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Alternative Publishing Platforms

Knowledge Exchange activity

Published onApr 21, 2022
Alternative Publishing Platforms

Project Leads

Jeroen Sondervan (Utrecht University), Jean-Francois Lutz (University of Lorraine), Mafalda Marques (Jisc), Anna Mette Morthorst (DEIC), Karin van Grieken (SURF).

T&F group members

Daniel Beucke (Goettingen University Library), Xenia van Edig (Technische Informationsbibliothek (TIB)), Serge Bauin (CNRS), Alexandra Freeman (University of Cambridge), Janne-Tuomas Seppänen (University of Jyväskylä), Rasmus Rindum Riise (Copenhagen University Library / Royal Danish Library), Claus Rosenkrantz Hansen (Copenhagen Business School), Arianna Becerril-Garcia (AmeliCA), Saskia Woutersen-Windhouwer (Leiden University), Bianca Kramer (Utrecht University).


Research findings have traditionally been published as peer-reviewed academic articles, monographs and edited collection, proceedings, or theses, with academic publishing companies being the main venue for the publication of findings. In order for research organisations to make research findings available to their researchers and students, they have to subscribe to journals and monographs agreements. One of the issues with this process of publication and discoverability of academic content is that it has become increasingly costly to research organisations and has tied them to big deal agreements with a limited number of publishers1.

More recently, changes in the scholarly communications landscape have fomented the emergence of other forms of communication and dissemination of research findings. For example: preprint repositories, data journals, scholarly blogs and websites, innovations of the peer review process, and micropublications2. These are innovative forms of publication that seek to remove the barriers, constraints and costs imposed by legacy academic publishing companies.

In the title of the activity and this scoping paper we use the term ‘alternative’ with which we precisely envision those publishing platforms and projects that follow different paths (e.g. in equitable publishing models, quality control, technical features, open source, iterative publishing workflows, etc.) compared to the already mentioned legacy publishers. Although we use the term alternative, we recognize that this can also lead to narrowing or even ambiguity. Where necessary, we try to address this in the right way or to make it explicit in our results.

Alternative forms of publication have been explored by multiple stakeholders in the last two decades, with open access publishing being the most widely known, which encompasses, for example, the publication of peer-reviewed articles in full open access (with or without article processing charges (APCs)) journals, in hybrid journals (subscription based journals which allow open access publishing upon payment of an APC), or via deposit of the research output in a repository (green route). One issue that has emerged from making research findings publicly available for free is that a large commercial sector has relied on journal publishing as a income stream with often large profit margins. These commercial players have developed considerable power over academia because academic research assessment has become intrinsically entangled with journal publications, making them almost the be-all and end-all for researchers. Hence research organisations spend large proportions of their budgets on access to journal publications, through academics themselves paying for APCs or research organisations signing up to transformative agreements3).

Globally, many have criticised focussing only on APC-based journals as a way to foster open access. The critique is that this merely shifts the onus of payment from those wanting to read to those wanting to publish and consequently creates new inequalities. Moreover, by linking the publisher's revenue to the number of accepted articles, the APC-system runs the risk of encouraging the lowering of scientific standards for acceptance in journals4. Diamond (i.e. free to read, free to publish) journal publishing models deserve attention as a way of making research articles freely available to readers whilst avoiding the potential drawbacks of APC-based publishing. Existing diamond journals are sometimes regarded as not requiring any fostering as they are already fully open access and do not charge authors. However, for these (often smaller) journals to remain a viable publishing venue, they cannot be neglected.

There are projects to set up diamond publishing options for institutions, and to support development of new and existing diamond journals in terms of infrastructure and visibility, such as through national and regional journal platforms.

Not all diamond journals can be considered as alternative publishing (platforms), but diamond journals can definitely make use of alternative publishing platforms such as infrastructure (including new, more inclusive, governance models). In addition, alternative publishing platforms can have diamond models. The connection between diamond journals and alternative publishing platforms is that they both can play a role in fulfilling the need that is felt for a form of open access that is characterised by lowering costs and keeping control of publishing, in terms of public and academic led governance. In addition to the problem of cost, there are several researchers' needs which aren’t being met when publishing in traditional journals and why alternative platforms are seeing the light.

