Why Not Make Journal Acceptance Portable?

Notice: Originally published May 16, 2016 at Inside Higher Ed.

You just got the journal editor’s email. Your article was accepted. Congratulations!

Now what happens?

The next steps used to be automatic: sign your author rights over to the publisher, check your proofs, wait for the article to appear and then bask in glory – or at least update your CV and tenure file.

But times have changed. Institutional mandates for open access, rising awareness of author rights and growing options for disseminating work online mean that automatic assignment of author rights to publishers is not always desirable, or even possible. At the same time, dwindling institutional subscription budgets, increased pressure on corporate publishers to show profits and dependence of small scholarly associations on journal revenues mean that publishers scramble to capture as many salable rights as they can.

As a consequence, authors increasingly find themselves negotiating with publishers to see their work to completion, even after they successfully navigate academic peer review.

This situation is bad for authors, who start at a huge disadvantage in any negotiations with publishers. Multinational corporate publishers work with hundreds of journals and thousands of authors at once, and few journals are short of submissions. Publishers can always walk away from the table and wait for a more compliant author to come along.

But for authors, a decision to walk away involves a variety of unsatisfactory compromises. Starting over at another journal triggers another peer-review cycle and incurs costly delays. There’s no guarantee that the next journal will be more open to negotiation. And author-friendly alternatives, such as new open-access journals, often lack the prestige of more established journals. In an academic world with tightening job markets and rising tenure requirements, these compromises can have negative career consequences.

Turning authors into negotiators after peer review also undermines the peer-review process and threatens editorial autonomy. Once an article has passed peer review, there is no good academic reason not to publish. Peer reviewers and editors have agreed that the paper should be published. The academic decision has already been made. If publishers respected the peer-review process, academic decisions would be final, and publication would be a reward for academic quality.

Instead, publishers increasingly use academic decisions as business leverage to extract more concessions from authors before publication. For example, in my own field, the sociology of religion, both leading subfield journals have recently reduced the scope of rights granted back to authors by significantly extending embargo periods on published articles. Both journals have also moved to web-based publication agreements, making it difficult to attach the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition addendum that helps authors retain important rights. Things are getting worse, not better.

So how do we fix these problems? How can we keep the power of peer review in the hands of academics? How can we start leveling the playing field for authors?

It’s a big challenge. Any solution needs to empower authors to walk away from negotiations without incurring career-threatening penalties and to offer a way to leverage academic decisions for the benefit of authors rather than publishers.

My suggestion? Make journal acceptance portable.

This solution is radical, but it’s not complicated. Making journal acceptance portable means that journals would honor acceptance decisions from other journals, publish those articles without additional peer review and explicitly credit the original journal’s acceptance for publication. This solution could be applied to existing journals with more generous publication terms or to new open-access journals designed for maximum author flexibility.

How would it work?

For illustrative purposes, let’s say we start a new open-access journal called the Journal of Prestige Redistribution.

First, the editors of JPR would make a list of trusted journals. That would involve reaching a working consensus about, for example, the most prestigious journals for a given field or subfield. The trusted journal list would establish JPR’s scope and would assure readers that every JPR article originally passed peer review at a prestigious journal in their field. Articles accepted at trusted journals would automatically be eligible for publication in JPR, without further review.

Second, JPR would establish a protocol for verifying that a paper successfully passed peer review at a trusted journal. A model for this protocol already exists. Publons, a service that gives credit to reviewers for reviewing journal submissions, verifies those reviews using the confirmation email from the relevant journal. Following that model, authors who wish to transfer their acceptance to JPR could simply provide JPR editors with the acceptance letter from the journal’s academic editor.

Third, JPR would publish accepted articles without further peer review, giving explicit credit to the journal at which peer review took place. For example, JPR might publish each paper with a header or footnote that says, “This paper passed academic peer review at Leading Academic Journal. Subsequent to acceptance, business negotiations with Corporate Journal Publisher broke down.” This notice would guarantee the visibility of the paper’s peer-review pedigree and reinforce the distinction between academic merit and business interests.

Ideally the resulting publications would combine the best parts of our current scholarly publishing system: the imprimatur of established, prestigious journals and the author-friendly policies of newer alternatives. By making acceptances portable, JPR-like journals could empower authors to negotiate from a stronger position, knowing that walking away would not mean starting over. And, as the (hypothetical) name suggests, JPR journals could liberate from any given corporate publisher the prestige that quality academic peer reviewing provides, restoring editorial autonomy to the publishing process.

So why not do it?

One objection is that academic editors who are hard-pressed to find peer reviewers may see a JPR publication as free riding on their peer-review process. But arguably every paper rejected after peer review is also a free rider. Making acceptances portable likely would have little effect on submissions or editorial workload. But it would put pressure on publishers to improve terms and conditions for authors. Admittedly, that pressure could create awkwardness for editors who cooperate with publishers to limit author rights.

Then, of course, there is the possibility of fraud. An unscrupulous author might find a way to forge an acceptance email, for example. Or an author could attempt to publish a different version of the paper than the version originally accepted. Those are legitimate problems, but they are not distinct to the JPR model. Perhaps even you have pulled out a few paragraphs from the final version after satisfying reviewer No. 2?

Probably the biggest objection is that corporate publishers will see portable acceptances as a threat, thereby becoming motivated to alter their submission terms and conditions or enforce new rules on editors and reviewers, in order to prevent JPR-like journals from succeeding. But corporate publishers already see challenges to their business interests as a threat. Academics are not obliged to defend those business interests.

Which brings up a final concern. Who will step up? Editors, authors and professional associations are all entangled in a scholarly publishing system that increasingly favors corporate publishers over academic contributors. Reform by any individual, editor or association is difficult. Defending academic interests requires mobilizing supportive communities and institutions. It’s possible that academe just isn’t ready to support a JPR proposal.

Whether we’re ready or not, scholarly publishing is changing. We don’t know exactly what future changes will look like. But we must be willing to explore options that benefit authors and support academic autonomy. Sure, some options might disadvantage some publishing companies or threaten established status hierarchies. They might even make some enemies. But they also might create a more generative, equitable and author-centered academic publishing future.

That’s a future worth exploring.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017