A Remark on Open Access Philosophy Journals

Starting a journal is hard, and starting one that is open access is harder still, especially if your motivation is displeasure with the status quo arrangement that puts scholarly work behind a paywall. But people regularly underestimate the costs and challenges involved in creating a viable alternative to the status quo, if blog commentators and conference dinner companions are any guide. Happily, this proposition is about to be put to test by the launch of a couple of large scale open access philosophy journals. I applaud those efforts. I hope they succeed. But, I wouldn’t bet on them.

Why? A miscalculation of the cost to start is one problem. But a miscalculation of the cost to really compete is a bigger one still. I explain one aspect of this below the fold.

Some see in the switch from printing press to electronic publishing a windfall for publishers that was not shared with university libraries, and there may be something to that. However, it is foolish to think the change was merely a switch from paper to PDF. Modern academic journal publishers like Wiley, Springer, and Taylor & Francis are now in the database business, not the book binding business. Journal articles, in both private presses and university presses, are invariably set in XML, and many of the major publishers have invested in converting more and more of their back catalogs to XML files. Thus, the major publishing houses’ catalogs should not be viewed as mere directories of PDF articles but databases in which each article itself is a structured data file. And that structure can be used for all sorts of things: by indexing services (including DOAJ) to list and classify contents; to support sophisticated “semantic” search results; to support recommendation systems for finding similar articles; for bibliometric and datamining in general; and to support dynamic/adaptive displays: for example, PDF is a lousy format for mobile devices, which is why some have pushed for HTML5 as an alternative. A modern publisher with an XML catalog has the flexibility to accommodate all these features, and more.

The best open access journals, such as PLoS One, are mindful of this. More importantly, PLoS One has a business model that will allow it to adapt to future changes in technology. (XML encoding is but one example.) The question is whether OA philosophy journals are similarly positioned.

One might forego this turn to XML in favor of simply hosting PDF files on a server, as Philosophers Imprint seems to do, judging by the LaTeX macro the authors are instructed to use. Perhaps the benefit to philosophical scholarship from an archive in XML isn’t worth the candle. The problem is that the current crop of OA philosophy journals have already decided on this question in the technology choices they have made, and those choices do not put them in a good position to change course should it turn out that they made the wrong decision.

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20 Responses to A Remark on Open Access Philosophy Journals

  1. Richard Zach says:

    What’s your prescription for OA philosophy journals? Provide content in XML as well? If so, how? Are there standard XSDs for that purpose?

    • Gregory Wheeler says:

      This is hard to answer. I think there is, and will continue to be, a role for journals that are simply online collections of PDF files. And perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this model is the computer science conference publication system, which is just that: even the Springer LNCS and LNAI books are just collections of PDF files. But there is some debate in computer science over whether conference publications are the right route for the profession. Moshe Vardi has a nice editorial about this in ACM [here].

      The problem carrying this over to a discipline like philosophy is that the field is built on a journal model, and there are legacy journals that new competitors wish to displace. Were I to enter that market, I would (i) want to know what type of thing I was competing against, and (ii) pick a business model that would allow me a good chance to succeed.

      My main point above was to point out that, judging by the conversations that I have had or witnessed, I do not think that people have a very clear idea what a large-scale OA philosophy journal is competing against.

      I might be wrong about the features that I mentioned turning out to be of importance in the future. But, it is one thing to know about those things and make a bet that they won’t matter, and quite another to plow ahead without a clue.

      The last point of your question concerns what software system to adopt, if one were to set articles in XML and then generate pdf, html, or whatever other format one wishes. I am aware of commercial software systems –this has been a standard for years. (And, no, unfortunately, I do not believe there are automated systems that cleanly convert TeX to XML. When you send off your articles to Springer, or Cambridge, or Oxford Journals, a human is involved.) I am unaware of free software, aside from writing code by hand.

    • Gregory Wheeler says:

      That was too long, and too indirect.

      My prescription is to adopt the industry standards, which means typeset articles with XML, and adopt a business model that allows you to keep pace with changes in technology.

  2. noah says:

    >Modern academic journal publishers like Wiley, Springer, and Taylor & Francis are now in the database business, not the book binding business.

    If the for profit publishers are in the database business, this just means that they are maintaining their databases of information in-house.

    However, there are many companies that currently spend a lot of time organizing research information and do so in a public way, notably Google Scholar. There is no reason open access journals (or organizations like PhilPapers) couldn’t do the same thing: provide a database of structured open access content.

    Now, big publishers have troves of papers to add to their database, which provides the value to it. A new database for open access philosophy would have much less content. This just means the opportunity is larger right now: if we can get all open access philosophy structured and in one place, it would be a great resource.

    >The problem is that the current crop of OA philosophy journals have already decided on this question in the technology choices they have made, and those choices do not put them in a good position to change course should it turn out that they made the wrong decision.

    You are right that PDF is far from optimal, but final paper are not submitted in PDF format. So there are non-PDF copies of papers available to the publishers. It would be some work structuring these old papers to be database ready, but not impossible.

    Does this just add cost to the open access journals? Formatting a back catalog definitely will take time and effort. But, as you noted, journals could just force people to submit according to macros for all new submissions, which lends itself to XML conversion.

    So, it doesn’t seem that things are dire, but that some coordination in developing and implementing a philosophy journal database standard would go a long way in supporting open access.

