 of them having vanished in the past two decades. With Shift+OPEN funding only available for a maximum of three years, what will happen to those journals when the cash runs out?

Lindsay told us that's definitely something that's on the mind of the MIT Journal staff behind it. "We're committed to developing a longer term model… but it's likely to require some changes and efficiencies to be put in place on all sides," Lindsay said. 

The MIT Press is looking for a partner to examine how to balance costs and quality in relation to continued diamond open access funding, and Lindsay said that he's confident the program can lead to a sustainable model "if all sides are willing to work toward that goal." 

As to what that funding model could look like, Lindsay said it's going to depend largely on the journal chosen for Shift+OPEN funds. He told us the model will likely be a mixed-funding design similar to how arXiv is funded (e.g. by Cornell University, the Simons Foundation, institutional members and donors), though again that will depend on the journal; "if there's a society behind the title then we've probably got a broader set of options than if it's not." 

Those concerns over open access are similar to the ones echoed in an action plan [PDF] developed by scientists last year in a program sponsored by the French government.

"Diamond open access is held back by challenges related to the technical capacity, management, visibility, and sustainability of journals and platforms," the researchers behind the report said. The action plan called for additional dialog and commitments between researchers, university institutions and other service providers.

The revenue streams of diamond open access journals "often depend on a patchwork of in-kind contributions, funding by various types of institutions and temporary grant money," the action plan states. 

As part of its recommendations, the boffins argue for the creation of a nonprofit Capacity Centre for Diamond Publishing that would provide "technical, financial, and training services and resources at different levels to eligible journals and editors." 

With its funding capped to a single journal this time around, MIT Press's Shift+OPEN seems similar, but isn't quite what the action plan described. Lindsay also told us that MIT wasn't directly inspired by Science Europe's action plan. That doesn't mean Shift+OPEN plans to stay at its current size or scope, though.

"We hope to add additional funding sources and grow the program in the future," Lindsay told us.

Those interested in participating have until March 31 to submit applications, with the winner set to be announced this summer. ®

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