I have recently been thinking extensively about submitting my work to open access journals, partly due to selfish reasons (i.e., more readers could lead to more citations) and partly due to ethical reasons. Although academics conduct, write, review and edit scientific articles, each university library pays millions of dollars to allow their academics to read the research that they had conducted.
Many researchers and several governments have recognized this issue and started to support open access. As a response to this movement, large publishing companies, such as Elsevier, Routledge, Sage, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell, now offer the possibility to make articles in regular journals open access. The costs to do so are, however, generally much higher than the costs to publish in open access journals.
Large publishers have defended the higher costs by arguing that, besides peer-review management systems, type setting and copy editing, and archiving and hosting, they guarantee higher quality and offer more prestige. Although there are examples of excellent studies in open access journals and examples of horrendous studies in regular journals, I think that regular journals are, at least in my specific area (i.e., autobiographical memory), still higher regarded than most open access journals.
Whereas I have nothing against better quality, I have some concerns about the ability of large publishers to lend prestige to journals and articles that are published in these journals. It might be convenient to use journals’ reputations as a proxy for the quality of individual papers, but there might be long-term consequences.
One of my concerns is that this ability grants these large publishers too much influence on the research agenda. In an attempt to maximize their profits, they can decide with minor changes in their policies which fields or topics receive more attention. I do not think that large publishers have a nefarious research agenda that they would like to see implemented, but they do seem to have the means to do so if they would want to.
One way that large publishers can influence the research agenda is by setting up new journals. They can support those new journals in many ways. They can help promote the new journal at conferences, pay prominent researchers to be part of the editorial board, pay for editorial assistants who help to process the submissions, ensure the journal is included in important databases, etc. This kind of support will offer even more legitimacy and prestige to the new journals and to the researchers who publish in these new journals regardless of the actual quality of the articles.
Moreover, many publishers offer only packages of journals to libraries. If a library wants to have access to one particular journal, they also have to subscribe to several journals, to which they may not want to have access. By packaging a new journal with established journals, publishers can ensure that the new journals will have immediately many institutional subscriptions.
Such new journals will boost an entire field by providing researchers in this field an additional potential outlet, potentially more publications, potentially more citations, and potentially more editorial positions. These opportunities will help researchers in this field to obtain faculty positions and research grants.
Besides through setting up and supporting new journals, large publishers can influence the research agenda in other ways. They often have some sort of say regarding the choice of the editor of a journal. If there are two competing approaches in a certain field (e.g., basic vs. applied), then the choice for a person who advocates one of those two movements (e.g., basic) could increase the difficulty with which researchers who follow the other movement (e.g., applied) will publish in that journal. Excellent research that is conducted with the second approach might still find its way into the journal, but decent research might not receive the benefit of the doubt from the editor.
Large publishers may also influence the research agenda by their choices regarding which articles to promote in popular media. Publishers could decide to write press releases about studies in a certain field or with a certain approach. Stories about these studies in popular media, such as newspapers, can influence the perception of the entire field. They can make research in the field seem innovative and worthwhile.
Although I do not think that large publishers do not have specific ideas that they would like to advance, I do think that they influence the research agenda in subtle and indirect ways towards fields in which there are larger profit margins. With all these policy decisions, large publishers influence what is read. By influencing what is read, they affect what is cited. And by affecting what is cited, they influence what gets funded.
It seems problematic to me that the decision which research will be conducted appears to be partly determined by the commercial interests of large publishing companies. However, I do not have a simple solution for this problem. One could argue that senior researchers, who already have a large number of publications, should start publishing in open access journals, but they could do the junior researchers on the paper a disservice. Hiring committees and grant reviewers, who do not have the time to do their due diligence and to read the studies, continue to use the reputation of journals to make quick decisions about the quality of individual papers and thus the quality of the researchers.