BY AREND KUESTER (EDITED BY MATTHEW ISMAIL) 

(THIS IS PART 3 OF A 4 PART SERIES. HERE IS A LINK TO PART 1 and A LINK TO PART 2.)

Arend Kuester

Fledgling OA Journal and Funders

Publishers can fail for a variety of reasons, including a lack of financial planning and elasticity, funder meddling, and various things that undermine publication ethics. And there is little doubt that, in a business environment in which a new journal needs at least three – if not many more –  years to break even, any early improvements you make to your journal will most likely only show its benefits a year or two down the line. A push by funders to become profitable earlier is one of the most damaging things that can happen to a new journal.

It is because of this slow development process that, in an ideal world, publishers would allow a new journal to fly under the radar during their initial three years as long as there is acceptable article flow and productive activity. But what happens when a journal is not given that leeway?

In a hypothetical scenario, let’s say that your business plan says that your journal will begin to stabilize in year three and will reach a rising submission and financial breakeven point in year five. During the planning process, however, impatient funders may have asked you to be more optimistic, so you adopted a more “optimistic” breakeven point, increased projected imprint sales, and inserted an undisclosed line of “additional income” or other ways to charge authors. You may also, in this scenario, have decreased the sales and marketing budgets, but the fixed editing costs and typesetting costs are realistic and you don’t have much wiggle room there.

So, after the hypothetical launch of the journal, when the initial buzz of launching the journal (or platform or publisher) has died down after a year or so, you may suddenly realize that the revised projections you made under pressure from funders were not quite right and were, in fact, overoptimistic. Of course you will have done your due diligence and know the risks. You also know that other publishers had worryingly few submissions in the first year but things worked out pretty well for them – eventually, as long as you stuck to your ethical values and procedures. Nonetheless, your funder, CFO, or Business Partner may insist that you accept more articles for publication in order to make more money and balance the books.

This is precisely the sort of scenario that could be your first crisis, and funder interference is not limited to the launch—it will ebb and flow and can resurface any time. While publishing can also be used to increase an organization’s reputation, these are rare cases. Sooner or later, for funders, it will become a business question.

In this scenario of pressure from funders, you may even be pressured, as an OA publisher in the developing world, to accept articles from friends and relations of the funder or be asked to lower the bar of entry [1]. Funders may also ask you to send out more emails, more marketing messages, or other unsolicited communications, which run the risk of alienating the recipients, who are potential authors. What do you do in the face of this sort of pressure? There is not much you can do other than to implore your funder to give you the required time to market and to break even.

Maintaining quality and publication ethics in the eye of such a crisis of interference is likely the toughest challenge you will face.

Publication Ethics

Publication ethics are your first line of defense against funder interference and pressure. At no stage can you afford to compromise editorial quality and integrity by publishing material which is not up to standard. The cost of retracting articles is high. The cost of repairing a damaged reputation is even higher and might simply break your back. You, as the publisher, are the gatekeeper of your journal’s editorial integrity. Editorial integrity and business pressures need to be separated from each other, so editors are not under pressure to lower standards for the sake of financial gains. This is one of your most important management challenges. You must make clear to funders how destructive it would be to the journal to appear on a list of predatory open access journals or to be removed from the DOAJ!

The best defense of your ethics would be, of course, to preempt this sort of interference at the beginning. Be very wary at the pitching stage of the impulse to reduce marketing and editing costs, as the bottom line will be important to defend, more important than the top line of the business. You might not grow at the rate you want, but you might grow organically, which could even be better for your funders.

Attempting to fight this battle alone is difficult–where can you find support in your struggle against funder pressure and interference? One solution is to bring in an independent consultant to audit your procedures and business plan and thus add external authority to your position. You may also use the power of the editorial board to speak on your behalf and allow them to defend the research you’re publishing. Either way, it is essential that you resist the pressure to become prematurely profitable and maintain your focus on publishing ethics.

So what ethical standards should you apply? Start with implementing COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) standards (see http://publicationethics.org ), which apply to how data is represented, authorship is assigned and conflict of interest is clearly marked. They can also be used very effectively in response to ethical challenges. Medical journals will ask you to apply to WAME standards, which are similar to COPE and equally important. You’ll have to be a member of those organizations, and they might help you in supporting your line of defense.

Business Plan and Workflows

Any business plan you have developed for your journal has to be reviewed continually and adapted to any new circumstances. It is important to develop statistics and factsheets to demonstrate to funders that your readership is increasing and to indicate the impact your papers are having.

When funders are concerned about money, budgets for other activities will be scrutinized, including travel and marketing. Again, you must defend these lines of expense. You will need to travel to meetings to maintain quality and to meet with editorial boards. It might be worthwhile to review these budgets and do as much as you can via online meeting tools, but nothing replaces meetings with librarians or researchers in person, finding out how their research spending is going or whether they would like to strike a membership deal with you. Once you have success, don’t stay at home. Capitalize on the momentum of your success by informing the research community by writing a paper.

You may also want to consider outsourcing some aspects of your workflows to keep costs down. You can hire excellent peer review and editing services rather than hiring more staff. You can also offshore some of the operations (but bear in mind that this will take more travel time as you will have to manage it).

All being well, your first crisis of interference can strengthen your position as a quality open access publisher, and your funder/business partner will allow you to grow further and support the growth organically over the next years.

[1] These are extreme examples, but they do happen.