Infrastructuring an open access journal is easy, until it’s not

The below is written from my perspective as an individual user. They don’t reflect the viewpoints of 4S, ESTS or the other editors.


All respect to the Public Knowledge Project and Open Journal Systems. The ecosystem they’ve built over years is tremendous and respectable. For good reasons, “open access journal” has kind of become synonymous with “OJS.”

But all is not well.

I’ve posted before about choosing a platform for Engaging Science, Technology and Society. At the time, we were considering options other than OJS, but in the end we decided to stick with it and upgrade to a new version. It seemed like the safe choice.

Months have passed, and we are on the verge of showing everyone the new version. It’s going to be a big improvement over what we had before. The design is cleaner and will adapt to different screen sizes. The fonts, colors, and images are better, with choices driven by our desire to want to be more accessible.

All credit for the website goes to Amanda Windle, our shining managing editor. The new website will be good. Where it falls short, it is not because of her (or any other members of the editorial collective. Except maybe me.)

Never have I encountered a piece of software that seemed to work against the user as much as OJS does. Things that feel like they should be easy to implement (and can indeed be very easy on other platforms) can be really difficult on OJS. Moreover, the documentation on some crucial things is sparse to non-existent. We could not find out what a version update would do to our site. We’ve done a lot of checking over the past few days, but we found issues that we should have been aware of going in.

Some would have been quite embarrassing if they had not been caught before we made the site public.

In a meeting I attended of the Transnational STS Publishing Working Group yesterday, Leandro Rodríguez Medina, editor-in-chief of Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society, a great open access journal, spoke about his experiences.

One of the interesting features of Tapuya is that, while open access, it is attached to a major commercial publisher: Taylor & Francis. Leandro was frank and refreshing about Tapuya’s relationship with T&F. One of the things that stood out to me was how easy it was for him to do things on T&F’s system that we would have to use a lot of time and energy to do with ESTS on OJS. It sounded luxurious. Katie Vann, Amanda’s predecessor as managing editor of ESTS and current managing editor of the Sage-published Science, Technology, and Human Values once said something similar. Compared to Sage, it’s a huge pain to work in OJS, especially if you try to do things the OJS way.

This complicates the common characterization of BIG PUBLISHERS as evil leeches on the volunteer labor of academics. Yes, they are. But if I imagine the investments that must have gone into making a smooth(er) editorial and publication experience, then it’s hard to seriously argue that they add no value at all. (In addition to web stuff, I think similar things can be said about copyediting and typesetting.) If they can make life easier for a thousand journal editors in the process, then they probably deserve a little something for their trouble.

It also illustrates for me how far the open access ecosystem has to go. BIG PUBLISHERS are not just good at building infrastructures and extracting financial resources from universities, but they are also huge concentrations of expertise in publishing. (Along these lines, deals like the recent one between the University of California and Elsevier are very interesting, because it kind of shifts Elsevier to becoming an open access publishing services provider for universities.)

This is one area that I think the open access journal ecosystem falls a little bit short, probably especially in the humanities and social sciences. It’s not easy to draw on expertise that has undoubtedly been built up at other journals. It’s out there, and I know there are efforts to make things better in this area. I look forward to seeing and supporting them. But at the moment, it is OJS and PKP that probably represent the densest and most accessible concentration of this expertise, at least for us. That their documentation and platform fall so short is starting to feel to me like an abdication of responsibility. (And about their paid support…)

I hope OJS gets better. To be fair, for some things it’s perfectly fine. As a turnkey solution to open access publication, it is deservedly successful. You can get an acceptable journal website and production workflow in place easily. But it will present you with more than its fair share of issues in day to day use. And it’s really hard and costs money to do what is needed for a site to be good. And by good, I mean not just nice to look at and use, but made with attention to as many different kinds of users as possible.

Last thing: be kind to your editors and web developers.

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