Alternative publishing platforms

Over the past decade a vibrant ecosystem of so-called alternative open access publishing platforms has emerged, many of which aim to tackle some of the perceived issues with the journal publishing system other than cost. Platforms represent a move away from the traditional journal as an organising principle. These platforms might differ from traditional scholarly journals in a number of ways, including publication process, governance and underlying infrastructure.

They often apply a wider disciplinary scope, include the publication of submitted versions/preprints5 and apply open peer review. Often the focus is on free availability of content, transparency and efficiency rather than selectivity or prestige.

Alternative publishing platforms may also focus on one or more of the following aspects:

  • speed of publication (e.g. preprint servers, and F1000 prepublication);

  • reforming the peer review process (e.g. Copernicus Publications; SciPost; F1000 open review; Peerpub, Peer Community In);

  • reproducibility and replicability of research results (e.g. Open Science Framework; eLife’s Executable Research Articles);

  • publication bias; incentive structures.

The value of alternative publishing platforms is not to be underestimated. They can represent not only examples of real innovative, open access scholarly communication, but also effective "threat infrastructures" to traditional journal publishers.6 Depending on one’s point of view the acquisition of F1000Research by Taylor & Francis either confirms the value of such a threat or shows its limited effect. A number of developments can be seen, which are being set up by various parties with a specific goal in mind.

Below we identify three examples in which various aspects of ‘alternative’ are manifested.

Funder platforms

Notable examples of alternative publishing platforms have been started by funders like the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Irish Health Board and more recently the European Commission with its Open Research Europe (all using the infrastructure and publishing model provided by F1000Research).7

Stakeholder governed (institutional/national/regional) platforms

In the Netherlands alternative publishing platforms is one of the five pillars of the national open access strategy of the Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) in 2018.8 Until now these initiatives have not received the same level of attention from research institutions that has gone into negotiating transformative deals with traditional publishers. An exception is the ‘University Journals’9 initiative that was announced in 2018, but to date has remained in a conceptual phase10. Another example is from TU Delft that aims to set up its own open access publishing platform as part of their open science programme.11 Examples from other Knowledge Exchange countries include, for instance, UCL Open: Environment, the first journal from UCL Press run on ScienceOpen12, and national, community-owned journal platforms in e.g. Finland, Denmark, France and the Netherlands13.

These examples show that these alternative platforms can offer an interesting and innovative route to open access using a different infrastructure. These platforms are also often responsible for publishing in native languages and therefore supporting multilingualism.14 In some cases, they act as a counterbalance to the massification and uniformisation of big publishers and as such they bring bibliodiversity.15

Experimental publishing platforms

Scholar-led platforms like SciPost16, ResearchEquals17 and, in the slipstream of the recently announced UKRI Open Access policy18, the Octopus19 platform, could just as well qualify as alternative publishing platforms. The underlying technical (open) infrastructure of such platforms enables communities to build and establish new publishing models, that for example disintegrate the publishing functions, or offer new open science workflows like, amongst others, open peer review, replicability, modularity, machine-readability, pre-registration of hypotheses and methods, transparency and ease of accessing methods, validation and re-usability of data and inference. These new ways of publishing research, designed as they are specifically around the needs of research and researchers rather than for readability or income-generation, should be able to change the incentive system of publication to favour any or all aspects of good research practice.

Sustainability of alternative publishing platforms

A big question is what kind of support alternative publishing venues need and how to organise that support. It may start with wider recognition of their role. Gaining more insight in infrastructural support and scalable mechanisms for financial support where necessary is also needed, and these may depend on collective action, as outlined in a recent Knowledge Exchange report.20 The challenge may lie in how to apply the idea of scaling small: generating economies of scale while maintaining diversity and decentralised control.