    • Gregory Wheeler says:

      All of these things can be done, and they can be done easily: PLoS One manages, and there are upstart OA journals that are undercutting PLoS One’s publication fees. But the business model that appears necessary to do these things right is nowhere near the ballpark of what OA philosophy journals are contemplating.

      • wwoorrddpprreess says:

        The issue is the size difference between OA publishers (OAP) and the traditional publishers. The traditional publishers have massive amounts more publications and they can monetize this data. OAPs don’t have the huge back catalog, so there is no reason for them to put money and effort into building a database since no individual publisher will have the data resources to make it worthwhile.

        What I am suggesting is that the OAPs band together to form a larger coalition with enough data for it to become worthwhile to have a database. Or else, some other interested entity could also build the database.

        An open database that encompassed much more than one publisher would inherently be better than the limited databases the of traditional publishers, even though they have a massive head start.

      • Gregory Wheeler says:

        This (a collective database) is the idea behind the Directory of Open Access Journals, DOAJ, which I linked to in the original post.

        Notice that they presume that the OA journals they list are set in XML.

        • noah says:

          Sorry I missed that link.

          However, the only step left now is to develop some computer code to convert the journal’s required submission format to DOAJ XML. Something free and open like Pandoc http://johnmacfarlane.net/pandoc/ that already converts between LaTeX and XML could be extended to do this; Pandoc supports custom formats already.

          So I’ll agree that the open access journals initially missed the boat on the research database, but the barrier is low nowadays to catch up.

          • Gregory Wheeler says:

            Pandoc doesn’t do it, last I checked.

            And my own experience is that the automatic conversions from the two main source files that publishers deal with, MS Word and TeX, are far from perfect. When you get page proofs back from your favorite journal from OUP, CUP, Springer, Wiley, etc., a human was involved in converting the file into XML and tweaking it before you check. This is why things are often not quite right in the page proofs even for articles whose author has painstakingly set their article in LaTeX. I have been on both sides of this problem, as author and editor.

            So, yes. All of this can be done. Whether it can be done on a shoestring budget is where I have my doubts.

        • noah says:

          Can’t reply to your last comment, so I’m replying here.

          I’ll concede your point. I’ve done editing and formating and automatic converters never work straight out of the box. It would be too costly for an open access journal to have someone dedicated to this.

          A different tack would be to force database integration on the editorial management software side. Open access journals use something like Open Journal Systems ( http://pkp.sfu.ca/ojs/ ) and people have already built a plugin to export data to DOAJ from OJS ( http://pkp.sfu.ca/ojs/docs/userguide/2.3.3/journalManagementImportExport.html ). While this isn’t a turn-key solution, it is a bit easier than reformatting everything.

  3. P.D. Magnus says:

    The flipside of this is that articles in a closed-access journal can only be converted to some new format with permission from the publisher. The fact that they have it in XML doesn’t help if they don’t make it available in whatever format people are using in ten years. An article under a suitable open license, however, can be converted to a new, exotic format by anybody.

    • Gregory Wheeler says:

      It is in the publisher’s interest, OA or commercial, to adapt to what people are using in the marketplace. Practically every publisher typesets in XML. It is not an obscure mark-up language.

      The possibility of converting from one format to another is not the question. The question is the cost of doing so, and the cost (in loss of value added) to a journal from not being in a position to support the various features that the industry standard formatting offers.

      Why would you start out of the blocks with a format that is not up to the standards of the industry you want to take on?

  4. Richard Zach says:

    I may be betraying my ignorance here but what exactly do you mean by “typesets in XML”? I thought that XML was a framework format, and loads of completely different types of content come in XML. Is there a standard (industry or otherwise) XML schema for academic articles? I get that once something is in some version of XML it’s easy to convert it into something else. You mentioned XPP. I didn’t look hard, but the first few pages of Google results didn’t suggest that this was widely used except by the company that came up with it, and it specifically is a format for publishing printed things (eg, it contains page formatting instructions). The PLOS One XML doesn’t include page formatting. And the DOAJ XML schema doesn’t include the full text.

    So I would think that one should *typeset* the articles using LaTeX into PDF or whatever, but provide the *content* with metadata *also* in a future-proof version (in XML).

    • Gregory Wheeler says:

      XML is like LaTeX in that both are markup languages. So, you can generate a PDF file from each, or convert each to another markup language like HTML. That is essentially what modern publishers do.

      What is different about XML is that its datatypes are more standardized, so, unlike a word file or a .tex file, the “raw” XML file can (easily) be used for all sorts of things other than page rendering.

      The PLoS One XML and DOAJ files are available for crawlers and to be used for these other functions if and when they become more prevalent. My guess is PLoS One puts everything in XML and generates the other data types from that, but perhaps they have another system.

  5. Richard Zach says:

    This looks relevant:
    http://www.oatools.org/

  6. Gregory Wheeler says:

    One might also want to take a look at the W3C consortium, in general, and the page on XML in particular: http://www.w3.org/standards/xml/

  7. Richard Zach says:

    I posted this on facebook and there’s a lively discussion going on now plus some info: https://www.facebook.com/richard.zach/posts/10153434880210307

    • Gregory Wheeler says:

      Thanks for letting me know. I don’t have a FB account. I am happy to respond to comments here or via email, though.

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