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.

The Search for a Good Online Journal Platform

There’s an old saying, probably from a management textbook somewhere, that I see pop up on the software developer side of the internet from time to time. Everyone wants a solution that is fast, good, and cheap. You can only pick two.

Many of the issues that face the selection of a good online journal platform are, at the heart, the same as the challenges of software development broadly. So this ‘fast, good, cheap; pick two’ dilemma applies here as well.

I am one of the seven members of the editorial collective who will be taking up the editorship of Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, the open access journal for the Society for Social Studies of Science in 2021. My friend and colleague Aalok Khandekar is the editor-in-chief, and I’ve been working closely with him and Angela Okune at UC Irvine on deciding what online platform the journal should live on going forward.

The immediate problem is this: ESTS currently runs on a very widely used platform for online journals called OJS. OJS is a feature rich, strongly supported, well maintained platform for running a journal. It acts as the web gateway for visitors to find and download journal articles, it can be used to manage the entire journal production process all the way from manuscript submission to peer review to copyediting. It also archives files and links into various other online academic services like Crossref that make articles easier to discover.

OJS works well for many journals, and it has worked well for ESTS. OJS was actually the first platform that I used to edit a journal, when I was an editor of vis-a-vis: Exploration in anthropology, the graduate student journal at the University of Toronto.

ESTS currently lives on OJS 2, an earlier version of the platform, which is no longer updated. Our friends at the Public Knowledge Project, who host ESTS on their servers, would like us to upgrade to OJS 3.

OJS 3 looks nicer. It feels more modern than OJS 2. It would also be a relatively quick upgrade. ESTS is not a very old journal, so it hasn’t accumulated a lot of ‘cruft.’ We would need to redesign the visual appearance of our journal, since the files we have now that define the journal’s look are not directly compatible with OJS 3, but that is a relatively surmountable obstacle. ESTS is not doing anything visually complex.

The question that Angela, Aalok, and I have been asking each other for the past few months is, if we are going to do the work of upgrading the ESTS site to OJS 3, then why not take this as an opportunity to look at other platforms that we could use.

We’ve been talking with many people who are very knowledgeable about STS and academic publishing online broadly to figure out what we will need to do. No decision has been yet made on what is happening with ESTS, but we’ve spent a lot of time learning about new tools and functions on younger competing platforms, as well as the advantages of more established ones.

For example, one thing that we want to explore during our editorship is the use of open peer review. There are platforms out there now that have features supporting open peer review built in from the beginning, but OJS does not. On the flip side, a lot of the upstart platforms are still missing a few basic journal production functions. They also can impose a steep learning curve on editors, authors, and reviewers, because their workflow models can deviate quite significantly from the ones that many academics are used to. The newer platforms also tend to be hosted on cheaper servers, namely Amazon Web Services. If you have ethical or political qualms about Amazon and Jeff Bezos, perhaps OJS, which is hosted by an independent web services company based in Canada, is the better choice.

All of these are part of what Angela, Aalok, and I are considering as we think about what to do about our journal’s platform. While software decisions like these may seem like technical, and indeed, non-academic decisions, it makes sense to us, as the incoming editors of an STS journal, to think carefully about what kinds of scholarly products, engagements among community members, and linkages with the broader socio-technical systems of academia and the internet we want to be able to facilitate and to support. While the end product of our work will be what we hope is a usable and exciting system for our readers and contributors, the problems that we’re trying to work through are design problems not unlike those that go into a research or writing project. The material constraints and affordances are different, of course, but that is part of the fun. At least for me.

There will be more written about this in the coming months, but there are a few things I’ve learned so far.

In keeping with the ‘fast, good, cheap’ adage, there is little one cannot do if you have the money to do it. This is most evident from large publishers like Sage, who have the resources to build their own production lines, and can use it to churn out journal articles and can afford staff to handle different parts of the process. But ESTS is far more resource constrained. OJS is not cheap either, but it is cheaper than a purpose-built solution. It is also fast to implement, because it is well documented and has a great support ecosystem around it. So it checks off “Fast” and “Cheap.” Where does that leave “Good”?

This is where things get a bit murkier for us. The key functions of OJS were built when peoples’ idea of “online open-access journal” was significantly constrained by their idealized image of a bound and printed journal issue. Although it has some usability quirks and shortcomings, it does a “good” job at this stuff.

But since OJS became widely adopted, blogging and tweeting, among other things, have taken off as arenas for academic interaction and, effectively, short-form publishing.

At the same time, there has been a flourishing of software tools, including things like Evernote, Dropbox, Devonthink, Office 365, Google Docs, and so on, not to mention online platforms like PECE, that people are using to collaborate, write, gather and analyze data, and publish.

These two developments have contributed to slight decentering of the peer-reviewed journal article as the desired end point of academic work. “Good” is undergoing some redefinition. In fact, what we’re seeing is less a linear pipeline leading from research to publication, and more a set of feedback loops. One of these feedback loops leads from research to journal article. Through social media discussions and other forms of interaction, these loops can lead back to research starting another loop towards another article. There are also other feedback loops that lead into blog posts, articles in the popular press or threads of tweets (or, indeed, journal platform discussions), and these can each cross with each other, and each inform research once again.

Therefore, the journal article looks like one point along one path through a longer research program. Where OJS imagines “results” turned into “publications,” the reality is that the process involves a lot of back and forth between authors, reviewers, and journal editors and editorial staff. In addition, if we zoom out slightly, then we see that the program also involves myriad other bits of software, platforms, and people interacting. A journal article might start as a conference panel, which becomes a discussion on Twitter or on Slack, which becomes a shared folder on Dropbox and then a shared Google Doc, and so on.

OJS is tuned for the linear journal article pipeline, but it’s not as able to move beyond it into the other facets of academic work. Other platforms are coming in to fill this gap. These other platforms make it possible for broader engagement of the entire research program, and increase the visibility and recognition of the different scholarly contributions at each stage, at least to a small degree. The journal article becomes one stage among many.

There’s a major caveat here: I wrote ‘slight’ decentering above, because one place where things remain definitively centered on the journal article as traditionally imagined is in academic hiring and promotions processes. My impression is that many university hiring and promotions committees are not yet quite sure how to evaluate non-traditional outputs, but know very well how to value journal articles. There is an entire system of ratings, impact factors, regulations and guidelines that tell academics exactly what a “good” journal article is. For a blog post, there are no such corresponding rules.

This is where a journal like ESTS and its platform choice become very consequential in my mind. ESTS is a reputable, double-blind peer-reviewed journal associated with a major academic society. This means we have (at least some) authority to give authors the recognition they need to further their careers and receive the recognition of their peers. We are, however, also in a position as the “second” journal of 4S, to potentially be a bit more experimental, and use what resources and social capital we have to draw attention to non-conventional, but interesting, important, high quality forms of academic work.

This is where the notion of a ‘good’ publication starts to intersect with the question of a ‘good’ platform for that publication, and what good a journal like ESTS can do.

More on this soon.