Towards a taxonomy of alternative publishing platforms

As illustrated above, alternative publishing platforms are considered by many as avenues to effect positive changes in the publishing [or scholarly communication] system. However, different people think of different things when they talk about ‘alternative publishing platforms’. To facilitate a productive conversation among stakeholders (including researchers, institutions, funders and (non-profit) publishers), a proposal is made to construct a taxonomy of the concept of alternative publishing platforms, teasing apart the different characteristics at play. Far from proposing one definition, such a taxonomy can help to clarify discussions around alternative publishing platforms and highlight opportunities for development and investment.

Follow-up actions

In the first phase of the activity the Knowledge Exchange Task & Finish group will ask the following research questions: what characteristics of alternative publishing platforms can be distinguished and how do existing alternative publishing platforms fit into the proposed taxonomy? As a first outcome, the group will develop a toolkit which integrates the proposed taxonomy. Throughout the process we would welcome feedback on this scoping paper and the developed taxonomy. To collect community feedback on our work, like this scoping paper, all results will be published on the MIT PubPub platform, which allows others to contribute during the duration of the activity.

Tobias Steiner: I do indeed wonder with regards to ambiguities if ‘alternative’ is a very productive characteristic to work with here - as it quickly raises the question about “an alternative to what exactly”? I don’t think legacy publishers constitute ‘platforms’ in themselves that one would seek to establish an alternative to - most legacy outlets I'm aware of simply provide paywalled PDF versions of articles on their websites (which hardly makes for an actual "publishing platform" that an alternative to would need to be sought), while a few also provide extended features - that then are suffering from the lock-in effect of paywalls. So I'm thinking, would the alternative maybe manifest more in the format of presentation, i.e. open, often not-for-profit, born-digital, hybrid and multi-format publication platforms that go beyond the 'classic' PDF provision that legacy providers tend to provide?
Demmy Verbeke: I get “publication bias”, but what do you mean with “incentive structures”? Is there a platform that explicitly aims to change “incentive structures”? If so, giving the example like in the previous bullets would help.
Tobias Steiner: Just as a formal note, while MIT has been a home to PubPub during its early development phase, I believe the legal entity now maintaining PubPub is the membership organisation Knowledge Futures Group.
Tobias Steiner: for open transparency’s sake, should this also include a note to point to F1000 being a Taylor & Francis venture? (see Martin Eve’s article cited above, and e.g. Page 2020).
Tobias Steiner: Related to the above, in case you’re also considering to include the perspective of experimental book publishing (relevant in particular to HSS), research conducted in the COPIM project might be of particular interest here. As one entry point, I’d suggest the report that COPIM’s Experimental Publishing Work Package has just recently updated, which provides a comprehensive overview of experimental publishing practices and in that context explores a variety of open platforms that facilitate these kind of practices (such as collab. writing, annotation, open peer review, forking & versioning of content, etc.) which might be interesting to include in this scoping exercise as well. Please find the report at: Next to that, we at COPIM are in the midst of developing an open-source Compendium that will bring together and showcase the variety of practices, platforms and examples covered in COPIM’s reports. The Compendium which will be made available later in 2022, and might also be of interest here regarding the below-mentioned taxonomy and toolkit. More on the Compendium here.
Tobias Steiner: Not sure if ‘stakeholder-governed’ is the best way to characterize these platforms? Wouldn’t shareholders also be stakeholders in the context of commercial publishers?
Tobias Steiner: Would suggest to provide more information on that topic, including references to existing literature in the field, e.g. Barnes & Gatti, 2019 , Ferwerda & ScholarLed, 2020, and Adema & Moore, 2021.
Tobias Steiner: Thanks so much for your work on this to the whole team involved in this KE initiative! One conceptual question, if I may - in the opening paragraphs, you mention the breadth of different output channels and formats present in the scholcomm landscape, while the later paras then very much appear to narrow the scope of investigation towards what appears to be a journal-only focus … Is that the intention of this exercise, or would you see other kinds of platforms also falling under the remit of this scoping exercise?
Tobias Steiner:
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